A Superficial Geek

I recently wrote an essay that discussed the fate of geek/non-geek couples and how these relationships might have any hope of survival. The essay begins this way:

In a famous scene in the 1982 movie Diner, Eddie (played by Steve Guttenberg) makes his wife-to-be pass a football trivia quiz before he’ll agree to marry her. Me, I’m a fantasy and gaming geek, not a sports freak. I may not know how many yards Tom Brady has passed for this season, or the Red Sox bullpen’s average ERA last season, but I can name all nine members of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings, and I can tell you that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

Then, within a few hours of my essay’s magical appearance on the Internet, I received this letter from a reader:

Ethan Gilsdorf seems to be a very superficial geek. […] Any real geek would know that a parsec is a unit of distance, not time.

A number of red alert horns went off in my head.

Once I overlooked the email’s lack of tact, and my annoyance level settled back down from DEFCON 1, I dashed off a polite email to point out the dude was wrong. An excerpt:

Han Solo’s exact words are: “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”Of course, technically, you are right—a parsec IS a unit of distance, not time. […] Indeed, many a geek over the years has pointed that Lucas had made this goof. […] But Lucas (or one of his minions at Lucasfilm’s massive merchandising and film empire) fixed the blunder this way:

“On the A New Hope DVD audio commentary, Lucas comments that, in the Star Wars universe, traveling through hyperspace requires careful navigation to avoid stars, planets, asteroids, and other obstacles,and that since no long-distance journey can be made in a straight line, the ”fastest“ ship is the one that can plot the ”most direct course“, thereby traveling the least distance.” [via Wikipedia]

I know it seems like a lame revisionist “fix,” but that’s how Lucas wiggled out of this one. So, to be clear: Ethan the writer knows what a parsec it. It’s Han (or rather, Lucas) who gets it wrong.

To the guy’s credit, he replied with grace and, it seems, some degree of embarrassment:

My apologies. Anyone who can spout all that trivia about Star Wars is certainly a real geek.

Yes, a real geek! Ha. I felt smug and satisfied. I’d set this guy straight. Geek pitted against geek, I was victorious. Woot!

But part of me wasn’t sure how I felt about one-upping him. Was it really that important to get the facts right? Okay, probably yes. To retaliate and set him straight? Maybe. And was my motive in any way hidden from my own gaze? Compensating for a hidden Achilles heel? Possibly.

The exchange raised other questions. I contemplated the concept of not being a “real geek” or being a “superficial geek” and if that even mattered. I thought of myself, and my own journey from being a D&D-playing, Tolkien-quoting teen who had shed that skin in order to emerge, butterfly-like, as who I hoped was a cooler young man, and who only re-embraced my geekery 25 years later. I wondered, am I a poser? Perhaps I am not geek enough?

It’s certainly an issue I grappled with in my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. People I interviewed across the geek spectrum—WoW players to LARPers, D&Ders to Harry Potter fans—were understandably suspicious of my intentions. Who was I, friend or foe? They often presented their own exam, their own measure of “geek cred” against which I was judged before they’d agree to speak with me, or take my investigation into fantasy and gaming subcultures seriously. I had to pass muster. Then the gates to geekery opened.

Clearly, my correspondent had self-identified as a geek. Perhaps he had suffered persecution as a geek coming of age, I’m guessing, in the Marty McFly/slide rule age of the 1950s and Kennedy-era 60s. I’m sure he felt some satisfaction in thinking he was setting me straight. Perhaps he basked in that cool wave of revenge that flowed through his veins as he corrected me. Perhaps he felt self-righteous, and perhaps for good reason. “Ha! Who is this doofus who claims to be geek enough? I’m the one who suffered, long before he was even born.”

Now, as jock and nerd cultures merge; as SF and fantasy and other genre media experiences rake in megabucks at the box office and bookstores; as sports stars play Xbox and PlayStation—the traditional idea of “geek” has been turned on its head. Does it even matter who is a real geek and who is an imposter anymore?

Yes, we geeks were shunned from the football team. Yes, we were made to feel bad for cherishing our Monster Manuals and finding solace in BASIC and C. Does that mean we’re justified in being the gatekeeper today, in a more enlightened age? Thumbing our noses at the throngs of Farmville gamers and LOST watchers and others who don’t seem geek enough? Denying entrance to our realm? Denying them the label we once hated, and now embrace, a label that carries its own cachet?

This state of affairs has a counterpart in the history of immigration: it’s always the last immigrant group, the most “different” or “alien,” that gets the shaft. Perhaps today’s perceived “faux geeks” and “poser dorks” are yesterday’s dice-rollers and Trekkers.

In a perfect world, as long as we all get along and play games and have fun together, why not open the gates and lower our egos? Yet the world is not perfect. It’s largely because planet Earth is battered and flawed that we’re drawn to Middle-earth and Azeroth in the first place.


Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning, travel memoir/pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms (now in paperback). Follow his adventures at Fantasy Freaks Book.

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