(or: How Right-Wing Culture Takes Over Nerd Spaces Even Though Nerds Aren't Especially Right Wing)
I wrote earlier about how the category "nerd"--from the 1950s--is largely something industrial culture did to the STEM-educated people it needed to run its machines. But what about the self-identification as "nerd"? Someone who calls themself a nerd or a geek or whatever is saying some mix of these things in different proportions, and saying them about their core identity:
1. "I'm smart or at least well-educated"
2. "I'm enthusiastic in detail about some subject"
3. "I'm a social outcast"
4. "3 is because of 1 and 2 and is possibly a necessary corollary of them" (see: that Simpsons episode where Homer gets smart and suddenly has no friends)
Right-wing culture gets a foothold in nerd spaces especially when the self-proclaimed nerd's confidence in 1 is low and their confidence in 3 is high.
Everyone online sees this all the time:
You're discussing something nerd-coded (comics or games or whatever) and someone is bad at it. That happens: a person fails to be smart or well-educated on the subject. Or: they make some nerdy thing and....it isn't that good. Like when people try to tell you it's octopi.
This is to be expected because its Sturgeon's Law that 95% of people are terrible at whatever they're doing including discussing to what degree David Micheline vs Jim Shooter were responsible for Venom or whether Fortnite is better than PUBG.
Well think of this in terms of the self-identified nerd. Somebody who believes that's what makes them them. Some fraction of them are going to have some sliver of self-awareness, at least enough to know, ok: I'm not, on the scale I'm looking at, actually that smart or well-educated. Yet I'm still a social outcast.
Soooo not fair right? The one thing that is supposed to redeem their lack of social skills (and the many social dividends that accompany them) turns out to not be a thing. They somehow got all the bad luck and none of the technocrat-hauteur.
The internet allows people to connect like never before and so it also allows people to find out they suck like never before. Ever thought up a really good pun then googled it to see if anyone else..... fuck.
These failed but self-aware nerds definitely exist, the primary modes are the (1) self-mocking nerd forum comedian who openly talks about how unoriginal their ideas are as a way of inviting friends to think well maybe they're not only modest but hilariously self-aware and (2) the confessional mode where it's like guysI'mNotsmartIcan'trememberthingsIhaven'twatchedasmuchofIronFistasIthinkIshouldandIdon'tUnderstandTwinPeaksandtodayatworkIcalledapicklea'packle'andcriedinthebathroomfor10minutespleaseIneedinternethugsself-careself-care.
So, you have these Extremely Online self-aware nerds who are also in the 95% of people who are bad at what they do.
Despite being self-IDed nerds and identifying heavily with their own intelligence as their major asset, they can't build community or a support system on the things they make or say since they aren't actually brighter than anyone else in their sphere. Their predictions don't pan out, the things they build aren't original or shiny. But, like everyone: they need the things social intercourse brings or encourages--friends, emotional support, people to fuck, jobs, shelter.
And, since they're self-IDed nerds and Extremely Online they don't have a lot of offline support. They need people. Where to get people?
The Flat Earth Paradox
Do you think the earth is round or flat?
You think: round. True but what it gets you, socially, is fuck-all
You're not gonna put that you think the Earth is round on your Tinder profile. It's a popular position, yes, but its very popularity is why it says nothing special about you. Nobody's gonna swipe right just because of that.
If you think the Earth is flat, though? There's a whole group of people ready to receive you. With no other requirements.
Now you may object that this is like any fan interest--I like Peggle you like Peggle, we can be friends, but there's an important difference: people are not often called upon, in moments of high emotion, to defend Peggle.
A Flat Earth Position though?
A nerd recently proposed on Twitter that the solution to sexcreeps like Savage Rifts author Sean Patrick Fannon at RPG conventions is that RPG pros practice celibacy at all conventions. This is a contender for literally the most conservative fear-first policy ever proposed in the RPG space but...100 Likes, 25 ReTweets. Those people can start a conversation, those people can grouse together about how gross it is that people have sex and those people can talk and form a clique. They can honestly claim to be surrounded and embattled by other tweeters suggesting that maybe repressive 13th century social mores aren't the best answer to sexual harassment (Like this is the exact same logic as Mike Pence's "Men should never be alone in a room with any woman they're not married to".). They will soon be in an online fight and, thereafter, war buddies--bonded by their scrape with the vicious sexhavers.
