A Geek’s Apology

Pardon the extra-long post.  I’m making up for my summer hiatus.  Actually, I wrote this back at the beginning of summer for a class in writing creative nonfiction, and I decided it should see the light of day somewhere.

I suppose everyone reaches a point when he or she wonders, “What am I doing with my life?”  I consider my four different gaming consoles (PS3, Wii, Gamecube, SNES) and the long list of games I want to buy when I finish one or two of the seven currently in progress.  Then there is my bookshelf, overflowing with titles such as A Distant Soil, The Silmarillion, American Gods, The Eye of Argon, TSUBASA: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE, Planet Narnia, Sandman.  Next to these is a case filled with my anime DVDs—over 60 of them.  I meet my friends once a week for Sci-Fi Sunday, when we watch X-Files, Dollhouse, and Battlestar Galactica.  On weekends, I go in costume to the Renaissance Faire.  The conclusion is inescapable: I am a geek.

I prefer the term geek to the alternative nerd.  Geek sounds cooler, more socially savvy, smarter, better dressed.  I hear the word nerd and think of the guy who’ll monopolize your attention at dinner with a dissertation on why the Star Wars original trilogy is better than the prequels, and whose entire wardrobe consists of jeans and video game/comic book/name that geeky franchise t-shirts.  Not that I am unconditionally opposed to geeky graphic tees—I just ordered another one before I sat down to write this—but it’s a problem when that’s the only thing in your closet.  While a geek may be seen wearing a t-shirt referencing his favorite TV show, he’s just as likely to wear a professional, button-down shirt or, in the case of the female geek—we are a growing demographic, you know—a pretty skirt and blouse.  I think the wardrobe difference between the nerds and the geeks says something about our relative senses of proportion.  The nerd doesn’t seem aware that it might ever be inappropriate to declare his love for The Simpsons or Super Mario Brothers via his wardrobe choices.  The well-adjusted geek, on the other hand, has a broader clothing vocabulary.  For example, I may choose my clothing to say, “I’m a Doctor Who fan!” or “I’m a mature young adult who understands and participates in social norms regulating situationally-appropriate attire.”

This brings me to a stereotype regarding geeks: that we are people who never fully matured, but are hiding away from reality in some juvenile fantasy-world.  I’ll admit, such can be the case.  I have known people so engrossed by a fantasy novel or TV series that they live more in their imaginations than in the real world.  “Grow up!” I want to tell them.  I have a similar urge towards the nerdy t-shirt squad, too.  The inability to understand context and proportion—regarding conventions in clothing, behavior, and conversation—does indeed bespeak a lack of maturity.  Yet I maintain it is this lack of social adaptability, rather than an interest in comic books or video games, which identifies the truly immature nerd.  The geek is someone who enjoys the imaginary world of Marvel superheroes or Halo battlefields, but knows, at the end of the day, that the real world—the world of family, friends, and job—is most important and the one she wants to live in.

Again, it comes down to proportion.  A sense of proportion is what separates the nerd who lives vicariously through his World of Warcraft character and even believes he is the character, from the geek who enjoys a weekend raid with his friends.  Proportion—and an ability to read the social dynamic—separates the nerd who won’t shut up till he’s quoted you the entirety of Monty Python and the Holy Grail from the geek who can make a well-timed Holy Hand Grenade joke.  Proportion separates the nerd who thinks her life would be better if she could magically transport herself to Middle-Earth from the geek who thinks her real life is more interesting because she can take an imaginative journey to Middle-Earth and back again.

Actually, that last nerd was me in high school.  As a teen, I don’t think I really had many reasons in my life to suffer angst, but like most kids my age, I wasn’t going to let that stop me.  I thought that I would be happier if I could trade my banal existence for a life of epic adventure and profound significance in Tolkien’s world.  I immersed myself in the histories of Middle-Earth, imagined the adventures of my elf alter-ego, Donisiliel, and even wrote fan fiction.  I’m embarrassed, now, when I look back on my desperately escapist daydreams.  But it turned out all right for me, in the end.  I learned that, while I could never actually live in Middle-Earth, many of the things I loved about that world could be enjoyed in the real world.  I could enjoy the tall trees and moonlight in my own backyard just as well as if I were in the Forest of Doriath.  I wasn’t fighting dragons or dark lords, but a term paper or a road trip—if viewed with a sense of imagination—could be just as much of an adventure.

