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.