Archive for June, 2007

Colbert’s Comic

Saturday, June 30th, 2007

Stephen Colbert is apparently involved in the production of a satirical sci-fi action comic. Read about how this came together, and see seven pages here.

Says [co-writer John] Layman, ”We’d get notes, like ‘Oh, you know, I was rereading this on my porch Saturday…’ I’ve had editors who don’t pay that close attention. There’s quite a bit of back-and-forth because I think Stephen Colbert is a geek.”

Though the serious Report fan admits that he and Peyer initially went in the wrong direction — ”We wrote it as if it was Stephen Colbert in space, so he had a robot eagle sidekick and he was going after alien bears” — they ultimately found the sweet spot. ”Tek’s got a radioactive robotic monkey sidekick,” Layman says. ”He’s got an evil pet named Meangarr, this giant energy void, that has vowed to kill him if he ever escapes. And then he has girlfriend after girlfriend after girlfriend.”

I’m not sure how to follow that up, but it seemed worth noting.

Geeks vs. Nerds

Friday, June 29th, 2007

Update: Please also see the follow-up to this post, “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited.

When I tell people that I’m doing a dissertation on geek cultures, I think the question I get asked more than any other is: What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd? I’m never really sure if people actually want the full answer to this, but the short answer is that different people mean different things; most folks I’ve talked to either use them synonymously or think of one term as similar to but slightly more denigrating than the other (with ‘geek’ coming out on top somewhat more often). Here’s a short collection of links (in no particular order) directly addressing the distinctions people make between these terms, which I may update later rather than starting over again as a new post. Update: I’ve also started throwing in relevant examples explaining the difference between positive and negative uses of these terms.

  1. Jon Katz at Wired gets people riled up by suggesting that geeks are cool now, not nerds. I can’t find the original article that started the debate, but here are two articles written in response.
  2. Wikihow on how to tell the difference.
  3. OkCupid’s Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test.
  4. A conference paper (PDF) by Lars Konzack examining distinctions made by people on Wikipedia.
  5. The editors of She’s Such a Geek! note that contributors objected to the book being titled “Female Nerds,” believing ‘geek’ to have more positive connotations.
  6. In Embracing Insanity: Open Source Software Development, Russell Pavlicek devotes a whole chapter to discussing why you need to understand “geek culture” if you want to do business with open source developers. In a footnote, he explains that it’s important not to confuse geeks with nerds, as ‘nerd’ is still considered negative.
  7. An editorial comment in the Wired letters page reassures offended readers that ‘geek’ can have positive uses:

    Hang on a sec, wrote one reader, why do Wired editors “go out of their way to insult the technically savvy by calling them geeks.” That’s missing the point — where you hear an insult, we hear a term of endearment. A geek isn’t just someone who can articulately defend her opinion of who the best Babylon 5 commander was. (Sheridan.) It’s any dogged explorer or crazed inventor, anyone who fixates on a project and won’t let go, anyone who builds his own damn rocket! It’s a label to be proud of, in any star system.

    This comment clearly assigns positive meaning to scientific/technical pursuits and negative meaning to fannish pursuits, but by answering its own exemplar question, it humbly admits the author’s acceptance of membership in the negatively geeky group.

