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Shared Topic: Of Geeks and Gamers

January 29, 2012
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This week’s Blog Azeroth shared topic comes from Akabeko of Red Cow Rise:

How do you express your geekery? Do you own obvious paraphernalia like a Horde-symbol bumper sticker, in-joke tshirts like the dps/ups pun, or less obviously related items like a gift from a guildie? Rather than physical indicators, do you mix nerd lingo into your everyday speech or talk/post about geekdom in non-nerd spaces? How do you advertise your nerd tendencies? Does it help you to attract new nerd friends?

Akabeko’s question struck a chord with me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that I found myself “coming out” (if you’ll excuse the callous analogy) as a gamer to a coworker this past week.  I think it’s important for me to explain, however, why I think there’s a huge difference between telling someone you’re a “geek” and telling them you’re a “gamer.”

And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

Born in the early eighties, I am a card-carrying member of “Generation Y.”  During my freshman year of college, I attended a series of lectures about Gen. Y kids, who are also often referred to as Millennials.  The lectures offered a lot of sweeping generalizations regarding the overall personality traits of people who were born during the eighties, and what I basically gleaned was this:  We were called Gen. Y to differentiate us from Generation Xers, who pretty much seemed to be associated with things like Nirvana, MTV, and anything that ever happened on My So-Called Life.  Supposedly in contrast to Gen. X, the lecture series classified Generation Y as over-achievers, the sort of kids who were likely to develop back problems by age 10 because they carried every single textbook home with them in their backpacks every night.  We were the last generation to be born before everyone had the internet in their homes, and yet we also grew up with technology as a constantly growing part of our lives.  By the time we hit college, we documented our exploits on LiveJournal, and desperately tried to learn enough HTML to make our blog’s theme look cool.

Silly lecture series aside, one of the broad generalizations I feel comfortable making about people in my age group is that, at least since around the year 2000, we’ve not had to fight against much of a social stigma when it comes to self-identifying as “geeks.”  The vast majority of my classmates in every level of schooling were overachievers – we did our homework, were fiercely competitive with each other over grades and school successes, and we spent all of our after-school hours on sports teams, clubs, bands, choirs, or a mix of all these things.  We are the people who had two pages of extracurricular activities to attach to our college applications.  So with all this pressure and desire to be smart and to do our very best, it’s not all that surprising that the now grown-up Millenials have embraced Geek culture as a defining part of ourselves.

Diablo II came out near the end of my time in high school, and it was a huge deal for the majority of the guys in my class.  (I use the word “guys” intentionally here – I know of no female students who played at that time.)  There was one group in particular – the guys who took the advanced computer class – who were really into the game.  They had LAN parties every weekend, and they are the only reason my 17-year-old self knew what the hell a LAN party was.  They bypassed whatever crap security system our high school had on its computers in those days so that they could use the school’s network to play Diablo during lunch, and sometimes even during classes if they could get away with it.  The most amazing part, to me anyway, was that the school was fully aware that there was a group of students who had found a way around their security settings to do this – and they didn’t care.  I don’t know whether the one teacher who worked IT for the school was just happy that these guys had taken it upon themselves to circumvent the system, or if perhaps he didn’t have the slightest clue how to reinforce the firewall so that he could stop them.

These guys probably don’t look like what your immediate mental image of them would suggest.  Sure, some of them might fit the stereotypical notion of a “geek,” but the advanced computer class also had our star quarterback, our class president, and several other “non-geeks.”  But all of these guys were close friends, even before they started playing Diablo together.  They were a part of the “popular” crowd, and yet they were also – undeniably – geeks.

Now, just try to be accepted by a 30 year old if you can’t get a Star Wars reference in a conversation.  Note the painful silence if they ask you the meaning of “life, the universe, and everything,” and you don’t know to respond “42.”  Of course, the really cool thing is that if you, for some reason, aren’t in the know about an aspect of geek culture, most geeks are only too happy to explain it to you.  Getting someone up to speed with Star Wars or Hitchhiker’s is a long process and it takes a lot of buy-in.  But if you’re willing to listen, most geeks are happy to point you in the right direction.  Though certainly not true in every case and with every person, geek culture is often very inclusive.  We want more people to get addicted to Doctor Who with us, and we want to show off our knowledge about the newest smart phone that’s about to be released.  In any current setting, I never feel uncomfortable displaying myself as a geek.  I crack T.A.R.D.I.S. jokes at work, I say “BRB” when I’m leaving a room, and I never worry that this will negatively change anyone’s impression of who I am.

But what about defining myself as a gamer?

