I am ten years old and we are in reading class, being asked to read aloud a page from a book we have chosen ourselves, our favourite book. My classmates read sections of dialogue from the most recent Babysitter’s Club adventure. Or they stutter through Goosebumps books or let us participate with them in a choose-your-own adventure. I read the passage in The Once and Future King where Merlin turns Wart into an ant. They type is tiny and I go on for an embarrassingly long time, shifting in my Keds. Someone throws an eraser at me. I do not begrudge them this at all. Is this the moment when I became a nerd?
I am twelve, and we are asked to draw pictures next to our names on manila paper and affix it to the front of our desk. All the girls draw horses. I draw a crude picture of the globe as seen from space, and the girl sitting next to me says, “What do you do? Watch the news or something?” I am equal parts hurt at her disgusted tone and confused as to how watching the news would allow me to get the shapes of the continents rights.
Or did I become a nerd in college when I read Anna Karenina and fell in love with Tolstoy and not Vronsky? Maybe, it couldn’t have been until after college, when I still cared about getting drunk and talking about books and then fucking, and most folks just wanted to get to the fucking part. Were these moments symptoms or causes of nerdiness? Expressions of my true, inevitable self? Choices I made that later defined me?
When we define something for someone else we seek to describe it as accurately as we can, because we want them to get it. Definition, in this sense, is a generous act. This is the best of geekiness: an enthusiasm for something specific that the geek wants everyone to appreciate because it is just so cool.
But to define something also means to demark it, to describe it in the sense that we describe a circle, by making a distinction between it and other things. In other words, we define things by what they are not, by excluding other things from their realm.
So, it is easier to say what kind of nerd I am not. I am not a Dungeons and Dragons nerd. I am not a Trekkie. I do not LARP. I cannot quote whole swaths of any movie, have not taken my life philosophy from any Guide to the Universe, have never spent a whole weekend wearing a plushie suit or sat in a basement building a deck of cards or rolling dice. I am not that kind of nerd.
That said, there is no denying that I am some kind of nerd. My students routinely point this out to me when I get excited about database research or grammar, or when I gush at the opportunity to parse a text (I recently read an essay in which a student wrote that he never felt he had the courage or opportunity to debate anything that really mattered, and to prove it he said the only real disputes in which he’d stand his ground were about inconsequential things like “Pepsi vs. Coke, or what some author meant about something”). My friends tell me this too, when they look at my teetering piles of books or I correct the grammar of some character in a television show. So why am I one kind of nerd and not another? And why does it matter?
For one thing, there are a lot of proudly self-identified nerds these days. The Star Wars franchise has brought in well over 22 billion dollars. Children have now been born to parents who met and started dating on World of Warcraft. More than 130 thousand people attended New York Comic Con in 2013. Both Jay-Z and Kanye West sport outsized nerd glasses. In addition to tee-shirts featuring comic book characters, mystical creatures, or the slogan “Don’t let the Muggles Get You Down,” you can also buy everything from tea-towels to tote-bags proclaiming the more generic “I love nerds.” In fact, a Google search of the term “I love nerds” brings up 41 million hits. Nerds shape our culture now, and different kinds of nerds shape it in different ways and to different degrees. Nerds who are fans of something specific and exhaustively versed in its minutiae (“If my knowledge of sci-fi movies is correct, which it is, the black car is an advanced probe for the mothership”) are also called geeks, as in, “I’m geeking-out about that!” And geeks are involved in a particular, and particularly interesting kind of identity-formation.
Our identities, and the way that we form them, are recursive, multi-layered and overlapping. Our identities are both a response to and a way of creating or augmenting our realities. If nerdiness has become the primary form or identity-expression for a large group of people in contemporary society, its defining origin myth is pretty hostile. It is the “revenge of the nerds” narrative, in which “smart” folks are picked on for not being into the right things, and then come back to bully the bullies with tortures more spectacularly conceived than the jocks could ever have accomplished. It is not a narrative of transcendence, but one of taking back some power that nerds somehow have always thought they inherently deserved and then using it to replicate a situation that formerly denigrated and dismissed them.