I still love fantasy and sci-fi, not because I find my own life lacking, but because imagining other worlds is simply enjoyable.  For example, the Dresden Files books create a modern world where magic is real and rogue demons or werewolves present as much of a threat as gang violence in downtown Chicago.  The show Battlestar Galactica transports me to a future world where humanity’s battle for survival against a race of cyborgs serves as a backdrop for action and drama.  The Legend of Zelda games make me part of a world of magic and monsters, where the hero saves the day and rescues the princess.  I don’t want my life to become these stories.  I’m glad I don’t have to worry about vampire attacks or whether my best friends might turn out to be Cylon agents.  But it’s still fun to imagine a world where such things could be.  My friends and I sometimes like to joke about the real possibility of a zombie uprising or how that weird thumping in the air conditioner might be the stretchy man from X-Files who can crawl through ductwork.  We don’t think our lives would be more exciting if such things were true; we just like bringing our imaginations to bear on real life, too.

All the same, I don’t mean to say that there is no element of escapism to a geek’s interests.  For the guy with a sedate office job, it can be fun to imagine, for a few hours, that he’s in a war zone in Halo 3 or Call of Duty.  Personally, I find that smiting goblins and dragons is a nice contrast to term papers and reading assignments.  But really, this kind of escapism isn’t any different than the non-geek unwinding at night by reading a romance novel, or watching a sports game or TV show.  I think there is something healthy about being able to escape briefly from the stresses of life.  A few hours away from the world helps me regain the energy, focus, and interest to engage in it again when I do close my book or shut down my game console.

If a little escapism is healthy and normal, why is it that the geeks seem to fare worse in popular opinion than somebody who watches a football game or American Idol after work?  I suspect it may be that a ball game or a reality TV show seems to be rooted more in, well, reality than a science-fiction show or video game.  But allow me to suggest that this isn’t true.  Does watching a ball game serve any particularly practical purpose?  Or even though American Idol features real (non-fictional) people, isn’t the viewer participating in a fantasy world by cheering for a contestant whom she does not know and may never meet in person?

In fact, we geeks do share a lot of characteristics with the Common American Sports Fan.  Geeks sometimes cosplay (dress up in costume) as our favorite characters.  I’ve also seen sports fans dress up in costumes or strip to the waist and paint themselves in their team’s colors for the big game.  Geeks wear dorky t-shirts decorated with video game or cartoon characters.  I’ve seen just as many non-geeks wearing clothing emblazoned with the logos of their favorite sports teams.  Just as geeks may cultivate the ability to recall individual episode titles and plot synopses from our favorite TV shows, many sports fans could tell you the score and winning plays from a crucial game.  Geeks also tend to argue at length over the relative superiority of Marvel versus DC super heroes, or whether James Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard made a better starship captain.  But sports fans have similar arguments over subjects such as Brett Favre’s “defection” from the Green Bay Packers to the Minnesota Vikings or the rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.  My point is that geeky behavior really isn’t as unusual as it might seem.  I know there are also the sports fans who take their love past the boundaries of proportion and become sports nerds.  But even the well-adjusted sports fan may display the above behaviors at one time or another.  The truth is that despite their similarities, the sports fan is still considered a bit more normal than the sci-fi geek.

Perhaps the Brony phenomenon can shed some light on the geek stigma.  The term Brony (a portmanteau of the words bro and pony) refers to a male fan of the cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.  Strange, perhaps, that a TV show based on a toy line for little girls should have a significant young-adult male fan following.  Or perhaps not so strange, when you remember it’s a well-written show, with fully-developed characters, top-notch voice acting and animation, and humor that is genuinely funny.  Also genuinely funny was hearing one of my guy friends say “Twilight Sparkle is my favorite pony.”  Yes, I can freely admit there is something apparently ridiculous in hearing a college-graduate male express enjoyment of a cartoon show starring brightly colored ponies.  It’s just not as conventional as watching a football or baseball game.  Neither, it seems (though perhaps to a less hilariously dramatic degree) is it conventional for the mature adult to enjoy TV shows about alien spaceships, UFO-chasing FBI agents, or vampire hunters.  Just like MLP:FIM, these shows are well-written, imaginative, and intelligent.  But they’re just not what society expects serious, responsible adults to watch.  Such stigma isn’t any more fair than judging a guy for watching My Little Pony.  I have a number of Brony friends, and they’re all unquestionably masculine guys.  They just appreciate a fun TV show that isn’t specifically marketed to their demographic.  (Or is it?  There are enough geeky references in the show to convince me that MLP:FIM was written by a bunch of geeky folks.)

