The Nerdom Hierarchy

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?

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12 comments on “The Nerdom Hierarchy

  1. There’s a lot to be digested here, but I’ll just make the few comments that first come to mind:

    On magic and “real” geek/nerdery (I also fit both categories easily, as I think most of us in the culture probably do, to the point where the categories are probably meaningless now), I’ve noticed a lot of pushback from “older” geeks (which, at the age of 25, I’m starting to notice I’m on the edge of becoming… what the hell?!) about “their” stuff getting turned mainstream and losing its value as an identifier of the geek culture – which is exactly what happened to Magic and why some look down upon it as “not real” or “lesser” When you can buy the cards at K-mart, it sort of loses that element of individuality or differentness. “Real geeks” are apparently, the ones who grew up knowing that “general society” didn’t get them. They were kids who were made fun of or just misunderstood because the things they did to fill their hours couldn’t easily be explained or just didn’t mesh with what everybody else did. They were the people who’d choose to go to a con over prom, or play D&D over going to the high school football game. Now though, the “younger” geeks are literally growing up in a different world, where the definition of “geek” is changing in response to a widening acceptance of “our stuff” by the general society. When you can buy Magic cards at K-mart, and EVERYBODY plays video games, and The Big Bang Theory is a top-rated show on a major network, what does that mean? “If everybody’s special, nobody is.” “If everybody’s a geek… does that mean nobody is?” Is that what we want, or is that what we are afraid of?

    • As I was growing up I was able to assimilate into the mainstream, but I wasn’t really happy there. And nowadays I can assimilate, but I don’t hide my nerdiness. And I see a lot of kids who are afraid to be themselves, so I want to support that and be a safe reference place. I want them to know it’s okay to be yourself. Even though geekery is becoming more mainstream, being a geek can be hard.

      Like you pointed out, the definition and accessibility of it is changing, and I think a lot of it has to do with the internet. When I first read LOTR in college I was hard-pressed to find anyone who would talk with me about it… or could talk with me about it. So I turned to the internet. Nowadays people are glued to their phones and computers in that search for information and, in a lot of ways, connection. We want to connect with others like us on a regular basis so we can be reminded that we’re not alone.

      But like you said, the scary question is, if we’re not alone and everybody’s a geek, does that mean nobody is? I think a lot of people are afraid of it, because then that takes away our individuality. We pride ourselves on being such individuals, that if everyone’s an individual, then we aren’t anymore. It chips away at the very core of who we are and what we do.

  2. It’s just a sick social dynamic that inflicts every corner of our culture. I have to admit being somewhat the same way when I was younger. Depeche Mode sucks and Def Leppard ROCKS (whilst I listened to DM in private!) The thing is, life teaches us lessons and some of us eventually grow up. Some of us begin to realize that there are more important battles in life than despising the console user because the gaming industry doesn’t give PCs enough attention any more.

    Some people need, must have, a safe place to live inside their heads. Snapping pictures of them removes them from said safe place and forces them to deal with reality for a moment upon which they promptly realize how much their reality sucks and snap back at the photographer. Snap! HAH! Get it? SNAP! 8)

    Like in Fallout, everyone wants to be special. Everyone wants to be part of a group, part of something. Something different. And I understand that need. Everyone also needs an enemy. Someone to hate, someone to use as a yard stick to measure up their own pathetic lives against.

    I have an anarchist leaning when it comes to this social axiom. I don’t play reindeer games, never did. If I have to work at getting into your little group you’re not worth my time. I’m 42 now, I don’t have time for this nonsense and I never had the patience for it at all. If I don’t like something these days I refrain from using such strong words such as ‘hate’ or ‘despise’ and simply say that I don’t dance to that tune but it’s okay if others do, unless they’re obnoxious about it and I’m in a mood then I’ll attempt to knock them off the proverbial horse, not because I care about what they think or do, I’m just an asshole sometimes (to other assholes, that is!) If I don’t like you or what you are doing, I simply avoid you. If you press the issue, I’ll tell you in a pragmatic way without emotion.

    Needless to say, I don’t have any friends!

    • I used to feel the need to work at becoming friends with people or trying to fit into their little groups. And then I realized it just wasn’t worth it. The older I get I think I just want to be able to say I’m happy with who I am and how I’m living my life, because trying to have others be happy with who I am and now I’m living my life leads to too much pain and it’s just not worth it.

      And I think anyone, geek or not, can become obnoxious about what they like and do to the point that anyone would feel the need to take them down a peg. I had a friend who insisted that I should watch Sex and the City and I would LOVE it so much, even when I insisted that I really had no interest. She then proceeded to tell me that she watched Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings for me. I’d never pummeled her over the head and told her she had to watch those, or learn to like what I liked; that choice was hers, as was my choice not to watch Sex and the City. Needless to say, we’re not friends anymore. If you have to play games to fit in with people, is it really worth fitting in with them? I don’t think so.

      • “Relationships are hard work.”

        You hear that (or similar nonsense) a lot these days. Comes from all those self help morons that are self helping themselves to their followers paychecks.

        Relationships are not hard work, or any type of work for that matter. I have job, more than one, I don’t need another one. Either you get along or you don’t. Either you can accept each others idiosyncrasies or you can’t.

        The only thing we need to work at in life is showing each other a certain amount of respect, regardless of how we feel about each other. For me that’s easy (most of the time,) I was raised right and I’ve grown up a bit from that pretentious little git I was in my 20’s.

        Can’t blame you for not watching Sex in the City. I’m glad my wife never got into that show. It’s not her thing anyway. She’s into British stuff. But sometimes I feel bad that she may not be watching something because I won’t watch it. She’s into the royal family and such, and watching a bunch of pretentious rich gits prat around in the lap of luxury has never been my thing. Still, when PBS plays a monarchy special, I’ll sometimes watch it with her. She also got me watching the Tudors, which isn’t a bad show. I guess when you really care and love someone you drop your preconceptions of things a bit.

