Feb 4 2011 12:50pm

A Superficial Geek

Millennium FalconI 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.

1. Biura
Why not open the gates and lower our egos?

Because geekhood is knowing your interests in far greater detail than is humanly healthy. Everyone else is just a fan. Socially, to a geek, there's little practical difference between someone who will laugh at you for knowing who Han Solo is and someone who will laugh at you for knowing what a parsec measures...or your height in parsecs. And when we can laugh at you for not knowing what a parsec measures--that's a turnabout in social standing that is irresistible.
Teresa Jusino
2. TeresaJusino
"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?"

No. :)

Fighting about "geek cred" annoys me to no end, because the whole point is that the things that we enjoy are awesome. We tell and read/watch awesome stories, we do awesome things with our time, we have wonderful talents and abilities, and to gatekeep to keep all that from people, or to make people who might not know a lot about whatever it is from exploring it further by making them feel crappy about what they DO know does nothing except do all these awesome and wonderful things a disservice by keeping knowledge about them limited.

@Biura - I don't know about you, but I'd rather NOT be like the people who made fun of me in high school. :) Or the people who may make fun of me now, for that matter.

I've always defined things this way:
Geek - measured by enthusiasm. If someone LOOOOVES something, they are a geek about it.
Nerd - measured by knowledge. If someone knows a lot of facts about something, they are a nerd about it. All nerds are geeks, but not all geeks are nerds.
Dork - measured by social ability. People who are awkward in social situations, which may or may not apply to Geeks and Nerds.

That's not "official" but it makes sense to me. :)
james loyd
3. gaijin
"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?"

Yes. Yes it does. We paid our dues, we stuck it out, and we put in the time and effort it takes to be otaku. Now the same type of people who made our lives a living hell suddenly want to be let into the fold because it's socially acceptable for the moment. I don't think so. I'd be happy to loan them my books, manuals, expertise, etc. if they're serious about it. If they turn out to be tourists then exclusion is their own fault.

Besides, it's the only social leverage most of us will ever have. Don't take that away too.
John Ginsberg-Stevens
4. eruditeogre
The big difference between now and then is identity. Many people
embraced the outsider, yet tightly-knit social worlds of geekdom and fused their identities with the practices of knowledge and pleasure that comprise being a geek. When people enjoy those things without accessing those social webs, there can be a feeling of threat. Some self-proclaimed geeks might like the popularity their interests have now, while others feel some anxiety or a sense of these people being poseurs who have not paid their geek dues nor have the level of engagement that a real geek has. I think that @Biura's distinction between "fan" and "geek" is an example of that. And remember, "geek" is a designation from both the individual and the community.

I think there can be a distinction between "geek cred" and feeling that your sense of identification and community are being eroded. The social effects and cache of being a geek are significant and should not be dismissed.
5. archimedes
i gotta agree with teresa jusino. exclusion is for petty ppl. sharing is a great and humanist trait. shall we stoop to the level that we behaved at while adolescents. i would argue that most of the kids that were "bullies" in high school feel some sort of regret for the way they acted then and are probably much more compassionate ppl after living some life then they were then.
6. Sihaya
I hate snobbery; I don't care who perpetuates it. Nobody "earned" the right to be a snob of any kind.
7. I can't think of an alias
Talk about arguing over petty distinctions. Nerd, Geek, Fan are just labels. Can't we just enjoy something without the exclusivity?

I always hated the obsessiveness that some people take to SFF as a whole. I loved Tolkien as a teenager and knew a lot about Middle Earth (way beyond just naming the Fellowship). In contrast, I enjoyed Star Wars but was not really that involved with it. Comic books and D&D held no appeal. Does that make me a geek, a nerd, a fan or something else? Does it matter?

BTW, I also played football.
8. goodfellow_puck
What the hell? There are seriously people who obsess about, and define exactly, what constitutes a "geek/nerd"?? REALLY? I've always found the geek community to be very inviting to anyone who was interested in scifi/fantasy stuff exactly because they had to go through that childish clique nonsense when growing up! WHY WOULD YOU PERPETUATE THAT? So bizarre...
9. I can't think of an alias
I've always found two reactions to negative treatment such as "childish clique nonsense". One is to hate it and make sure you never act that way yourself. The other is to eagerly wait for the chance to turn the tables.

