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.