If you or someone you know may be headed to the San Diego Comic Con International and would like to help put a roof over my head, please email me. I basically just need a space to sleep for two nights, as I’ll be busy working during the day and not in town very long anyway. Also, if you help me, I will buy you a sandwich, because buying sandwiches for people is kind of my thing.
Yesterday, I wrote a post about Gizmodo readers commenting on Transformers costumes. I linked to Joachim Bengtsson, who commented to ask why people feel the need to qualify their praise of the elaborate costumes by declaring that the costume designers were really nerdy (not to mention that the video had been posted in Gizmodo’s “Too Much Free Time” category). And I wondered aloud: If there are tens of millions of self-identified geeks in the US alone, and if (it seems pretty safe to assume that) most of them aren’t doing cosplay, fan fiction, machinima, or the other super-involved activities that receive a disproportionate amount of attention among fan scholars but get derided as “too nerdy” by so many fans, then what are these geeks doing that’s so geeky? Well, I think I stumbled upon one way to find out.
While we won’t see the Revenge of the Nerds remake that commanded a giant space at last year’s San Diego Comic Con, that doesn’t mean there’s no market for movies about lovable losers. Case in point, Sydney White and the Seven Dorks hits theaters in 2008. (Link courtesy fellow Annenberger Emily Thorson.)
And finally, Keith sends me a photo of this weirdly adorably page from the Houston Chronicle. Fortunately, the paper’s website has the whole article on the LOLcats phenomenon online, kicked off with: “Computer geeks have their own niche in pop culture. Sometimes, something crazed from that niche escapes and runs rampant among the masses.”
The Washington Post has a recent article about parents, governments, and activists being concerned that kids don’t get enough time outdoors anymore. The Daily Mail has a somewhat similar article, addressing the psychological issues of nature deprivation, and the narrow range of space that children tend to roam outdoors.
These articles sound like they are about the same thing, but they read quite differently. The Washington Post article cites some research about kids’ diminished outdoor play time, and offers a lot of anecdotal evidence implicating modern media, especially video games:
[Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv’s] views have touched a nerveâ€”in an era when people tell stories of backyard play sets that are barely used and children who are so accustomed to playing video games that they use their thumbs to ring doorbells or dial phones.
The Daily Mail article also cites research about kids’ diminished outdoor time and its effects. That research, however, implicates parents, not media, for too much hand-holding and too little freedom:
[Speaking of her son, one mother] said: “He can go out in the crescent but he doesn’t tend to go out because the other children don’t. We put a bike in the car and go off to the country where we can all cycle together.
“It’s not just about time. Traffic is an important consideration, as is the fear of abduction, but I’m not sure whether that’s real or perceived.”
I don’t have any conclusions to offer; just wanted to offer something to think about.
It amazes me that nerds seem to be so ashamed of being nerds and of other nerds. Whenever we see anything wicked which happens to also be very nerdy, we always have to say, “What a nerd! But cool!”. I wonder what’s up with that.
Anyways. Very very cool.
Good to see I’m not the only one wondering about that kind of thing.
This kind of connects with something I’ve been thinking about lately: in 2005, the SciFi Geekforce Report (commissioned by the SciFi channel) suggested that 6.9 million people in the UK self-identified as geeks. (One of many summaries of the report can be found here.) That’s just over 10% of the UK’s current population, at least according to the first hit on Google for “UK Population.” If it’s roughly the same proportion in the US, we’re talking another 30 million geeks on this side of the pond alone.
Why is this related? Well, I feel like even if you add up everyone doing cosplay (like the Transformers people above), or machinima, or fan fiction, or any of the other things that fan studies scholars tend to celebrate in fan culture, you’re still not going to be anywhere close to the combined 37 million self-identified geeks in the US and UK. Consider, too, that only the most vocal minority of Gizmodo’s millions of readers actually bothers to leave a comment, and none of the comments left so far say anything to the effect of, “Good job! I like making costumes like this too.”
For me, this raises a question: if as many of tens of millions of people aren’t doing these things, what is it that they are doing that’s so “geeky”? (My tentative answer: they’re checking out links of “geekier” people on blogs and reassuring themselves that they’re geeky enough to be in awe, but not so geeky that they’d do this stuff themselves.
One kind of geek that I’ve not seen represented on geeky apparel websites is the band geekâ€”until now. J!NX has a band geek t-shirt amidst their dozens of shirts about computers, role-playing, and FPS gaming. And what’s the first comment by one of their members? “[Y’all] should mix muisc and computers together in a shirt for us computer and band geeks.” I guess that’s probably what you should expect your audience to say when you sell shirts over the internet.
