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'm not a hardcore gamer, or consider gaming or nerdiness an intrinsic part of my being. I can see it as something I can identify with on a tangential level, as I might in regards to things like weightlifting, reading, or sculpture. If there were weightlifting or art conventions as big, cheap, and fun as PAX in my backyard, I'd probably go to those, too.

Two things struck me with the first article:

1. PAX is largely spent...waiting in lines? Everywhere? Is this a EAST phenomenon, or is this also something at PRIME that I just didn't notice because I was too busy doing other things like not wasting my time waiting in line for things?

2. Not to get all geek-meta, but the tone reminded me of this:
IMAGE(http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v243/Liolai/rock_band.png)
Stop having fun, you guys. You're doing it wrong.

In regards to the second article: Spot on.

As for Rob's commentary; It seems to me that no matter where you go, no matter what you're doing, as cool or as nerdy as it may be, someone will judge you negatively for it. I identify so much with the constant shoulder-checking to see if someone else is watching and weighing. 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 pathetic and I suck (if they even acknowledge me at all). Armed with that as a constant, it's hard to maintain concern about the negative and judgmental opinions of others.

I have to wonder if that's the rub, for some. That there are people out there enjoying themselves doing geeky, nerdy, uncool things and have the audacity to not realize or care that others may think less of them for it.

Also, I know a sick rhyme when I hear it. Less hate for the Frontalot, please. Zacny, stop riding the bus with me on my way to work every morning.

kincher skolfax wrote:

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.

I think this characterizes exactly how I feel about the whole thing. Dressing up as a game character is not something I would ever do (hell, wearing a game T-Shirt in public is not something I would ever do, but that's me and my own personal taste), but I have to say I have more respect for the guy who was there as Chun-Li than I do for any of the people who felt bad for being seen near him. I mean, he got up in the morning, put on his dress, combed his beard and went out and had a fun f*cking day. The guy who wrote that article sounds like he spent the whole time making himself miserable by worrying about how much better he was than all the people around him and hoping no one would think he was one of them.

Gravey wrote:

Knox Gelatin is the best choice.

Backed. Hard.

I've been trying to formulate a response since this article went up. I read the original Paste piece, thought it was an interesting perspective, then promptly forgot about it. It didn't occur to me that someone would find something there to take offense at.

The follow up clearly demonstrates I was wrong about that, and I have to wonder at the defensiveness of the tone.

I don't self identify as a nerd. Now I hang around on the internet and talk about videogames, so doubtless I am one, and a gamer too, although I don't self identify as that either. But I don't get the fervour with which people label themselves, and cling to and defend the labels.

When I was in high school we shunned labels. I know with retrospect that we were like Stan in Southpark when he became a Goth, "To be a non-conformist you have to wear black" but if we were told we were goths we would say deny that, if we were told we were metalheads we would deny that. Now I'm older I will shrug and brush off a label, I don't care enough to even deny one.

I think the defensiveness comes from people binding their identities tightly to their labels, and I don't think it's healthy for a person to do that, no matter what the label is. I don't see why an adult would take offense at their subgroup being dismissed by someone who doesn't get it.

nel e nel wrote:
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.

Sorry, a bit of a diversion but that's popped up a few times in the last couple of days and it genuinely confuses me. How does the population of an Xbox 360 dominated forum look down on consoles?

I know I make 'PC gaming master race' comments occasionally, as do others but it's always tongue in cheek. Sometimes a PC version of a game is better because of higher definition graphics or mod support, sometimes a PC version is a sh*tty console port, I don't think it's 'sniffing down the nose' to point out if a particular version is better. And let's not forget that PC gamers are often left out in the cold with a lot of cool titles.

Of course, some people are going to be platform loyal, I just don't think it's as widespread as it's made out to be.

I'm not intending to be antagonistic or anything at all here. I know I often read a tone in something that's not intended, so I wonder if something similar is happening here.

I suppose I can forgive an Entourage screen on the front page...but it'll be hard.

wordsmythe wrote:
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.

You misunderstand. I'm aware this happens with subcultures all the time, hell I've joined in, I've just never seen nerds reach that kind of critical mass before. PAX may be old hat to a lot of you but I've never seen the like of it before and I suspect a lot of the attendees hadn't either. That's a rare excuse to roll around in the heady musk of something the rest of your colleagues and family reckon stinks.

Gravey wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

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

Knox Gelatin is the best choice.

wordsmythe wrote:

No! You are stupid and wrong!

EDIT: Powdered Jell-O is fine as a way of temporarily coloring your hair, but it's less effective at holding up a foot-tall mohawk.

