Thursday, December 3, 2015

Nerd Pride and Pop Culture going Full Circle

Every now and then I get the urge to write something, well, critical. No worries, I won't get political. There is enough of that going around unfiltered as it is. No. What I aim to write here is about our hobby and others like it. How it was a stigma once, how that somehow changed and how I suddenly stopped being a nerd because I'm not socially awkward enough. I've been pondering about this one for a long time now and think I should give it a shot and be done with it. This is also a very personal and very long post (sorry).

Remember, remember ...

The early days of our hobby are, incidentally, also the early days of pop culture as we know it today. People tend to think about this as progress, but it really isn't that easy. Because the funny thing about popular culture is that it's always about what's popular at a certain point in time. Things that had been popular back then in the 70s made life pretty hard for those liking stuff that's now quite popular and accepted. Something changed and it had a somewhat positive effect on those who got stigmatized before. But ask yourself, is it really progress or is it "just" change? Because if it changes again, it might as well change back, you know ...

So lets say it's a struggle, like with languages, for example. People trying to conserve the "old ways", people trying to change THE WORLD completely and those that really don't care what happens outside their preferences (just like the classic Alignment system, isn't it?), all constantly finding compromises that also result in minor changes of what is perceived as popular culture.

Okay, so things are in motion and will always be. That's not a groundbreaking discovery, right? We should just lean back and enjoy our 15 minutes of fame. Right? Yeah.

But first remember those early days of being a role playing gamer. Being laughed at in school, people saying (either in the open or behind your back) that you are strange and socially unacceptable because you like talking about the fictional exploits of your Barbarian and not about sports. The days of the Satanic Panic, that most certainly didn't effect all of us, but most definitely had an effect on many.
People had been very serious about this one ... [source]
Most people aren't even reflected enough to really know what irks them and are just randomly mean because of a subconscious feeling that something is wrong with you. You know the kind, they just make bad jokes in public about you being ugly and are happy that enough others are laughing. Sad fucks.

I experienced some of that in the 90s, like my parents thinking I was in cult or a potential player getting told by his parents that playing those games is evil and forbidden by god. And I got the strange looks at school, got put into the role of the outsider. I was just lucky enough that punk was already popular (!) enough among pupils and I got a crowd to hang out with soon enough. Solidarity among subcultures, late to the party and all that. Others had it worse and I knew some of those getting bullied, heard about more.

At some point I had to take a position and I embraced my interests instead of conformity. I also had a brown belt in Judo, so that helped a lot (those few occasions I got bullied, well, lets say it didn't happen often). In many ways I was lucky like that and I am aware of it. But still, getting stigmatized is a very individual experience. It hurts and there is damage done to you.

People will keep telling you that those problems are minor compared to [insert other stigmatized groups for comparison], so get a grip, grow up, have some balls ... you know the shit people say when they are not able to relate or sympathize.

Now, why am I going there, you might ask yourself at this point. Well, it is part off the healing process to accept that you were hurt. That damage done for being stigmatized and excluded is real and it is personal. Talking it away as "bullshit" just buries it deep and will have a huge impact on a subconscious level, with colorful varieties of pain and compensation for your friends and neighbors to behold and enjoy. Knowing that means changing it.

Another huge effect of this is what one might call a herd instinct. Others like you are out there and, damaged and awkward as they might be, they become the most beautiful people of the world to you. Those first weekends on rpg conventions had been like wonderful holidays among friends for me and I'm very fond of those memories.

Of course you'd encounter the same tendencies completely normal for every social group. You got the snobs, the cool kids, the popular ones and that could get tiresome fast. But somehow I'd never be alone. Even when excluded or looked down upon, others would have my back. And not only friends, but total strangers, too. That's very important.

Would I have called myself a nerd back then? Maybe as a weak attempt to appear like I'm embracing the social position others would have me take as something great. You know the feeling, I'm sure of it. What it really is, though, is something others made you feel, something others did to you to have someone below them. Someone to feel superior over. The very words "nerd" and "geek" had been invented as labels to make it so much easier to exclude and insult.

... and now look around.

The nerds and geeks arrived in popular culture now. If you tell nowadays that you are playing role playing games, people will take an interest because they saw those funny guys in Big Bang ... whatsitsnameagain? ... play that. Right? And people always liked board games, so that's not that different. Right? All of a sudden you are the expert, not the pariah. At least among the "uninitiated".

Yet another related phenomenon is people mimicking nerds are all over the place now. It's chic to act as if you are strange because you have been excluded from what is socially acceptable for far too long or with far too much force. In other words, what had been a stigma with all the brutal consequences that tend to come with that, is now a badge of honor. You don't even have to experience the one to be the other. 

