Table Manners: Time to Level Up
OK. Deep breath. I’m going to say something that I feel is a little bit overdue:
We geeks really have to get past the notion that we’re cultural outsiders.
Before anyone flies off the handle, let me make two things perfectly clear: I am not saying that geeks don’t get picked on for their hobbies and interests. Sadly I know that there are plenty of kids and more than a few adults who get picked on by classmates and co-workers for knowing what Naruto is, or arguing the merits of Star Wars versus Firefly. Bullies like easy targets, and there’s still plenty in our culture that says “nerds” are their natural prey, as though eighth grade was Wild Kingdom. Strike that. Anyone who’s been to middle school knows that it’s not Wild Kingdom – it’s much, much meaner. Lions can only take down a gazelle once; the gazelle never have to do a history presentation with them two weeks after getting mauled. So no, I’m not saying that geeks aren’t still being bullied for being geeks.
I am also not saying that bad cultural stereotypes don’t exist. Just to pick one of the most egregious genres, look at any of the thousands of police procedurals on the air – the techies and the “brainy” characters are still likely to have glasses, be “quirky” (read: socially awkward), and have hobbies that other “normal” characters make fun of for being too dorky. Venerable ratings juggernaut NCIS, whose writers generally display as much computer savvy as Wilford Brimley yelling drunken obscenities at a ceiling fan, spent a good chunk of time mocking MIT graduate Agent McGee and his fascination with computer games, role-playing and cosplay (not that they know that term). There are exceptions, of course, especially as characters get fleshed out over the run of a series, but on average if you dig back to those early episodes you’re going to see awkward, often-bespectacled geeks spouting jargon that – inevitably – some “down to earth” alpha male type barks at them to translate into “plain English” for everyone to understand. That sort of stereotyping still happens regularly, I know. That’s not in dispute.
No, what I’m trying to say is that we have to let go of the idea – deeply ingrained in many of us – that geek culture is still the weird kid no one wants to talk to at recess. I know it’s hard; sometimes I still can’t believe it myself. Whenever I see something from geek culture splashed across the mainstream, my first reaction is that old one a lot of us nerds grew up with – I don’t trust it. I look around to see if someone’s poking fun at it, or me for liking it, or maybe both. I just can’t accept that maybe a lot of other people, and I mean a lot of other people, might be into what I’m into. I think a lot of geeks know what I’m talking about, especially those in their late 20’s-early 30’s and up, the ones who didn’t grow up with Harry Potter being around their age. (The importance of this distinction will be clearer in a moment.) It’s a habit developed by folks who were used to having what they liked mocked or dismissed, and the “us versus them” mentality it creates is very hard to let go of even many years later.
When I was a kid, many people grudgingly suffered through The Hobbit in school, but it was a far rarer soul who’d braved the grown-up trilogy. Outside my circle of equally geeky friends, being able to rattle off the rosters and relative merits of of X-Men Gold versus X-Men Blue won me no love in the lunchroom, and staying inside to master Ninja Gaiden was definitely not the cool thing to do on a summer day meant for bike riding and pickup basketball. Being a geek felt like being part of a culture at the fringes – almost nobody knew what you liked, much less got what you saw in it, and so you were the caretakers of this little world, its protectors. We were enthusiastic about it in part because no one else cared, so it seemed even more important to pour ourselves into it.
But that world really isn’t there anymore.
Take a look around. I mean, really look. Video games are the highest grossing entertainment industry in the country; the Lord of the Rings trilogy tore up the box office and the Oscars; Game of Thrones is blowing away cable television; Harry Potter gave us a generation of fantasy fans; and instead of having one superhero movie every decade or so, now they’re attracting some serious talent and studios can’t make them fast enough. The average person went from not knowing anything about the Avengers to having opinions about possible roster changes and impending villains in upcoming movies. Geek culture isn’t just for geeks anymore, it seems, much to the confusion and consternation of many of the old guard who are still caught up in that “us versus them” mentality they’ve known for so many years. I mean, we could keep going:
Dr. Who? Huge.
Star Wars? A multi-billion dollar deal.
Star Trek? Rebooted.
Nathan Fillion? Dead sexy.