This is not accidental. As Jeremy Bushnell points out elsewhere in this magazine, Johan Huizinga, an anthropologist and a historian of play, writes: “The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e., forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” At its best, geek culture seeks to advertise its joy at what happens within the magic circle (hence all the tee-shirts, and that guy at the party who needs to inform you of every difference between Kidou Senshi Gundam Seed Destiny in Japan and the version that was “ported to the US market”). This is an act of self-definition that is fundamentally a generous impulse of that kind of nerd, even if it is incredibly annoying. As a different kind of nerd, my objection to this geekiness is admittedly grounded in little more than the aesthetic. I tend to think that parsing Things Fall Apart is more meaningful than analysing episodes of Star Trek, just as my student thinks debating same sex marriage or who is the best basketball player in the NBA really matters, but “what some author thinks about something” doesn’t. Mostly, I’ll concede that this is a personal preference.
However, this act of generosity is a sharing of the self without asking for reciprocation. If he is really nerdy, the guy who wants to tell you all about his video game probably doesn’t want to listen to you recite baseball statistics. His kind of generosity is only inclusive of anyone who is willing to learn the “special rules [that] obtain” within the “hallowed ground” of the nerd’s own culture. It does not make room for those who don’t speak the language or care to practice the customs of the nerd. It requires assimilation and is unwilling to celebrate the differences in preference or identity that make the world outside the magic circle richly diverse. It is not generous enough. The problem with this kind of evangelizing is that those nerds who practice it may want to bring you inside the magic circle, but they very rarely want to bring what is joyful and progressive about the encircled activities out into the world. Nerd culture, with its focus on these temporary worlds, is an ascetic culture: its members turn away from the world like monks who spend hours exploring Azeroth instead of reciting prayers. And ascetics are selfish by nature. They serve only God or members of the in-group, and have abdicated their responsibility to the rest of us, who live in the big, messy, wonderful meat world. Our world needs enthusiastic participants to work together and make it better every day.
Taken to its extreme, this asceticism becomes complete isolation. Sherry Turkle, who studies people’s relationships to technology, writes that “Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.” Think of all the people on the bus who are no longer really moving through the city with a group of their fellow citizens, but are instead fending off zombies with cabbages. When we customize our lives –our realities—we do become a “tribe of one,” beholden to no one and not engaged in any attempt to customize the world so that it is a better place for all of us. We would rather hurl rutabagas at digital enemies than plant a community garden or combat poverty.
At worst, geekiness actively does not want you in the circle anyway. This can be a function of sheer snobbiness, a lá The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy declaiming constantly and sarcastically what is second rate and how no one appreciates that but him. Some of this snobbery comes from a common misperception: nerds are certainly not the only people who wrongly assume that having worked hard to become an expert in something gives us the right to also be an asshole to anyone who has spent her time differently. But it is particularly enabled by that old story nerds tell about themselves: that to be a nerd is to be persecuted by the majority and that the best way to deal with that is to fight back hard. When people claim membership in a perceived underclass, the flip side of that can be a pervasive and unearned sense of entitlement. Feeling unfairly relegated to underdog status can make us feel like we have permission to do things that would just be labelled aggressive, oppressive and evil if someone a little bit cooler did them. When we see the jock in the film hit the ninety-pound weakling in glasses, we laugh and then feel bad. We also know that by the end of the film, glasses-guy is gonna get his revenge, and it’s going to be painful and humiliating for the jock. And we’re going to cheer like mad, and never think about whether we should be cheering for violence, domination, and humiliation at all, no matter who perpetrates it.
