Before I get going here, I don’t want you to be lost in case you were trying cigarettes in junior high instead of playing sorcery card games. So in case you don’t know, this is essentially what Magic: The Gathering is about:
You have “land” cards, that come in five types– red, blue, white, green and black. Each color has corresponding monsters, spells and corrective footwear that gives them advantages over cards from other colors, and you use the land cards to “pay” for them. Some people use two colors, or three, in a deck; most use one. So, your goal is to beat the opposing cartomancer by “damaging” him or her with your spells and critters. The concept is simple and straightforward, right? Good.
When I first arrived, there was a sign for the Magic tournament that said “Battle of the Bad.” Apparently, this was because we were all going to “draft” cards from different stacks of terrible cards, so we would all be playing with the worst of what Magic had to offer. I remember more than enough from my athletic playing days that you have to put yourself in the mood to succeed in whatever way works best for you; that’s why, on the drive in, I listened to a two-song playlist consisting of Cake’s “The Distance” and “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. By the time I arrived, then, I was in no mood to be fucked with.
Organizer: “Hi, are you here for the tournament?”
Me: “No. I’m here for the Battle.”
Organizer: (awkward silence)
Me: “Am I saying that right? ‘Battle’?”
The first thing I noticed was that, whether coincidental or merely unfortunate, the room consisted in the panoply of stereotypes that likely do not represent the majority of Magic players. Thesaurus.com offers these (evidently) accepted levels of increasing severity for the nerd:
“a geek is any smart person with an obsessive interest, a nerd is the same but also lacks social grace, and a dweeb is a mega-nerd.”
Armed with this objective, scientific analysis, I was able to see quickly that the tournament offered at least one example of every major nerd sub-category:
Weird Facial Hair Guy: usually, nerds with substantial girth and height mask their insecurity by having ‘crazy’ facial hair; the rationale, I believe, is that by showing others they are good-natured about the hydraulic grip of the cold hand of evolutionary injustice, they will dissipate sarcasm, criticism or even their own insecurity. In a word, they strive to make everyone, including themselves, comfortable with them. At the tournament, this manifested in a 6’5″, 240 lb. guy with a Charles Manson beard teased out to a handlebar mustache. It was epic.
“Oh no I dih-n’t!” Guy: In his collection of essays “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace’s review of a new dictionary includes a brilliant digression on the contexts of different vernaculars in language. When we are kids, e.g., we talk differently with teachers, with parents, with friends, with religious figures, with sports coaches, etc. His point is, part of complex language acquisition isn’t the acquisition at all; it’s the understanding of euphemism and social context that determines language use. His explanation concludes that kids that are ostracized as nerds under-develop, or never develop, the ability to change social contexts as kids. If they did, they would learn to pipe down in class to not look “uncool,” they would learn to swear when no adults are around, they would learn to make fun of others in order to be a member of a “better” social group. Nerds, though, are always hopelessly trapped in one vernacular, unable to adjust to the quickly sophisticating social relationships that occur in childhood and adolescence.
A young outsider turns into an old outsider, and something really interesting happens for some nerds: in an attempt to breach this vernacular gap, they will intentionally use language in a way that is flagrantly “for” the crowd they’re with. This is always for one of two reasons: to assure others that they are funny/witty/edgy, or simply to assure others that any first impression of them as a nerd is wrong. Either way, it takes the power of categorization away from the observer, and awards linguistic leverage to the nerd– a valuable coping mechanism, particularly for those who have always been in sociolinguistic bankruptcy. The problem, of course, is no one in a given social sphere announces what they’re doing to others. Cooks don’t tell each other “the temperature of this grill will really do the trick for cooking this meat!” People getting high in the dunes at the beach don’t tell each other, “wow, we sure are smoking marijuana cigarettes!” This tournament happened to have the “funny/witty/edgy” guy, who would laugh loudly at his own jokes and frequently say things like “Why did I do that? I shouldn’t have smoked so much crack before I got here! Haha!” or “oh man, I’m going to hell for saying that! Maybe this time around I’ll get a better room!” or “jeez, I might as well bend over the table right now and save you the time!” There was one of these there, and he said all of these things and more at some point.