But that’s something I like about other geeks: they know what they like, and aren’t overly concerned with whether the rest of the world thinks it’s cool or not.  In fact, I’ll confess, we sometimes make our uncoolness a point of pride.  After all, we’ve appropriated the originally pejorative term geek as our title of honor.  This desire to fit in with others like us, yet at the same time stand out from the common crowd, is a basic human longing, and we geeks are only human, not—I promise!—alien robots (though that would be cool).  Doesn’t everybody want to feel like they’re inside the loop, appreciating something that the rest of the world just hasn’t caught on to?

While I’m generally unconcerned with how the world views my geekery, I will confess that there is one area in which I wish sci-fi and fantasy got more respect: academia.  As a graduate student in English literature, I love and appreciate the great authors—Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Flaubert, Dostoevsky.  But I also think that sci-fi and fantasy authors such as Tolkien, Lewis, Gaiman, McKillip, and Zelazny deserve academic recognition and respect for their art.  While the sci-fi and fantasy genres are relatively new, many of the accepted works in the great books canon already contain similarly fantastical elements.  Think of the gods and magic in the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.  Dante’s Divine Comedy could be considered a kind of theological fantasy.  Gulliver’s Travels, with its imaginary kingdoms of Lilliputians and talking horses, could easily be classified as sci-fi.  And George Orwell’s more recent classics, Animal Farm and 1984 are already considered part of the sci-fi canon.  Such books are proof that a story need not be strictly realistic to contain truth.  I maintain that academia shouldn’t dismiss my favorite genres simply because they contain magic or other imaginary elements, and I hope that, in future years, some of my favorite geeky authors will make it onto a syllabus or two.

In the end, I’m not worried about what my bookshelves or game systems say about me.  I’m content in my geekery.  And who’s going to judge me, anyway?  Most of my friends are geeks, too.  As I said, being a geek means knowing what I like.  I enjoy my games and my comic books and my weird sci-fi TV shows.  I also love my friends and my family and my studies.  I like visiting Narnia or a galaxy far, far away, but I’m glad I live in real-world, Texas.  I possess both imagination and a sense of proportion.  What am I doing with my life?  I’m living it—with geeky flair.

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11 thoughts on “A Geek’s Apology

  1. I love this. 🙂 It’s not just why I read fantasy–it’s part of why I write it.

    So, I have a friend who recently hosted an entirely academic conference on Harry Potter. In Scotland. At St. Andrew’s University. And while it’s true that he got some grumpf-mumph-mumble from old hat academics, he also had people turn out to give talks, read papers, and soak up the information.

    You can find me, and him, and a bunch of our friends, at TheHogsHead.org. Also, hogwartsprofessor.com.

    It’s catching on. Maybe the next generation won’t have to bewail the lack of attention for speculative fiction among academia. 😀

    • I studied in St Andrews for my term abroad a few years ago! Loved it. I suspect one might be able to find a significant geek element among some of the professors, if one knows where to look. Lots of old-hat academics, too, I’m sure, but I happen to know that Dr. Alex Woolf, Arthurian expert, is a big fan of Mary Stewart’s Merlin series.

      I personally think other fantasy books deserve far more academic attention than Harry Potter (LOTR, The Last Unicorn, Guy Gavriel Kay’s output, etc.), but there’s no doubting now the effect it has had on pop culture, and it deserves some study if only for that.

  2. I quibble over your definitions of “Geek” vs “Nerd!” The phrase “Geek out” probably influences me in my definitions. “Nerd” is the accepted title among my friends and I, holding the same meaning, for us, as “Geek” does for you. It’s funny, isn’t it, how people categorize terms like this? I will say that “Geek” is a nicer-sounding word than “Nerd” regardless of the images it conjures. 😉

    That said, apart from the optional word definitions, I completely agree with your post from beginning to end.

    • I understand what you’re saying about “geek” vs. “nerd.” I didn’t pick my terms arbitrarily; I have seen precedent for this same usage on the nerd blog (nerd being used in an intentionally self-deprecating way) I read and on other places on the internet. I’m not trying to say you’re wrong for using “nerd” in the same way I use “geek”–in fact, both terms were originally pejorative and have become self-applied terms of pride. I just wanted to say, I’m not the only one using the words like this.