It is no surprise that both behaviors can be found among the "geek" community.
The Discriminating Fangirl
10. tdfangirl
On one hand, I can see why geeks are wanting to close the ranks and define themselves. Geek has gone mainstream and it's unfortunately a bit diluted.

On the other hand, I had enough clique crap when I was a kid. Maybe instead of being snobs and trying to one-up each other in a divisive sort of way (as opposed to friendly geek battles, heh), we should try exposing the people we think aren't geeky enough (whatever that means) to the stuff we love. Either they'll come to love it, too, or they'll realize that the geek stuff isn't for them after all. Either way, it's a win-win situation for geeks.
john mullen
11. johntheirishmongol
I was a geek long before there was actually geeks/nerds. There was no gaming, D&D Basic hadn't even been invented yet. There wasn't really defined lines of groups back then. I read scifi and did theater and played chess. I even got a letter in Chess. Being smart wasn't something most kids hated. However, where you got it was being picked last for the teams, because no one thought you could be athletic. It was always fun to prove them wrong, because even though I'm not tall I am pretty coordinated.

Then it became cool to be stupid. I don't know why but theres still a lot of it in schools today.

I hate to tell you but the nerds that are considered cool are those that made a ton of money and its not because they are cool, but money is very cool. Those that still game, or go to SCA, or go to cons are still considered a bit odd, even if we have good jobs and raised our kids (in our geek image).
12. Kevin A Granade
Amusingly, there's an alternate defense of the parsec gaffe, in the Han Solo Adventures, where the Kessel run is described as a trio of target ships who are all moving away from each other at speed, and a fourth ship that has to catch up to each of the others in turn to make a delivery (of kessel spice, of course), in this scenario the total distance travelled is based on how quickly the ship can catch up to the others.

I'm not actually sure whether the novel or Lucas' explanation came first, but I do recall that the "straighter line equals faster ship" explanation was used throughout the early Star Wars novels.

As far as the geek/nerd/dork/dweeb/feeb/etc discussion, I've always found that a firm grasp of geek trivia is essential to geek *humor* and additionally many classical forms of geek entertainment (tabletop wargaming, roleplaying, computer gaming, etc) are highly trivia-based, so those who have a greater mastery of the subject matter are more respected.
Roland of Gilead
13. pKp
That's really funny from a European perspective, actually. I'm not saying high school is not a highly clique-ish place here (France), far from it. But me, and lots of my friends, were both geeks and "cool guys". You could watch bad horror movies and reruns of Star Wars (or play D&D) on Tuesday evenings, party all Friday night, and play guitar in a punk band on Sunday afternoon (pretty much my average week while I was in high school). It might be because I'm younger (I went to high school in the mid-oughties), but I never had a sense of these things being mutually exclusive, and no one ever gave me any hate for liking video games, roleplaying or fantasy/sci-fi.

That's a question that's always intrigued me, actually...are American high schools really that clique-ish, with distinct "tribes", geeks, goths, jocks, etc ? Or is that just a cultural stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood ? Do kids these days really self-identify as "jocks" or "geeks" ?
René Walling
14. cybernetic_nomad
@pKp: I think it probably your age.

Most people these days know what Dungeons & Dragons is. Time was only Geeks/Nerds/Fans even knew of its existence, let alone played it and when you tried to describe it, were often met with a coment along the lines of "how stupid is that"

The same with video games: when the most is to be had programming your own – or at least porting it to your machine from a transcript (the old fashioned way of sharing software) it kind of limits who can and wants to play them,

And SF back then was mostly found in books – there certainly weren't as many TV show or movies available as there are today.

Back on topic: as for being a real Geek, I think people who don't care about these issues are the real Geeks. They're too busy obsessing over their latest thing – and obviously the current obsession is more fascinating and important than anyone else's opinion of who and what is cool.
Nick Abadzis
16. Nick_Abadzis
I love Teresa Jusino’s set of definitions. I'm adopting those as mine, too.

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