As with most things I’m writing about lately, this is something that’s been on my mind but only recently have I decided I should write about it. Today’s musings come courtesy of an experience I had yesterday that made me start rethinking the ideas of the Nerd Hierarchy.
We nerds/geeks/dorks pride ourselves on our individuality. It’s our hallmark. We are different and darn it, we own it. No nerves or self-consciousness here, baby. But it gets complicated when we go walk among others like us. We’d think that because we place so much emphasis on our individuality that we’d be accepting of all who are individuals. And yet we’re not. Put a bunch of nerds together, and we’re as petty and clique-y as anyone else. It’s disappointing, because I’d love to think that nerds would happily embrace other nerds as kindred spirits, and yet like any other person or group of people that acceptance is conditional.
To start off, I don’t really, personally, differentiate between nerds, geeks, and dorks. However, I might be alone there. A google search for Nerd vs. Geek turns up a veritable feast of images. The general consensus is that geeks like technology, t-shirts, gaming, and movies. Nerds are more academic, and into sci-fi and role-playing. Further examination shows that geeks can assimilate into society better than nerds, but neither really cares if they do or don’t. So what happens if you fit both profiles? What do you then call yourself? For a person who prides herself on not sticking into on category, when society tries to categorize me, it’s frustrating. It’s even more frustrating when geek/nerd/dork society tries to do it.
Thus is born a hierarchy in our world. My first experience with the hierarcy was going to ICON on Long Island, a large convention at Stonybrook University catering to fans of fantasy, sci-fi, anime, gaming, costuming, and the like. I was fortunate that my best friend and her now-husband were part of the staff, so I got to be, as well. I learned a lot of backstage information and con shop-talk. But it was also my first exposure to the concept of the hierarchy that exists in our subculture. ICON has an Anthropomorphic track, colloquially referred to as “Furries”. And I learned that in general at these sorts of things, people who like large animals that act like humans are generally at the bottom of the barrel. Most other con-goers would avoid them and though the con provided programming for them, it was limited and there was no desire to expand it.
As I reestablished my love of gaming, I became aware of more prejudice within the community. One could not simply be a gamer. How one gamed had to be taken into consideration. PC vs. console gaming was a big factor. Generally because you can do more on a PC, it’s considered superior. But console gaming definitely has its place. Why does it matter if I’m shooting my way through zombies in Left 4 Dead with a controlleror a keyboard? And then there’s other gaming: card, tabletop, and the like. I was just learning to play Magic, when I picked up the subtle cues that Magic is sometimes considered a “lesser” game, and those who play it may be subjected to head shakes, face palms, and general pity.
The big question with both scenarios is why. If people like big humanoid animals (or like being big humanoid animals), why does that automatically grant them the short end of the stick in terms of programming at a con? If people prefer consoles over PCs, why should that make them any less of a gamer? And why should people who play card games face scrutiny based on the type of card game they’re playing? Isn’t the entire point of being unabashed nerds/geeks/dorks to embrace our individuality and appreciate it for what it is?
Sadly, that’s the ideal, and we know full well in our world that the ideal is one achievement we’ll never add to our gamer score. The reality is that we’re human, and as humans we look at things that are different and that we don’t understand, and we automatically categorize them and assign a value of good or bad based on either our preferences or our understanding of those things. If I prefer PC gaming, consoles must be bad. If I don’t understand Furries, they must be bad. I think Magic is silly, so it’s bad. Nevermind that the people who are engaging in those things are people like us, and more importantly, are peole who have decided to embrace their individuality and own it. Just like us.
I saw this in action yesterday when I went to Birka. It’s a large-scale market put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism. It is an “Organisation dedicated to researching and recreating pre-17th century European history”. Yesterday I saw a lot of peasants, nobles, and knights. There were people in full armor walking around like it was completely normal (because there, it was). I watched fencing and melee battles. The hotel where it was held even had a roasted pig as part of the luncheon you could purchase. Birka is primarily a market, but the SCA does all sorts of things where you can camp out and engage in non-modern activity for a day or even a week or two.
