The Geek will inherit the Earth

It’s a simple question: how did my label, Geek, which denoted me as a social pariah in my early life, progress into the realm of mainstream acceptability?

I started thinking about this idea a couple of years ago, but it was a couple of weeks ago, when #whatsyourgeekconfession trended worldwide on Twitter, that it really began to crystallize. Across the globe, millions of users were volunteering details of their geeky preferences and behaviour, for anyone who clicked the hashtag to see. Rather than hiding their little obsessions, they were celebrating them.

I couldn’t resist joining in:

Fifteen years ago, an admission of this type would have brought nothing but derision and systematic bullying. Where did it all go right?

The answer, as in so many cases, is that the internet changed everything.

A colleague of mine has recently introduced me to the concept of ‘tribes’  in modern culture. This is something rather different than the tribalism we typically hear about in Scotland, ie. the mouth-frothing rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, Hibs and Hearts, or Stirling Albion and East Stirling; it refers instead to the way we organise ourselves according to our interests or values.

That’s a somewhat dry description, so let’s bring it to life somewhat:

  • “David” is a teenager in the mid-1990s. He’s interested in role-playing and wargames – hardly mainstream pastimes. The reaction of his peers to these hobbies tends to range from puzzlement to outright ridicule, so he keeps his passion for them relatively quiet, sharing them only with a close circle of similarly minded friends.
    • David and his friends see themselves as outsiders from the ‘norm’ and their confidence suffers as a result.
  • “Dave” is a modern teenager.He’s also interested in role-playing and wargames – and so are hundreds of people he knows. At first, he thought he was the only person who liked the idea of playing Warhammer 40k, but a quick Google search turned up numerous internet forums full of people who felt the same. Some of those people were in his local area and they invited him to join a Facebook group, which he now uses to arrange games at the weekend.
    • Dave doesn’t see himself as an outsider: he’s a member of a vibrant community with lots of different and interesting people, who’ve become his friends. If all those people think 40k is cool, what does it matter if someone in his school disagrees?
David is isolated in his pre-web world; Dave has used the internet to connect with his tribe, who share his niche interest. Validation and a sense of community make all the difference in the world.

Of course, the readiness of the wider public to embrace their geeky side doesn’t hinge solely on this interaction. The explosion of the internet has caused another fundamental paradigm shift: computers are no longer ‘just for nerds’.

In popular culture and media, there used to be a set of rules about depicting characters who were proficient with computers:

  • Character is unkempt, poorly dressed, possibly overweight
  • Character is socially inept
  • Character lives in parents’ basement

These depictions still occur (Die Hard 4.0 and Transformers are but two recent cinematic offenders) but they’re far more infrequent. Why? Well, i can’t speak for the entire Cinema/Televisual complex, but here’s my theory: computers, once the exclusive province of nerds, have permeated all our lives in the West.

If you’re reading this, the overwhelming likelihood is that you use a computer or smartphone in your leisure time. Perhaps you’ll share this column via the buttons at the foot of the page, on one of the electronic social networks you’re a member of. Perhaps, after you’ve done that, you’ll head to the website of your favourite supermarket and do your weekly shopping, rather than brave the crowds in the actual store. None of this is particularly unusual, but if you’d spent this proportion of your leisure time at a computer 15 years ago, you’d probably have been perceived as some kind of clever goblin, or a member of the team from Sneakers.

The most incredible example of how digital interactions have been de-stigmatised, for me, is the rise and rise of internet dating.

When I was growing up, personal ad columns in the newspapers carried a toxic reputation. They were, according to popular opinion, desperate vehicles for desperate people to thrash blindly at the broad readership of a publication, in the vain hope that someone would respond to fill the void of their loneliness… and if that was how conventional wisdom viewed good ol’ newsprint, you can imagine how internet dating was first received when it popped onto the scene.

Today, internet dating has revolutionised the way people connect with each other. It allows an individual to search elegantly and precisely for the sort of person they are likely to get on with, then to initiate contact with that person in a reasonable time frame. If they click after meeting, great; if they don’t, well, it’s easier than it has ever been to meet more people until the right one does come along.

This is a much better way to identify potential long-term partners than I ever used as a single man: whether or not a young lady is tipsy enough to give out her phone number is rarely a good indicator of a profound future connection. As a collective light-bulb has brightened in our social consciousness, all stigma has evaporated.