      And if you like this sort of thing, here’s a handy Venn diagram:

      http://www.greatwhitesnark.com/2010/03/25/difference-between-nerd-dork-and-geek-explained-in-a-venn-diagram/

      I’m glad you like the rest of the essay. I realize that geekery is becoming a bit more mainstream now (see the Guild music video “Now I’m the One That’s Cool,” for instance). But I still think there is some lingering stigma. And what I was most trying to debunk in this essay is the idea that geeks are somehow less mature than non-geeks.

      • Oh, I didn’t think you were alone in your usage. It’s just that in my immediate circle the words are used differently.

        Yes, I think the lingering stigma won’t dissipate any time soon because the stigma of “genre fiction” is stronger than the stigma of “nerds/geeks.” Once that starts to fade a bit then we might get somewhere. Plus there are those, as the venn diagram notes, among the “nerd” community that are, indeed, very immature. As you point out, the non-nerd community has its share of immaturity, but they are a little harder to stereotype. 😛

    • I usually hear it said that the only people who care about a difference between geeks and nerds are geeks and nerds. +) Of course, the people who say that don’t tend to appreciate the finer points of genre stuff, but there is a certain point there. I don’t mind the term geek and will happily use it with pride for the benefit of others, but I also don’t necessarily love it. It’s just a term that can sometimes be descriptive of my interests. But sometimes it isn’t. For instance, all geeks are often assumed to love horror — I don’t; it’s rare for me to like a horror story. But on my own, I don’t necessarily think of myself as a geek. I just know what I like.

      Check out this article that just appeared on one of my favorite movie blogs. He’s talking about the public perception of superhero movies, and ends up touching on, well, “issues of geek identity,” as an academic might put it. It’s a good article.

      • I could also say, for example, that the only person to really care if she’s called a “figure skater” and not an “ice skater” would be the figure skater herself, but that doesn’t change the fact that “figure skater” is probably the better term. Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with you, but trying to say that what you choose to call yourself is still important to issues of self-identity, and therefore worth attention.

        I guess I embrace the term “geek.” The term is broad enough to cover most of my interests. At the same time, because the work “geek” could cover so many interests, it’s not necessary that I like every single geeky thing just for reasons of practicality. My geekery comes from the fact that most of my interests do fall into that venn diagram of geekdom, and it also means that I respect the geeky interests of others, even if they’re not things I’m personally passionate about (like superheroes, for example).

      • Aye, it does have some relevance for self-identity. As you also say, the term “geek” is actually quite broad. Some geek websites focus on technology rather than sci-fi and fantasy, while I’m definitely not a techie. The Geek Squad is a business that fixes computers and electronics for people — not the kind of geek that I am. Quite different, in fact. So it’s a loose, ill-defined term. I think most of us know what we mean by the term geek — that is, we have some sort of idea in our head involving a person who is greatly enthusiastic about some specific field — but it can be hard to put it in words. Of course, using the definition I just gave, we could call sports nuts “sports geeks” as well. They probably don’t think of themselves as geeks, but as you pointed out, they can be just as or even more obsessive about their sport and teams than we are about our literature, movies, and TV shows. There are some differences, though. You don’t hear about Star Wars fans and Trekkies getting into deadly fights after a film showing, whereas no one with a brain wants to be near the Oakland Coliseum when the Raiders are playing because it’s just too dangerous.

  3. A nicely written piece. Conceptually well-balanced, too. Also, some lines made me laugh right out loud. For example: “As a teen, I don’t think I really had many reasons in my life to suffer angst, but like most kids my age, I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”

    But the point about maturity is the one that I keep thinking about.

    Other points, like the laughable or moderately obsessive-compulsive things that sports fans do (going to events, wearing subculture-wardrobe, being a stickler about details, being pedantic, and so on)–points like these interest me, too, but they do so more so BECAUSE of that point about maturity. Maybe one can put it this way: geeks are laughed-at for doing these things, sports fans are laughed-with.

    I do not know if that distinction holds up under scrutiny, but I should say about maturity: how much does a person have to continue to be childlike in order to grow into maturity (and through maturity into a beautiful seniority)?

    Some, I think, so maybe the better question is this: how much do geeky things let a person continue to be childlike?–I mean, (1) in their own right, just by reading or watching them or what have you, and (2) in their effects, by disposing a person to see the fantastic in the mundane, “the other world” in “this world?”

    Too much, not enough, or the Gold-i-lock’ean mean (so to speak)?

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