Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Nerd By Any Other Name

I've mentioned in several previous posts that I self-identify as a nerd. This is probably something that goes without saying because if writing a blog isn't enough to get that accreditation, the fact that I blog about playing Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, videogames or wargaming will certainly erase any doubts.

People are sometimes surprised that I cop to being a nerd so quickly, but I shrug it off. I think it all comes down to honesty, and if admitting that I am passionate about things that the public at large either doesn't know about, doesn't care about, or feels they have grown out of is going to cause my personal stock to experience a correction on the social market, well, so be it.

I don't have all the characteristics of a stereotypical nerd; I'm not nearly good enough with computers and audio-visual equipment (although there are those who will say that this is the mark of a geek more so than a nerd), I'm not scared of the outdoors, and I don't so much shun athletics as the type-A personalities they tend to attract. Plus, you know, I'm lazy, and there's a lot of books I haven't read yet, and DVDs to watch as well. But when Saturday Night Live spoofed Star Trek fans and one of them mentioned Khan's middle name, I knew they had gotten it right. I love etymology and I can recite the Green Lantern oath. I enjoy public speaking and leadership roles and find obscure facts and history fascinating.

Because I am not socially awkward (or adept at concealing it when I am), it is not too likely that someone would use the term nerd to describe me pejoratively, but maybe that is due to the crowd I run with. Knowing that there are people out there who happily would use nerd in its weaponized state is a little upsetting if I stop to think about it though. What's it to you if I never grew out of the simple pleasures of discovery and imagination?

The absence of a generally accepted definition of the word 'nerd' is a hindrance as well; like science fiction or jazz, it is both elusive and subjective. We can't say what it is, but we know it when we see it. Wikipedia defines nerd as one who "passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age-inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities. Therefore, a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers, or will tend to associate with like-minded people."

Even though they equivocate a little with the "often" before "excluded", I disagree with this as well. I've known a lot of nerds in my time, and they cover a pretty broad spectrum of socialization, socio-economic background, physicality, musical interest, and popularity.

My favourite definition came from my friend Dave, who in high-school was a good-looking cat who possessed an undeniable degree of smoothness with the ladies and did not fit the cultural archetype of a nerd of that period, and yet not only read comic books and played D&D, but did so vigorously and self-identified as a nerd well before it was made cool by the 'nerd pride' movement that began to develop at the end of the twentieth century. Dave succinctly surmised that a nerd is someone "who simply does not care what other people think is cool."

While this definition runs dangerously close to Marge Simpson's assertion that since she does not care about being cool, she must therefore be cool, I think it has a lot of merit. A person might not care because they are poorly socialized and unaware of the social consequences of their affinities, particularly in groups with excessive amounts of peer pressure, conformity and competition. On the other hand, a person with even a modest degree of self-awareness and confidence might not be concerned with the judgments of others for a completely different reason.

A bunch of us n-words got together last night to play D&D, and it turned out to be a very entertaining time. The game itself is a lot of fun, sure, but the badinage and interaction is even more. At the point where we were exploring different varieties of tape to expedite a field repair on one player's pair of glasses, it was remarked that the colour combination of red, white and blue tape would make the wearer look like "Captain A-Nerdica". The owner of the glasses took exception to this (only a little), until it was pointed out that not only was it a nerdy observation for the other to make, but that there was no one at the table who wasn't a nerd in some fashion or another. In fact, it compared to the racial n-word, in the sense that it is not an insult when it is used between peers.

If you are a nerd, own up to it! Another word for name is handle, and if you are holding that handle, you get to determine how it is used. This professor from MIT probably says it best:
My idea is to present an image to children that it is good to be intellectual, and not to care about the peer pressures to be anti-intellectual. I want every child to turn into a nerd - where that means someone who prefers studying and learning to competing for social dominance, which can unfortunately cause the downward spiral into social rejection.
— Gerald Sussman, quoted by Katie Hafner, The New York Times, 29 August 1993

On a largely unrelated note, the evening's highlight for me was when the players hurriedly rushed from one encounter to the next (without stopping to heal as the new rules allow you to without even a spell or potion being involved), and were surprised, both literally and figuratively, by a young white dragon. Absolutely no one was expecting it, since in previous editions of the game such a match-up at any level less than 5 was an almost certain death sentence. It was extremely gratifying to produce an appropriate miniature and to hear the unmistakeable sounds of construction-grade building materials being defecated.

"You can't put first level characters against a freakin' dragon!" someone said.

"I couldn't before this edition," I agreed, "but I can now." Honestly, it's the sample adventure right out of the new Dungeon Master's Guide, and it was ideal for a lot of reasons. It illustrated the different types of encounters, such as non-combat, combat and traps, and within combat, introduced the various monster roles such as artillery, minions and solos, monsters so tough they can take on a whole party by themselves. Like, for instance, a dragon.

They aren't the hardiest group of adventurers either, with 3 spellcasters, a bard, a ranger and a paladin (that's right nerds, no cleric, no rogue!), but once they got over their shock, they gave the big lizard a right kicking. Sure, they almost lost a couple of characters (twice in one case), but all's well that ends well, and it is almost certain that they will never again forget to heal up between encounters, because like the Klingons say, "The burned hand teaches best."

See? Right there: an old school Star Trek reference within a D&D anecdote posted on a blog. Sigh.

Pass the tape, I need to adjust my glasses.

1 comment:

  1. Tape? More like a band-aid.

    But yeah. I used to read comics, still enjoy some. I don't game any more, but that's more about lack of opportunity than a lifestyle choice, and I still write gaming material. I watch SF, read just about anything, and I'm very good with computers and AV equipment. I'm also married with three kids, and just spent the day chopping firewood.

    As Popeye says "I am what I am"