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Jocks vs. nerds, brawn vs. brain, hunks vs. dweebs

Now it's cool to be a geek. Wasn't always that way.

Jocks vs. nerds, brawn vs. brain, hunks vs. dweebs: America has a conflicted relationship with the smart, studious, or anyone who has not taken the hunter-gatherer macho path.

As David Anderegg notes in Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, there’s a divide in our culture between “Men of Action” and “Men of Reflection.” Superman embodies the polar extremes. Clark Kent represents the private, introverted, nerdy side.

But it’s the public, muscle-bound he-man from Krypton the culture celebrates. Our society purportedly encourages high achievement in math and science, but also crucifies brains for being smart. Yes, we do want our kids to do well in school—just as long as the passions they relish, the knowledge they acquire, and the pursuits they master have relevance to the real world. In other words, being an astrophysicist better make them a bunch of money. Too smart, you’re declared a freak, thus ostracized, and picked last for the kickball team at recess. It’s a mixed message.

So what is a geek? The words geek and nerd are often used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences. “Geek” once stood for “General Electrical Engineering Knowledge,” a leftover scrap of U.S. military lingo. A geek was also a circus performer who ate the heads off animals. Hence the science-math-freakazoid association. In its common usage, nerd is synonymous with computers and poor social skills. You know—the smart kid who lacks confidence, is physically awkward, and unaware of appropriate cues like eye contact and the normal give-and-take of conversation.

But the term geek has recently come to mean anyone who pursues a skill or exhibits devotion to a subject matter that seems a bit extreme: movie geeks, comic-book geeks, theater geeks, history geeks, music geeks, art geeks, philosophy geeks, literature geeks. Both geek and nerd might identify someone who expresses passion for a hobby in an uninhibited monologue.

As for the word gamer, it refers to serious players of board games, role-playing games, war games, and video games. Intricate plots and complex rule systems tend to excite those obsessed with “the way things work,” so games often appeal to geeky minds. But gamers aren’t nec- essarily stereotypical geeks or nerds; I met plenty who were armed forces veterans. Keep in mind, before pigeonholing anyone, these terms are just general parameters.

Since the days I played Dungeons & Dragons as a teen (back in the Reagan Administration), it’s become cool and even fashionable to declare your geek pedigree. When I announced my quest to explore my fantasy past (the quest that became my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks), friends suddenly admitted to playing D&D in middle school, or being a Harry Potter fan, or once having had a boyfriend “who was really into Ultima Online.” Mike Myers, Robin Williams, and Stephen Colbert all supposedly used to play D&D; apparently Vin Diesel still does.

But it’s not simply that activities like gaming and science fiction/fantasy have become more generally acceptable. Adult gamers themselves aren’t ashamed anymore. Yes, some may be oblivious to snickers about their collections of Warhammer miniatures. But just be careful whose back you snicker behind: Some of the gamers at your local game shop probably look like members of Motörhead. Or Hells Angels.

I spoke with a woman who worked at a game shop in my home city. She wore a lime-green knit cap and a die orc T-shirt. Taking a drag on her cigarette, she said she knew what she was, and she wasn’t ashamed to admit it. “‘Geek’ works for me,” she said. Some of her best customers of science fiction and fantasy books and games were high-powered CEOs, doctors, lawyers, and contractors. “Geeks are not in the closet anymore. People are proud to wear their geekdom.”

To follow Ethan's adventures into geekdom, see his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now in paperback.

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