Hauling Down the Freak Flag

Last week, PAX East came up again as part of the ongoing arguments to define what gamer culture is and should be. As someone who is often guilty of bouncing between being a snob or a borderline otaku, however, I came away with mixed feelings.

See, I agree with this Paste piece from Garrett Martin:

I play and write about games because I enjoy them and am fascinated by the ideas behind them. I don't use this hobby as a one-stop identity shop. I am sure the vast majority of PAX attendees engage fully and thoughtfully with the wider culture, but after walking the floor of PAX East it's easy to view them all as blinkered obsessives who think Chrono Trigger is man's greatest work of art.

...To enjoy PAX you can't just have an interest in games. You can't merely be a person who has liked games for thirty years, who likes them enough to write about them for very little money. Genuinely loving games isn't even enough. You have to love the idea of loving games. You have to listen to music about games and tell jokes about games and dress like characters from games. You must completely obsess over games until you forget how to relate to people in any other way.

I also agree with this response from Alex Raymond:

Does the author of this piece really not understand that fans who go to game conventions actually don’t live, eat, and breathe video games? And that this is, in fact, why they go to conventions? The scolding about not being obsessed with games is completely ridiculous. His job is games. ....The fact that people who go to PAX have lives outside of games is also the very reason they can seem so intense: this is their only chance out of the entire year to be immersed in the game industry, to meet other gamers, play tons of games, and maybe even meet some of the people who make the games they love, so yeah, people go overboard with the geekiness.

...The thing about how it’s cool to be a nerd now is a total lie, and it always has been. It’s cool to like Star Wars and video games, and be socially awkward in a cute and endearing sort of way. ...It’s not cool to be the sort of nerd who isn’t Hollywood-attractive, who is actually socially awkward in an awkward and uncomfortable way, the sort of nerd who can’t make small talk and takes things too literally and obsesses over things no one but other nerds care about (in case it’s not clear, I am describing myself here). So it makes me pretty angry when someone who perhaps self-identifies as a nerd but is a cool nerd comes into a space with non-cool nerds and tells those nerds to stop being so nerdy, already.

Raymond's response is titled "Contempt for Your Audience," which inadvertently highlights the source of the culture clash on display here. I don't for a moment believe that Martin is writing about his audience here. If he's anything like me, his imaginary reader is probably not jamming to MC Frontalot on her morning commute, or working out which costume he's going to wear to the next convention. The problem is that PAX brings together people who think they share the same passion, who believe they are all part of a collective culture that they have defined individually. Then they encounter each other for three days in lines, in restaurants, in panels, and in game rooms and discover something intensely alienating: they can't stand each other.

We know this already, of course. The fastest way to get sick of talking about videogames is to start writing about them, because it puts you touch with so many people who ostensibly share your interests yet relate to them in a completely different way. While Martin admits up-front that most PAXers are not the people he is describing here, PAX can be overwhelming the way it panders to enthusiasts who seem to have slipped over the edge into "blinkered obsession." When gamers meet Gamers, the people who have embraced not just a hobby but an identity, it's not hard to see why they react with revulsion. It's easy to encounter an extreme version of yourself and feel that it is somehow twisted and distorted, that it is the evil that you have successfully avoided thanks to moderation.

I really don't think there's a cabal of "cool nerds" who are going around looking for subcultures to disdain, it's just that you get hit with those alienating missed connections constantly when you find yourself stranded in the patchwork that we mistakenly call "gamer culture." It happens when I try to move a conversation away from nerd commonplaces and get a blank look in response, or when someone finds out what I do and takes that as invitation to monologue about what he thinks of every game ever, and somehow it still all comes back to Sonic or Final Fantasy. It happens when the air gets sucked out of a good Q&A by the halting, awkward questioner who doesn't have a question at all. He just wants to tell these game designers... something. He's not sure what, but he wants to make some kind of connection and he's going to clutch that mike and gasp into it until he feels one.

Those are the moments when I no longer feel like I'm at a celebration of games and the friendships they've helped forge, but just a witness to revelry in celebration of a stunted worldview. And it's not because my friends are like that, or most of the strangers I meet at PAX are like that. It's just because at PAX I think I can see stereotypes I've always hated come to life.

But as Raymond points out, those are my stereotypes, and have little to do with the reality of PAX. It's easy to look around PAX and feel lost amidst the costumes and clamor, but just because people look as if they are game-crazy doesn't mean their relationships to their hobbies are any less healthy than my own. At PAX you see people on a break from their everyday life, embracing a part of themselves they might not get to access very often. You don't really know them, or what this means to them. It's a mistake, a cruel one, to use other people's enjoyment to frame them according to your own preconceptions. One reason we have things like PAX is because gamers spent so long feeling like their favorite hobby somehow "othered" them, and now we come together so we can do it to each other.