Let me be clear here: I'm not saying that you have to eat shit before you could "claim to be a nerd", because that would be utter bullshit on all accounts. You can not claim to be a nerd, for one, because it's something others did to you and awkward behavior was the result of that treatment not something you chose (or because of something you chose). Now it's a party gimmick and that comes with a very different set of problems, but I'm getting ahead of myself here ...

Because the original problem being gone doesn't mean it had never been there to begin with. On the contrary, actually. It makes the damage done by it so much harder to grasp and healing far more difficult. In a worst case scenario it even adds insult to injury, as they say. Because all of a sudden I'm not a nerd anymore. It's funny, the "popular kids" are the nu nerds now and there is an elitism coming along with it I've seen labeled as Nerd Pride.

It's debatable, now, if such a thing really exists or if it's really a new phenomenon. But if I tell among (what I used to think of as) like-minded folks that I'm gaming for 20 years now, even blog about it, I get more often than not attacked for it as if I threatened someone else's territory. So something did change.

Or stayed the same, really, as we are back in the social circle again. Because the things I like and know about are popular now. That, of course, makes it relevant for mating, so it stands to reason that we (the former excluded), too, have to punch our chests and throw shit at each other now to make our mark and impress potential mates ... Just like the primates we all are. It's so cute, I could puke.

Pop Culture going Full Circle

I've seen a meme a few months ago that really brought that idea home for me. Add the Star Trek, Twin Peaks, Ghostbusters, Ninja Turtles and Tremors reboots and you are good to go (but there wouldn't be much of Williams left to look at ...):

See what I mean? A year ago I had the pleasure of seeing the complete x-files again, seasons 1 to 9, plus all the movies. That's 20 years old tv now and other than a few technological gimmicks, nothing has changed. Gene manipulation, factory farming, artificial intelligence, government corruption and conspiracy, it's all right there in the first season. Fashion didn't change, music didn't change, opinions didn't change. It's all still the same. Or more of the same, even.

You might think now that I lost track of the topic and went into a completely different direction right now, but trust me, we'll get there again. With all the stuff we like being mainstream now, we are targeted for our money with "geeky" and "nerdy" articles. Like, all the time. Star Wars had been popular, but now MORE people will like it, so here is some NEW Star Wars. Have the newest edition of D&D, because D&D is now cool again. Or here, the newest anime, come on now, you love this!, it's only 30 bucks! Or need I write the word "kickstarter"? Would I dare to? It just goes on and on.

Sometimes I think we went from being shunned to being milked for liking what we like. Not sure that's a big step forward, to be honest. People will fight for the right to take your money, though, and they will get quite creative to manipulate you into thinking that the next new shit is superior to what has been. Let me tell you, it is not.

There are other, weirder effects to this whole affair. I know people that would argue about Harry Potter up to a point were arguments change to insults, especially when I tell them it's one of the great stories about unjustified geek empowerment. The whole story of Rowling being a poor unemployed teacher, writing the first book in a cafe because it had been warmer than her apartment and coming from a village that just looked like something described in the books? Facilitated by her publisher to sell more books. The idea about an imprisoned boy, mistreated for being different, fleeing into a magical world? That's Rudyard Kipling's early biography right there*. And the boy with the owl learning to be a wizard? Well, that's The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman, glasses included.

Harry really is just the British school-boy variant ... [source]
But other than not being very original, it's also quite questionable, as far as content goes. H. P. inherited his powers, for instance. Him being special has nothing to do with anything he learned or did. He's just a special snow flake for no particular reason. But it entitles him to be right ALL THE TIME. There is also some inherent racism in the notion that [wizards] are a superior race [Übermensch?] to normal humans. This being set up as muggles (or whatever) being mostly stupid and ignorant works well with the myth that those labeled as nerds had been on the right track all along. There is just so much wrong with it ...

Or take the Big Bang Theory. Highly questionable, in my opinion. Those guys are not really nerds, for instance, they are vehicles for commerce. Comics, t-shirts, tv-shows, nobody seems to mind the shameless product placement in that show. They are also successful and while it was funny to see Steve Urkel try and fail in all things (and with women), those guys are a little awkward about this stuff, but not more than others might be (or not much more, at least). They are presentable. They are the assimilated nerd, as popular culture and the market would like to have it. Something that is funny, but with merit. Harmless, no need to bully anyone.

Steve Urkle now and then ...
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Haters gonna hate and all that, but google "criticism about TBBT" and you'll find some interesting perspectives (how sexist it is, how there are no black people in the first five seasons, how it really is not about nerds ... take your pick). That and Harry Potter are just two examples. There sure is more where that came from.