It all sounds like a round about realization or denial of:

We all have a need to feel we belong
In order to be certain that you belong, you need to classify those who don't
In every social circle there is social ordering; in order to feel significant in that circle you need to be certain that you are better than or stand out from the others.

Ghostship wrote:

It all sounds like a round about realization or denial of:

We all have a need to feel we belong
In order to be certain that you belong, you need to classify those who don't
In every social circle there is social ordering; in order to feel significant in that circle you need to be certain that you are better than or stand out from the others.

Yep. Standard ingroup behavior.

I also forgot to say, nice play on the Raider Fan pic. That toally put cosplay into perspective. I'm just no longer sure whether it's changed my outlook on cosplayers, or Raider Fan.

I also latched onto the discussion about whether or not it's appropriate to cosplay at a convention, or if you can be normal and a cosplayer too. Personally, it's not in my repitoire, but having a festival where you can go bananas and throw the social norms to the wind, isn't something unique to geek, nerd or gamer culture. Sunday NFL is weekely for goodness sake. Burning Man? The mexican day of the dead thing. I'm struggling here to find examples. I bet throughout history and across cultures they're innumerable.

If I could find a well-made fantasy costume I could tolerate, and didn't cost an arm and a leg, I'd cosplay, too. I won't buy any elven cloak that's not at least as good as a Columbia, dammit. It's supposed to be better.

wordsmythe wrote:
Gravey wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

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

Knox Gelatin is the best choice.

wordsmythe wrote:

No! You are stupid and wrong!

EDIT: Powdered Jell-O is fine as a way of temporarily coloring your hair, but it's less effective at holding up a foot-tall mohawk.

I never tried Jell-O, but I know that the first time I used Knox I didn't have to worry about my hair for a month. Sometimes I wish I had pictures. Most of the time I'm glad I don't.

This guy failed. Batman doesn't sweat!
IMAGE(http://msnbcmedia3.msn.com/j/MSNBC/Sections/NEWS/A_U.S.%20news/Weird%20news/Petoskey%20Batman.grid-7x2.jpg)

MrDeVil909 wrote:

Sorry, a bit of a diversion but that's popped up a few times in the last couple of days and it genuinely confuses me. How does the population of an Xbox 360 dominated forum look down on consoles?

I'd say that this forum is pretty evenly populated with all gaming formats. I mean, when was the last Xbox Team Fortress thread around?

MrDeVil909 wrote:

I know I make 'PC gaming master race' comments occasionally, as do others but it's always tongue in cheek. Sometimes a PC version of a game is better because of higher definition graphics or mod support, sometimes a PC version is a sh*tty console port, I don't think it's 'sniffing down the nose' to point out if a particular version is better. And let's not forget that PC gamers are often left out in the cold with a lot of cool titles.

Of course, some people are going to be platform loyal, I just don't think it's as widespread as it's made out to be.

I'm not intending to be antagonistic or anything at all here. I know I often read a tone in something that's not intended, so I wonder if something similar is happening here.

Yeah, I agree with all of this. I know that alot of it is tongue in cheek, and that some of us probably project a more haughty tone onto comments than what the writer intended. I guess it's a case of 'if you hear it enough, you start to believe it' to an extent as well.

When it really comes down to it, when Skynet goes online we will all have to bow to our robot overlords.

nel e nel wrote:
MrDeVil909 wrote:

Sorry, a bit of a diversion but that's popped up a few times in the last couple of days and it genuinely confuses me. How does the population of an Xbox 360 dominated forum look down on consoles?

I'd say that this forum is pretty evenly populated with all gaming formats. I mean, when was the last Xbox Team Fortress thread around?

Depends on the game and a few other factors, I understand that the 360 Orange Box was simply not very good and hasn't been nearly as well supported as the PC version, thanks partly to MS.

Initial pick up on a game usually seems to be on the 360 while PC guys get to most games later. Using NFS:Hot Pursuit as an example most people playing at release were on the 360, but now it's had a Steam sale the PC population has jumped big time.

I'd say that for multi-platform titles more than half of GWJ goes 360 before anything else, sales push PC numbers right up and skews perceptions a little, especially if you pick up the console version later.

nel e nel wrote:

Yeah, I agree with all of this. I know that alot of it is tongue in cheek, and that some of us probably project a more haughty tone onto comments than what the writer intended. I guess it's a case of 'if you hear it enough, you start to believe it' to an extent as well.

