Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Making the saving throw against inauthenticity

I know, I know, I know: there are few things more tiresome (and many things more important) than the debate about whether someone is a 'genuine' geek or not.

And I'm certainly not one of those people who wants their special little cultural obsessions to remain obscure: indeed, I like the fact that several things that tended to lead to social marginalisation in my youth (computer programming, comic books, fantasy novels, role-playing games) have become fairly solidly mainstream pastimes, not least since this means that young people who are interested in them don't have to quite risk their social standing among their peers in the way that once tended to be the case.

Nonetheless, I thought Tim Wu's discussion at Slate of the new film Zero Charisma -- the plot of which features a tabletop role-playing game as a central element -- was insightful with regard to one of the central issues in this (fairly marginal but for me still personally relevant) little culture war.

The plot of the film seems to revolve around a group of gamers -- in particular the DM, Scott -- whose regular dungeon-diving sessions are thrown into chaos (and Scott into an apparent existential crisis) when one group member's departure leads to his replacement by a 'hipster' figure named Miles.

As Wu describes:

Scott, to put things mildly, does not deal well with changes to his routine, and he cannot handle the arrival of Miles. The great injustice is that Miles, while he has never paid his dues, is actually a very talented gamer. He threatens everything Scott stands for, and indeed the very idea that you need suffer for art (or nerd cred), the idea that paying dues matters.

You may or may not take seriously the idea that 'paying dues' might have any meaning when it simply means having spent a lot of time around tables while rolling dice and discussing with great seriousness the respective merits of different magical weapons and thereby suffering some degree of social ostracism.

Still, I couldn't help but think that Wu was on to something in his conclusion:

A debate has raged online for a while about the meeting of coolness and nerdiness, with the “fake geek girl” meme and Portlandia’s “nerd council” sketch notable recent entries in that discussion. But Zero Charisma asks bigger questions than whether hipsters are ruining perfectly good subcultures with their version of poverty chic. Buried here among the saving throws is something deeper. Scott suffers for his obsession, while Miles takes the path of detached imitation. We want Scott to win, and for all his suffering to be worth something. But the slightly depressing insight in this film is that sometimes suffering doesn’t make you better. As co-director Andrew Matthews says, it’s about his “greatest fear … that someone else is doing exactly what you do, but is just better.”

Here is the trailer for the film, which I look forward to seeing someday when the DVD finally becomes available in Germany (though the film arguably perpetuates the stereotype of gamers as overgrown man-children who can't cope with real life...which is, you know, only half true).


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