The Price of Entry to Gamer Culture

I don’t tell people I’m a gamer.

For the most part, I couldn’t really even think of myself as such until relatively recently.  Sure, I had been playing computer games for as long as there had been a computer in my house (Apple IIGS, represent).  I got one of the original Game Boys for Christmas the first year it came out, and could hardly play the thing unless I sat it in my lap because it was so heavy.  But I never thought of myself as a gamer until I started playing WoW.

There are probably people out there who would tell me that I really don’t fit the definition of gamer.  I am awful at anything that requires me to aim, so all FPS games are out.  The only consoles I’ve ever purchased for myself have been made by Nintendo.  I consider completing all of Super Mario Sunshine one of the more difficult things I’ve done in the last 15 years.  I like silly things like Roller Coaster Tycoon and The Sims, and I taught my younger sister how to play MarioKart so that should could be my passenger for Double Dash.  I’m not serious enough, or skilled enough to be a gamer – or at least that was what I used to tell myself.  WoW changed that because endgame raiding meant that I needed to be skilled enough and I needed to take the game a little more seriously.  But should it have required a shift like that for me to really self-identify as a gamer?  What is it about gamer culture that asks for a prerequisite of a certain skill level (or skill level in a few specific types of games) when entry to geekdom generally only asks for a desire to learn?

Noob hazing.

Gaming is different than geek culture because gaming has clear objectives.  You can’t win or lose at being a geek – but you absolutely can lose when you’re a gamer.  To become a skilled gamer, you need coordination, a desire to learn a lot about the inner-workings of any game you play, and – most of all – a lot of time devoted to playing those games.  It’s a level of commitment that isn’t for everyone, and it’s not a passive experience like watching old episodes of Star Trek: TNG or reading some Phillip K. Dick stories would be.  Gaming requires focus and just a huge investment of time to develop skill, and it means that there is a long and mandatory apprenticeship period for anyone who wants to become a part of this culture.  Every newly-minted “gamer” looks back, just as Jonah Hill’s character does in the Call of Duty commercial, and recognizes how far he has come based upon how much better he is than the freshest noob.

Because what we do is such an investment, we don’t like to allow the title “gamer” to be granted to just anyone.  A grandmother who loves to play Farmville on her Facebook account can’t be allowed to self-identify as a gamer.  A middle school kid who loves throwing pies at cogs on Toontown is obviously not serious enough to be on our level.  And while I can understand that we jealously guard our title because we went through so much to get to where we are, I just can’t agree with being so exclusionary – particularly when we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by doing so.  If that same Farmville -loving grandma happens to be my boss at work, then I want to be able to say to her “Oh, I’m going to get ready for a big raid on World of Warcraft tonight,” when she asks me if I have any plans after work.  If she already sees herself as a part of gamer culture, then she’s not going to immediately assume that I’m some irresponsible, immature slob who lives in my parents’ basement.  She’ll know that I’m the same, intelligent person she already knew who happens to have a hobby similar to her own.  Is raiding more difficult than playing Farmville?  Of course it is.  But why does that matter?

“Geek” lost its negative connotation when it became so broad as to be nearly all-encompassing.  Read Harry Potter?  You’re a geek.  Did you watch every episode of Lost with baited breath?  Geek.  It’s nearly impossible to even define geek anymore because geek culture is so vast; geek culture is nearly indiscernible from pop culture.  At the same point that geek came to have a broader definition, it also started to lose a lot of its value as a category – in the most positive kind of way.  Now, we don’t necessarily think of someone as a geek because they love Star Trek or Asimov or video games.  Geek has become so much a part of our normal culture that we are finally at a point where we can think of someone as an individual first and a geek later.

The concept of “gamer” isn’t to this point.  There are near constant fights in the gaming community of what it means to be a gamer and what it doesn’t mean.  Does the Farmville-playing grandma get to be in the club?  Do so-called “bro gamers” who stick primarily to FPS and sport games get the title in anything more than a derogatory way?  When we seek to define something, we include some things and exclude others in order to narrow down exactly what we’re talking about.  This is what’s at stake for the gamers out there – all of us who self-identify as gamers want to make sure that we are included in whatever definition we choose.  The problem is that in all of our efforts to define who we are as a community, we’re making ourselves appear even more exclusionary.

Gamers and Social Stigmas

As I said above, I don’t tell people that I’m a gamer.  I’m uncomfortable with the vocabularic baggage that comes with the term, and because I am so uncomfortable with it I suspect that a part of me – however small or subconscious – must subscribe to some of the stereotypes.

