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geek regeneration

I use the term “geek” lovingly. I consider myself one. I’ve done plenty of geeky things during my life, although I don’t want to admit all any of them here (other than the obvious one). The geek term encompasses a wide variety of behavior. There are many ways to be a geek – you can be a Trekkie, a fantasy baseball nerd, a D&D geek, a blogger, etc. What’s astounding to me is how geek cliques are able to regenerate themselves without any apparent hierarchical help. Today I was reminded of this when I was walking to my building and I stumbled across (literally, they were sitting in the pathway) a group of teens excitedly engaged in some role playing game. They looked exactly like the D&D geeks I remember from my teenage years. Nothing changed. It was as if a band of time traveling geeks from 1990 were experiencing a layover in 2010.

How does this happen? How do geek cultures reproduce themselves from generation to generation? The question really boils down to a more general question about the emergence and reproduction of local cultures. Other kinds of cliques can be explained by institutional support, e.g., high school jocks owe their existence to state subsidies that pay for high school athletic programs, but geek cultures reproduce themselves without the same structural benefits. It’s not just the reappearance of a technology that interests me. It would make sense that kids keep rediscovering role playing games as long as the technology is freely available. But it’s not just the game that gets passed on – there is also a set of cultural knowledge and skills that gets transmitted from one geek cohort to another. What interests me is the transmission of the same culture from one geek clique to another.  Sometimes the transmission seems to skip across geographical divides. The flip side of cultural reproduction is cultural erosion. Why do some geek cultures just disappear all at once, perhaps reappearing several cohorts later (hello rubics cube puzzlers)?

Surely some orghead out there must know of some research that investigates these questions. Someone point a geek admirer in the right direction.

For more orgtheory posts on role playing games, check out Fabio’s dedications to the pastime.

Written by brayden king

July 1, 2010 at 12:46 am

Posted in brayden, culture, networks

27 Responses

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  1. How do geek cultures reproduce themselves from generation to generation?

    Well obviously it can’t be by way of sexual reproduction. Perhaps overseers periodically take cuttings and replant them. Or maybe they are capable of binary fission, like amoebas. (“To spontaneously divide roll 19 or higher on 2D10.”)

    Like

    Kieran

    July 1, 2010 at 12:59 am

  2. Bourdieu would be elated studying geeks. All his concepts fit us perfectly.

    Like

    Guillermo

    July 1, 2010 at 1:05 am

  3. Kieran moonlights as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, if you couldn’t tell.

    G. – Nerd habitus? Distinctions of geekiness?

    Like

    brayden

    July 1, 2010 at 1:11 am

  4. All that cultural transmission must be loads easier now than it used to be. Back in the day we actually had to hang out at the neighborhood comic + RPG shop to meet kids playing D&D.

    Like

    Alan

    July 1, 2010 at 1:24 am

  5. I don’t really consider myself a geek (and, blogging isn’t geeky, is it?). But, wikipedia defines geek as:

    “A derogatory reference to a person obsessed with intellectual pursuits for their own sake, who is also deficient in most other human attributes so as to impair the person’s smooth operation within society.

    A person who is interested in technology, especially computing and new media. Geeks are adept with computers, and use the term hacker in a positive way, though not all are hackers themselves.

    A person who relates academic subjects to the real world outside of academic studies; for example, using multivariate calculus to determine how they should correctly optimize the dimensions of a pan to bake a cake.

    A person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who passionately pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance.

    A person with a devotion to something in a way that places him or her outside the mainstream. This could be due to the intensity, depth, or subject of their interest. This definition is very broad but because many of these interests have mainstream endorsement and acceptance, the inclusion of some genres as “geeky” is heavily debated. Persons have been labeled as or chosen to identify as physics geeks, mathematics geeks, engineering geeks, sci-fi geeks, computer geeks, various science geeks, movie and film geeks (cinephile), comic book geeks, theater geeks, history geeks, music geeks, art geeks, philosophy geeks, literature geeks, historical reenactment geeks, 2012 geeks, video game geeks, and roleplay geeks.

    A more recent school of thought sees nerd as being a derogatory phrase, whilst geek is simply a description. It is taken to be someone who is an enthusiast, often in things outside of the mainstream spectrum, of note is that in this definition, there is no reference to being socially inept in the slightest.”

    Pretty safe to say: if you’re an academic, you’re a geek.

    Like

    tf

    July 1, 2010 at 1:24 am

  6. They also evolve. For example, present now in RPG gamer culture is a whole bag of terms from MMO games like World of Warcraft (though the terms themselves are much older), and ideas from those games about how to play the RPG games that are very different than how things “used” to be. Different enough to confuse or annoy gamers from 1990, I’d wager. (Crown Royal dice bags are still very much in vogue, however.)

