Thursday, January 20, 2011

Geek On Geek Crime

Even though I grew up half a jock, the most dominating aspects of my extracurricular life have been geek-related. I believe, in my lifetime, I have encountered, and - to a certain extent - participated in a wider range of geek niches than most self-proclaimed science-fiction, fantasy and/or gaming enthusiasts.

While I've never experienced (aside from watching a bunch of homemade videos of LARPs of a friend's that actually made it look really fun, and that time we did a D&D Ravenloft adventure in song), I have participated in most other forms of geekdom that didn't involve dressing up as an animal or alien. That is to say, at different points in my life, I've been on-and-off obsessed with various RPGs, CCGs, miniature games, strategy games, fighting games, as well as the gamut of sci-fi/fantasy literature, films and television.

I've had many friends that have fallen into a number of the above categories, and if one thing has become clear in my sub-social travels, it's that most geeks look down on the others.

Despite the absurdity that one of these activities might be "more cool" than another, there's definitely a tradition that real-time strategy, first-person shooter, and fighting video games make a person into less of a social pariah than someone who enjoys pen-and-paper RPGs or table-top Warhammer 40K. While one person might not hesitate to discuss Harry Potter at parties, someone else is probably avoiding admitting that they spend ten hours a week playing World of Warcraft. All of a sudden, because of a decade of things like Kevin Smith, Family Guy and Robot Chicken, it's suddenly cool to like Star Wars, but heaven forbid someone likes anime.

It isn't just social acceptance. Geeks who value intellectual competition look down on gaming that is more geared to finger-eye-coordination or fun. Hardcore enthusiasts sneer aristocratically at watered-down and main-stream sci-fi/fantasy or gaming. Classic Science-fiction lit fans laugh at the childishness of mass-market fantasy epics while Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett loyalists oust last generation's fiction as pretentious. Etc., etc. Nerd rage is an ugly thing, and while it often is pointed at bros, jocks and the rest of the in-crowd, the ugliest side of nerd rage is always reserved for other nerds.

In recent years, or at least from my perspective, lots of previously embarrassing extracurricular interests have found mainstream popularity. Superhero blockbusters and The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films are inching fantasy novels and comic books into the light of day. Science-fiction-based TV shows like LOST and Battlestar Gallactica are finding larger audiences and actual acceptance from TV critics. TV stations like Versus and G4 are ushering video games into the arena of spectator sport. European boardgames are becoming less and less scrutinized by the people who cringe at the word "game" when it isn't preceded by the word "video" or followed by "on ESPN".

I feel like things have changed so much in the last 10-15 years, that if I were to kidnap thirteen-year-old me and teleport him into 2011, that goofy, freckled head would have exploded when he learned HBO will start airing my favorite childhood fantasy epic, The Game of Thrones, this summer. HBO! That isn't UPN or WB or scIFi/SyFy or even Fox. HBO is... dope!

These changes over time have altered the social heirarchy within the geek community. Arcades are the stuff of grown-ups who never grew up. Why play pen-and-paper games with so many MMORPG's available? Fantasy novels might be cool, depending on which, and whether or not they involve vampires. Fifteen years later, I'm suddenly realizing that half of those things I used to love but of which I'd been ashamed are no longer embarrassing to admit in public.

And, of course, the other half is still mostly kept under raps, because even if the word geek is starting to be defined more as "enthusiast" than "nerd" these days, especially when used as the second of a compound term (i.e. film-geek), most stuff is better saved for third and fourth-impressions rather than first-impressions. I don't meet somebody for the first time and volunteer the fact that I love playing Magic: The Gathering. I don't say, "Hi, my name is Zach. I'm a hipster and a trekkie." I'm even hesitant to admit that I'm a foodie, or that I'm addicted to Fantasy Sports, because I know that even if I'm talking to the geekiest of geeks, I'm wary of geek-on-geek prejudice.

This isn't a call to geeks everywhere to become more open-minded, because in all honesty, part of being overly enthusiastic about one fringe social activity kind of has that unavoidable side-effect known as tunnel vision. I'm not telling every strategy gamer to try Magic: The Gathering, or every BSG fan to watch Star Trek: TNG, or every WoW fanatic to play Dungeons & Dragons, because even though I would guess each transition to be painless, I really don't know. To each his/her own. I'm just saying: It's hard out here for a geek.

Life's a bitch and then we die. That's why we pretend to cast spells.