Tales from the Geek Side

Should we call ourselves geeks or nerds or dorks? (I’m going to just use ‘geek’ for the remainder of this post because as far as I’m concerned, they’re all synonymous terms but if you want to debate their etymology then feel free).

Growing up, ‘geek’ was a pejorative term used by bullies to insult me and others like me. I was shy. I played videogames. I tinkered with computers. I watched science fiction. I loved comics. I loved to read books – all sorts of books, and libraries were a second home to me. These hobbies made me an easy target for the label ‘geek’, and it bitterly stung. I resented being an aberration. I wanted to be normal, and I wanted to be ‘cool’, whatever that was. But I never was.

As a teenager, I would recoil when I’d read writers in videogame magazines refer to themselves and their readers as geeks. That was a term of hatred to me, not a term of endearment. They meant no harm by the term though as I would come to realize. They were reclaiming the term for themselves to take the power of the word away from their oppressors. This is called reappropriation and is commonly employed by oppressed people. An example of this is homosexuals who refer to themselves as ‘queer’ (previously a term of derision), and there are many many other examples.

But in this day and age where society relies so heavily on technology, are geeks an oppressed people anymore? And what actually are geeks?

The now very out of date, The Hacker’s Dictionary defines a geek as, “gamers, ravers, science fiction fans, punks, perverts, programmers, nerds, subgenii, and trekkies. These are people who did not go to their high school proms, and many would be offended by the suggestion that they should have even wanted to.”

That’s a very broad description!

Incidentally, I did go to my high school formal (as is called the Australian high school equivalent of the US high school prom). It was awful.

The gist seems to be that a geek is anyone who is on the fringe of society with his or her hobbies or lifestyle. That’s still a rather vague description but I had more of an idea when I was about twenty years old.

I had just finished a three year arts degree. I followed by starting a teaching degree, but then I started my prac and wondered what the hell I was doing back in a high school. I hated high school!

As it so happened, during my time at university, I had been teaching myself html, javascript, css, web design, drawing, photoshop, and other such skills. This successful stint at autodidacticism prompted me to take up web design & development for a career. I hesitated at first because if I did so, I would be publically entering a geeky environment. Would I have the courage to admit that I belonged there? But the bullies were long gone and it didn’t matter what people thought. I was in control of my future. The confidence to admit this was ‘cool’. In fact, some of the ‘coolest’ people I’ve ever met have been unashamedly geeky. It was their confidence in liking themselves for who they were and not letting the naysayers change them, was what made them attractive.

I enrolled in a TAFE college and studied IT and then web design & development. I now embraced the label geek and proudly called myself a geek. I excelled in my studies and was enjoying life.

But something stood out that made me hesitate. There was these strict expectations by the geeks I would meet in class and online on what it meant to be a geek.

At the time I was quite fit. I enjoyed being healthy. I went to the gym at least three or four times a week. I played badminton twice a week, and regularly swam, jogged, and rode my bike. I didn’t look the part of a stereotypical geek as I made my way into class in my tight jeans, t-shirt with some indie band logo on it, and purple hair. I loved many of the same hobbies and activities as the people in my class, but now, I was starting to feel like an outsider amongst geeks for not being “geeky enough”.

I entered class and sat myself down next to an overweight girl about my age. Actually, other than a middle aged Asian woman who never spoke, she was the only female in the class. She introduced herself to me by singing “ badger, badger, badger, badger, mushroom, mushroom, snake, it’s a snake” and then quoting “gonads & strife“. She then proceeded to tell me how most of the other guys in the class had already unsuccessfully hit on her. We then had lunch together. She was disappointed that I wanted to have a sandwich at the local deli instead of eating McDonalds.

So this was geek culture, was it? Unhealthy eating habits, males desperately hitting on the nearest person with ovaries, and endless repetition of internet memes?

If that’s what it meant to be a geek, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to be one anymore.

My hesitation was further cemented one night when I entered an internet cafe. A programmer friend and I had been trying to start up a web design business with a business partner of his. I went to the internet cafe with my programmer friend and his business partner who was owed a favour by the owner of the internet cafe. We were going to be allowed to make use of some of the unused backroom office space for free while we tried to start up our web design business.

As I entered the internet cafe, I was overwhelmed by the smell of BO, sweat, flatulence, and pizza. All of the customers playing videogames at the banks of PCs were male. The only women in there were the ones with vacant stares in the pornography on some of their screens. Counterstrike was the most popular game being played by the rest, with a few playing Starcraft instead. The language of the room was punctuated with shouts of “noob” and “fag”. Was this what I signed up for when I declared myself a geek?

I was nearing the end of my web development diploma, when I made the decision that I would come to regret, to drop out of my course. Maybe it was the teacher who insisted that “you only need three hours of sleep a night” and that any more is “a waste of time”. Maybe it was the nerdbros who were just as much as conformists as those who bullied us in high school were. I read “screw this geek culture” on everything2.com and declared that I was done being a geek. I was going to find a normal job and live a normal life. I was considering finding a public servant job. Other than teaching, what else can you do with an arts degree? People in my class tried to convince me not to drop out of the web development course. They said that I would be terribly bored in a public servant job. And sadly they were right.

The bigger you think you are the harder you fall.

So I floated from public servant job to retail job feeling lost. I gave up on playing videogames for some time too. Anything to be normal! I had seen the geekside, and it wasn’t all pretty.

The conclusion to this is that now I’m studying digital media and will gain my diploma in it at the end of the this year. Next year, I plan to study an advanced diploma of games art. I suppose I still consider myself a geek. I don’t consider the term to be an insult but at the same time I don’t slavishly adhere to a belief in a unified geek culture. I saw how some of the stereotypes had a basis in truth and I didn’t want to encourage that or be a stereotype myself. I guess my hobbies and interests are geeky if you wish to call them so, but with the videogame industry now being more profitable than the film industry, it’s hard to still claim that it exists on the fringes of society. I don’t know that I’ll ever be ‘normal’, but I’m not really sure what that is anyway. Ultimately, I’m happy with who I am right now because I’ve learnt that it has to be yourself who defines you. Pigeonholing yourself into a stereotype is too limiting. Be who you want to be, not whom you’re told to be by the bullies and the geeks.

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2 Responses to Tales from the Geek Side

  1. Tamara says:

    Thanks for sharing your truthful tale. I read your story with much interest, as it reminded me of my own experiences. I think you made a fantastic choice with your new games art course. I believe happiness comes with doing what you enjoy.

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