Often, part of this revenge narrative involves growing up. We’re told that when nerds get out of high school, their skills will be appreciated and may bring them great wealth and lots of hot sex. On top of that, no matter how many helicopter rides or lap dances they get, the nerd-culture narrative dictates that they are still entitled to their revenge against all those popular kids –the jocks and preppies that made the nerds’ lives hell by being happier than us in high school. Here’s the thing, though: when a smart kid gets picked on and finally humiliates the bully in class, we cheer. But when that kid grows up and doesn’t lose the chip on his shoulder, he becomes worse than a childhood bully. He becomes a force of real and lasting oppression in the world. Another version of the story we all love of the quiet kid who gets picked on, only to turn up at the high school reunion with the Porsche, is the version in which Ivy League students chant “That’s all right, that’s okay, you’re gonna work for us some day” while being outscored on the soccer field at UMASS Boston.
It’s not just class that’s at work in nerd surliness, either. A lot of geek culture recreates and reinforces existing poisonous hierarchies within new, and newly circumscribed spaces. If the immersive worlds of Internet gaming and the cosseted echo-chambers of message boards and Twitter feeds have shown us anything, it is that when we create augmented realities we too often fail to imagine ourselves into a place with better and more interesting social rules than the ones we already have in the real world. In fact, in nerd cultural artefacts from comic books to video games, women and minorities are relegated to even more marginal positions than we are forced to occupy in real life. When I was growing up, you could visit a warp zone by jumping into a green tube or fight and kill Bowser as Mario, but if you were a girl, all you could do was stand around and wave, waiting to be rescued.
And nerds don’t leave the sexism and racism in the world of comics and games. In 2010, when Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic, started a Kickstarter campaign to help her fund videos exploring the sexist and misogynist tropes in video games, she received death threats, rape threats, and massive amounts of mob-style harassment on the Internet. Other nerds used their nerd-skills to create a video game in which users punched an image of Sarkeesian over and over again, and “won” when she was black and blue and bloody. Chaka Cumberbatch, a black, female cosplayer dressed as Sailor Venus from the Sailor Moon anime series at an anime convention in Dallas, and her photograph went viral, inspiring comments such as “Nigger Venus” and “Sailor Venus Williams” to name a few. In anime, apparently, it is possible to bend the laws of physics, but not the old ideas about race. This kind of racism and misogyny are not just an incidental part of nerd culture, they are often integral to the origin story of the embattled and entitled nerd. In Revenge of the Nerds, the nerd Lewis dons a Darth Vader mask and pretends to be a popular jock named Stan. In this guise, he gets his revenge: he tricks Stan’s girlfriend into sleeping with him. That’s right: he has sex with her in a situation where she is unable to give informed consent. The nerd rapes the girl, and because the girl “belongs” to the jock, the audience cheers.
When a nerd’s sense of isolation and entitlement and unexamined misogyny in the larger world combines with mental illness, we get the mass slaughter of innocent people. Elliot Rodgers had the nerd narrative down pat. He wrote a manifesto about being an outsider unfairly kept from sex by jocks, preppies and other popular people in his high school and college. Mostly, he blamed women for not following the rest of the story we see over and over again in films about nerds: no woman in real life made him the protagonist in her story even though he wasn’t very interesting or very nice. No woman was ultimately won over by his nerdiness. No woman felt he had earned her body the way you earn points in a video game. Rodgers felt that he deserved to be loved, respected and sexually pleasured by women and felt that he was part of a class apart because he was still a virgin at twenty-two. He felt entitled to sex and when he couldn’t earn it by collecting coins he took up weapons. His story is nerd revenge gone horribly, horribly wrong. He vowed to kill all the women who wouldn’t have sex with him, saying that “They are all spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches. They think they are superior to me, and if I ever tried to ask one on a date, they would reject me cruelly.” He succeeded in killing six.
