Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Flat Earth Paradox

(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.

Step One

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 isn't that good. Like when people try to tell you it's octopi.

This is to be expected because it's 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 these folks 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 lack of the many social dividends that accompany social skills) 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)

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 they're 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.

But preying on isolated people online by offering a community with a much lower bar for entry is a conscious strategy among right-wing groups. Somebody who'd been through it started a much-RTed thread worth looking at:
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 don't generate community around them. Only the bad ideas do that:
Just defend one insane idea and you'll have friends:

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, to take a real-world 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 is simple: demand accountability and be totally unforgiving of bullshit.


Dmitry Gerasimov said...

Great post! Thank you.

criticalmass said...

Great post. If you ever do another non-game book. You should do a sociological analysis of gamers.

J. Llloyd Goldshear said...

Spot on. As you pointed out, it also extends beyond the traditional "nerd" communities. For example, I grew up training in a variety of martial arts, and still do. I've noticed that the exact same dynamic happens in those communities as well, though I'd argue that the American martial arts community as a whole has a far more conservative/right-wing bent than does the "nerd" community at large. The dynamic becomes especially interesting when you have people training to beat the shit out of each other...

josh said...

It's great that the poster can see what their doing and is talking about it. Thanks for the heads up.

heyjames4 said...

re: The part where "nerd" is something that the military industrial complex did TO its craftsmen class.

See this article from 1994 about anthropology and an ancient fable

Pointing out that social ostracization of craftsmen types is a recurring motif in human societies.

Zak Sabbath said...


Yes--though in the case of the smith it may be more about exclusion between social classes (the one who wears the armor vs the one who make sit) broadly than about the kind of intra-class exclusion that "nerd" implies.

WrongOnTheInternet said...

I'm hoping there's more to the cure than just not being tolerant of bullshit: if the problem with these nerds is social isolation and they have badly formed ideas, doesn't that just push them in the direction of conspiracy theorist groups?

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

Is nerdom a thing outside of the USA? Because I life abroad, and everything I know about nerdom, I learned from bullshit American sitcoms.

Zak Sabbath said...


They are already part of conspiracy theorist groups. The only thing you have to do then is: Once they start to say bullshit: not listen to them or give them a platform. If someone can't explain themselves rationally, they don't get listened to.

For MANY years people tried to do the other thing: coddle them and listen to their concerns.

It didn't work: they instead resorted to hate speech and harassment (FATE, Something Awful, Story Games) sexually harassed people (Sean Patrick Fannon, folks Green Ronin) and raped people (at RPGnet).

At a certain point you have to call the experiment of being nice to sociopaths a failure and simply get them away from the conversation.

WrongOnTheInternet said...

I agree with you on the "Don't tolerate sociopaths or bullshit", but I'd like to see more "gently explain to the non-sociopath why what they're saying is bullshit". Trying to separate misled socially isolated folks from dipshit trolls isn't a task that anyone should be forced to do, though.

Zak Sabbath said...


Past a certain threshold that doesn't work. The threshold is "Will they answer questions when asked?"

Bluntly: Over the past 8 years lots of people have tried that hundreds of times and that hasn't worked.

Once a person refuses to answer questions, they never, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ,ever, ever, ever, ever turn out to be wait actually a good, smart person. It only ever is a sign they are going to get worse.

The "misled socially isolated" people who refuse to engage? They never do engage.

They become shittier and shittier and make things worse for people.

Now maybe it takes more than 8 years to turn someone from the shitty path? But that means they do 8 years of damage while we all wait for them to act sane. And on that time scale and the number of idiots out there you might as well give up on having a useful conversation if you're going to tolerate them all because there'll always be one new idiot who is going to take 8 years to rehab.

WrongOnTheInternet said...

I think there's a certain level of social immaturity or a lack of critical thinking skills a lot of these folks have. It's to the point that they think refusing to answer questions is "maintaining their position", or that they don't have a good idea of how to argue fairly. Being in a community where those rules are explicitly enforced and explained, might help.

That doesn't mean any of us have an obligation to tolerate shitty ideas or trolls (or people indistinguishable from trolls); but there needs to be a place for people to pick up the basics they clearly won't get anywhere else.

Zak Sabbath said...


There is: it's called therapy. And other places in the real world.

But even if these places didn't exist: there is literally not one example of a shitty RPG person who does that stuff being rehabbed on the internet. So it isn't the place.

WrongOnTheInternet said...

That internet rehab comment might be true; I don't have any evidence at hand to say otherwise.

I guess my worry is that we toss out all the "maybes" and have a nice community bubble, and then get side-swiped when the shittier but larger community does something that negatively impacts us all. If that can't be prevented, then we might as well toss people out of the community for bad arguments and bad ideas. I don't like the way that future looks, though, which is why I'm looking for an alternative.

Zak Sabbath said...


They aren't "maybes" though.

Someone doing evil because they're stupid isn't --in terms of consequences-- any different than someone doing evil because they're evil.

The solution is: have a community that works, produce things of undeniable value, and don't allow the "shittier but larger" community to have any say at all because nothing they do can matter if you completely economically and conversationally cut them off.

I man nobody in RPGs is much affected by problems in the amateur golf world--because they're not connected. So if people are like that: they're golfers. Get them the fuck away from anything we care about.

WrongOnTheInternet said...

Fair enough, for a community that only talks about RPGs, that's the way to do it. I thought you were talking about nerd communities where other unrelated stupid ideas propagated alongside them.

Zak Sabbath said...


Well on a scale outside specifically RPGs it's just one of a number of things that make people act in politically and socially conservative ways and you deal with that in much bigger ways which are outside the scope of what I think the D&D w Pornstars audience can effectively do much about right now.