The common theme running through these different strands is selectivity. As individuals, we don’t have to accept the social norms of our immediate locale; instead, we can cast the virtual net wide, to pull in those who share our niche interests. We don’t have to randomly work our way around a dating scene defined by geography rather than compatibility; instead, we can select very precisely the kind of person we’d like to find, then reap the benefits of only meeting the right kind of people.

Geek has become chic, put simply, because the digital world can cater to our idiosyncrasies… and because the internet has proved that there really is somewhere and someone for everyone.

Follow @daveshed

Dungeons and Dragons: a wonderful experience, but not really a business model

I read something today that, initially, intrigued me; then made me sad; then ultimately made me philosophical.

Wizards of the Coast, the subsidiary of Hasbro that controls the Dungeons and Dragons (henceforth D&D) brand, is to release a new edition developed with substantial input from the game’s fan-base.

On the face of it, this seems an interesting idea. I haven’t played with anything other than the older, “2nd edition AD&D” rules, but I’ve heard things about the later editions. None of the things I’ve heard were particularly positive. On that basis, reverting to the game’s fans and asking them how to fix things would appear a reasonable course of action for a classic game that has lost its way.

As I read on, though, I began to feel more melancholy about the whole idea. The article talked about a perceived decline in sales, a golden age of roleplaying which was now receding into the misty past. It drew comparisons between the financial success of enterprises like World of Warcraft and the comparatively meager numbers put up by D&D’s online equivalent despite the game being free at the point of access. I started to see this effort by Wizards as a publicity stunt, pure and simple, a desperate attempt to drum up interest in yesterday’s product.

Happily, this wasn’t my last stop on the emotional rollercoaster – because it led me to think about why D&D was failing to produce sales and how that related to my own experiences.

When I first started playing D&D, it became the all-consuming hub of my social life. As a member of my high-school’s outsider/geek gang, nothing could have been a more perfect escape from the ‘festival of cack’ that was our contemporaries and their ‘scene’. Every weekend, my friends and I would cluster into the house of some infinitely patient parent, order a stack of over-sized pizzas and tell larger-than-life stories together.

I’d play a character decidedly unlike myself, take part in thrilling escapades, solve baffling puzzles and discover fantastic treasures. Crucially, I’d grow and develop that character over time, becoming richer, more famous, more deadly, or achieve any number of other fantasy milestones. Most importantly of all, I’d be doing all these things in the company of my favourite people.

In theory, of course, the adventures we’d be acting out would be based on scripts sold to us by the developers of D&D. Our Dungeon Master would purchase a generic story, into which we’d then fit our established characters so they could take on the challenges it contained.

In theory.

But in practice, things played out a little differently. Each week, we were improvising the lives of our characters on the hoof, building up relationships and rivalries with the other characters; the more we got into this groove, the less comfortable we felt responding to the awkward prompts of a pre-destined plot. Over time, our adventures became less like the stories being dreamed up by paid D&D writers and more like a heroic-fantasy-soap-opera. By their very nature, the schemes and alliances between our characters drew more emotional investment from the players than the arrival of a random minstrel in town, proclaiming news of a beast to be slain or a Lord’s favour to be won. We were drawn to the stories in which we were central characters, woven right into the fabric of the plot rather than taking the roles of a party of everymen in events someone else had conceived. We wanted to tell our own stories, so we did.

As we got older, this idea progressed. I would run sporadic games throughout our twenties, in which I wrote custom plotlines around the characters players had created, because they were more satisfying by far than having the players become the allies of some 2-dimensional protagonist. Each episode remained unwritten until the previous one had been completed, so that the plot had a chance to grow from the actions of the players, rather than force me to push them down channels into clumsy set pieces. The more the experience was personalised, the more fun it was; the more fun it was, the more we wanted to play.

It’s this truth that, in my opinion, is at the core of D&D’s failure to sell products. The game is brilliant – but it’s at its best when the players are creating it for themselves, not following someone else’s script. Why would I buy your generic adventure, when the personal one I created with my friends is miles better?

Core rules, dice, pens and paper – these are the things gamers need to get started, the things a company might realistically expect to sell for years to come. But the insight I achieved through my nostalgia was simple: unlike other products, D&D won’t die if it stops selling units and making profits for someone. Players will use their old rulebooks and their own narratives to keep the game alive, create new adventures and introduce it to the next generation.

The best and biggest parts of D&D exist in the imagination of the players… and while that’s not a marketable commodity, it is a priceless one.