When I interview people, one topic that often comes up is what interests are “too geeky” even for the self-identified geeks. Usually, it’s some form of role-playing gameâ€”massively multiplayer RPGs for some people, pen-and-paper/tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons for some of those who are comfortable with MMOs, and live action role-playing for most of those who will admit to having played D&D. As one of my interviewees said, “I have to be wary about what I admit to people I play.â€ I’ve often wondered what it will take to make the role-players feel like it’s okay to admit to what they do, or for other gamers and geeks (and heck, non-geeks too) to feel comfortable role-playing.
I see some signs that make me wonder whether this change is underway. The New York Times Magazine has a slideshow up of people with their online avatars, though I suppose it’s as easy to read it as “see, these are people too” as it is to read it as “weirdos are fascinating.” Also, a couple weeks ago, I noticed that the Newbury Comics CD/comics/kitsch store in Harvard Square was selling Dungeons & Dragons t-shirts. And I’m not just talking logo shirts here, though they had thoseâ€”they had a shirt with the art from the cover of the Dragonlance rulebook, which features a half-elven man with a sword and some demon thingie behind him. I’m not sure, however, if these are being sold/worn mostly as a retro/ironic thing or if the pervasiveness of games like World of Warcraft is finally making D&D seem more socially acceptable.
(And yes, I know enough about Dragonlance to tell you where the art came from and that one of the guys pictured in it is half-elven, but apparently not enough to tell you what the demon thingie is actually supposed to be called. I’m doing my best here, though.)
I realize that title may sound a little backwards, but I’m just a little disappointed that I can’t find a copy of The Geek Handbook at any of the academic libraries accessible through my school’s library site. I found the book by doing an Amazon search for geek culture, just to make sure I’m not missing anything I should be looking at in book form. I’ll probably just suck it up and buy this one, as I’m already fascinated by the range of user reviews:
Definative anthropological guide to geeks of all ages, June 15, 2000
Reviewer: A reader
This book is that rare and wonderful creation, a humor book that actually gives useful information about a sorely misunderstood segment of today’s population. Mikki Halpin addresses the issues that pervade life with a geek, but in a gentle and humorous way without ever sounding patronizing. Now that the geeks run the world, thank god there is miss halpin to show us how to thrive and survive through all of our geek interactions.
I realize we’re targeting slightly different markets here, but I’m not sure how comfortable I am competing with the definitive anthropological guide to geeks. I’m not even sure I’m allowed to be funny in a dissertation, which puts me at a distinct disadvantage.
I’m actively looking around for conventions that I should be attending, favoring those that actually bill themselves as “geeky” or “nerdy.” This leads me to Penguicon, a convention for science-fiction and open-source programming. The web site mentions geeks aplenty, but sadly Penguicon 2008 (in Troy, MI) isn’t until Aprilâ€”and if I haven’t finished collecting data by then, I’m in trouble. If anybody reading this has been before, feel free to comment or drop me an email to let me know how it was.
Game designer Pixelate (click to see all games by the user on Kongregate) has created a series of interactive game/essays called “Understanding Games,” inspired by Scott McCloud’s comic/essay, Understanding Comics. Four parts (one, two, three, four) have been uploaded to date, though I’m not sure whether more are planned.
The parts about gameplay and identification are most interesting to me. I’d particularly like to see how Pixelate might engage with the question of how games provide an opportunity for less rule-based sorts of play. When I play Apples to Apples with friends, for example, we’re not really playing by the main set of rules, which say that you win by offering nouns that match with a particular adjective. The “winner” is usually the one who is most inappropriate (like when a friend of a friend won a round by playing the “Helen Keller” card for the adjective “Visionary”).
Even when you change the rules of such a game, the objective defined by the rules is still quite different from the purpose, which is just to laugh and be social. Games can (and do) facilitate this as well, but formalists studying game enjoyment seem to prefer flow theory, occasionally to the exclusion of other analytical approaches. Not that this should be a criticism of “Understanding Games,” which may yet be a work in progress, but I worry sometimes that reductive formal analyses lead to fewer directions in innovation down the line. Scott McCloud has done wonders for comics as a medium, including inspiring formalist efforts among new creatorsâ€”but he hasn’t done any favors for the single-panel cartoon, which never made the cut for his definition of “comics” as “sequential art.”