I’m not saying that nerds are more racist, sexist, homophobic or classist than other assholes. But I do think that nerd culture encourages the perpetration of oppression. Nerds chose to join a subculture that specializes in one thing. Many nerds spend as much time in their magic circle as they can, either because they are seeking there the acceptance they have trouble finding in the greater world or because within their hallowed grounds their rules obtain. When we learn a game, we seek mastery over it by learning and practicing the rules. That mastery is validated when we win. When the game becomes more than a game, when it becomes a signifier of our identity, this is problematic. Systems of play and entertainment are not substantial enough to support the whole of an individual or group’s identity formation. The point of life is not to simply master one part of it and then the next, using our skills to achieve dominance over others. Life is not a series of achievements to unlock, and we will be sad and isolated if we expect that others should validate us for gaining points in some area or another.
So what kind of nerd am I? Is it the fact that I haven’t been invited to roll dice in a basement this weekend but I have been invited to a poetry reading and a discussion of public transportation and its role in environmentalism the defining difference? Maybe I should try one more time to define my kind of nerd, this time by comparison instead of by contrast. Once, when I was volunteering at our local high school, we had a guest speaker who seemed to be my kind of nerd. The high school has been designated a failing school for more than ten years; its test scores are abysmal, the rate of teacher turnover sky high, and graduation rates stubbornly low. The students who attend are overwhelmingly poor young people of colour. The guest speaker was a young black woman who had published a book. She got up to speak and the students were riveted: she was enough like them to be familiar, and simultaneously different enough —attractive, well-dressed, college educated, published, and maybe twenty-three years old—to be alluring. As she spoke, telling her story, she kept using the word “weird.” It irritated me so much, and she did it so often, that I started keeping a tally instead of properly listening. By the end of her spiel I had something like forty ticks in my “weird” column, and I was visibly grinding my teeth. I had to ask myself why my anger was so disproportionate –this woman’s only crime was to volunteer to her time to speak to at-risk youth and to perpetrate a small, if annoying, verbal tic. I was angry because she had been brought in to speak to these students in large part because they were supposed to be able to identify with her, and in seeing her success, envision any number of bright paths and open possibilities for themselves. Her over-reliance on the word “weird” punctured that. Every time she said, “But I’m just weird,” they heard I’m different from you, and in hearing that from one more successful person, I imagine they thought, no shit. I know I can’t be like you. She pushed them away by insisting on her differentness, and limited their path the way other oppressors always had, just like nerds of another kind push people away by self-identifying as “geeks,” as “different.” And that pissed me off. And reminded me of my young self. There was a time when I proudly proclaimed, loudly and often, how “weird” I was. Partially, this was a transparent defence mechanism, one we are all familiar with: I was pre-emptively declaring myself something I thought others might use against me. I knew I couldn’t really fit in, at least not with the small, select crowd that, at age twelve, I thought ruled the world (or at least recess), and so I claimed that otherness as a badge of pride; I decided being “weird” was not just my fate, but my choice, and that it was the best choice. After a while, I really did love to think of myself that way. I was under the mistaken impression that it was my otherness that made me who I am, and that made me great. And it’s not a far leap from there to thinking that what makes me different from other people and apart from them, makes me better than them.
So am I that kind of nerd? The kind who is defined by writing books and wearing fashionable clothes like our guest speaker? No. Because what kind of nerd I am is not defined by what kind of clothes I wear or games I play or whether or not I write books. What makes me my kind of nerd is that I’m into everything. What makes me my kind of nerd is that I don’t use the stuff I like or the things I’m good at to isolate myself from or establish dominance over others. I stepped out of the magic circle and came to terms with the fact that my rules don’t always obtain and I am not going to master most things. I decided a long time ago that it’s not what we’re into –whether that be books or Boolean phrases or Balrogs—that defines what kind of nerd we are. This is the difference between that kind of nerd and my kind of nerd: that kind of nerd turns away from the multiple identities each of us wears in the meat world and defines himself instead by one thing that sets him apart. I no longer insist that it is what makes me different that makes me who I am. I made a choice not to be like that any more. It’s a much bigger world when we step out of our magic circles, and the way to have the most possible fun and do the most possible good in it is to realize that all of us, no matter who we are or what we’re into, are more alike than we are different. We should celebrate these differences, rather than using them as weapons against each other.