(Ironically Fannon himself got nerds to help him harass and dogpile people online well before being caught by using exactly the same dynamic.)
Another example: Flat Earth post. (140 likes) Round Earth post. (14 likes)
Another example: Flat Earth post. (140 likes) Round Earth post. (14 likes)
If you reshare an idea that 13,000 other people also reshared you get nothing. If you reshare an idea that only 25 other people have? Maybe you just made some friends.
This is the Flat Earth Paradox: Irrational ideas online result in networks of connected people who are more loyal, closely-knit, and active than rational ones. And the participants will be stupider--they, after all, chose this path to friends partially because they couldn't find another--which means more prone to use tactics that go past reasonable.
We have the numbers but they have, in effect, the guns.
The origin of the paradox is that people who have their own things going on have a way higher bar for who they interact with than people who have nothing going on.
What does it take to get noticed in DIY RPG circles? Well: you have to write some interesting game content, basically. That's how everyone else did it. Then, on top of that, depending which part of it you want to get accepted by, you have to pass a barrage of political purity tests (of which I approve) and online-interaction gates. Like, to hang out here you can't be racist or sexist or homophobic and you can't dodge questions or make personal attacks: that's a lot of requirements.
Regardless of how many of my games you buy or how nice you are to me, if you can't defend every word off your keyboard you ever type I ban you from this page. That's a relatively high bar if you're not that bright, but most bloggers and gamers do still have a less formal bar that hangs around the same height.
|In addition to being disproportionately white, old, male, married, religious, parents, and less likely to actually play games, RPG harassers are more likely to be suffering mentally illness.|
All you have to do to part of a conservative gamer clique is believe one insane idea. Or not even believe it: just white knight for someone who believes it.
The number of people with fairly reasonable personal takes on sex in games who will still defend people who make wildly flailing right-wing attacks on sex in games is remarkable, and the number of gamers who are ok with their friends making pro-Trump remarks despite claiming not to believe them is just weird.
The reasonable positions aren't getting attacked, though, so they doen't generate community around them. Only the bad ideas do that:
You're ok with saying RPGs aren't really games unless there are no rulings, ever? Gaming Den people will be your friend.
If you think it's ok that a guy once said Vampire causes brain damage? There was the Forge.
If you think elfgames are inherently dangerous and are responsible for the world's social ills? There's RPGnet.
You think the appropriate response to that idea is to vote for Donald Trump? theRPGsite.
If you think that chainmail bikini cosplayers will destroy humanity? There's Something Awful.
If you think the best way to support diversity in games is to never offend anyone and underpay everyone? There's Evil Hat.
And, similarly, this creates paradoxical irrationalist cause-celebres: the more indefensible someone's stance, the more defending them becomes a secret handshake--a mark of exclusivity. The irrationalist martyr's flaws are, to these nerds, their features. The stupider someone is the better they are: they're going to attract more and more shit and you can get more and more brownie points for defending them.
And if someone accidentally gets some splash damage by tanking for the martyr? Even more attention:
Whereas here your game will only get discussed if I actually read it (tall order) and like it (taller order) conservative game cliques are fiercely loyal to anyone who makes the right noises. If anyone gets a chance to write a Top 10 Games That Are About (your thing) you'll be on it.
This is how, for example, somebody can start a blog called "How Not To Run a Game Business" antagonizing people with snarky takes on how shitty the RPG industry is, then run their own Kickstarter, steal thousands of dollars from their friends on Something Awful, and still have their ideas defended by those same friends. Or how someone can make art for a game about rape while decrying games that include rape and be defended by their friends for their bold stand on rape.
The Flat Earth Paradox is how bad ideas are primed to outcompete good ones, at least until the good idea results in some big thing people can buy or download something the bad ones have to acknowledge.
Anybody who read Origins of Totalitarianism will see a familiar pattern and see how this ends. But the cure simple: demand accountability and be totally unforgiving of bullshit.