Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Accidental Death of a Nerd

Today we have the pleasure of introducing our first-time guest poster Marcus, an ex-hobbit who I'm fairly certain was last last seen chucking potatoes at passersby from atop a tall building. At least, that's what I recall from one of our previous tabletop roleplaying sessions together.

"Dungeons & Dragons," they called it. I had never heard of it, but after recently moving across the country and seeing my first opportunity to have friends outside of school, I happily agreed to come over that night and try their game. That was fourteen years ago, and now here we are: the same people, the same table, the same DM, and the same chainmail and lightning bolts; but somehow it doesn't feel the same. Then the realization hits me, and I lean over to the guy who in those fourteen years has come to be my closest friend, whispering, "dude...I don't think I'm a nerd anymore."

I'm not sure when, or how, it ended. I definitely can mark the first time I sat down at that table as the moment when it began; my passage through the wardrobe and into the realm of nerddom, a place in my life now so foreign to me I can hardly believe was ever real.

I had been playing video games since my friend got an NES when we were six, but there was nothing to indicate that I would later put two years of my life into WoW raiding. I was an avid reader and enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, but I had countless other books I considered to be of unquestionably higher caliber. My interest in school and learning was non-existent, and I was happier playing sports. Unusual interest in dark humor aside, I was about as average a kid as you can imagine.

But something did happen, beginning with that first D&D campaign, those first friends I made after the move: I came to define myself by which genres of games I preferred, I saw red when Trekkies called Star Wars derivative, and I began to shun any but the most necessary physical activity and threw myself into school; my curiosity about understanding the natural world was only matched by my fascination with imaginary ones. Perhaps most tellingly, I discovered the label 'nerd'--and it fit me perfectly.

Those of you whom I met in college likely knew me through shared interests in anime, pen-and-paper RPGs, and late night video-gaming. Each of these, in turn, has fallen by the wayside as I come closer to a time when I can no longer call myself "in my mid-twenties." I had been vaguely aware of the changes, although my continuing Steam account suggests an attempt to cling to the identity I once had. Once, I played video games to relax, to enjoy my free time; now I play them when I have nothing else to do, which is sadly too rare. My love of games--while still present--is no longer a significant part of my life. That's what I realized, sitting at that table; "nerd" was a title I simply could no longer ascribe to myself.

Like its rival sibling "geek," "nerd" has become decidedly less of a pejorative in recent years. Reading, video games, favoring brains over brawn or looks, traits once used to distinguish myself from the popular kids, are now more commonly accepted and even admired. This phenomenon, this mainstream geekiness, I unquestionably recognize as a positive development. Children should never be shamed for their interests, and the notion that school was a place where you could be mocked for intelligence should have been sending off alarms through our society decades ago.

But at the same time, I cannot accept this shift in attitudes coinciding with my own loss of identity as a nerd as coincidence. It is something that I credit--albiet, through grit teeth and clenched jaw - in large part to J.K. Rowling. Those same children who sat at the best lunch tables and shunned us for our interest in playing at elves and wizards found joy in putting on robes, waving sticks, and shouting mangled Latin at one another--and while I wish them all the best in it, as this culture has merged into the mainstream, I've felt myself moving away from it. That night at the table, when I found myself thoroughly nonplussed by the choice between fighter, mage, or thief, I came to accept that this was no longer me.

Given that my identity as a nerd was so tied to my circle of friends, I do suspect that some part of my ultimate rejection of the label can be traced to a transition of setting. Once I left school I was forced, for a time, to work whatever jobs I could to pay the bills, and in these jobs I found myself (as always) surrounded by people with interests different than my own. But that this was no longer school was clear, and the determinants of popularity lay in doing your job well and getting along with people whose best interest is to get along with you. We even all wore the same clothes; it was an absolute reversal of what I understood about being a part of society in school. In this new social scene popularity still did matter, but the paths to it were vastly different than the old ways of high school. Slowly, I began to socialize with and befriend people I would have shunned--or, more honestly speaking, would have shunned me--ten years ago, and in my proximity to a broader variety of less-than-nerdy interests, some of them began to rub off on me.

Labels aside, I found an interest or fond childhood memory that might be described as nerdy in a person that otherwise would seem out of place at a LAN party, but in this I began to be aware of my own changes. In the end, I think this is what became of me. The clear line in the sand between who was and who was not a nerd has been scuffed out in recent years, and we are instead left with a hazier sliding scale on which the vast majority of our peers register at least a few nerdy tendencies.

As for myself, there are still many nerdy things I hold dear but there is a common trend throughout them: they are all old (or older, anyway). The last game I seriously played was WoW; and the last console I owned an N64, but I will quite confidently assert that Chrono Trigger is quantifiably superior to any game released in the past fifteen years. I tried to play Skyrim recently; it fell flat. But man, did I have some good times in Morrowind. Final Fantasy III* was brilliant--rolling around the D-pad into a Bum Rush is 95% of what I remember of fifth grade--but I honestly think VII is a dull plod through a morass of repetitive battles and boring characters.

*Serious Final Fantasy fans know it as VI. People who waited til their parents were in bed to sneak out and play all night when it first came out know it as III.

The difference? Chrono Trigger, Morrowind, and FFIII all came out when I was playing video games. I had an itch in my brain for new worlds, and they were the ones to scratch it. Objectively speaking, I know that there is no way to weigh their merits against Modern Call of Special Ops 6, and I know that there are millions of youths out there whose imaginations will be sparked by the pace, the intensity, and the multiplayer connectivity of the latter. But me? I just don't get it. My point, in so many words, is that there are games---and other things--that are special to me, not because they are games but because they are *my* games. There was a time when video games played a huge role in my life, and while they no longer do, the effects of that time and of those particular games continue.

None of this is to disparage or denigrate anyone who does still call themselves a nerd (hipster bandwagoners aside). To those of you who have kept the faith over the years, you have my admiration, and envy. Even now, as I find new joys and new pursuits, none of them ever excite me the way a new Zelda game did. Never has my imagination been so stirred as by the promise of new, exciting worlds behind each turn of the page and every roll of the dice. Nor have I yet clung to any label or identity so fiercely as I once did to "nerd." Whether it was something in me that developed new interests over the years, or the redefining of the term, I must come to terms that the nerd in me is gone; I'm now simply another average guy with average interests.

But I still hate Star Trek.

1 comment:

JoeReviewer said...

Well dude, you know what they say.

Keep on keepin' on, my friend.