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The Stigma of Geekdom

From the time we are very small, we are trained by our peers and our culture at large that certain things are undesirable, unbecoming and downright unacceptable in all aspects of our lives from the way we (or our parents) dress (us), the people we know, our interests/passions and our hobbies. Some of these are rendered morally taboo, others just aesthetically unpleasing or so unusual as to cause discomfort in others and bear the label of “weird.” We’re taught that fitting in and being “normal” is the only way to survive the complicated social structure, even if sublimating our interests makes us miserable in the process. We’re taught that being “happy” means fitting in and doing and having what everyone else our age has.

No wonder the pharmaceutical industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and doctors dispense antidepressants like M&M’s.

I’m not saying that everyone buys into the bullshit, or even those who are indoctrinated continue to follow the dogma. There are many who break free, at least in part, but those who do often find themselves under scrutiny, or even censure. Although recent trends are equating geek with chic, there’s still pretty significant stigma around being geeky, or having geeky interests or pursuits. While there are those who pay it little attention, there are those who have been so maligned because of their interests during more formative years that the scars are still raw even into adulthood.

As a case in point, I have a friend who adamantly refused to watch the TV show “The Big Bang Theory” because of the way Sheldon was portrayed in the teaser campaign. Since he’d been fighting the stereotype of “geek=socially maladjusted and awkward” from a young age, he didn’t want to participate in the perpetuation of the image by watching the show. Now Sheldon and the other characters aren’t the typically socially marginalized geeks, although they do have their moments. In fact, it seems to me that Sheldon seems to have a case of Asperger’s syndrome or another form of autism that renders social interactions mystifying and difficult to navigate without external guidance. My friend did finally relent and give the show a try, but his reluctance is indicative of the damage social stigma can leave on a person.

Other examples of the continuation aren’t rooted in malevolence, but in a lack of understanding. When I “out” myself as a geek to people I’ve met and interacted with in other ways, I’m often the subject of good-natured teasing. I’m the first resource some of my friends call upon when their computers go wonky, or when they’re desperately hunting some little nugget of information floating around the internet. The first time I walked into work with my messenger bag embroidered with polyhedral dice and labeled “Bag of Holding,” after I explained what it meant, I got ribbed about playing D&D, which I did quite regularly at the time. When I decline plans on Friday night in lieu of going out and gaming with the boys, I often get the strangest of looks, especially when I explain that I’m playing Magic: The Gathering at a local comic book shop. There are two things most people automatically assume when they hear that last sentence. First, that the guys I’m hanging out with are socially inept and second that they’re playing games because we have nothing better to do than sit in their parents’ basement and avoid growing up.

Neither of these things are true. I will admit, the caveat is that there are SOME players I’ve encountered over the years of playing that could be classified as socially awkward basement dwellers, but the majority of them are probably more well-adjusted than the “normals” I know. The guys I game with are (for the most part) a highly intelligent group on par with chess players, or even beyond. There’s an element of randomness to playing a card game that’s unmatched by a static game like chess. With chess, there are a finite number of moves that can be made. With Magic, and the number of cards available at any given time, while the combinations are still finite, there are exponentially more possibilities to plan for and play against. The group of regulars has its own social order where the sometimes obnoxious habits of the vocal minority are tempered and changed by the social pressure of the others, but the majority of the players are just a group of nice guys. Shy and reserved, perhaps, but just genuinely nice guys. Even the ones occasionally blighted by obnoxious outbursts are charming and endearing in their own way, at least once in a while.

Second, Magic is not a cheap habit, so the people who are there are either financially stable enough to indulge their habit, or creative and inventive enough to find ways of making their efforts lucrative. It’s possible to make money playing that one can re-invest in playing. Some of the best players I know do exactly that and build from there. Intelligence and creativity are admirable qualities not only in a friend, but in a potential partner. The passion that some of the guys have for a game that continues to kick them in the teeth on a regular basis is pretty remarkable, especially because they’re tenacious and keep trying, keep re-inventing the decks they play, and keep coming back believing that this time, THIS time they’ll win.