Now, I’m used to going to cons where your garb is a costume, but there are SCA members whose attendance at these things is an entirely different persona that exists in pre-17th century Europe. It’s awesome, and I’d probably get in trouble from the hierarchy by calling it another form of roleplaying, but that’s how I look at it. Now me, I have ‘garb’. I love wearing it, but when I do, I’m still 21st century JayRain in a Medieval/Renaissance dress. So naturally I brought my camera. I’d read the rules on the Birka website and the only one I’d seen was that we had to be dressed appropriately, which I was. There was a lot to take in, and I’d seen something interesting in the lobby and decided to take a picture of it. In doing so I committed a major SCA faux-pas.
The woman at the table (who wasn’t in the picture) said, “Ma’am you need to ask before taking pictures.” I was incredibly chagrined, because in my mind it was a compliment to her that I thought her display was cool enough to warrant a photo. So I asked if she’d like me to delete it. She said “Yes.” And that was it. No please, no thank you. When I brought it up to two of my friends who do these events on a regular basis, one said she probably should have told me in advance that it’s proper form to ask before photographing anything or anyone (and her husband helpfully added in that yes, some people here can be real jerks about stuff). And the reasoning wasn’t artistic license or anything like that, but the fact that even though we were in a hotel, watching the news while waiting for our burgers and fries to arrive, some members look down upon technology being present at events. Capturing the memories of the events photographically is a no-no, and cell phones are bad. Some people take these things so seriously that they become ‘garb nazis’, who are attentive to every detail: if your gown is 13th century but your cloak design is 15th century, and your knickers are briefs made of cotton and elastic (aka 21st century), you don’t belong.
I totally understand the desire to recreate something and be a part of a large-scale event surrounded by others who share that same love. But when the hierarchy kicks in and it comes down to who’s “serious” about it versus who’s merely “having fun with it” it’s… well…not fun to be a part of it for some people. I know that the purpose of the SCA is to research and recreate that era of European history, and I don’t fault them for their mission or those who strictly adhere to it. But I know myself, and know that while I’ll go to Birka again to see all the awesome stuff, I’ll go with different expectations, and I won’t be joining the SCA anytime soon. Or ever. And because I constantly feel the need to clarify myself and apologize, I know I was in the wrong, and I know now that the SCA operates completely differently from a con; I know that my expectations were wrong. I think what they do is wonderful, and it’s very important when it comes to keeping history alive. And I also know that it’s just not for me.
What is for me, however, is PAX East. I went for the first time last year, and I saw what is, in my mind, what nerd culture is meant to be. For one weekend thousands of gamers of all sorts descended upon Boston and just loved gaming. Our swag bags had mini playable decks of Magic cards so we could play Magic with strangers while waiting in line. One huge room had consoles from the past that could be played, while another was a Call of Duty and Halo Reach tournament room. The Classic Arcade Museum brought their retro arcade machines and let us play for free as long as we wanted. For one weekend PC, console, card, and tabletop gamers came together and just loved gaming and one another.
Yes, there were people in epic full costumes, but they didn’t look down on those without costumes. We could talk about shooters and RPGs without worrying if one was better than the other. We platform to our hearts’ content, go get lunch, listen to a talk about how games are assisting the disabled, and then go down on the floor and try the demos that various developers were showing. There wasn’t any of the segregation or snobbery I’d seen at other cons, where the anime loves stick together and the gamers go somewhere else… no PC gamers avoiding console or card gamers here! For 48 hours I experienced the ideal in nerd culture. And interestingly enough, PAX is the Latin word for peace.
Now I’m sure people who’ve been to PAX East or PAX Prime will tell me that it does exist, and I will accept that as truth. Just because one experience contradicts my own doesn’t make it false, after all. But what would the nerd world be like if instead of our differences we just accepted our similarities, even if our only similarity is the fact that we are proud do be individuals that don’t conform to the norm? Even if we can’t forget the labels of geek or nerd or dork, could we stop trying to force one another into those categories, and just be?