Mouse Smash

JC Lau's blog about geekery, gender and other rants

“What kind of geek are you?”

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whatgeek1I didn’t self-identify as a geek for a very long time. As a child, I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the 80s, but that wasn’t particularly geeky, because all kids my age liked the Turtles. In a third grade spelling test we were told to spell the longest word we knew, and I managed to get out “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, not because I was an academic overachiever, but because I thought that Mary Poppins was an awesome movie. I liked reading, but I was much more drawn to writers like Roald Dahl and, later, Jeffrey Archer and Michael Crichton, than Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman. I didn’t even touch a Marvel or DC comic until I was about 20.

But the reason I’m writing about my unassumed geekiness is because I was once presented with the question, “but what kind of geek are you?” and I was speechless. That question left me stumped for days. How on earth do you answer something like that? I’ve had geeky interests my whole life, but they just haven’t presented themselves to me as geeky per se. I just thought that they were interests that everyone had. Everyone likes Ninja Turtles, right? Everyone wants to be a superhero, right? Wouldn’t that make everyone a geek?

I mean, really. You couldn’t be a 90s kid without liking these guys.

I mean, really. You couldn’t be a 90s kid without liking these guys.

It’s almost like asking someone to label and subcategorize parts of their identity, or asking an equally unhelpful question as “but what kind of person are you?”, if geek identity is truly intrinsic to one’s identity. For someone who’s got a strong background in one area of geekdom, a question like “what kind of geek are you?” might be answerable, but what sort of response can you give if your geeky interests cover many different domains?

This is why I find the idea of geek identification tricky to understand and articulate. Sometimes, questions about identity are easy to answer, because there are reasonably straightforward categories (like that very irritating question, “but what kind of Asian are you?” or questions about your college major or nationality). But when the answers aren’t commonly accepted subcategories, or there are multiple possible choices whose boundaries are indistinct, it becomes harder to give a straight answer.

Geek taxonomy is a prime example of the latter. There are some types of geek with strong identification: gamers, fans of comic books, science and tech geeks, LARPers and cosplayers, and so on.

Even among sci-fi geeks there’s disagreement.

Even among sci-fi geeks there’s disagreement.

But even then, the categories break down on closer inspection. Science fiction, for example, has its own subcategories and rivalries—so much ink has been spilled in debates about Star Trek vs. Star Wars, and in the world of comic books there’s a well-known DC/Marvel dichotomy.

So how does geek identity work if, like me, you like Firefly and Star Trek but you’ve never seen Doctor Who? Or, like my sister, if you’re a physicist and strongly dislike the idea of time travel? Or, one of my friends loves the movies from the Marvel Universe, but has never read a single comic book; where does he fit into geekdom?

If we all had singular, narrow interests, then we could easily say what kind of geeks we were. That, and if Marvel just stuck with making comic books about non-overlapping universes, if Lego only made blocks, and if the Harry Potter franchise was just a set of books and not films, video games, toys, and costumes. The expansion of areas of geekdom into other domains muddies the water when we talk about identity, but it also gives us greater opportunities to learn about other things to geek out about. Specifically, it gives us choices to determine what kind of geeks we want to be.

There are a lot of different subcategories of geek culture to pick from! Image source: Julianna Brion

In retrospect, if I had to pick a subcategory of geek with which to identify, I’d say that I was a gamer. I’ve played games since I was about three, and video games are a huge part of my life. But to answer the question by saying that I’m a gamer implies that I’m just a gamer—it really misses a lot of other aspects of who I am. Sure, I’m a gamer, but I also dabble in RPGs, and I read comic books. I’ve dipped my toe into the waters of cosplay. I like dinosaurs and robots, and I wrote a thesis in college about the metaphysics of time travel and causation. Saying that I’m a gamer doesn’t encompass these other domains of geekdom.

The other consideration is that geek identity evolves over time. Sure, I didn’t read a comic book until I was 20, but once I did, the floodgates were open and I was catching up as fast as I could on the last sixty years of superhero comics. Playing RPGs in video games led me to playing tabletop RPGs, and to board games more generally, which moved me beyond Cranium and Monopoly to Pandemic and Galaxy Trucker. Watching Star Trek has renewed my interest in science and technology, especially when I found out that some of the tech in Star Trek is actually getting developed. I’m learning more about how to make costumes. I’m sure at some point I’ll finally get around to watching Doctor Who. My geek universe is expanding, and I’m discovering more of it all the time.

So, when people ask me what kind of geek I am, the answer is actually “all kinds”, even though I just might not know it yet.

This post was originally published on GeekGirlCon.

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