Hear the tone in Barney’s voice?  “You met on World of Warcraft?”  That’s the tone I never want to hear.  That’s the fear that keeps me from telling people that I even play WoW, let alone that I met my partner through the game.  There’s an immediate judgement, a sense that they have found the nice little box you fit into, and a belief that they know everything about you because they know this one thing about you.  I don’t want to be a gamer first and me second, and I don’t want to see my identity become lost in anyone’s mind because they can’t realize that it should be the other way around.

So I have a vested interest in seeing the gaming community become more diverse and inclusive.  I also realize (rather painfully) that it’s people like me who really have the ability to demonstrate how diverse the gaming community already is.  When I do finally identify myself as a gamer to people who have known me for a long time but were unaware of that part of my life, they are always surprised.  They tell me things like they would “never have expected” it, or that I don’t “seem like the type.”  And because I don’t fit that type, I know that I need to speak up.

WoW is a significant part of my life.  I’ve met many friends through the game, I write about it constantly, I research it daily, and I spend many hours a week playing.  It’s a gaping hole to leave out of my introductions and my social interactions with non-gamers, and it means that they aren’t getting the full story of who I am.  But until I can believe that self-identifying as a gamer will not immediately define ALL of who I am, I simply won’t do it.  Call me a geek and I know that you can still see me beneath the definition.  Call me a gamer and I’ll wind up adrift on a sea of stereotypes.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2012 8:00 pm

    Ah Tzufit 🙂 you always write such interesting posts! I know what you mean about the whole gamer thing – I wrote a whole post trying to define what a gamer is, and coming to the conclusion there is no such thing as a typical gamer, and with the “Geek Week” at Blog Azeroth it was all about everyone showing themselves and how geeky they really are. Especially after I found out you are in the the legal profession I was even more impressed (as perhaps there is more stigma with gaming and geeks there than there is a more science based occupation). Though I know you don’t want to be put into the “oh you met your partner online” category and all the presumptions that brings, there are those of us who also come from somewhat respectable backgrounds too who think the other way – I think knowing that you’re in your particular profession, and you met your partner in WoW, makes you 10x more cool in my eyes 🙂 So for everyone you worry may look on you in a negative way, there will always be another who looks on you in that starstruck awesome way 🙂 OMG Fanboy post much >< LMAO

  2. January 29, 2012 9:21 pm

    I don’t think of myself as a geek.

    As a Gen Xer, I think there was a bigger divide between the geeks and the non-geeks than the generations which came after, maybe, but it’s more because we had a choice, growing up, to either be involved in computers or not be involved in computers, to play D&D or not play D&D. People had choices. Those who did those things got ostracized and picked on, just like the kids who liked chemistry and amateur radio and electronic sets before us.

    I don’t think of myself as a geek because I know people who fit that far better than me. I went to an engineering school for college. I’m married to someone in a scientific field where people have crippling social issues and the fact that I can talk computers and RPGs to them is the only thing that saves me at parties. (“Parties” being a bunch of guys (and a few girls) awkwardly hanging out with a few beers before talking about work.)

    I don’t know if this is some kind of old school definition or not, but geek to me is a highly technical term, a specific description of behavior of someone so obsessed with a single topic that they’re hard to deal with outside of their field of geekery but not yet totally inept. It’s a lot like the venn diagram on http://laughingsquid.com/nerd-venn-diagram-geek-dork-or-dweeb/.

    Geek versus gamer, though, that’s where it gets interesting, and this is the really interesting point you brought up in your post.

    I won’t object to someone calling me a geek – it’s not how I self-identify, but it doesn’t really bother me either. But I do object to being called a gamer. I’m not.

    First, I don’t think it’s accurate. I don’t play any other videogames – I don’t have the depth of knowledge to be generically called a gamer. (Role playing games, yes. Video, no. But those are different terms.) I’m someone who plays World of Warcraft for fun and writes about it. That’s really it. I lack any FPS experience, console experience – I don’t even play other MMOs. How can I claim to be more than what I am?

    Second, there are all the social stigmas you mentioned, and they’re very real. “Geek” is a badge celebrating, in most cases, intelligence, imagination, science, and invention. (Intelligence + Obsessive Focus = Geek, after all.) “Gamer” is ultimately celebrating a identity focused around “Play”, which means different things to different people. Some will read that as an obsession with a leisure activity, others will think it’s childlike, etc.. People slot you into boxes, like you noted, if you say “I’m a gamer.”

    Being a gamer is a complicated thing.