  8. In reply to a 2005 post titled “Have Geeks Gone Mainstream?”, Slashdot readers weigh in on whether it’s cool to be a geek, or whether it’s just cool to cop a geeky style. The original person who poses the question ties it in to computer science enrollment, but others bring in other geek interests, suggesting that even the readers of a site for “News for Nerds” don’t quite agree on what these terms mean.
  9. From geekculture.com forums: “Whats the difference between dork nerd and geek?” [sic]. The first answer sums up all the specific distinctions that follow: “everybody has a slightly different definition for each and most of the time, the definitions overlap enough to make it impossible to specify definitive differences between them.”
  10. From Slate: What’s the difference between a nerd and a nebbish? Suggests that nerds are targets of envy because they’re now respectable, whereas the nebbish is just a loveably pathetic loser with no particular connotations of media skill (but with a much clearer connotation of religious/ethnic/cultural membership).
  11. From Rocky Mountain News: According to this humorous piece (drawing, perhaps, on the wisdom of the author’s children), geeks are knowledgeable of technology, nerds are mostly just klutzy, and dorks remain undefined, but probably something worse than nerds.
  12. From Baylor University’s Lariat Online: This writer, a professional writing major, sugegsts that nerds are tech-job-oriented, whereas geeks are “not so productive” and have “eclectic interests—including elaborate, self-designed costuming and foam faux-weapons.” He goes on to suggest “five levels of geekdom,” describing himself as “moderate.”
  13. In an even earlier Slashdot post (2000), commenters respond to the question of what the difference is between geek and nerd, and which they prefer. The comments show a variety of opinions, though the “geek is a nerd with social skills” opinion ranks high. Another commenter points out that this thread revisits an even earlier post on the same topic (1999), which had been inspired by an article asking the same question from News and Observer (now offline, but available at Archive.org). That article starts out with the commonly-accepted notion that Bill Gates made geeks cool—”The richest man in America made his fortune by being obsessed with technology”—but goes on to question this assumption by attempting to make a hard distinction between geek and nerd, with some “spanning” the gap. Connie Eble, an English professor and slang specialist, states that “The definition changes all the time and it means different things to different people,” and so the article notes: “we’re stuck creating our own definitions based on what people tell us.”
  14. Militant Geek, a site that tracks geeky apparel, asserts: “Geeks are those that have technical aptitude, nerds are bright but socially awkward, and dorks are just inept excuses for protoplasm.” To clarify, it offers a humorous chart.
  15. Michael James Gratton compares the Jargon File definitions of geek (connoting someone who chooses “concentration rather than conformity”) and nerd (a “pejorative” for someone who is of “above-average IQ” and unskilled in “ordinary social rituals”).
  16. Primary0 finds the dictionary definitions lacking, noting that “A geek is said to be a more social nerd.” Suggests that geeks are more narrow in their obsessions than nerds.
  17. A number of links (1, 2, 3, via Church) discuss replacing ‘geek’ with some other, less “chic” term, arguing about what ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ really mean along the way. Readers/listeners seem to find ‘geek’ to be preferable to alternatives.
  18. A widely-circulated Venn diagram offers an intricate distinction between geeks, nerds, and dorks (though at least one writer I know of was dismayed to see this on the web; he had a very similar diagram of his own planned for inclusion in a book, albeit with some terms in different places). Webcomic xkcd offers a less detailed but no less accurate Venn diagram of its own.
  19. On CNN, The creators of Robot Chicken debate the difference between geeks and nerds. I add this even after officially closing this post because not only does it handily illustrate that even geek luminaries disagree on these terms’ meanings, but it also reveals that products like Wizard magazine use such distinctions as part of constructing their audience!

We are talking about the internet here, of course, so there’s a lot more where that came from (and, unsurprisingly, this comes up pretty frequently in my own interviews). I just figured I’d share some examples here to to help me keep track, and so I’d have a page to point back to next time someone asks.

This post is closed for future updates, but comments are still welcome. Please see the follow-up, “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited.

Platforms for Casual Games

Friday, June 29th, 2007

Every once in a while, I come across another news post reporting that Microsoft wants to court casual gamers, not just hardcore gamers. (See links here and here; both links via Kotaku. Oh, and meanwhile, Kotaku also reports that Nintendo want to make sure everyone knows it won’t alienate the hardcore.)

Now, I’m no businessman, but from here it looks like Microsoft is being either disingenuous or self-delusional. The only way you’re going to get “casual” gamers to play games on a $400 console is if someone else in the household happens to be a hardcore gamer, which doesn’t boost console sales. Also note that the $300 version of the Xbox 360 doesn’t have a hard drive, so you can’t use it right out of the box to download casual games. Anybody who does want to play inexpensive games is much more likely to do so for free on a PC.

That doesn’t mean that Microsoft can’t tap this market with console sales, I think, but I don’t see the full-price, full-functionality Xbox as the way to do it. Rather, I’d be interested to see them release a small console with a small hard drive and limited processing power—the “Xbox Mini” or something—which can download casual games off Xbox Live and allow people to play together online. (You’d think it would be obvious that the $50 a year Xbox Live fee would also be a major deterrent for a market you identify yourself as “casual.”)

I have talked to plenty of people (and read enough comments online from people) who would love to play stuff like Pac-man Championship Edition, explaining, “I don’t like modern video games, but I like older stuff.” I’m not sure “casual” is really the right adjective for this market, as I imagine you could find some hardcore Geometry Wars and Pac-man CE enthusiasts if you only knew how to get a controller into their hands. Microsoft has acknowledged that $199 seems like the sweet spot for console pricing, but I’m saying they could shoot even lower. Live Arcade games shouldn’t be seen as a gateway drug to more expensive games or a quick-fix between big releases; I actually spend much more time playing the cheap stuff on my own 360 than I spend playing discs.

Video game download services like Xbox Live Arcade could bring a renaissance for non-narrative video games, but Microsoft seems to have missed its chance. Instead, that chance may be picked up by Nintendo, which will be offering a similar service (and not just repackaging old games for download) on a less expensive console that’s already got the attention of the non-hardcore players. I guess we’ll have to wait for the next next generation of consoles to see what we should have learned this time around.

Histories of Fandoms

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

I’m trying to find an article or book that explains the process or timeline along which so many seemingly disparate fan groups found themselves at the same conventions and reading the same fan-oriented (even if not fan-produced) publications. An academic source would be preferable, but beyond Wikipedia, I’ll take what I can get; I’m surprised that there seems to be so little on this, from what I’ve found so far using Google Scholar.