But nerd culture will continue to be contested space until we finally admit that the term is so broad as to be meaningless. Because nerd culture isn't just about our hobbies, but the baggage we carry from earlier lives. It's our defensiveness and sense of separation that led us to define ourselves as nerds, and that is what drives the culture wars here in Nerdistan. I come to a convention and instead of kindred spirits, I find people I've always imagined I disdain or resent. There is my freshman year roommate or, worse, self, who covered every surface in anime wall scrolls and wanted to go kimono shopping. There's the guy who would talk with me for hours about Quake 3 maps and EverQuest zones, and then acted like a stranger when he was with his "normal" friends. I find the people who made me feel bad about what I like, and who I am. But that's only because there is a part of me still looking over one shoulder, afraid to find someone judging me.

Comments

I am not certain what you think my position is, but it's not this.
I did quote and then go into a more general rant, but I was replying to Garrett's article. I feel like his article is most definitely beating up on people because they make him uncomfortable. I didn't really get that from your post.

I did feel like the concert analogy was pretty out there, even replying to Switchbreak's comment. Guys who are at concerts in ridiculous getups and are there to enjoy the show aren't any better/worse than the guys in the back too cool to be enthusiastic about any of it. The guy that has to be restrained by security isn't analogous to a cosplayer at PAX. It's analogous to a cosplayer that goes around hitting strangers who aren't LARPing with a foam sword. He would also get bounced at PAX.

Pyroman[FO]:

I'd go further than that. It's clear that Garrett is beating up on PAX nerds who make him feel uncomfortable. Why do they do they make him feel uncomfortable, but the sports guys who wear outrageous costumes to games, don't (or at least aren't referred to when the similarities between the two behaviors are so striking)?

There are game nuts who live their lives around D&D, but there are also baseball nuts who live their lives around watching (not playing) professional baseball. Same behavior, different targets, but Garrett is singling out the guys who attend PAX as the ones who are embarrassing him.

Gaming though? Isn't gaming...too diverse to have certain music associated with it and not others?
Yes, completely. Because gaming is too big to have a culture at all. This is a facet of nerd culture, not gaming. These bands are nerd/gaming bands. In some ways they're even subsets of that.

Not to get too pretentious here, but the internet is causing American monoculture to fracture into 1000 pieces. We can try to say "well these things shouldn't happen at gaming conventions" as if gaming conventions were one monolithic thing, but it doesn't make any sense. There's hundreds of subcultures all going on at PAX, each with their own activities and adherents. That's part of why it's great. And one group is "nerdcore fans" and one group is "pen and paper RPG fans" etc. etc.

Having a concert for the nerdcore fans in no way detracts from the other subgroups enjoying their thing as well. There was a Starcraft 2 tournament commentated by Day[9] that I would've loved to see. But I was playing a pen and paper RPG in the main hall. Before that I was at the GWJ Slap and Tickle. I also went to a Protomen concert, and loved it. Many facets, same guy. I'm not limited by any of them, nor do I think they limit me.

Are there people who are limited to these activities? Yeah. But I'd contend they're limited first, then they find a place to hide where they're accepted. Does telling them to "get a life" help them come out of their shell, or drive them further in? I think that's my main problem with this approach. Trying to take things away from people that they enjoy isn't helping them, because the problem was never their hobbies.

Switchbreak wrote:
bombsfall wrote:
Nerd and Hipster need to duke it out for the title of "least useful ubiquitous cultural descriptor".

bombsfall, I've said it before but I think I love you.


+1

Rob, this is another great piece.

I've found that all sorts of people take all sorts of things too seriously, and that can make the subject seem a little frightening or unfun. You don't even need to go to PAX to encounter it, it can be at your local GameSretailer or, as was brought up, sporting event, concert, political rally, etc. But there's someone out there for everyone, so it's nice that conventions and arenas exist so that like-minded people can get together and share their passions, while other folks just take it in on the easy or enjoy it in moderation.

I also don't appreciate being labeled but that's hardly a sentiment limited to me.

And now you all know why I am secretly building an army of robots to destroy all humanity.

Wait... did I just tell you about the secret army of human destroying robots?

Damnit! Well, maybe I could train a secret army of rat people...

DAMN!

Disclaimer: I am in the midst of a life-long battle to be less of a judgmental a-hole, and I'm probably losing.