I've made the conscious choice since various debates got unpleasant to read 75% less snark and dickishness into other people's posts. Helps to keep it friendly, nuance is easy to lose in both the reading and the writing.

And if you're feeling left out you can always come here and join the master race. :p

wordsmythe wrote:
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.

Heh. I don't have that problem. Kind of pathetic that you guys do.

Switchbreak wrote:

This reminds of the last time I went to a concert. Everyone there was just so into this band, they were dancing around, I saw one guy singing along, they were buying merchandise from the little table in the corner. Can you imagine anything more pathetic?

Concerts are a funny thing for me. I'm just not the dancing, jumping around type. During a really good football or basketball game in person I have been known to high-five or jump up and down, but otherwise I generally just soak in the experience. I'm not excitable like that.

Thus I often feel out of place at concerts because everyone is SOOOO into it. I get that feeling of disdain. I don't understand what they're doing, acting like this is pinacle of their life. I feel like I'm having every bit the great experience. Depending on how good the concert is it can be pseudo-religious. I just don't express myself this way outwardly. I generally just sit/stand, watch the band and smile/sing along. Same with musicals or art galleries. I enjoy art. Art really fills up my soul. But I don't "participate" in that way. It's just not me.

And sometimes this either makes me feel disdain for those who do or it makes me feel left out.

nel e nel wrote:
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.

I feel that, too. I think that there are probably more 360 players on the forum than anything else, but the PC crowd certainly feels more vociferous about the superior experience of gaming on the PC. To each their own - I have certainly made a lot of friends on both live and the forums, so it isn't oppressive, but it is something I notice.

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 pathetic and I suck (if they even acknowledge me at all). Armed with that as a constant, it's hard to maintain concern about the negative and judgmental opinions of others.

I have to wonder if that's the rub, for some. That there are people out there enjoying themselves doing geeky, nerdy, uncool things and have the audacity to not realize or care that others may think less of them for it.

This.

My sister calls me and Kepheus nerds for playing video games and board games - even though neither of us are particularly obssessive about it, nor do we identify only with this particular hobby. But for her, as a non-gamer, she sees any gaming as hopelessly nerdy. It used to bug me, now I just don't care if she thinks I'm nerdy or not. I'm having fun and not imposing myself in any way on other people - including her!

UnclGhost wrote:

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.

This too. After working with software developers, I got pretty damn sick of hearing, "The cake is a lie." on Free Cake Friday. Portal was a super cool game and all but, seriously, shut up about the damn cake already.

In some ways it seemed to be like a secret handshake thing. The people who got the reference were "in" and the people who needed it explained went away thinking the "in" people were hopeless nerds. I never thought they were nerdy so much as just a bit tiresome for repeating the same things over and over.

DSGamer wrote:

I just don't express myself this way outwardly. I generally just sit/stand, watch the band and smile/sing along. Same with musicals or art galleries. I enjoy art. Art really fills up my soul. But I don't "participate" in that way. It's just not me.

Ditto. I'm generally pretty quiet about my enjoyment of things. When I see people dressed up, and jumping up and down and hooting and shouting at concerts or gatherings and things, I feel oddly embarrassed by it - and not because I look down on them for doing it, but because I know that I would never have quite enough guts to do that myself - even though it looks like they are all having a really good time.

Actually, given my recent success with getting several of my formerly nongaming friends and relatives into gaming (thanks Wii!), I'm getting a kick out of calling them nerds and geeks. They actually seem to mind it, and it's amusing in a bad sort of way to needle them about their new "nerdiness" until they're clearly annoyed.

It's interesting to see how a person who looks down on all things "nerdy" and "geeky" handles the reality of enjoying many of the same pursuits they once roundly condemned.

I better go to confession now.

Mimble wrote:

In some ways it seemed to be like a secret handshake thing. The people who got the reference were "in" and the people who needed it explained went away thinking the "in" people were hopeless nerds. I never thought they were nerdy so much as just a bit tiresome for repeating the same things over and over.

I think that's part of it. Nerds were an out group for so long that when they suddenly become an ingroup they become tiresome with it.

LarryC, dude. You're supposed to be nice to the recruits at first. The vindictive teasing comes after they've built their first PC.

The only gamers I truly judge are the ones that I can smell 20 feet away. Otherwise, I've had nothing but great conversations with other PAX goers while waiting in line, playing board games, or hanging out at afterhour parties.

I've also found that PAX doesn't draw in near as many out-there fans as local sci fi/fantasy conventions.

Or anime conventions. Oy vey!

To misquote Qui Gon Jin, "There's always a bigger geek."