And all that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. We have arrived, ladies and gentlemen – in fact we’ve been here for some time. We just can’t bring ourselves to accept it yet. Like the kid on the playground waiting for the bully to turn a “compliment” into another mean joke at our expense, we can’t believe it’s really sincere. Deep down, a lot of us who grew up geek just can’t let go of the notion that our culture is the kid standing alone at the prom, when in fact just about everyone’s lined up and asking us to dance.
I know what some of you are thinking: “But they sexed up the dwarves in The Hobbit! They turned Star Wars into a merchandising scheme! The Big Bang Theory makes us all look like jerks and losers!” Underneath all those complaints is a single meta-complaint, the cry of every geek when they see something like the Spider-Man origin retcon in the third movie, the anguish of the inauthentic moment: “THEY’RE NOT GETTING IT RIGHT!” Geek culture and its properties are being picked up faster than ever, but in the process there’s a sense that it’s being co-opted, it’s being hacked apart and dumbed down and so on. Countless posts on countless forums decry the invasion of the mainstream as it grabs up another cherished geek property, and I understand why: It’s scary to have everyone suddenly fall in love with something you like after you’ve been used to no one knowing about it at all. It’s natural to lash out a little, to go into the “I was into it before it was cool” mode and complain about how it will inevitably be butchered.
All I can say to that is, well, of course not all of what is created or recreated in the mainstream will be “right.” (Though, to be fair, a lot of “right” is in the eye of the beholder. Some people like X3, after all, God help the sorry bastards.) As geek culture is brought more and more into the mainstream, there are bound to be missteps and screw-ups and bastardizations and more. It will take a long time before many of those misconceptions are corrected, if some of them ever are; I suspect even Benedict Cumberbatch’s demonic perfection won’t be able to lift the “Trekkie = virgin” stigma that particular fandom carries. And I won’t even talk yet about what my beloved larp hobby looks like to the mainstream media. Let’s just say we have a long way to go and leave it at that.
But geek culture isn’t unique in that. Ask any lawyer how “right” most courtroom dramas are, or see what a real forensic tech thinks of CSI and its many clones. Most football fans and players can name on one hand the really good “football movies” that get the feel of the game right, and let’s not even compare real epsionage work to James Bond’s adventures. Last summer the History channel got ripped, and rightly so in many cases, for “dramatizing” events in its Gettysburg anniversary programming that, oops, turned out not to have happened at all in the real battle. Every culture has its stereotypes in the media, and every culture is done “wrong” by what’s produced about them. If you believe geeks are the only people consistently portrayed in a negative, inaccurate light, have a chat with a member of a motorcycle club sometime.
No, what we’re really missing when we pull back from this culture shift and retreat into the ivory towers of “original fandom”, though, is the chance to guide what’s being brought into the mainstream. This goes beyond voting with our wallets and our ratings, though that’s important too, and focuses on the people around us who are first exposed to things that we’ve known for years. When you reject a new Dr. Who fan for only getting into it when the recent series reboot started, for instance, you’re missing a chance to show those people the charm of the older episodes in all their cheesy, wonderful glory. Push away a person because all they know about Batman is the video games, and how will they ever experience the sheer awesomeness that are classic Batman stories like Arkham Asylum, The Killing Joke, or Year One? Maybe you can’t reach out to everyone in the world who is awed by the Lord of the Rings movies or hooked on HBO’s Game of Thrones and tell them about other wonderful fantasy writers like Joe Abercrombie, MZB, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch or Mercedes Lackey – but you can tell the new potential fans sitting next to you.
We have to put some of our old demons behind us, folks, and accept that as a culture we’re no longer the outsiders looking in. We’re at the threshold of a brand new culture, one that – with a little bit of our help – can bring some of the wonder and amazement and imagination that we love to people who otherwise might never have experienced it in their lives. As my man Hardison likes to say on Leverage – one of the better portrayals of a geek out there recently, by the way, who not only hacks computers but gets to be witty, get the girl and kick a lot of ass too – this is the Age of the Geek, baby.
It’s about time we stepped back of our self-imposed exile and started leading the way to the culture we want.
Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates!