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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons, geek culture, and me.

The illustration in today's New York Times celebrating geek culture (and accompanying a column about the cultural significance of Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax, who died last week) amused me because I think I narrowly missed falling headlong into geek culture — but only just barely. The illustration is a flow-chart with the initial question, "Exposed to D&D early in life." If you answer "No" on the chart, follow the line through "sunlight" to "girls." I, of course, must truthfully answer "Yes." Oh the nerdiness of my youth. A parody drives me to nostalgia:

My childhood friend Matt and I did spend many fifth-grade Saturdays poring over his collection of Dungeons and Dragons books. Pathetically, two players don't generate a very lively game, but I wasn't very interested in the game as such. I liked the bestiaries, the catalogs of weapons and armor, the faux-medieval sense of antiquity, the graph paper, and the worlds we carefully designed on them. But I never owned so much as a four-sided die.

Chris in The Bird & BabyThe illustration's next questions for the D&D-exposed: "Intense relationship with science fiction" and "Intense relationship with computers." Ah. Tolkien (lots of Tolkien: I even quoted The Silmarillion in a college paper), C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, the "Dragonriders of Pern" series, and the first few Shannara books were my middle-school favorites; I spent much of sixth, seventh, and eighth grade developing a fictional fantasy world under their spell. In fact, here I am, on my vacation with Mrs Philocrites in England in January, sitting in the corner of the pub in Oxford where Tolkien and Lewis used to hang out. And I can hardly pretend that Star Wars wasn't the most influential film of my childhood. (I also still own the original LEGO castle set, which I got for Christmas in 1982.) But somehow I stepped off the fantasy/sci-fi bandwagon early in high school and never really climbed back on; my taste in books shifted pretty quickly to more "literary" genres. Which spared me from Renaissance Faires and pewter figurines, to judge by the Times chart. Mrs P and I started listening to the audiobook versions of the Harry Potter series last summer, realizing that we were the last two people in America who didn't know the first thing about quidditch. We're now partway through listening to The Order of the Phoenix. Confession: While listening, I've been building a LEGO cathedral.

As for computers, oh how narrowly I dodged that titanium bullet. My dad, a public school teacher, embraced personal computers early. He set up two Commodore PET computers (8K of RAM, with cassette drives in the console) in our home in the late '70s, and my younger brother and I were offering BASIC courses to neighborhood kids in 1982. And yes, under the spell of the ATARI "Adventure" game, I started writing my own primitive watch-out-for-dragons computer game on the PET. My deepest foray into geek culture: Using an Apple IIe font program in 1984 or so to design several Rune typefaces. And yet, after an introduction to Unix in my tenth-grade computer science class, I dropped computer science.

I think one reason I veered away from all-out geekery in high school was simple competition from my smarter younger brother. Only 18 months younger than I, Brian and I managed to divide up the high school curriculum between us: He excelled at math, computer science, the hard sciences, and music; I favored literature, history, art, journalism, and politics. He is now a mathematics professor, and I'm a magazine editor.

Any "normal" readers — poor souls — probably think there's no real evidence here that I'm anything but a geek. And perhaps that's a fair charge. After all, I've had email since 1994, my own webpage since 1999, a blog since 2003, but I contend that I'm only aware of most of the things that define geek culture; I'm really an outsider, more interested in high-minded, entirely normal hobbies — like the history of printing, process philosophy, early 20th-century classical music, church architecture, "serious" magazines, coins, blogs . . . Oh, who are we kidding? A nerd is just a geek with an English degree.

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 9 March 2008 at 4:24 PM

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March 9, 2008 04:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

Obligatory religious angle: A true geek would have embraced neopagan Unitarian Universalism, whereas a literary nerd would gravitate more toward humanistic Unipalianism!


March 9, 2008 05:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

I love it that the Google ads on the page as I read it are for "Napoleon Dynamite: The Game"; "Last Chaos," which I've never heard of but features a picture of a lissom blonde elf and a knight in shining armor; and two D&D books.

The difference in our ages is just enough that D&D didn't hit until college for me, where I lucked out of geeks in the basement syndrome, although I did play a game or two. I, too, was fascinated by the mechanics of it more than the playing.


March 10, 2008 11:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Obligatory political angle: The DnD Lawful-Chaotic/Good-Evil grid corresponds fairly well to the Political Compass Web site's idea of political orientation, where Chaotic=Libertarian, Lawful=Authoritarian, and (for liberals) Good=Liberal, Evil=Conservative.

E.g., Charlie Stross has speculated on what the three major presidential candidates here in the U.S. would look like if written up in the original Monster Manual. McCain is Lawful Evil (Authoritarian Conservative), Clinton is Lawful Neutral (Authoritarian Center), and Obama -- well, I'll let you go to the post yourself: Link.


March 11, 2008 08:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

Proof that I'm not a real geek: I was amused by the illustration in the Times, but true geeks think it was lame.

Sarah S.:

March 12, 2008 12:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

I first played rpgs in middle school (Star Trek, to be exact, because that's what was offered at the town community center), but quit because of the boy-dominance of my group. Didn't really get back into it until three years ago, when my husband gathered a D&D group together in our small town. It took us over a year to find a group of adults who would have fun playing the game together while also recognizing that it was a game in life, not life in the game.

As a minister in a small town, it is wonderful fun to have a group of people to get together with and play games, apart from anything connected to church.

One thing sorely lacking from the Times chart is the idea that girls *play* rpgs. I think the biggest barrier to more girls/women getting involved in nerddom is the assumption that they are not.

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