That said, the reason I cringe when I hear a gaggle of nerds shouting "NI!" at strangers is because I, for one, wielded my nerdiness as a cudgel against potential aggressors in my youth. When you're a weakling and a coward, you can't pick on people for being weak or wimpy - you have to use your strengths, and for some, their only strength is their encyclopedic knowledge of British sketch comedy or their preternatural ability to solve game tapes.

When you're telling elderly co-workers that "the cake is a lie," on Susan From Accounting's birthday, I feel like their bemused expression indicates that they know they're not in on the joke; you're excluding anyone who's not a nerd, the same way you were presumably excluded because you were a nerd when you were a kid. I think I'm wrong, I'm probably projecting, but I feel how I feel, and I feel that über-nerds are just as exclusionary as any pretentious record-store douchebag or cartoonishly archetypical bully-jock.

...

Also, I have a Grinchian aversion to noise, and nerds always seem to be SHOUTING! What's that about?

[Off-Topic]The Advantage is way better than The Protomen.[/Off-Topic]

A PAX attendee judging his fellow game nerd attendees seems analogous to a dude turning up at an S&M convention and shunning all the gimps, safe in the knowledge that his own studded leather jockstrap is concealed tastefully beneath his suit trousers.

That said, it's not a bad idea to shun and ridicule nerds. It's for you're own safety; it keeps people like me at arms length

Rob: As always, I envy the quality of your writing about games. I also appreciate your commentary, in particular your comment that "It's our defensiveness and sense of separation that led us to define ourselves as nerds, and that is what drives the culture wars here in Nerdistan."

Having read this, I should note that my first response to your article and this thread was to get defensive about cosplay. I am not a cosplayer myself, but my fiancee has been known to throw a costume together for a convention. We are both attorneys, and during the work week we (a) have to wear suits every day and (b) are expected to keep anything "nerdy" about our lives to ourselves. As Alex Raymond points out, this closeting effect is not one that everyone sees. Some of us want to go out and have fun at a con - including dress up.

So, as you say, "It's a mistake, a cruel one, to use other people's enjoyment to frame them according to your own preconceptions." I think that is spot on. You don't have to like all of the people at a Con (I know that I don't), but assuming that the person wearing a costume is some off the deep end uber-nerd with no social skills and a miserable lonely life only relating to his/her videogames is a problem.

Enough defensiveness. I enjoyed the article. I think that this point: "There's the guy who would talk with me for hours about Quake 3 maps and EverQuest zones, and then acted like a stranger when he was with his 'normal' friends," is worth exploring in more depth. I feel like a lot of gamers are closeted in this respect, and that may produce a lot of the convention behavior that Mr. Martin finds so off-putting.

MeatMan wrote:
Switchbreak wrote:
bombsfall wrote:
Nerd and Hipster need to duke it out for the title of "least useful ubiquitous cultural descriptor".

bombsfall, I've said it before but I think I love you.


+1

I hated labels before it was cool.
HaciendaSquish wrote:
Disclaimer: I am in the midst of a life-long battle to be less of a judgmental a-hole, and I'm probably losing.
That's a war I'm in, too. My judgmental nature is toward the top of my list of vices.

TheHipGamer wrote:

How do you tell when someone has gone too far in their hobby?

I'm not the arbiter of what "too far" means. ..."Hey, I like X, but there's a point at which X ceases to be a hobby and becomes creepy and definitional. I don't want to cross that line, and I'm uncomfortable around people who have."

I think this line is pretty easy to define, at least of me. It's when a hobby or a game or a band ceases to become fun and starts to become important. That's not to say that you can't have things of artistic merit, but even things of artistic merit are just that.

But I think much of this misses the point. You don't know that they guy in the Big Daddy suit is taking it too seriously. Maybe he really likes making costumes - it's fun, and he gets to show off his work. Exhibitionism of other kinds isn't due to the games - it's due to exhibitionism. I suspect I would not be freaked out at all by the cosplayer's enthusiasm for the character, but I would be very freaked out by their willingness to jump around in public.

Rob, you've done a great job here drawing out the ambivalence some of us feel about events like PAX. I'm with you that both Garrett and Alex have salient points.

I think one big issue here is representation. Debates about which music or apparel or language or behaviors truly "represent" gamer culture, a label which is nebulous at best, are guaranteed to be unresolvable. I think we can all agree on that. Yet PAX in particular is very concerned with being an event that encourages people to fly their freak flags, to stand up and be counted. So when you see something that doesn't jive with your perception of "who you are" in this culture, a natural tension manifests. Things get even trickier when you consider an outsider's perception; there's a justifiable fear among non-cosplayers that they will be automatically identified as the same as the dude dressed up as Chun-Li.

