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The fringes of geek culture

July 26, 2011

The New York Times recently ran an article about the creator of Dwarf Fortress, a man named Tarn Adams whose life sounds simultaneously pathetic and impressive: he has few friends and few possessions, has devoted the last ten years of his life to making Dwarf Fortress, expects to spend the next twenty years of his life working on it, and subsists, rather meagerly, entirely on donations from those who play it.

In one sense, he is completely non-materialistic; he has no desire for money, power, or fans, and refuses to compromise his principles in order to gain them. In another sense, however, he is completely materialistic; his “principles,” after all, are “I ought to make the kind of game that I would want to play, not one that takes advantage of or condescends to its players.” He cares little to nothing, it seems, for God, country, friends, family, and takes no interest in politics, philosophy, literature; his life is video games, or, rather, one video game which is difficult to make, and thus worth making. He is Ahabian in his obsession.

Or perhaps Pierre; he seems a modern starving artist, albeit with an art that does not even attempt transcendence. He seeks transcendence not through creating a work that can rend the veil between us and the Beyond, but through creating something so intricate that his obsessing over it rends the veil.

All of this brings me to the part of the NYT article that first prompted me to make this post:

Growing up, Tarn was enamored of Dungeons & Dragons and J.R.R. Tolkien, but he has never been a lockstep member of the geek culture so much as a wanderer on the fringes. He didn’t read superhero comics as a kid, and later, he never became obsessed with the “Game of Thrones” books, say, or with “Lost.” He graduated from D&D to the more obscure pen-and-paper game Cyberpunk 2020, and he and Zach would download indie computer games from early bulletin boards. They adored 1985’s Hack 1.0.3, which, with its randomly generated levels, elaborate mechanics and primitive graphics, helped to popularize a microgenre of fantasy games known as roguelikes, which in turn influenced Dwarf Fortress.

At first I found this statement simply baffling. How can not getting obsessed with comic books or Game of Thrones or Lost make one a “wanderer on the fringes” of geek culture? This man plays pen-and-paper role playing games, for crying out loud. He is clearly less on the fringes of geek culture than a resident of one of its many niches–the “gaming” one–with some interest in fantasy, as evidenced by his early love of Tolkien. He may not be a “comic book” or “sci fi” geek, and he may have stopped reading literature (perhaps it’s too social for him?) in favor of fantasy-themed games, but there is no sense in which he’s less a geek than any other geek out there.

But this brings me to two points about what the NYT writer calls “geek culture.” The first, more obvious, one is that “geek” is not a particular genre, it is instead a way of being; geek culture is subculture, and the “fringe” of geek subculture, such as there is one, is the culture around it. To be on the fringes of computer geekdom is to know one’s way around a computer but to avoid actual programming; to be on the fringes of comic-book geekdom is to have seen the superhero films of the last few years but never read any comic books; to be on the fringes of fantasy geekdom is to have read Tolkien and some GRRM but to not re-read Game of Thrones each time a new book comes out. And to be on the fringes of gaming geekdom is to have played Super Smash Bros or Halo with your friends but to have never played all the way through a Japanese RPG. What is emphatically NOT on the fringes of geek culture is to be, as Tarn Adams is, a reader of LotR, a fan of pen-and-paper roleplaying and nethack, and the single programmer behind one of the most geeky video games ever created. If anything, Tarn Adams sounds like the quintessential geek, in part because his interests are so specific.

The second point is that while geek (sub)culture is defined primarily by obsession, it is still a culture, and it still involves other people. In fact, I suspect that the obsession is not driven primarily by the thing obsessed over, but, rather, is driven by the other people. It seems important to me that Tarn Adams has a brother whom he sees every day and who obsesses over Dwarf Fortress just as much as he does. There is an important way in which the geek is not Ahab. Ahab wants the white whale all to himself, and will allow no others to hunt him, while the geek needs other geeks to affirm his choice of obsession, and, perhaps, non-geeks to notice his obsession and be impressed even as they feign disapproval. The geek chooses his obsession because he loves it, but he obsesses over it not because he really thinks it that important, but as a statement of his independence from society: take me as I am, or not at all! He still wants to be taken in. The more obscure his obsession, the more difficult it is to get into, the more he needs other geeks–and the fewer there are, the geekier. For the geek, the most important moment is when he finds the other to which he can say, as C.S. Lewis writes, “What, you too? I thought I was the only one!”

I’d like to explore what this says about the moral status of geekdom–when does a geeky obsession become wrong? When it becomes the geek’s primary way of seeking transcendence?–but I’ve already written almost a thousand words; perhaps this will be a topic for another day.

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