When I first tried to learn Magic the Gathering, I had a hard time. In fact, I was so frustrated that after just one game I gave up for over a year. Even after I began to try again, I was extremely out of the loop. It felt like it was taking me an absurdly long time to master the game; like I ought to have picked it up much more quickly than I did. I even accused my boyfriend of being a deliberately cruel opponent, claiming that his starter deck must be specifically engineered to destroy mine. When I finally voiced these opinions to him, he laughed. “You’re being unfair to yourself,” he told me. “I’ve been playing this game for years, and you just started.” Maybe so, but I felt (however incorrectly) that by falling short of a prodigy’s talent at the game, I was failing as a nerd.
Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I identify as a nerd. BUT. I’m a nerd who has never been to a convention of any kind. I’ve never seen an episode of the original Star Trek series. I’ve never been properly involved in a roleplaying campaign, I can’t fix your computer, and I didn’t get around to reading Lord of the Rings until I was 22 (well after the movies had already come out). Frankly, I don’t always feel I fit in among other nerds. In nerdy groups, I sometimes zone out during entire conversations, because I have nothing to contribute. (Every time Dragonball Z comes up, for example.)
Thinking about all this recently has led me to ponder- just what is a nerd, exactly? Now, I don’t propose to answer that question in its entirety; I merely want to throw out some questions for you to think about. (I feel I should mention here, that in this post I will make no distinction between nerds and geeks. I have never felt strongly about the perceived difference between these two words, and so I leave them to you to hash out in the comments, should you care to.) So, being a nerd. Is the definition as simple as- someone who was picked on in high school? No, that’s not quite right. Is it someone who excels in academics? Does one need to have a specific, deep knowledge or passion about something in order to be classified as a nerd? Is it important, as a nerd, to have a basic understanding of the inside of a computer?
There seem to be a plethora of factors that contribute to one’s status as a nerd (or non-nerd). For instance, if you were into Pokémon in the ‘90’s, did that make you a nerd? I would argue not. Everyone liked Pokémon in the ‘90’s. Liking it back then made you a kid, not a nerd. Now, if you’re into Pokémon today? Yeah, you’re probably a nerd. For the flip side, take Game of Thrones. If you read A Song of Ice and Fire when it came out, you were probably a nerd. But if you’re into the series now, that doesn’t prove much of anything. If you’re a nerd, you probably like Game of Thrones, but liking Game of Thrones does not necessarily imply that you are a nerd. Of course, these examples bring up the issue of time and place. There are people out there, I’m sure, who wore pocket protectors and watched the original Battlestar Galactica when it came out on television, but have no idea who Charmander or Jon Snow are. And yet, these people are nerds too.
Of course, there is something to the idea of self-identification. That is, if you call yourself a nerd, then you are one. But even that is a little tricky. Let’s take, for a moment, a sampling of self-identifying nerds I’ve met. I know nerds who are interested (or even experts) in:
Fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, Wheel of Time, His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games, Twilight, etc.)
Sci-Fi (Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Dune, the works of Isaac Asimov, etc.)
Video Games (Role-Playing Games, Massive Multiplayer Online games, First-Person Shooters, fighting games, puzzle games, etc.)
Strategy Games (Magic the Gathering, Settlers of Catan, Risk, Dominion, Munchkin, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Citadels, etc.)
Role-playing Games (table-top role-play, Live-Action Role-Play, Society for Creative Anachronism, battle re-enacting, fighting games like Dagorhir, etc.)
Comics (trade comic books, graphic novels, anime and manga, classic superheroes, cartoon network, adult swim, etc.)
Conventions (Comic-Con, PAX, etc, and including various competitions, beta testing, and cosplay, etc.)
Computers (maintenance, programming, design, video games and game design, etc.)
And, if I’ve forgotten your subculture, please complain about it in the comments.
Then there are a variety of other things commonly associated with nerds. Dinosaurs come to mind. Scientists, historians, literature-buffs, graphic designers, and thespians have all been known to refer to themselves as nerds. These days, it seems that a healthy interest in just about anything qualifies you to be a nerd. As a nerd, you’re expected to know it all. (Ha, know-it-all. There’s another term for you.) At the very least, in nerd circles, you want to be able to say “Well, I haven’t read that book, but I’ve seen the movie,” or “I haven’t played that game yet, but I read a really favorable review.”
It’s overwhelming, frankly. I want to call myself a nerd, but I feel pressured to be good at so much more than I already am. I never played video games as a kid, for example, and now that I’ve started, I feel terribly behind. I already know what a Goron is, sure, but I still haven’t learned why a few years ago my Facebook newsfeed lit up with posts of “SKYRIM. Skyrim, Skyrim, Skyrim!” Isn’t it bad enough that as a nerd, I don’t always fit in to mainstream society? Surely I shouldn’t have to feel left out among fellow nerds, too. But the fact is, sometimes I do. Maybe you feel the same way?
If this is you, then NEWS FLASH. You can’t know it all. Being a nerd can be extremely time-consuming, not to mention taxing on your wallet. Much as I would love to own that DVD boxed set of the un-altered Star Wars original trilogy, I haven’t been able to bring myself to spend the money just yet. Much as I want to be able to seamlessly quote the new Hobbit movies while simultaneously settling Catan like a boss, I just haven’t found the time to learn it all. YET. It might seem like the only way to fit in with nerds is to more than your neighbor (to spark hir interest, but to ultimately out-nerd hir). But my message to you is to take heart. You have time to deepen your knowledge. Next time someone asks you “What tribe will the Avatar after Korra be from?” you’ll know it’s Earth. Next time. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by it all. Just take pride in the knowledge you have, and keep pushing yourself to know more. Own the title of nerd, no matter what stage of the game you’ve reached. If you want to be a nerd, go for it.
As for me, I plan to win a game of Magic one of these days. And not just by dumb luck.
Plain Jane is a self-identified nerd from Jamestown, New York. She loves nerdy things like musical theatre and nature lectures. She loves Star Wars especially and identifies as Lawful Good.