Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be part of geek culture. To be a “nerd” or a “gamer.” To like science fiction, or just to be a fan of something.
For a long time, I very much participated in the community of people who called themselves those names: gamer, geek, nerd, fan. We label ourselves that way proudly. Like other geeks, I watched marathons of sci-fi shows nobody’s ever heard of, read comic books on my commute, collected action figures from my favorite series, and played every video game I could get my hands on.
I liked it all… but some things more than others. Even though I knew my own preferences, I went ahead and kept searching for those obscure sci-fi shows and reading graphics novels that I might not have otherwise picked up, except that a bunch of geeks online were reading them. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, maybe even join in the conversation. Instead of playing just one or two video games that really, truly appealed to me on some deep level, I dabbled in everything I could find.
I guess I was trying to be an expert. I wanted to be a participant and contributor to this culture, and I succeeded. As a geek, I felt accepted.
But I’ll be honest: I get burnt out. It’s not that I don’t love these things — they’re a huge part of who I am — but they’re also part of my job. That can lead to real excitement at work, but it can also leave me with less energy to pursue those same things as hobbies during my off-hours. I write all day, and usually it has to do with video games. I suppose the balance of work and fandom has shifted for me.
There was a time when I would have played through Dragon Age: Inquisition in two weeks or less, but that just hasn’t fit into my schedule the past few months… so I’m still in the middle of that playthrough. I guess it’s fine, nobody’s checking up on me, yet I feel kind of guilty about it. It’s on a private, personal level, and I know it’s kind of silly — but I do. Especially hearing from all the people who have put in way more hours than me and finished the game in a respectable amount of time. Dragon Age is one of my series — how can others beat me to finishing the new game? What kind of fan am I?
Working at something you love is nothing to complain about, but nowadays I spend my free hours catching up on must-dos like creative writing and being with the people I love. As a result, I find myself gaming less and less. I don’t look up obscure sci-fi shows anymore. I keep meaning to watch Agent Carter and write a blog post about Continuum but haven’t gotten around to them yet.
In short, sometimes I feel like a bad geek. I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I do feel like as a geek, I have this measuring stick that’s based on how the rest of the community operates — how much time they put into things, how knowledgable they are — and if I don’t keep up, I feel like I don’t belong. I know I shouldn’t feel bad about things, but it’s gotten me thinking about the fine balance between enjoying something as a sometimes-hobby and actually calling yourself part of a certain culture.
Gaming as a Hobby, Not an Identity?
I know many people who play video games once or twice a week, when they don’t have any plans and are a little bored. They get into it. They enjoy themselves. But they wouldn’t call themselves “geeks” or even “gamers.” They play just a few games — maybe all sports games, or just titles on their handheld consoles, or exclusively the big shooters like Call of Duty or Halo. They know what they like, but they don’t call themselves “gamers” and don’t expect to fit into any culture consisting of people who do. They have other hobbies that draw their interests more. They don’t label themselves or feel the need to be a part of any community related to these interests.
Having less time to game lately, for me, means being more selective about the video games I play. Typically I write an annual wrap-up blog post about my favorite things in video games, but at the end of 2014, I simply hadn’t played enough games. There were also a few games sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to get back from an end-of-year work trip… So they were not played in time for that blog post. So I didn’t write it.
I felt kind of bad about myself then and wondered if I could still even call myself a “gamer.” Like it’s so important. Like anybody would call me out on it if I did or didn’t.
Of my friends who play video games just once in a while, or as a sideline hobby, most consider me an expert on video games even when I’m only playing a few hours a week or a few sit-down sessions a month. They think I know way more than they do. I probably do, but will I still if I keep up this casual schedule for the next five years? I don’t want to be out of the loop. I really like the loop.
Self-Labeling to Belong
I guess it’s just easy to be hard on yourself as a geek. Because of the self-labeling that goes along with it. Maybe that’s silly. Maybe we take things too seriously and feel like we need to do it all and know it all and be everywhere in the community all at once. If we’re behind on the latest geek trends or TV or video games, we feel like we stop belonging. Like we’re not proving ourselves when we should be. We shame ourselves a little bit… or sometimes I do, anyway. I might be the only one, but I don’t think I am.
Recently I had a conversation with a couple of friends about the “gamer” community and how its definition is becoming increasingly rigid. It’s like the more popular video games become, the more the inner circle of gamers shrinks. The definition tightens. Maybe some gamers feel the need to cling to the exclusivity of their favorite passion, but I don’t know that I like that. I didn’t grow up with video games — not too much, anyway — so I don’t feel like part of that inner circle anyway.
But I do wonder about the self-labeling aspect of it all, the community aspect and the need to feel like you belong based on shared interests that not many people have. After all, there’s a great joy in being able to fall into conversation with a stranger about the different paths to take in The Witcher 2 or being complimented by a fellow fan on your N7 gear.
And I suppose that while I sympathize with the concept that part of that thrill is the exclusivity, I feel the same sense of community meeting a fellow San Francisco Giants fan — and let me tell you, that’s an overpopulated crowd where I live. So maybe we overrate exclusivity a little bit when it comes to geekdom… though every fandom has its standards.
Maybe I’m just going through a gaming rut. A busy time. That kind of stuff happens. A little drought doesn’t mean my gaming life isn’t going to stay lush in the long run. It’s a passion that has endured a lot and isn’t going anywhere, even though I may have struck a new balance in my life between that passion and everything-else-going-on.
I guess my real question is this: Is saying “I like video games” different than saying “I’m a gamer”? Does it even matter? Self-labeling myself that way — I’m a geek, I’m a gamer — has been a security blanket for me for so long, it’s hard to give it up. I’ve taken on other labels in my life, and they’ve taken priority.
But really, I’m starting to see that I should quit it with the labels altogether and just be me. Sometimes the balances are going to shift, and that’s okay. It’s still me. Doing something is being someone, but I don’t have to do everything all the time to still be me.
So it’s something I’ve been thinking about.