For me, and I suspect many others, PAX can be overwhelming. It's a giant physical space crammed with tens of thousands of exuberant people of various ages and interests. Add to that the massive marketing presence—the constantly blinking lights and booming speakers—and it's easy to develop a sort of agoraphobia. It's also a very teenager-friendly event, which is a terrific thing for kids who need and deserve that kind of experience, but can understandably lead to a sense of discomfort or embarrassment or whatever among adults, particularly people attending the event in a professional capacity. That's what I think Garrett was trying to articulate, although he may have done so in an off-putting way.

Amoebic wrote:
I don't know what changed, but the older I get, the less the opinions of others matter. Maybe because I've had more time to be exposed to the idea that someone somewhere out there thinks I'm awesome and amazing ...

FTFY

PyromanFO wrote:
Not to get too pretentious here, but the internet is causing American monoculture to fracture into 1000 pieces.

There never was an American monoculture. What the internet has done is let sub-cultures recognize and communicate despite their separate geography.

In the same vein, PAX is not a monoculture.

I was into the punk scene for a big part of the '90s. Not everyone spiked or 'hawked their hair (pro tip: use eggs or Elmer's glue), and not everyone wore full two-tone or spikes or ratty demin covered in band-logo patches. Just about everyone, though, seemed to engage in the pre-show judge-o-thon. Every outward appearance, band merch, nation of clothing origin, and even place in line was cause to judge each other. I stuck mostly to ratty denim and rattier, undersized t-shirts, but was certainly told to my face every few months that I wasn't "real punk." But I was a high schooler, punk rocker, and anarchist, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I told those punkbros to screw off and stop trying to impose their hierarchies on me.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
PyromanFO wrote:
Not to get too pretentious here, but the internet is causing American monoculture to fracture into 1000 pieces.

There never was an American monoculture. What the internet has done is let sub-cultures recognize and communicate despite their separate geography.

In the same vein, PAX is not a monoculture.

The nemeslut should know. After all he's done, he's still yet to catch mono at PAX.

I'm just impressed there's a place where you can get so many nerds together in one space they can all start deconstructing whether they're the right kind of nerd or not.

wordsmythe wrote:
The nemeslut should know. After all he's done, he's still yet to catch mono at PAX.

I did catch swine flu in aught-nine though. IMAGE(http://rps.net/QS/Images/Smilies/fever.gif)

Maq wrote:
I'm just impressed there's a place where you can get so many [ingroup] together in one space they can all start deconstructing whether they're the right kind of [ingroup] or not.

Seriously, it's pretty universal.

I've never gone to a game convention, but I like the idea of escaping into a festival of a certain culture. After all, I've spent time at various Grateful Dead shows, worn leathers and rode my bike at BMW owner rallies, Put on flannel and boots for a variety of grunge shows in the early 90s, worn black and carried a sketch book on Thursdays (free days) at the Art Institute, and enjoyed various other celebrations of cultural niches.

I'm sure most of the other people there were dressed differently than they do for work the rest of the year.

I have a feeling that we'll all learn that whatever niche we've decided is ours, when viewed from a distance, it isn't that different than the rest of them. I doubt a sociologist or an anthropologist could find that many significant differences between gamer culture and other groups. (Football fans, Sororities, Country Clubs, Swingers, what have you.) We're humans, we find comfortable niches and then celebrate them with festivals.

We're gamers. It's AWESOME being a gamer and worthy of being celebrated, but it isn't special, unusual, or better than the Film Society, the Trekkers, or the Morris Dancing Circuit.

Oso:

Thank you. I guess Rob's suggestion that our identity as nerds is founded on defensiveness and ostracism isn't as universal as originally suggested. I was about to turn in my nerd ID.

Maybe the primary difference is that things never get old to this type of obsessed fan. Yes, I liked Portal a lot. No, I don't want to hear you sing Still Alive or talk about the truth value of certain desserts here and now in 2011. Yes, I have played Super Mario Bros. No, I don't want to join you in attempting to sing the theme song whenever you see two people wearing red and green, respectively, in public. Yes, I like the Metal Gear Solid games very much. No, I'm not going to laugh when you say "Snake? Snake?! SNAAAAAKE!" at any given opportunity.

It's also a very teenager-friendly event, which is a terrific thing for kids who need and deserve that kind of experience, but can understandably lead to a sense of discomfort or embarrassment or whatever among adults, particularly people attending the event in a professional capacity.

This resonates strongly here. I enjoy the escapism of PAX, but at nearly 30, I think I'd be just as happy hanging out and playing board and video games with my friends as I am shouting to hear them in an airplane hanger full of vendors and "fellow geeks".