      • Agreed on those counts. The people I’m friends with now are people I don’t have to work to be around. I accept them as they are and they accept me, which is what makes for comfortable, good friendships. We enjoy spending time with one another because we like each others’ company and don’t feel the need to slave away to please one another. We don’t have everything in common, but that’s okay.

        I think that’s the false conception people have about nerd-dom: that because we’re all nerds we’ll all get along and just accept one another. I know I fall prey to that sometimes, yesterday being one such example. But we have to remember that nerds are first and foremost human, and that it’s human nature to categorize and gather into groups, and sometimes those groups aren’t always welcoming to outsiders. The other important thing to remember is that there are other groups that will be welcoming, and finding them is a more valuable use of time.

        And yes, when you really care and love someone, that love and care transcends preconceptions. That’s a beautiful thing 🙂

  3. This post makes me happy. Mostly because it means I’m not the only one who’s noticed. And I think, on top of this, you ascend thehe hierarchy the longer you’re a nerd/geek.

    Growing up, I was a band geek, but I never ascended that tower, because I didn’t practice my instrument enough. I was a chorus geek, but I also played sports, so I couldn’t be a “true” choral geek because I was on the tennis team, which is a spring sport in high school, so I couldn’t ever be in the school musical.

    When I met my husband, I was not a gamer, nor did I know much about computers. BUT. I was in to the whole fantasy lit (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc), which lead to an interest in the fantasy world. When I met my husband, there was a natural progression into the fantasy RPG’s, and since he is a PC gamer, that’s what I naturally picked up on..

    We own an XBox 360 with a Kinect and a Wii, and somewhere, if we dig, we’ve had a PlayStation, and PS2, and between us we’ve had Nintendos, Ataris, Super NES,. and a few other things. i enjoy gaming on the XBox, because I can sit wherever I want, however I want, and I can move around if I’m uncomfortable. I like PC gaming because I can usually not worry about trying any game I want, since many come out for one console AND PC.

    I have yet to try the cosplay thing, but I will be venturing into that realm this year, I think. Mark another notch on the geek hierarchy belt for me!

    • I also never ascended the band geek hierarchy because I simply had other interests; I didn’t want to go to school to be a music major, and for that my chances of belonging in the upper eschelons were squashed. In the gaming world I probably don’t even dare approach the rungs of the ladder of ascension because I don’t have dozens of games on at least three or four consoles.

      I think the big thing I’m realizing is it’s about accepting who you are rather than valuing what others think. The geek hierarchy isn’t really any different from the corporate one, and much as we’d like to protest, we’re not too different from the mainstream in our attitudes toward one another. While my experience at PAX last year gave me a glimpse of a potential utopia, I have the feeling that that sort of thing is few and far between.

      I’m not trying to champion a radical paradigm shift in “our” world, but I think you’ve got it right. You did what you wanted to do, you found your interests, and you go with it because you’re comfortable in your individuality. It’d be nice to have more of that in general, not just in geekdom, though that’s my wishful thinking. Gah. Now I want to write a parody of “Imagine” about geekiness.

  4. Well, I *was* a band geek, but the thing was, in my school, being in the bad made you kinda cool because our band won trophies, and we were about the only organization that did.

    These days, I’m a LOTR geek and a fantasy geek in general…my partner is more into scifi than I am, and that’s cool.

    Console vs. PC: I’m a PC gamer, but that’s a preference thing. If you want to play on consoles, you go for it. Me…I have some arthritis issues that make controllers a bit limiting for me. I do better with a PC since I can configure them more easily. Consoles aren’t ‘lesser’, they’re just ‘not for me’.

    I hear you with what happened with the SCA incident. I play Lord of the Rings Online, and one of the servers is a fairly heavy roleplaying server. I don’t RP myself, but I have no problem with those who do. (Well, except for the people who are off in a room in the Prancing Pony sexting each other…because you can hear it in the ENTIRE inn…but that’s another issue.

    Anyway, I created a character who is a runekeeper because they are fun to play. There has been a bit of controversy from some about runekeepers being lorebreaking, so they’re looked down upon in some circles as a lesser class. Most servers don’t give RKs any grief…except this one. I have been made to feel VERY unwelcome there, like I’m a lesser being. So I don’t play that server as often anymore. You don’t want me here? Fine, I won’t be here.

    Where I’m going with this is that I, too, wish we could all just be, but I know that won’t happen anytime soon. I can hope, though, and continue to do what makes me happy.

    • Careful in those inns, the walls are paper thin 😉

      That’s too bad that even amongst people who play the same game you’re subjected to that level of prejudice. The best thing is, I think, to do what you suggest, just keep hoping and doing what makes you happy.

  5. Bummer some of the people at Birka were jerks =/ I’d say they definitely need to relax and worry about themselves, not about whether someone at the con has a camera or not. It’s not like you’re paid reenactors; you’re just there for a good time and to have fun. Or at least that’s what I would think. Obviously if you went to something like that, you have some common interests, so if they feel the need to look down at you, I’d say they seriously have some issues of their own. I’d be excited to connect with others who share an interest that might not be popular. Glad you’ve had more positive experiences at other places, though 🙂

    • Most of the people there were nice; it was just that one particular instance. But I’m sure I’m not the first first-timer who’s made such a faux-pas and been chastised for it, and I won’t be the last. I understand the reason, I think it was just the approach and the way it was handled that was off-putting. And I think other situations in this particular sub-culture can be that way as well. The nerdom interests span such a wide variety of things that it’s pretty much impossible that we’ll all like the same stuff at the same level. But we shouldn’t let it make us snobby or uncivil.

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