I am fortunate enough to have a little insight on the game and the players I’ve come to know, including a National Champion of the game. Given what I know and my experience, even though some of it is relatively peripheral (because I’m not into going to the major tournaments and I’m happy to just keep playing in the comic store instead of trying my hand at larger venues), I was disgusted by the blog entry that surfaced on Gizmodo by Alyssa Bereznak entitled “My Brief OkCupid Affair with a World Champion Magic: The Gathering Player.”

Without knowing much about Ms. Bereznak, I can immediately draw a few conclusions. First, she has an utter lack of awareness about her audience. She’s posting on Gizmodo, which caters heavily to the tech set. While it’s true that not every geek is tech savvy, I think it’s pretty safe to say that a majority of them are and while not every geek is a gamer, it’s not unrealistic to say that there are fewer degrees of separation between non-gamer geeks and gamer geeks than between any actor in Hollywood and Kevin Bacon. That being said, if Bereznak thought she could let her drama llama graze in the fertile pastures of the internet with impunity, she was sorely mistaken.

Which brings me to my second conclusion: Ms. Bereznak has obviously not seen the repercussions of pissing off the internet, particularly when dealing with a group of people with international contacts. Geeks don’t take kindly to being attacked, or of one of their own being unjustly maligned…especially when the target is a hero.

Third, Ms. Bereznak is reprehensibly bitchy, shallow (which she admits) and bitter. Her complaint in her blog entry was:

This is what happens, I thought, when you lie in your online profile. I was lured on a date thinking I’d met a normal finance guy, only to realise he was a champion dweeb in hedge funder’s clothing.

She also said:

Just like you’re obligated to mention you’re divorced or have a kid in your online profile, shouldn’t someone also be required to disclose any indisputably geeky world championship titles?

Maybe it’s me, but I fail to understand how not mentioning a “geeky world championship title” is lying, or how it’s akin to marital or breeder status. What is so insidious about having accomplished something difficult and NOT mentioning it? What if he had been a World Champion of poker? Or chess? What about tennis? Was it the title that mattered, or the inherent geekiness of the GAME that made her squirm? And how could she understand the significance if she admittedly “didn’t know shit about the game?” (her words…not mine.) Why should she feel so incensed about his title being posted on his dating profile when she didn’t bother to “Google away” as she suggested to him after giving him her name? It’s not like it’s a secret…

Apparently, something suck in her craw, because Alyssa Bereznak decided to slam out a blog entry about it, bitching about her misfortune the whole wide world. Her original blog entry was modified after it went viral, but you can find the original on the Australian Gizmodo site.

Of course, the internet rallied on the side of the nice guy instead of the bitchy, bitter (and shockingly single) woman. Jon Finkel opened up a thread on reddit about the incident. Here’s the original post on reddit, and for those who don’t have the time or energy to filter through all the questions and comments, here’s a brief synopsis. A great article appeared on Gizmodo Australia from another woman, reminding us that women can be predators on the internet too, and Alyssa Bereznak is a prime example.

Though Jon Finkel is “a little creeped out,” he’s getting lots of support from the internet. There hasn’t been a whole lot of buzz about Ms. Bereznak, but I doubt that this is over for her yet. Since ‘ geek hero she’s targeted, retribution will likely be slow, pervasive and subtle and before it’s over, I’m sure she’ll regret her entry. While it is probably a little late for her, there are lessons to be learned from this, of course:

  1. Dating is hard enough without slamming the people you meet, or being mocked for the things you’ve done with your life.
  2. It’s low class to bitch on the internet about the people you go out with, and doubly so when you call names and start pointing fingers because their geeky accomplishments and interests make them abhorrent to you.
  3. It’s stupid to get pissed off about not knowing something when you didn’t do your research.
  4. The geeky ones with complex interests and deep passions are usually the ones most successful in chasing after dreams, taking risks and accomplishing the things most people yearn for yet are afraid of working towards. Just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them…
  5. Don’t piss off the internet. Ever.
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