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What It Means To Be A Geek

Essay

My girlfriend’s youngest sister came over to our apartment last weekend with her hair in a Katniss braid. She hadn’t been to a convention or a movie screening. That was just how she wanted to go out into the world that day. The Hunger Games has been consuming the majority of her brainpower lately. She’s been binging on the soundtrack, and she got through Catching Fire in seven hours. At a recent family dinner, she put up her hands and walked away from me when I said I preferred Gale to Peeta (I’m sorry, I do!). She gets like this about books and movies. She’s read The Silmarillion multiple (!) times. We have talked repeatedly about how much we’re both looking forward to The Avengers.

But while she was over the other day, she said something offhand that surprised me. She and her friends won’t go to our local comic book and SF/F store. Setting foot in there, apparently, makes you a geek.

Now, it is obvious to both you and I that this young woman is already a geek. But we also know what she means by it. When she says “geek,” she means “a social outcast with no hope of getting laid.” She means “forever alone.” I bit my tongue, because, I, too, was once eighteen, and I get how important those social markers are at the cusp of adulthood. But I did think a lot about how different our definitions of that word are. When I identify myself as a geek, I’m not saying anything about my personality traits or my ability to socialize. What I mean is that I am perpetually passionate about video games and science fiction, that I enjoy healthy samplings of high fantasy and comic books, and that I feel that same giddy rush towards scientists and astronauts as some do towards rock stars.

…but that’s different than what it means for you to be a geek, right? (Or a nerd, whichever you prefer; I believe the definitions of the two are nebulous enough to be used interchangeably.) You might not like gaming or sci-fi at all. Maybe you like urban fantasy or mathematics. Maybe you like programming or kitbashing or writing fanfic. We might have some similar interests, you and I, but quite possibly, we may not like any of the same stuff at all. Yet here we are, sharing the same virtual space, feeling kinship in our geekhood. Just look at the topics that have been covered on The Mary Sue over the past few days. I see stories on natural science, popular culture, historical figures, celebrities, visual art, and My Little Pony. Am I personally invested in every single one of these topics? No. But I — and you, too, most likely — instantly recognize all of them as valid components of geek culture.

So, then, if being a geek isn’t about social aptitude, and it isn’t about one shared set of interests…what does being a geek really mean?

Let me lay out the things that are most easily recognized as geeky fields of interest: science fiction, fantasy, video and tabletop games, comic books, science, technology, and math. Purely by definition, what do these things have in common? Honestly, not a lot. We can draw parallels between some of them — SF/F and gaming is the easiest — but what is the one thing that all of these fields share? What does a cosplayer have in common with a molecular biologist? What does a dungeon master have in common with a case modder? What do dragons have to do with black holes?

Details. All of these things are chock-full of tiny little details, just waiting for a curious mind to patiently examine them. Want to write code? Mind the details. Want to develop a good strategy in a game? Pay attention to the details. Really like that sci-fi book you just read? You’ll enjoy it even more when you look at the glossary and the galaxy map. They’ve got tons of details.

The thing that all geeks have in common (other than carbon) is not what we are interested in, but how we go about consuming our interests. “Consuming” is the perfect word for it, because geeks are rarely a passive audience. We devour our interests. We are driven to know how things work. It isn’t enough for us just to enjoy something. When something piques our interest or elicits an emotional response from us, we have to know why. We have to dissect it, put it under a microscope, and come to understand it on a molecular level. This mental process is the same, regardless of whether we are talking about breaking down narrative structure or sequencing a genome or designing a costume. The impulse to engage with the world in this fashion comes to us instinctively, and allowing ourselves to explore makes us excited. Since a feeling of excitement is initially what spurred us to dig deeper, this means that our interests drive us into this wonderful cycle of bliss in which every detail we uncover makes us even more stoked about the thing that got us so stoked in the first place. The more details there are, the happier we become. This is why we love things like DVD commentaries and roleplaying rulebooks and insanely intricate fanart. We enjoy seeing things that were made by like-minded people. We like making things that require us to be meticulous. We like using our brains, and we like to interact with other people who like using their brains, even if we don’t use our brains for the same things. We can remain interested in a topic or story for decades, even for our whole lives, so long as the details remain enticing. Once we run out of details, we get bored. But that’s okay. There are always new things to get interested in. You will be hard-pressed to find a geek who isn’t currently obsessing over something.

We are, perhaps, the most enthusiastic people on the planet.

That said, being a geek doesn’t require you to be a walking encyclopedia. As Susana discussed at length in her post about “fake geek girls,” some have this weird elitist view of geekery, as if we are some sort of secret cabal that only the most dedicatedly knowledgable are worthy of joining. Just because you like details doesn’t mean you have to know all the details. It’s an inclination, not a mandate. Being a geek is all about your own personal level of enthusiasm, not how your level of enthusiasm measures up to others. If you like something so much that a casual mention of it makes your whole being light up like a halogen lamp, if hearing a stranger fondly mention your favorite book or game is instant grounds for friendship, if you have ever found yourself bouncing out of your chair because something you learned blew your mind so hard that you physically could not contain yourself — you are a geek.

I’m incredibly biased, of course, but based on that last paragraph, I think we geeks sound like pretty awesome people to be around. So why, then, the lingering social stigma? The obvious answer is that stereotypes die hard. And yeah, some geeks are socially awkward. We could examine the why of that at length for hours, but the core reason is that because some people are socially awkward. Engaging in activities that tickle our detail-oriented brains has nothing to do with our ability to socialize (and honestly, if socialization is hard for some, why should we begrudge them finding an activity that makes them feel more comfortable?). People who want social interaction will always seek it out. In my experience, very few geeks are loners. We may engage in some different social activities than others, and our conversation topics may be different, but we still go to bars and cook dinner for our friends and start families and all that normal, social stuff. When someone with that tell-tale mindset says “I don’t want to be a geek,” what they are unwittingly saying is “I don’t want the potential to meet other people who share my enthusiastic interests.” That sounds pretty lonely to me. I’m not saying you have to personally identify with the term, or kit yourself out in geeky clothing, or go to conventions, or any of that. I just think there are an awful lot of geeks in hiding who haven’t let themselves really explore their interests or those interests’ surrounding communities, purely because they’re afraid of the social ramifications (from where I stand, those ramifications are fantastic).

There’s not really anything to be done about the negative connotation of being a geek except to just wait it out. I do think that public perception of geekery is changing. The explosion of the digital revolution and the emergence of mainstream SF/F series (Harry Potter, Battlestar Galactica, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and so on) has definitely given us more cred than we used to have. Personally — and again, I’m biased — I think that laser-focused, playful mindset of ours is a real asset to society, and the fact that the term “geek culture” exists at all shows that we already have a foothold as a cultural entity. As for my girlfriend’s sister, she can call herself whatever she likes. I’m considering coaxing her to try out Dragon Age with me. I think she’d really dig it.

Image credit: XKCD.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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