Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Winner is You

One of the writings that influences these meditations of mine comes from a man named Danny Horn. Danny Horn is a fan of The Muppets, publishing a fan made magazine, "MippetZine" throughout the 90s and then founding the website Amidst writing hundreds of articles on new Muppet films, TV appearances, and merchandise he took a week out to explore the reasons why he himself is a fan. The article is no longer a part of the main site but can still be read here:

It's an interesting read, and I encourage everyone to look at it, but it is this main hunk of the article that is my thesis for describing the geek condition.

And, now that I think about it, there's fans everywhere. On my way to work, the subway car is full of 'em. There's a guy wearing a Phillies hat and reading the sports pages. Obviously, he's a baseball fan. There's a young woman with a Free Mumia T-shirt, and she's reading Noam Chomsky. Looks to me like an anarchy fan. The woman sitting next to me has a tote bag with a verse from the Gospels on it, and she's underlining passages in a Bible. Apparently, she's a God fan.

I know Star Trek fans, and figure skating fans, and pot smoking fans. I have friends who are leather fans, who show off their new accessories and complain about how their favorite bar went out of business. I know politics fans, who talk about voter turnout and City Council meetings the same way I talk about why Muppets Tonight got cancelled.

This speaks very favorably to my beliefs of how geeks are, since it basically states that geeks are no different from other people other than the fact they like something that may be of lesser social value. Every time I have to legitimize my collections of stuffed toys, and figurines; my posters and Slurpee cups, I make this quote. I even made this quote to a mother of a 16 year old I met at an anime store, who learned I was 26 at the time and still "not grown out of this hobby." However, when I do, I often leave out this modifier, also from Danny Horn in the same article.

So the only difference, really, is that sports fans and God fans and politics fans are all fans of proper, grown up things, and I'm still a fan of the same thing I was a fan of when I was three.

It's difficult to argue with society when it comes to norms. Even the most brilliant anthropological minds can't come up with an answer as to why it is appropriate for one society to start a football league and vote republican, and it's appropriate for another to take hallucinogenics and drink a soup from the ashes of their dead loved ones. Somehow, it all trails back to the past and explanations are made like our nation's obsession for football is a politically correct versions of gladiatorial combat in coliseum's. Nevertheless, the fact remains that despite all people possess the ability to obsess over things, they're not all geeks, because what they find interesting falls inside the social norm, and we don't.

So why do we do it anyway?

Through most of our lives a geek is told that life would be easier if they were merely like normal people. we all remember the moment we got the conformity speech; mine came from my older brother when I was 16 and we were on a long drive. I think mine was unique in that he actually used the word 'conform' as in "It would be easier for me to conform and then I could finally stop worrying about what my other classmates thought of me." These speeches are given to us by our family, who see us suffer the undeniable pain of being an outsider and believe they are saying something helpful.

Often times though, this has the opposite effect. Upon it being elucidated to them that geeks are not normal and should try to be more normal, geeks often rebel and say that "if doing the things I love make me different, I'd rather keep them and stay different." This is probably one of the biggest deciding factors when it comes to young fanboys preserving their love for infantile things going well past their adult years: the threat of having their most beloved childhood toy ripped from them by a world that doesn't care.

But that threat is a form of negative reinforcement. Any psychologist will tell you, negative reinforcement only goes so far in motivating people. For a more domestic example, we can quote Peter Gibbons from Office Space:

my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

Negative re-enforcement only makes us move forward in a miserable fashion. So, what about our motivation to be geeks is positive? Well, that depends. I've hung around in many different geek gaggles (geegles?) through the years and I've found that whatever media they enjoy the most motivates them in a very particular way. Now keep in mind that as I elaborate on these principals I will be generalizing a lot, but I feel that at the very least I will be hitting home with several prevalent truths. Think of it as having the same value as a horoscope if that helps.

Like all groups of people, geeks all gather under a singular moral belief, and arguably that belief is justice and fairness. How could it not be? If you're a comic book fan, you expect justice of the universe, if you're a gamer you expect justice of the way things are intended to operate, and if you're a sci-fi fan you anticipate justice being the motivating factor of the proliferate or displaced governing body whose spaceship you're following. (Face it: no matter how good the story is, if there was ever an installment of Star Trek where the federation became corrupt, the fans would be in an uproar.)

That is the medium of belief, however, the mode is what varies from genre to genre as well as from geek to geek. For example, a person who believes in Superman's definition of justice is most assuredly going to be different for a person who believes in Spawn's version of justice, with fans of Batman lying somewhere in between. Now, some people might argue that they're fans of anti-heroes or villains, who are more Machiavellian in their pursuit of justice. Still, it is the pursuit of justice that motivates these characters, if not at first, than ultimately as the character progresses. It can't be avoided: even if you were to create an entirely selfish, chaotic evil, wicked player character in a tabletop RPG he or she will eventually have to follow the path to the just outcome of the scenario, that is, if you intend to keep playing with your friends.

Aside from justice, geeks are also motivated by winning. This is more easily seen among gamers, who take pride in everything from the adaptation of a million different game engines to the total mastery of a single fighting game. On the literary and media end, in order to please the fans of comic books and sci-fi novels, the main characters have to come to a decisive victory over their opposition in order to be pleased with the investment it took to read up to that end point. There are usually small sacrifices: Frodo loses his finger but destroys the one ring, and Luke Skywalker loses his bid at vengeance so that he and Darth Vader can overthrow the Emperor, but the story has to end in that fair and just way, or else there was no point in making the journey.

In life, the desire for justice and victory manifests as a silent but ever present outlook on life, one that gives geeks a very strong sense of determination. We're all the protagonists of our own lives, and though things don't always work out the way we want them to we have the patience to endure the hard times, since someday things will work out justly and fairly for us. Whether or not that actually happens to pass in reality is up to the individual.

Which brings us to what is the biggest motivating factor among geeks: faith. As I've previously mentioned, it is foolish to claim that these various films are like religions, since there already are established religions and it would be against all social acceptability to claim they are. However, the main reason a geek will continue in their pursuit of their favorite media is that at one point that media gave them a truth that they believe in and carry with them well into their adult years. Whether they intended to or not, a lot of these films, TV shows, comics, and video games teach a lesson: boldly go where no man has gone before, seek truth, justice and the American way, and never give up; never surrender. As soon as one of these beliefs resonate with a person, they are inclined to follow in that belief, and no plead from a loved one over conformity may change that.

Live long, Fanboys.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Origin of Species

Where do geeks come from?

In the world there are explanations for civilizations thousands of years old including their politics, their most famous leaders, and their works of literature, but even in those intimate and thorough depictions of life in civilizations well above us we never hear about the weird ones: the Spartan who'd rather write poetry, the insect collecting Canaanite, or the Ancient Greek who would step on tortoises and then kick their corpses into piles of mushrooms. The earliest set of geeks that I can think of come from shows like Happy Days and movies like Grease, which depending on your point of view, makes either people from the 1950s or people from the 1970s reminiscing about the 1950s, the first to isolate and label the awkward as "nerds;" our spectacle-bedecked, cowlicked, pocket-protector sporting, waist high pants-wearing forefathers.

Over time I've looked into history and found a few other qualifiers: The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and many late 40s area comedians display traits of odd behavior masking a superior wit that always transcended the normality of society. The oldest example I can think of is Socrates, who was a fat, dumpy guy who dared to tell the status quo that it isn't the gods, or poets or craftsmen of the world that were important. Instead it was our ability to think. For that he was sentenced to death. There's a "great-grandfather" geek if I ever heard one. Still, even if I were to decide to make that the origin point, I would know deep down inside that as long as there were people, there are also awkward people, and true origin point of our culture is not as easily divined as a specific date.

Geeks share the distinction of this blurred line of origin with lots of other cultural groups: Homosexuals, Native Americans, and the early Judeo-Christian consciousness come immediately to mind. There may be a succinct way to explain where they came but it's easier to believe that they always just were. We only have an idea of nerdiness hearkening back to the 50s because a geek's need to obsess fell upon the realms of comic books, sci-fi novels, movies and television. We thought it to be foolish for a person to obsess over such things, but people nonetheless did, and there was born our primary social stigma. Go back a couple of centuries and you'll find the medium changed but the means not. So if a geek is a person who obsesses over things, we have to consider the origins of what he obsessed towards.

Imagine for a moment, a primitive geek; someone who has such an intimate obsession with something that it exists as a singular source of life's personal enjoyment. Again using the Ancient Greek example, you can say that Socrates was obsessed with philosophy, and his obsession in turn created fanboys of his philosophies, like Plato, the only author through which we know anything about Socrates at all. If you go even further back, you may consider an early cave-geek, refusing to join the jocular hunting party in pursuit of a woolly mammoth so he could study cave drawings, eventually expressing within them the narrative that if more people meditated on the mammoth, there would be more mammoths for the tribe to hunt.

Now there's heavy thought: what if geeks created religion?

It's a revolutionary idea, and unfortunately one that's too unsupported by the current evidence to count as an anthropological breakthrough, but from an average geek's perspective, it makes a lot of sense. There could have been a million ideologies built upon a solitary intellectual herding followers under the banner of "this kick-ass lord of the hunt" or "this awesome game where I throw bones on the ground and funny symbols I drew on them come up." Modern geeks look upon idols like Optimus Prime and gather to gain superiority in "Magic: The Gathering" contests are capable of thinking these practices are "like religions." Most of them are not foolish enough to claim they actually ARE religions, but that is only because the religions of our time are already established and to go against that would be a challenge to millions of years of already established practices.

Of course, in order for an idea like that we would need to slightly re-classify the definition of geek. Within the context I put it a geek is anyone with an obsession, and honestly, not everyone with an obsession actually IS a geek. (More on that in a later post.) Still, there is no denying that a geek is best defined by his own intellectuality, and, if permitted, the attribution of that intellectuality to history could give us a much more prolific view of ourselves than we have today.

Live Long, Fanboys.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

First Impressions

Well, here goes,

Ever since I was young I was taught that first impressions count. The extent that you consider a person's value begins with the first thing you see them say or do, and even to an extent how they look the moment you first lay eyes on them. I know that some of the more fortunate instances of my life were earned by my ability to impress people, particularly with my ability to show my intelligence in terms of book smarts, diction, and a razor wit. All of these factors combined helped me land my first successful job interview at an elementary school where I still work today.

However, while I consider the need to make a good first impression important to myself, I've known people in my life who've taken that first step far less gracefully, and still managed to capture my endearment over time. On the surface of my mind was a young man I met in a video game club meeting, pausing the revelry of the current game selection to suggest we play a game of 'Loli golf.' (His term of endearment for the early Wii title, "Super Swing Golf.") Between him and a couple of other members I was somehow criticized for picking the only female character in the game who looked remotely like a mature woman. I recall thinking this individual was pretty weird and I avoided contact with him until, over time, he has proven himself to be a good friend who cares about my interests and mitigates our differences with a demeanor even cooler than my own.

Another such person I once met at a distance. While I was attending a local anime convention's comic-writing panel, I saw this awkward looking individual dressed a superhero costume sitting a few empty seats apart from me. When we were asked to offer a question to the panel, this guy sprung up and then proceeded to give away nearly everything about his prospective story's plot on the spot. I remember lowering my head and covering my eyes with my hand, hoping this guy would catch on and stop ruining his own story before he had a chance to even write it. Over time, though, we met more formally and he's proven to be one of my absolute best friends.

As far as first impressions go, the ones posed by these people I now consider my friends were just awful, but I stood around long enough to be proven wrong about them and truly understand them over time, and the question you may be asking yourself now is 'Why?' If I expect myself to make a good first impression, why aren't I more put off by the admittedly off-putting actions of these people?

To put it simply: it is because I am one of them.

