I became a nerd on the first day of sixth grade.
I wasn’t a nerd before that. Oh sure, I liked reading a lot and didn’t like sports much, but I wasn’t a nerd. I liked G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Transformers, mythology and fantasy, but I wasn’t a nerd. I was just a kid with glasses who read more than he played outside, who had just moved to a new city and didn’t know anyone at his new school. I was just a normal kid.
I was a normal kid until I introduced myself to the first kid I saw on the playground, and then he pushed me down and called me a nerd.
And I became a nerd.
I spent the next three years being bullied by kids who thought Biff Tannen from fucking Back to the Future was a fucking role model (you have no idea how much I hate that fucking movie). I went from not being very good at sports but still enjoying playing soccer to absolutely loathing sports and everything that goes with them. I went from being a boy the girls liked to being a guy who couldn’t get a girl to notice him. I went from being a normal kid to being a nerd.
The bullying continued on into high school. It dropped off dramatically after I grew my hair long and started dressing like a member of the Trenchcoat Mafia, but never completely stopped until I entered the workforce as an adult. It scarred me in ways I can’t shake even today.
My refuge was my hobbies: action figures (when I was younger), reading, writing, theater arts, and (when I was older) role-playing games. While I realize in retrospect that several of my friends would have bridled at being labeled “nerds,” the majority of my friends certainly played AD&D 2nd Edition because it was an outsider rite of passage, a nerdy thing that was part of the sub-culture that welcomed those of us who had been rejected by the mainstream. Gaming was a refuge from a world we hated and feared.
I know I’m not alone in this. The frequency of similar experiences to my own is why you see references to it on The Big Bang Theory, Community, and Futurama. It’s the reason Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel got into RPGs. It’s the reason there’s an entire “nerd culture” these days.
My experience is not universal.
There are a people out there in the RPG blogosphere who are mystified by this culture of traumatized nerds. My unscientific sampling of the OSR indicates a large number of the guys who got into D&D back before the Satanic Panic were just normal kids (and adults) who just happened to like this new, then-popular game. They went on to have normal friends and normal lives and they continued to like sports and beer and all that normal stuff.
Good for them. I don’t want my experience to be universal. I don’t want anyone to be bullied for liking a certain book or a certain movie or a certain game. I’m happy that there are people in this world for whom D&D and Star Wars and all that was just part of a happy childhood… Like those kids from E.T., I guess. (I don’t know; I hate E.T. too.)
The thing I’d like to say to those gamers, though, is “Your experience is not universal.”
There are a lot of us who suffered through our childhoods because of bullying. It’s only natural that we formed communities of our own where we didn’t have to deal with the bullies (or the “normal” people who were allied with the bullies by default). We’re downright jealous of those of you who got through life without having to deal with this; we’re baffled that you can be a jock and a nerd at the same time. It just seems so unfair and it leaves us scared and angry and jealous.
But that isn’t the fault of those gamers. Our experiences are not universal and they are not exclusive. There is no single true path to gamerhood than there is a right and a wrong way to play D&D. We have gathered on the internet to celebrate our hobby, so we should try to make it the biggest, baddest party possible. We are all among friends here.
But forgive me if I sometimes stand off to the side. Forgive me if I stand with my back to the wall, scowling over my wine, wincing when the noise gets too loud. Forgive me if I roll my eyes when you talk about your sports teams or even laugh that you – the popular guy, the normal guy – feel ostracized from a hobby you love by people united by shared sense of trauma.
Forgive me, but your experience is not universal.