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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You got Geek on my Nerd! You got Nerd on my Geek!

Salutations, readers. This week we'll be delving a bit into the world of Geekhood, and how it differs from Nerddom.

I find that a lot of people still don't quite get the difference between geeks and nerds. As someone who is both, this tends to dissolve my particulate. Part of the problem is that popular culture; you know, those folks who wouldn't touch a geek with a ten meter cattle prod; tends to conflate the two.

So let's try to make things clear, shall we?

The most succinct differentiation between the two terms I've heard comes courtesy of James at Geek loves Nerd. He said that a nerd is a smart person, while a geek is a person who is passionate about some hobby. While this has the benefit of being pithy, it's flawed. First off, not all smart people are nerds. It's how you go about being smart that makes you a nerd. Second, geeks can be nerdy and nerds can be geeky, and this definition doesn't really allow for that.

But it's a good starting point. And with that in mind, here are a few fundamental differences between geeks and nerds.

1) Geeks don't care if they're popular, nerds do.

I think this is the main distinction. Geeks tend to seek out other geeks of their own type and build a community that way. They're niche, and they like it that way, because it's possible to have all those in-jokes that non-geeks find so insufferable.

Nerds, on the other hand, yearn for popularity. They want to be the cool kids, or at least accepted by the cool kids. The movie Revenge of the Nerds is actually a fairly accurate depiction of this mindset. Victory was not claimed because the jocks left the nerds to their own devices, it was achieved by supplanting the jocks' station on campus (except for Gilbert. That guy's got some geek in him.)

(Oh, and Booger is not a nerd. Nor is he a geek. He's just a slob who loves being a slob.)

Take video gaming, for example (we'll be returning to this theme, so buckle up). Every so often, video gamers on internet forums will talk about how video games are becoming more "mainstream," and how great that is. By "mainstream" they usually mean "people won't look at you funny when they find out you like World of Warcraft."

This is, in my opinion, nerd talk.

There are usually dissenters in this discussion, and those people tend to worry about game developers catering to the lowest common denominator, which would make Activision the gold standard of video game development.

This is geek talk. And not just the part where they know that Activision is the devil and say so as if everyone else does too.

Now, this makes geeks sound insular and unwilling to share their hobbies, which are usually nerd qualities (as we'll see in a moment).

The difference is in what the gamer in question is worried about. The nerd worries about how other people will view him. The geek worries about how the inclusion of other people will affect his hobby.

In case you were wondering, I fall into the geek category on this one. I have an example too. Last week I was at the mall with The Missus and The Little One for some rainy-day exercise (the Little One likes walking around the malls and looking at the skylights). I took a few laps with the Little One around the food court while The Missus attended to some pregnant lady business and I spotted three people eating Pizzeria Regina. Two of them were well muscled guys with spiky hair, sunglasses that cost more than I used to make in a week, and t-shirts with the sleeves ripped off. The girl was a slender blonde who had obviously spent a lot of money on clothes that would make her look as much as possible like Paris Hilton. On the floor next to one of the guys was a Gamestop bag.

I didn't ask what they bought, but I'd be willing to bet that 1) it had the numbers "360" on it somewhere and 2) it wasn't Fable 2. This is the face of the mainstream gamer, and this is who game companies will aim their big budgets at.

If I thought for one second that they had a game like Katamari Damacy or Disgaea in that bag, I would be thrilled, because that would have meant that they came to gaming. But I suspect gaming will move more to them than they will move to it. And that makes me a saaaaaad paaaaandaaaaa.

2) Nerds hoard their knowledge, geeks share it.

Indeed, it's hard to stop a geek from sharing knowledge of whatever he has invested himself in.

Nerds tend to treat their knowledge like comic books: The more copies other people own, the less the copy you own is worth. So they tend to jealously guard their knowledge so they can impress themselves with how smart they are.

A geek will be so thrilled you're interested in her hobby that she'll teach you whatever you want to learn about it. My lovely wife is, among other things, a yarn geek. She loves to crochet, and knit, and felt (bet you didn't even know felt could be a verb, did you?) and just about anything else you can do with wool. Since I've known her she's taught at least two people to crochet when they asked her, going so far as to photocopy sections of a book she owns that is no longer in print so they can have access to the same resources she does.

A nerd would look at that attitude with vague horror. How will she break the curve? How will she win at Trivial Pursuit? How will she lord her unique knowledge over her lessers if she just goes around... sharing it.

Well, the truth is that geeks love to share knowledge and spread the gospel of the geek, or Geekspel, to whoever will accept it.

Just the other day I listed some of the things that make me a geek to my wife, who already knows full well of those things, but I just can't turn down an opportunity to tell the world.

That list, incidentally, is: I own and have read cover-to-cover the Star Trek Encyclopedia, I have a textbook on Klingon and two teach-yourself-Klingon audio cassettes (Conversational Klingon and Power Klingon, in case you were wondering), I have a box full of unusual Star Trek merchandise still sealed in the blister packs (a Harry Mudd action figure, an Orion Slave Girl action figure, and a Talosian action figure to name three), I read The Nitpickers Guide to the Next Generation and made notes in it explaining why his nitpicks weren't errors but did in fact work within the Star Trek universe, and the crown jewel of my collection: a copy of Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise signed by James Doohan!

Mind you, that's just the stuff that makes me a Star Trek geek. And it's not even all of the stuff that makes me a Star Trek Geek, let alone the stuff that makes me a geek in general.

You can't stop a geek from proving his or her geek cred. Right now I'm restraining myself from listing a hundred other things that make me a geek (I have owned no fewer than 12 video game consoles in my life, and I still own 9 of those... stop it!).

Nerds aren't so much into that. A nerd may enjoy telling people about his advanced degrees in astrophysics. He may even get all snippy when you call him Mr. Herman Schwarz instead of Dr. Herman Schwarz. (I can just hear him whining "My name is Jeremy Withstadt! I don't know any Herman Schwarz!"). But try to get him to teach you anything about Astrophysics? You can count the seconds on one hand before he tells you it's too complicated for the likes of you. He don't want you to understand Astrophysics. He went to graduate school, for crying out loud. If you want to learn it, you can spend tens of thousands of dollars and a decade of your life doing it like he did.

3) Nerds are judgemental.

For a group of people who stand well outside of what's consider "normal" in society, nerds spend an awful lot of energy calling people "weird."

Take the subject of LARPing...

Well, let me explain LARPing a little first:

LARP stands for Live Action Role Play. Basically, take Dungeons and Dragons, take it out of the dining room and into the woods, add costumes and foam weapons, and go nuts. It's basically paintball for people who like to say words like "thou" and "smite."

Now, if you've never heard of it before just now, you have one of two reactions:

If you said to yourself "Jeez, some people are so weird." then you're a nerd.

If you said to yourself "Wow! That sounds cool!" then you're a geek.

You don't necessarily have to want to try LARPing to be a geek. You just have to acknowledge that it sounds interesting to someone who isn't necessarily you.

Of course, there are lines to this line of thinking. Furries, (Warning! DO NOT GOOGLE Alert!) for example are and will remain scary freaks no matter how geeky you are.

So there you have it. Three fundamental differences that make nerds and geeks different animals. I haven't yet decided on next week's topic, but it may have something to do with my mint condition issue of Sgt. Rock #1, or my complete set of Toxic Avenger comic books and the arduous journey to acquire issue #10.

If you're very lucky, I might write it in Klingon.