You might have noticed how I described the environments I met these two people in: One of them was in a video game club, the other one was at an anime convention. I wouldn't have met these people if I were to have hung out in a single's club or a gym. I met them as part of geeky social gatherings, and therefore I put it in my mind to be more patient with their immediate quirks because they are geeks, and I consider myself to be a geek as well.

To be a geek is to know humiliation. Though I rarely face it as an adult, I got a lot of ridicule in my school days for being overweight and easily distracted by video games and comic books. I was bullied, browbeat, and generally ostracized to the point it's still a part of my psyche to this very day. (Our school's P.E. coach often wonders why I cringe at the sight of anything shaped vaguely like a dodgeball.) Knowing that you're at a gathering that involves comic books and seeing another adult there is knowing somewhere amongst that person is an emotional scar very similar to the one you have. It's like a badge of courage.

Another trait most geeks share is the belief that we are different. I recall once in high school coming back from a date with my heart stomped on and having my father ask me why things went so badly. I shrugged and replied "It's because I'm a geek," and as I saw my dad rev up to lecture me about being insulting to myself I added "Relax, dad. It's what I am. I'm actually very proud." That moment of acceptance comes through in any geek's life. It is the point where despite all the constant turmoil, you know you'll always care about the latest issue of Spider-Man, you'll always have a special place in your heart for Sailor Moon, and you'll still sing the theme to Ghostbusters in public whenever the next opportunity arises.

When you grow old enough to let the cruelty of high school slide off your shoulders and you can live a life free of persecution, you're still inclined to introduce yourself as a geek in any public situation. Whenever other people ask me about the things I like I tell them that I like poetry, I like chess, I like books, I like classic movies, and then I pause, mention that I'm a geek, and proceed in telling them about my video games, anime DVDs, comic books and sci-fi novels. (I often abstain from mentioning my extensive anime figurine collection.) What was once a wall between yourself and any non-geek is now a shield that protects you from ridicule but still serves as a barrier between yourself and anyone you consider to be 'normal.' Some of the normals in my life often ask me why I don't do things like spend nights in bars or listen to the latest trends in music. I usually don't answer them, and I hope they go away assuming it's just because I'm a geek.

The outside world often wonders about geeks. They listen to the stereotypes and wonder why we don't seem to be interested in the fundamentals of life. (Watching sports, drinking alcohol, having sex...) Some of them find us threatening if not wholly dangerous when you consider the popular opinion of people who play violent video games, as well as watch violent cartoons and play Dungeons and Dragons. The old urban myth that quiet, nebbish-y, people will one day go ballistic and mow down hundreds of innocent people with an uzi is also alive and well. (I submit that the people behind Columbine and the more recent Virginia Tech tragedy were not like that at all.) People are naturally wary of what is different, and the status quo has always been rather upset by us for the simple fact that we go straight up to their faces and tell them 'we are different.'

But are we?

I think that, amongst all these evident truths is the fact that the only answer we've ever given the normals is 'we are different,' and we've never tried to explain why. Why is that? I am sure trying to make the outside world understand us is a chore as daunting as teaching your mother how to make an Excel spreadsheet or explaining to a woman at a singles bar why "Thundercats" was such an awesome cartoon. However, there is also the distinct possibility that we don't really know ourselves. If you ask a geek if he or she is considered a part of a social group, a representative of a collective consciousness, or even a participant in a different lifestyle, they would respond with a resounding 'Yes!' But if they're asked to present evidence as to why they believe that to be true, nobody comes forward. Therefore, as life progresses, we consider ourselves to be a rising social construct while the rest of the world sees us as misguided followers of a hobby.

It is because of this that I've decided to start this blog. As a community, we've played our cards close to our chest, keeping the reasons behind our actions to ourselves. However, the reasons behind what we do still exist in the hemisphere, and I'm taking it upon myself to collect information about the nature of geeks from news sites so as to find many of these answers and bring them forward. I may not be the best person to do this. I'm no anthropology major. (Though I took it often as an elective, as I find it an interesting subject.) Nevertheless, in order to make a good argument towards our ends it is important to make our intentions well known, and in order to do it, we must best know ourselves.

How's that for a first impression?

Live Long, Fanboys