UnclGhost wrote:
"Snake? Snake?! SNAAAAAKE!"

Heh.

UnclGhost wrote:
"Snake? Snake?! SNAAAAAKE!"

hahahahaha~ using an indoor voice, that gets me every time.

EDIT: OH wordsmythe... Super-Awesome-Handsome-Tron is GO!

TheHipGamer wrote:
It's also a very teenager-friendly event, which is a terrific thing for kids who need and deserve that kind of experience, but can understandably lead to a sense of discomfort or embarrassment or whatever among adults, particularly people attending the event in a professional capacity.

This resonates strongly here. I enjoy the escapism of PAX, but at nearly 30, I think I'd be just as happy hanging out and playing board and video games with my friends as I am shouting to hear them in an airplane hanger full of vendors and "fellow geeks".

Abso-freaking-lutely.

This is the main reason that I got hooked into Enforcing - I would have given my left ball for this kind of event when I was that socially-awkward, introverted teenager that PAX provides a playground for.

The flip side of that is that the Enforcers tend to be a self-selecting group of uber-nerds. As a balding mid-thirties dude with large, but crucially not identity-defining, nerd tendencies, it feels a little like I'm the creepy uncle hanging out with the nerd-kids.

It's telling that meeting up with Goodjers when at PAX feels like I've escaped the nerd cage and am back out in the wild amongst real people.

That's right, you lot feel normal compared to PAX.

I am going to PAX this year because I am 36, have two kids and an overwhelmingly awesome but busy job. I CRAVE three days where I can hang out with my wife and some of my friends, play games, listen to a few panels, and even grab a beer or ten with the hooligans of GWJ.

It's a convenient little escape shuttle that's heavily themed around one of my favorite hobbies. I go because we had fun last year, and I anticipate having fun again this year. I am not going because I feel a need to display, adopt or participate in a particular culture.

EDIT: This makes me curious about how people see their own engagement in our niche community of gamers here at GWJ. From what I can see, we pretty regularly look down at other online communities as being juvenile, immature, or similar pejoratives. How do others view us? Are there people who look at things like IGWJ Day and scoff? Probably. Some are probably from our own community.

While I'm interested in this topic and have been following the thread with great interest, I've tried to stay out of adding my 2c. Pyroman has said most of what I would want to write, which helps me pass off some of the anxiety the topic is causing me. But someone has said something that is just plain wrong, and it would be horribly unfair to the community to let this kind of misinformation stand unchallenged.

wordsmythe wrote:
Not everyone spiked or 'hawked their hair (pro tip: use eggs or Elmer's glue)

Knox Gelatin is the best choice.

burntham77 wrote:
So in summation:

IMAGE(http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_PCmBBmkUYsg/Srko3UJiyBI/AAAAAAAAAUA/2LkhChffjug/s400/nerds.jpg)

IMAGE(http://i.imgur.com/jR9IL.jpg)

louis skolnick wrote:
THERE'S ALOT MORE OF US THAN THERE ARE OF YOU!

At least I'm not a board gamer! Those are the real losers!

Spoiler:
I kid. In fact, my goal next time I go to PAX is to focus as much time as I can on playing board games with Goodjers. I really regret missing out on what seemed like a great social event in Boston.

I think a lot of people are taking this stuff way too serious. My daughter brought a friend with her to PAX, and on the first day they spent a lot of time making fun of people wearing costumes.

that night, after actually getting a good feel for PAX, they proceeded to make costumes for themselves. My daughter was a Pokemon Ranger and her friend was a Pikachu. So instead of taking photos of gamer nerds to make fun of, they spent the day getting their pictures taken by folks who though they were awesome.

To be fair, my daughter is a big fan of dressing up, having done so for the release of Harry Potter books and films and other stuff. But her friend actually kind of learned what might be fun about it, and they had a blast.

I'm glad they just decided to have fun and stop worrying about being judgmental.

HedgeWizard wrote:
EDIT: This makes me curious about how people see their own engagement in our niche community of gamers here at GWJ. From what I can see, we pretty regularly look down at other online communities as being juvenile, immature, or similar pejoratives. How do others view us? Are there people who look at things like IGWJ Day and scoff? Probably. Some are probably from our own community.

IMAGE(http://i.imgur.com/LftJe.jpg)

In all seriousness though, as a primarily console gamer, there is definitely a lot of sniffing of noses from the PC crowd. In general it doesn't bother me - to each their own - but it does stink of hypocrisy when a group that tends to hold themselves to a higher level of maturity and thoughtfulness will stoop down to generalizations and whatnot.