    Excellent post! 🙂

  3. January 29, 2012 11:47 pm

    Fantastic post! I like the distinction you make between geek and gamer. Similar to what Cynwise said, I had a professor, in a lecture on “otaku culture,” define geek as someone who is an expert in whatever their geek focus is. In extreme cases that could perhaps mean the person has trouble interacting outside of that focus, but I think it can be applied to a lot of different things, from crocheting to gaming to fantasy football.

    I’m still on the fence about the label of gamer. Although I do cringe at the negative associations with the term, I’m more concerned with how those who might actually claim the label define it. It’s important to me to feel like I can call myself a gamer and not have other self-identified gamers question my credentials, which is why I think the most inclusive definition should be used. Otherwise we get into no true Scotsman territory, with gamers having to play X game for Y hours with Z level of devotion to qualify!

  4. January 30, 2012 8:20 am

    Wonderful post Tzufit. I have always been a geek. I have always spent a great deal of time living in the world of the Foundation Series or William Gibson’s.

    I dislike our human tendency to label. I don’t know if a self-described gamer would consider me one, but I do enjoy calling myself one whenever it comes up.

    Wearing my Alienware T shirt will usually cause the question to come up and I have to admit I enjoy the apparent cognitive dissonance a, yes, I’m a gamer, seems to cause.

    The fact that someone like me might consider themselves to be a gamer means that person has to seriously reconsider the “gamer label.”

  5. January 30, 2012 10:33 am

    As a tail-end Baby Boomer, I was not encouraged to display my geekiness. I felt brave letting my high school peers know I was a -gasp- Boy Scout, nevermind carry a D&D book.

    Science Fiction was an acceptable nerdy thing, as long as you didn’t take it too far. Being a Star Wars fan was okay, but not a Trekkie.

    Of course, I met my wife playing D&D at college. I’ve never had to hide my geekiness from my kids and they’ve never felt ashamed of their interests.

  6. Lyshra permalink
    January 30, 2012 12:29 pm

    1, At my school it was Unreal Tournament.
    2, My brother met his serious long term girlfriend through an online game (not WoW, though). Our parents ongoing reaction to this is a source of constant amusement to me.

  7. Squelchy permalink
    February 2, 2012 8:30 am

    Excellent post as always.

    I’ve always worn “geek” as a badge of honor; but don’t ever refer to me as a “nerd.” That term was rampant when you went to middle school in the 80s.

    As far as gaming is concerned, very few people know I play WoW. I actually try to keep a firewall between my non-virtual and virtual lives–on my Facebook page there are no references to WoW at all, and I created an entirely separate Twitter account for Squelchy rather than reveal myself as [REDACTED]. This is why I want BattleTags to come out, like, yesterday, and also why you’ll never find my real name, or links to my accomplishments, on Blame Squelchy.

    Interestingly, nearly everyone in my guild actually knows my given name because my job has some “public” elements to it that I was proud enough to share–but no one who I “work” with (“work” in quotes because I’m a freelancer) knows I play WoW.

    Yet, if I were to say I played Call of Duty or owned a Wii (both of which are true) I doubt they’d bat an eye.

    Actually, I think they’d be OK with my playing WoW too. Blogging about it? Maybe not.

  8. February 5, 2012 8:02 am

    Wow, this post was really insightful.

    Like you, I avoid the ‘gamer’ stereotype. For something that’s so large a part of my life, you’re right, it seems like a pretty big hole to leave out of introductions. But my being a ‘gamer’ has been a point of contention between myself and friends, a point which was used to deride my frequent bouts of antisocial behaviour. “You just want to play Warcraft, you’re addicted!”

    But it isn’t the warcraft that makes me not want to be around people. It’s -me- that doesn’t want to be around people, and when I’m in those moods, I barely touch the computer anyway. 😦

    Guess I’m staying in the gamer closet, as it were, until society stops blaming video games for peoples preexisting problems.

  9. Sara permalink
    October 1, 2012 12:00 pm

    I readily embrace the “gamer” label in my life. It is a large part of my life, but that’s because I was raised on video games. All of my friends are gamers and geeks. I’ve never heard someone say that a noob isn’t a gamer. With the people I’ve met, a gamer plays everything from CoD to Final Fantasy and then some. I mean, yeah, you can’t really just play one game and be a gamer. I often get told at work (I work at Toys R Us) that they like to see a girl who knows what she’s talking about with games and can “geek out” about them. It’s more knowledge of games and willingness to play different genres than being skilled at one type. (Honestly, people who get up in arms about calling someone a gamer or who spends all their time perfecting their FPS skills gets laughed at by all my gamer friends. They’re like the joke of the gamer community.)

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