    I’d imagine similar branching, splitting, and cross pollination between other geek groups wouldn’t be too hard to find, if one knew what to look for.

    Like

    lurker_01

    July 1, 2010 at 3:12 am

  7. Teppo: I disagree with the idea that academics can safely be considered geeks. There is a sort of “mainstream” or “normal” academic that is not really “obsessed with intellectual pursuits”, just as there are bankers who are not obsessed with money, and soldiers who don’t care much for war. What Kuhn called “normal science” is not done by geeks but by people with moderate intellectual curiosity and ordinary social ambition. They are more interested in saying something suitable than something revolutionary.

    Guillermo: this would make normal academics (not geeks) the more natural Bourdiesque object of study (as they of course have been).

    Against Wikipedia, I’d argue that it is not sufficient to be abnormally devoted to something to be a geek. You have let your obsession define your identity. Some philosophers are geeks in the sense that they talk about philosophy whenever they can (philosophy students often take a temporary stint as geeks) and only feel like they are being themselves when defending a philosophical position. But after awhile the geeks and normals are sorted out, sometimes philosophers make an explicit effort to have non-philosophical interests (like mountain climbing or playing a musical or wine-tasting) which is supposed to signal that they’ve got their “mind-body issues” under control.

    Geeks basically value technical competence (however arcane) over social competence. It shows.

    Like

    Thomas

    July 1, 2010 at 8:16 am

  8. Corrections.

    You have TO let your obsession define your identity.

    (Though you may indeed already have!)

    Sometimes philosophers make an explicit effort to have non-philosophical interests (like mountain climbing or playing a musical INSTRUMENT or wine-tasting).

    (Though playing IN a musical would do the trick as well.)

    Like

    Thomas

    July 1, 2010 at 8:21 am

  9. All that cultural transmission must be loads easier now than it used to be. Back in the day we actually had to hang out at the neighborhood comic + RPG shop to meet kids playing D&D.

    These lowered transaction costs are also responsible for, e.g., conventions of Klingon-speaking furries, etc.

    Like

    Kieran

    July 1, 2010 at 12:03 pm

  10. These lowered transaction costs are also responsible for, e.g., conventions of Klingon-speaking furries, etc.

    Put another way, lower transaction costs enabled everything below, say, the third level of the Geek Hierarchy. http://www.brunching.com/images/geekchart.pdf

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    alan

    July 1, 2010 at 2:04 pm

  11. I can only speak as a former Magic: The Gathering geek (which we all know is totally a step about those D&D super-geeks), but I think we see reproduction for two reasons. 1) It is centered around the comic book store which is really the epicenter of all things geeky. 2) At least as I remember it, the age range was pretty broad. I think I was about 12 years old when I played, but there were people in their 30s as well. There’s really a bit of an inter-generational transfer there.

    Like

    joshmccabe

    July 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm

  12. You all are seriously making me want to geek out.

    Like

    Trey

    July 1, 2010 at 4:58 pm

  13. Gary Fine wrote a book about role-playing gamers, though his perspective may be more specific and micro-oriented than you’re looking for. Disclaimer: I haven’t read it.

    Like

    KMD

    July 1, 2010 at 7:20 pm

  14. I can only speak as a former Magic: The Gathering geek

    I can’t think of Magic without thinking of a scene from Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, taking place in a Seattle-area mall. That book is probably more relevant than Bourdieu to the conversation..

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    Peter L

    July 2, 2010 at 11:53 am

  15. Hm. Tricky question. I think you shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the organizational elements of geek reproduction. First, there are organizations with an interest in reproducing the culture – comic book stores, gaming stores, organized tournaments, conventions, even the RPG group itself is a small organization. These organizations are often shockingly good at bridging generational divides – for example, I played several collectible card games at the tournament level, and both contained gamers from perhaps 10 up to about 50 (with most between 15 and 30).

    Second, I think much of geek/nerd culture still has an oppositional flavor – geeks are defined against jocks. While being into computers or tech may have gotten more mainstream, and even playing World of Warcraft occasionally, hardcore geekery like the kind pictured above remains a fairly low-status activity in most contexts (e.g. high school, or a college dorm). But there exists a set of very geeky/nerdy people (geekier than the typical Soc blogger, as or less geeky than the typical Jeremy Freese or Fabio Rojas) who define themselves in part through opposition to the not-geeky (jocks) and for whom role-playing games are a logical activity. In other words, when the math club gets together, and gets bored of playing Set, what else are they going to do but level up and try to attack that dragon’s lair?