Ever asked yourself why people are so eager to re-do all those shows and movies and ideas ad absurdum, most of the time not even getting better at it, too? There had been reasons for this stuff being popular to begin with and mostly it had NOTHING to do with mainstream or popular culture. It's like now that they can use this stuff to reach more people, they also use it to lull all into shopping frenzies and make us forget that we do this all the time, all over again. An infinite loop of bread and games with a good dash of Gleichschaltung to make the transition into idiocracy smooth and painless ...

It was acceptable to bully those strange folks among us, but it's far more profitable now to have them all within the big social circle, making money and spending it. Them being all the same is also easier to control than having subcultures all over the place. Right? People could get strange ideas if left to their own devices. Next they are going to tell us there is no gender difference. You know, because there is a whole market waiting for men starting to wear make up. Oh, wait ...

Everything changes, nothing changes.

Society constantly changes towards compromise, I think that much is established. The main questions are to what end those changes happen, what the consequences are and where we position ourselves towards those changes.

Liking what I like and playing the games I play is no more connected with a feeling of solidarity among like-minded people, it more often than not becomes a fight for popularity. The shit they make fun of in High School comedies. And that shit gets old fast. Actually, if I never had started blogging, meeting this great community online, I might have dropped gaming entirely by now.

As it is I'm (mostly) suspicious and cynic towards the commercialization of my interests. Nowadays it reached a  point where only spending the coin will make you important in the eyes of others. That's not true for all people or all the times, but true often enough. We are reduced to monkeys for a buck and a thrill and I get the feeling that some like it that way. Or at least don't like questioning it.

And asked what I am, if not a nerd, I'd say I'm non-conform, as in I am as an individual opposed to conformity. Put outside the main social circle to begin with, I decide to stay there. I go into a German RPG Shop and they don't know the OSR. I see TV Shows in English, often before there are any German synchronizations and I only know a handful of people I could talk face to face about it. I write about games (write one myself, even) in a language that's not my own. That's nothing special, it's just the consequence of my preferences and it leads where I am comfortable right now: outside the mainstream. And let me tell you, there's still a lot to discover and love in the fringes.

One might say the view is better on the outside, too. But I think I don't do it for the view.  No, it's only healthy to keep the mind busy like that on a regular basis, to see that although things did change, people will always try to make themselves superior to others, so someone always has to be at the shitty end of the stick. But it only affects you if you are part of the game, if you participate. And that stupid game might as well change in another direction yet again (I already see some of that happening) and ... well, you get my drift.

There is one final thing I'd like to share about getting bullied: getting victimized by others is never to be trifled with, but the blame-game also never helped anyone really and has the contrary effect of keeping you in the position others chose for you: that of a victim. The first important step to overcome that shit is not looking at what has been done to you, but finding out how it changed you. The second would be to learn to confront people about it in the open as soon as it happens. Right then and there. In the face. Step in for others, too, if you can. It'll mean the world.

I also don't have all the answers. Just more questions.

But I'd like to close on a more friendly note. The friends I made and the DIY-spirit in this community helped a lot in keeping me sane. Honestly, thanks for that, guys. There is a level of enthusiasm beyond wearing an idea like someone else's skin and that's contributing to the things you love for the things themselves. I see that daily in my stream and it's inspiring. One could say that I think the way I do now because I am into role playing games and DIY. I hope I'll never be done with this and I know I've still a long way ahead to get somewhere with it. But that's okay. It's the change I chose.

* I remember an English tutor telling us Kipling's foster parents went as far as putting him in a small room below the stairs as punishment, but have yet to find a source to confirm it.


  1. I have always been an introvert. Today I can tell you that that never changes, but back in the day, one always hears, “Well, he just needs to work on his social skills.” And you listened, and thought to yourself, well, maybe I do need to work on my social skills. And by working on social skills we hung out with people who typically forced us to hide who we are, and to amplify a part of ourselves that isn’t really all that real. I did not find friends until after graduating. Prior to meeting them, friendship was just me listening to what the other person had to say, a skill that today, serves me well; but that isn’t friendship.

    The irony of being an introvert is that I now have more friends then most extroverts; true friends that have lasted years! Now, I talk to extroverts, and they say that they don’t have friends-- and that makes one think. Perhaps the introvert isn’t all that socially awkward, but is just looking for something, while the extrovert is not so they never find it.

    Nerd entertainment, real nerd entertainment isn’t the socially expectable stuff that you see today. To me, it is about exploring old ideas in new ways, and coming up with new possibilities. I’ll be honest! I’ll pick something to death. I’ll beat a dead horse until my stick breaks. That is what we like to do! We enjoy arguing as much as we enjoy preaching to the choir.