There’s been a lot written about individual fan groups, like mainstream comic fandom, Trek fandom, and SF fandom (focusing around SF fan zines and World Con between the ’30s and the late ’70s), but I haven’t really found anything illustrating how and when these things started to overlap. Have there always been people dressed up as Storm Troopers at comic book conventions or playing D&D at SF conventions? I’m mildly concerned that I may have to write this if nobody else has yet, though it’s obviously not my strongest area of expertise. Any resources you can send my way would be much appreciated.

Geeks in the News

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Today, at the recommendation of Penn library staff member Andrea, I searched through the recent archive of New York Times articles for any references to “geek” or “nerd.” I was looking for an article she saw about “making geeks hip” with regard to TV and movies. Not only did I find a few articles worth blogging about in greater detail, I also found that these terms have found their way into common use even more than I expected.

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Transforming Play

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Chris Suellentrop writes an article about the history of the Transformers franchise for Wired. It’s got some interesting tidbits I was surprised I hadn’t heard before, as well as an interesting take on how the action figures changed play as we know it. And, for what it’s worth, this article aligns itself somewhat with Geek Monthly in placing the birth of geekdom (here, “the dawn of the modern Nerd Era”) squarely in the rise of sci-fi media merchandising.

Like Learning Where Milk Comes From, Only With Coding Rather Than Milking

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

I hear people talking about user-generated content as if it just happens—thousands or millions of people just independently assemble to create this great big system, and there you go. This is a little easier to swallow for things like YouTube and Flickr, where the interface is simple enough and the input is individualized enough that you can kind of see how some sort of system might emerge from a chaotic flow of materials. It doesn’t really make as much sense when you think about open source software, though, which one would imagine must be much more coordinated. I’ve often wondered how on earth that stuff happens.

Thank goodness someone had the good sense to ask Slashdot how to join an open source project. The answers range from the technical (which projects are easier to work on, which parts are easiest to contribute to) to the cultural (which help will be most welcome, how to avoid nerds with big egos).

When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Gamers seem pretty divided on the topic of Manhunt 2‘s Adults Only rating from the ESRB—not to mention the outright ban in other countries, including Ireland, the UK, Australia, Italy, and probably Germany soon enough. The banning won’t be necessary if the publisher doesn’t adjust the game so it can earn an M rating: Nintendo and Sony have already announced that they will not license AO-rated games for their systems, and even if they were to allow Manhunt 2 on their consoles, most game retail chains don’t carry AO-rated games anyway (including Wal Mart, which accounts for 25% of game sales alone). In other words, assigning a game an AO rating is basically the kiss of death.

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A Brief Note on Game Save Points

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

Kyle Orland has an article up at the Escapist (a few weeks old) titled “The Slow Death of the Game Over”. He briefly describes how the limited number of “lives” or “continues” one gets in a game was based on the economic reality of arcade play, and how that has changed in the console world, with games that don’t require much tedium or keep you out of the action for long.

He notes that games that require you to replay material after dying do have “limited appeal to anyone who wasn’t willing to put in hours of mind-numbing practice,” but also suggests that forcing people to slog through the not-so-fun part of dying actually makes the game feel more tense and exciting because you actually have something to lose: “in an age where everyone seems to run from responsibility, it’s nice to see some games are willing to let you know that screwing up has consequences.”

I’ve been thinking enough about death and consequences in games that I’ll probably have to write a paper on the topic once my plate is a little more clear, so I figured this was worth keeping track of. I’m of two minds about Kyle’s point: on the one hand, I think that sending players back several minutes of gameplay and forcing repetition is out of place in story-based games, as it ruins any sense of continuous narrative. On the other hand, I do agree that death (or at least failure) should have consequences such that it too makes sense in the narrative.

The only possible alternatives that have occurred to me so far are to design work-arounds in which death doesn’t impede narrative sensibilities (e.g. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time lets you turn back time, or frames death as a misstep in a spoken narrative), or to to design games such that failure does not equal death except in extreme cases, and in those cases, death is final (or at least your initial protagonist dies and you take over another character). I’d be interested to find out what other games handle death in unusual ways.

What Sparked the Birth of Geek Culture?

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

The question posed in this post’s title has been at the center of a debate I’ve been having lately. This person, whose opinion I generally value greatly, suggests that “geek culture” as a concept didn’t exist prior to the 1980s; it was born, he suggests, out of the credibility accorded to geeks through their mastery of digital media. Therefore, digital media should be considered at the heart of geek culture as a whole. From my perspective, I do think that digital media have been key in transforming what we know as geek culture, but I have some reservations about the line of reasoning that places such media as the initiator of this culture in the first place.

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