    An above commenter is absolutely right about the assimilation of MMO terms into tabletop games, though. D&D 4th edition explicitly incorporates many features of online games (for better or for worse). I can’t say how well it’s working, but it’ll be interesting to watch as geekery continues to evolve. Other RPGs have not moved in that direction, preferring abstract or whacky combat systems to the very nuts and bolts tactical stuff in the new D&D (which isn’t so surprising really, given D&D’s historical outgrowth from miniatures gaming).

    Like

    Dan Hirschman

    July 2, 2010 at 12:17 pm

  16. http://wilwheaton.typepad.com/wwdnbackup/2009/05/regarding-the-difference-between-embracing-and-exploiting-geek-culture.html

    The idea that “I’ve suffered for it, I’ve struggled because of it…” suggests that the very fact of NOT having institutional support and residing somewhat outside of normative is one factor contributing to the regeneration of geek culture. The lower transaction costs Keiran noted are somewhat of a sore spot here – perhaps that cost is part of the cultural glue. I don’t mean that all “true” geeks must endure suffering at the hands of their peers (although lord knows many of us did), but there is something to the idea that you have to *earn* the geek identity – adopting it as something you are rather than something you occasionally do – and personally invest in it. And this ensures its regeneration sans structural support.

    “Why do some geek cultures just disappear all at once, perhaps reappearing several cohorts later (hello rubics cube puzzlers)?”
    I think such geek cultures don’t really disappear; they go pretty far out of the mainstream eye from time to time, but the die-hards are always in place.

    Like

    angela

    July 2, 2010 at 1:32 pm

  17. Sorry…I meant Kieran, not Keiran

    Like

    angela

    July 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

  18. I think such geek cultures don’t really disappear; they go pretty far out of the mainstream eye from time to time, but the die-hards are always in place.

    Geek abeyance structures, cool idea.

    Like

    brayden

    July 2, 2010 at 1:58 pm

  19. Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon

    Oh God, what an irritating book that is.

    Like

    Kieran Healy

    July 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  20. Well, dang, you’re irritated by Cyptonomicon but not by the sword and dice up there?

    Like

    Peter L

    July 2, 2010 at 9:30 pm

  21. I’m siding with Kieran. Stephenson’s books strike me as long clever in the short term, but tedious in the long term. I’ve actually just quit reading the last one about 200 pages into it and vowed never to read long books again.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    July 4, 2010 at 1:22 am

  22. I loved Cryptonomicon and I liked Anathem (as well as his work prior to his transformation into a ‘scholarly’ sci-fi author) but I could not get into the Baroque Cycle trilogy no matter how hard I tried. It just felt like work.

    Like

    Trey

    July 4, 2010 at 2:00 pm

  23. A symbolic interactionist approach to culture is a good way forward. Gary Fine’s work is particularly useful in this context I think. His book Shared Fantasy (1983) goes a long way toward explaining the creation and maintenance of gamers’ worlds, while in other work he’s studied the reproduction of small group cultures outside gaming (e.g., With the Boys). I’ve used some of his work to analyze Magic and miniatures players (see Gaming as Culture, 2006, McFarland Press).

    Like

    patrick

    July 5, 2010 at 3:44 am

  24. “G. – Nerd habitus? Distinctions of geekiness?”

    Absolutely. Geek culture emphasizes:

    Symbolic capital: shared cultural constructions that can be appropriated by individuals. “Those people are not geeks; they’re celebrities who happen to use Twitter. Featuring them as “geeks” undermines the whole effort, because they aren’t like us.”

    Habitus: patterns of perception, conception and action which are internalized. “Having someone in a video that purports to celebrate our geek culture say that they don’t play D&D, like playing an RPG is something to be ashamed of, is profoundly offensive to me, because I play D&D. In fact, it’s the chief reason I am a geek.”

    Field: a non-symmetrical structure characterized by a conflict between those that occupy dominant positions within the field and those that don’t. Wars between Trekkies and Star Wars fans come to mind.

    Distinctions: “You play 4th edition D & D? You suck.”

    Like

    Guillermo

    July 5, 2010 at 3:23 pm

  25. fwiw, the ASA publicist just sent out a plea for experts on nerd habitus who want to talk to CNN

    Like

    gabrielrossman

    July 7, 2010 at 9:17 pm

  26. “fwiw, the ASA publicist just sent out a plea for experts on nerd habitus who want to talk to CNN”

    Well, if economists can publish analysis of casino gamblers’ behaviour in peer-reviewed journals, what’s wrong with sociologists studying the reproduction of geek cultures over time?

    Like

    Guillermo

    July 7, 2010 at 10:13 pm

  27. Love the phrase “travelling geek” lol

    Like

    Steve Cockroft

    July 22, 2010 at 3:17 pm


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