    This isn’t a new thing, there was this bookstore that I used to go to when I was a kid called the Antiquarian, it was a huge firehazard, books stacked all over the place, and you could get hardcovers for under 5 bucks, but I digress, it wasn’t just the books, it was these old men that always struck me. They would have these conversations, BIG conversations using words with 19 syllables that I had never heard of! IT was like listening to wizards talk. All of them were so well read that someone of my age and intellect found it impossible to comprehend never the less actually communicating with them. But I wanted to. These men became super heroes to me, this is what I wanted to be; not some doctor or lawyer, THIS! I suppose that my mind embellished what they were, they weren’t just retired friends hanging out in a used bookstore stoned off of coffee, they were wizards who understood things that most people can’t fathom, history, space, religion, given enough time they could prove that the world was flat and the sun revolved around Jupiter.

    We read, way to much; us nerds. We aren’t content to take things as they are written either, we peer into the abyss. We don’t believe in the world around us, we see more! What we call Nerds and Geeks today have always been with us, we are tireless artists. One thing that we really aren’t, are consumers. That is what separates us, friend. I am a collector of information, not of plastic and paper, but ideas! We are shiftless dreamers, who are never content with our lot, and because we are this way, people don’t understand us unless we sit them down and make them. But most of all, we are always very long winded. This is our used bookstore.

    1. That's beautiful, Ripper, thanks for sharing! Funny thing is that I very much feel the same. I would describe myself as an introvert but none of the people I call friends would describe me that way (which I always thought strange ...). So I started thinking tjat those distinctions might be lacking. So how's that in your experience?

  2. What we project to the world and what we are are two different things. People who like everything placed in nice labeled boxes don't understand that we find that pointless. I think that we enjoy a good mystery, and extroverts want to ignore everything that don't fit into those boxes of theirs. It isn't that introverts don't talk, many of us are shy around strangers, but once we open up and trust the other person not to think ill of our ideas, we realize that there are others out there that see the world the same way as we do. Then you can't shut us up.

    Introverted people are still social creatures, when we are young we either get picked on because we have a filter and are shy, or we get picked on because we have no filter and it can take an hour and a half to express our thoughts, which sounds like gibberish to people who don't have the patience for any idea larger than a post-it note.

    I fit into that shy range, but I had a friend who was unfiltered and I was the only person who would play with him on the playground. We played Dr. Who, that was what we had in common, and I'm talking OLD Dr. Who; with a budget that consisted of whatever change they could find in the lobby couch, but the writing; THE WRITING WAS HUGE!!! I got socially ostracized by my peers for simply talking with him, never the less actually playing with him. I got beat up for wishing that I could travel through time and space with the Doctor. I try to tell my son that, who is also a big Who fan, and he just don't get it. Why would those other kids do that? I still can't answer that question.

    1. Worse even, what others project on us is, again, something else entirely. And I think there is a huge amount of the conflicts we are talking about here. There was a time when what you described would be considered weak and weak means it can get attacked without remorse and for the (sole) benefit of being the superior monkey in the sandbox, so people get victimized. It sucks, it really does.

      I think it's a good thing that your son won't have to make the same experience, though.

      I also agree with your assessment of what people labeled as introverts can be like. It's very much what I've experienced. Thanks, again, for a great comment, Ripper!

  3. Thank you so much for this post. It follows along some thoughts I have been having recently regarding how bad the bullying was when I was a kid and its effect on me through my whole life. I am just shocked -- SHOCKED -- that I still, to this day, feel some shame for the stuff that I like, which is of course now popular! How much of my lifelong loneliness might be gone if I had been able to openly express my feelings about the stuff that I like and found others with the same feelings??? Th worst part is how those childhood bullies often never grow-up; they are still out there and they still have the same opinions despite the obviousness of them being hypocrites. That's a part of TBBT that rings true: the guys still get picked on for their nerdy hobbies (despite the show itself being a hit show with a huge viewership!).

    1. Thank you for sharing this! It was a difficult post for me to write, to be honest. I had been lucky in so many ways regarding my friends and my hobbies and yet, I keep telling myself that thinking that way is like whistling in the forest, as they say. But questioning it, on the other hand, leads to confronting some of the shit I had to put up with and helps putting it into perspective. It's hard, but healthy ... It sounds like your doing the right thing already. I wish you the best of luck in getting past all that and getting to enjoy your hobbies for real. Keep questioning it and talking about it like you did in your comment here and I'm sure you will get there eventually.


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.