I am talking about immediate steps people can take to improve things in a space they are in, in the relatively short term

The Crusty Old Grognard said...

I tried so hard to be offended by this article, but I couldn't be because when you dust off the edgy, at the core of it you make some very good points. A bit too much splashback on your average harmless nerd though, maybe? Could be me being a bit over-protective of my dudes and viewing things through a biased lens though I guess.

Still, great thought provoking article and looking forward to running some stuff out of Frostbitten. I'm looking forward to the hardcopy arriving.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Do you mind supporting this statement with documentation? Both the demographic aspect, as well as the mental-illness aspect. You make statements about this (at least, the demographic part) pretty often and I would like to see your source(s). Thanks

Anonymous said...

Actually, the link you posted (I didn't see it on my monochrome browser at first) details pretty well the second part, please ignore that, I would be interested in your source(s) on the demographics though.

Zak Sabbath said...


On the demographics the way I did it (in 2014 or '15) was I looked at the 60 or so people who were most aggressively attacking me vs the 60 odd people who were most aggressively defending me.

Racially it's pretty easy: they're all white except 2 people. There's literally more people-of-color in just my game group by itself than in the whole harassment clique.

If you want me to post the list here I can, or if you'd rather I privately emailed you I can do that. Let me know what you prefer

Anonymous said...

Nah, no worries. You have just mentioned this (or similar things) enough times on your blog over the years that I was wondering if I'd missed an academic study or something. Thanks for the info!

Black Vulmea said...

Beware those who don't practice what they preach, eg, the forum dedicated to creating a safe space being run by craven bullies, and the adamantly pro-free speech forum moderator who moved his words, and those of his most ardent followers, behind a members' only screen.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Black Vulmea

While in both those cases I'm aware of people behaving hypocritically, I think it's not ever useful to talk about ideas like "free speech" or "safe spaces" vaguely.

Anyone can be into "free speech" but (with no violation of free speech principles) excoriate a kind of speech unfairly, or make a communication private that shouldn't be, etc.

The important part is to not to define terms ourselves and then call people out for violating a standard we invented (Oh, you lie tasty food but not pie??? HYpocrite!) , but to start with demanding the people define their own terms and principles and then at the _minimum_ live up to them.

That seems like a very low standard but most people who behave poorly can't even do that.

Once you clear out the dead wood by doing that, then do all the hard work of articulating your own standards (ignoring theirs or the language they use to discuss them) and making people meet them

Zak Sabbath said...

@The Crusty Old Grognard

I don't see any splachback. I specifically identify a _kind_ of nerd and say why they do a bad thing.

If you're not them it shouldn't be splashing on you

Is there a statement in the post that you feel implicates a wider group?

Black Vulmea said...


"That seems like a very low standard but most people who behave poorly can't even do that."

In the examples I'm thinking of, the administrators and moderators have defined their principles, and their definitions are sufficient in putting forth their intent. They're simply really, really bad at operating in the environment they insist they want, in my experience.

Jan P. said...

Hi, first time poster.

"Now maybe it takes more than 8 years to turn someone from the shitty path?"
From my experience this is very dependent on the people and their situation. People that far down only change if fecal matter hits the rotatory air impeller. I've been in clinical therapy and there are only two kind of people who seek to truly change: people who just crashed and people who have crashed before and notice they need help again. This included "the state says, I'm unfit as a parent, he takes my kids" to "my relationship crashed" to "I punched someone I love". For me it was not leaving the house for weeks, not being able to muster the strength to go to the kitchen and toilet for basic human functions and contemplating suicide.

Unfortunately that means those miserable people are likely to take their lives or cause harm to others. But you can't force someone to self reflect who doesn't want to. At least I know of no way, the only way seems to be Asphalt reality. Therapy is hard but nothing compared to the suffering before.

Also: I'm a little late for the party. I started D&D at 8yo and never had to use the web to talk about games. Could someone elaborate on the below examples for the unknowing me?

"It didn't work: they instead resorted to hate speech and harassment (FATE, Something Awful, Story Games) sexually harassed people (Sean Patrick Fannon, folks Green Ronin) and raped people (at RPGnet)."

Zak Sabbath said...

@Jan P

FATE is the signature game of a company called Evil Hat run by Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue, they are aggressively puritanical and launched "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!"-stye attacks against Kingdom DEath (google it) and then harassed feminists for disagreeing.

Something Awful is like 4chan but you have to pay for it and is dominated by people (including game designers) who invent conspiracy theories about other game designers

Story Games was the home of indie-narrativist RPGs and they were the home of outraged performatively-woke takes calling pretty much everything in games bad but totally inarticulate when asked for details.

Sean Patrick Fannon writes RIFTS material and is a sexual harasser, Green ROnin is a company that makes a lotts performatively woke statements and hired a sexual harasser and RPGnet is a game forum thats kinda like Something Awful (same moderators) and recently one of their moderators turned out to be a rapist.

If you're not patronizing any of these institutions then the detals here are largely academic but if you want to know more, ask I guess?

Jan P. said...

Welp. I played Fate, though I only knew evil hat from John wick who hired Lenny from there I think. Fred Hicks is an entirely new name for me and from what I've just googled can stay that way.

Kingdom death looks awesome thanks for the heads-up.

Wikipedia says 4chan was brought to it's unholy life by a former something awful user so there's that O.o never heard of it before.
Also never heard of story games or Fannon.

Green Ronin is a shame, I really like their GoT RPG and heared good things about mutants and masterminds. :/
I also like some stuff on the Forge tbh. From time to time Google ends me up on

I'm not sure if I want to know more. But I might have to read more on that :/