At the far end of the panel, freelance games writer and general man-about-town Rob Zacny is speaking and saying entertaining things like he usually does. He is currently describing his experiences from having been on his high-school football team, and the audience of some few hundred gamers seems largely engaged and responsive. It’s been a good PAX East panel that seems to get better with each anecdote and joke, and the topic “Dorks vs. Sports” feels largely like fresh and fertile ground.
But I begin to detect a growing dissonance between the high-school experience Rob is describing and the reality of my own. Rob is talking about playing D&D with his football teammates, and beginning to draw lines to what he describes as the myth about jocks stuffing nerds into lockers and the artificial social stigma of being a gamer. It’s largely BS, he is saying, and around him there are some nods of agreement.
I have no reason to doubt this mirrors Rob’s experience, and judging by the tacit — and in some cases active — agreement, it appears to be a shared representation of what many experienced. But it stands in stark contrast to what I remember of high school. I turn my head to look at Bob Salvatore, who I am sitting with and who is my partner in middle-age on the other end of the panel. I am somewhat relieved to see an equally puzzled expression on his face. I begin to realize that somewhere between the world Bob and I existed in and the one that the younger panelists on the other side of the table experienced, there is a line where Things Changed (tm).
It’s interesting because Bob Salvatore is a guy with a marked Boston accent and a great love for the “Sox” and the “Pats”. He is quick to tell his favorite sports stories and describe in loving yet heartbreaking detail to me the pain he suffered when in the ‘97 Super Bowl Desmond Howard, who played for the hero Green Bay Packers, ran back a kickoff for a touchdown against his New England Patriots just as they had seemed poised to make a comeback.
It’s easy to imagine him as the ordinary yet enthusiastic nextdoor neighbor you hang out with to watch the game on Sunday. To look at him in his red polo shirt, or to notice the glimmer in his eye that comes to life when he talks about New England Sports, you would never leap to the conclusion that he is also R.A. Salvatore, creator of some of the most famous and recognized characters in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. You’re more likely to guess that he’s in finance or sales than that he’s written dozens of highly regarded fantasy books. And that’s sort of the point. To hear him speak, he grew up in a world more like mine, where in high-school you might not want people to know that you were a gamer or played D&D. Such acts carried repercussions.
Now, I’ve known Bob for all of an hour total, so I’m in no position to presume his background or that the lingering stigmas he takes with him into adulthood are anything like mine. But as we both talked about the period of time in which, oh yes, the life of the high-school nerd was a very real and tactile thing, I suspect we might find more similarities than differences. Had someone come to my school in the equivalent of a Minecraft shirt, that person would have found themself isolated like a wounded gazelle on the Serengeti, and likely poised to meet what might feel like a similar fate. The stories of nerd-dom and the many small atrocities conducted against its populations are not some concocted tale drawn from unchecked insecurities. They are a documented history, a thousand ballads of the forcibly rejected.
It is definitely gratifying, but I have to admit, alien to me that my own nine-year-old son can wear to school his Minecraft T-shirt (on which the game’s central character, Steve, is riding a pig while holding on high an enchanted pickaxe) and not come home with bone-chilling tales of being cornered in the hallway by bigger kids. I am extremely grateful that the modern halls of public schools seem to have, if not become more inclusive, at least reigned in the open hostility and physical abuse, because although I didn’t experience much of it myself, I definitely saw it happen.
I have to remind myself that it’s been twenty-plus years since I’ve been to school, which is as big a difference for my son today as the late ‘50s would have been for me when I was his age. And, of course, I remember my own parents’ puzzled expressions when I described school in terms that must’ve seemed equally alien to them. It is the nature of an ever-changing culture.
It is remarkable to me to think that had I gone to school in this generation instead, I might not have had to make that choice. I find myself a little jealous, frankly, because I would have liked to have grown up at a time when playing video games and enjoying D&D with friends wasn’t something you had to hide from peers. I am aware bullying still exists today, and in wholly new and exciting forms, but for us kids who attended school in the mid-to-late eighties, it was as likely to be ignored or dismissed as anything else. I wish I hadn’t had to make the choice to discard some of the things that I had enjoyed, to ensure my position in the hierarchy.
This is the part where maybe I end up saying, “but it turned out fine for me, because that time spent away from the games had me spending more time outside and playing games.” But, I don’t feel that way at all. Even if the physical health part of it were true, what I learned at the time and had to unlearn later is that the best way to be successful in my peer group is to marginalize who I am and change the way I present myself.
Rob Zacny’s story of a football team collected around a table role-playing gives me a great deal of hope, actually, that my own children might feel more comfortable in their own skin than I did at that age. I sincerely hope that indeed Things Changed (tm) from the world Bob and I seemed to live in.