Un-nerd Guy: because people are not categorical stereotypes from “Revenge of the Nerds”, the reality is that the interests of “nerds” are not relegated to sociotarded Rain Men. These traditional things, like Magic, Dungeons & Dragons, Risk, and (massive multiplayer online) role-playing video games, are associated with nerds because they create a sense of togetherness and communal interest in a social group negatively defined– they are not nerds because they are nerds; nerds are nerds because of what they do not have: mainly, membership in the social groups we designate as ours, and refuse to them. Naturally, tons of people who move fluidly through multiple vernacular spheres breach on the nerd sphere easily. It feeds particular interests they have that other social groups do not satisfy, but they operate with a level of confidence that they can still move between spheres as much as they’d like without being “condemned” to being a nerd, for example, because they like video games. I am this kind of nerd, and 4 others there were as well.
The Cruelty of Interests Guy: this kind of nerd is generally the nicest and most secure of any of them. When you have a set of interests that includes deep investment in vampires, dwarves, spells and knowing insults in Latin, it can be a cruel reality that you happen to look exactly like the things you like. For example, I’m 6’3″ and broad-shouldered; I’m not really type-representative of anything you’d see on a Magic card (unless they have one for “Breakdancing Pope of Tacos”). There was one kid, though, who was about 5’5″, and on the portly side. Liking dwarves and looking like one is one of these somewhat cruel intersections. Generally though, these nerds are far more socially aware of how they are perceived because they are aware of the phenomenology of their being. This is opposed to…
Projection Complex Guy: I’m not talking about people who dress up for Star Trek or Star Wars conventions; that’s a social exercise among like-minded individuals, and whether you into it or not, that’s one thing. Some proselytize, though; they say things like “man, that was a stupid move!” or “I thought you said you played this before” or even “if you want, you can just leave now and I’ll give you your entry fee back. What a waste of time.” The goal is, obviously, to punish you for not being like them. If you weren’t so you, you’d see how awesome this guy is. He’s just turning bullying on its head: if you aren’t like him, he’ll tear you down simply on account. We had one of these guys, and he got booted from the tourney after 10 minutes.
The Big Fat Liar: some nerds can’t give up the dream that they can sate their nerdery and still distance themselves from the nerd sphere in the eyes of others. Having, for example, gone off to college, and realizing that unlike high school, no one here knows you once made a sex doll of an anime cat-woman out of Q-tips, acrylic paint and Neosporin, then poof! Now you’re a new man! Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in “Mother Night”, that “we are what we pretend to be… so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.” This is the mantra of the liar– he will feed you the stimuli that prove he is how he wants to be seen. So he might show up to the tournament and say something like, “yeah, I mean, so I don’t really play Magic, but I know like the rules or whatever, and if I win I can sell the cards they give you on eBay. It’s like, it’s free money, know what I mean?” There was one of these.
If you did the math on all that, you’d reach ten participants. This took place on campus at Eastern Michigan University. EMU has 22,974 students. 12 of them signed up for the tournament, and only 10 showed. Many of them probably misinterpreted the title, and fearing that their radness wasn’t awesome enough, they couldn’t be good enough to beat the truly bad. But generally speaking, we can all agree I was in very selective company.
My first game did not go well. I was playing The Big Fat Liar, and his laissez-faire attitude only made getting my ass handed to me more demeaning. Clearly, I was not nearly so prescient as I had anticipated being. I rationalized beforehand that the game is essentially about using the abilities of all your cards to help each other, and hurt your opponent. It quickly became obvious that my original game plan was somewhere between “lobotomized earthworm” and “sentient pig semen” on the broad scale of intelligence. I revised my dissociative strategy, and took game 2. I lost game 3, and so was defeated in the first match.
At this point, I started questioning whether or not I possessed any supernatural ability. I mean, I know that my grandfather on my mom’s side was a Daywalker and I had two uncles that were ghosts, so I figured I must have inherited something. I resolved to focus my wizarding energies, lose all strategy, and just let the magic speak through my death-bringing fingertips.
It totally worked. I played dwarf guy next, and he was a genuinely enjoyable person. I fucked him up really hard for all three games, and by the end of it I felt absolutely terrible about myself. He even invited me to hang out with them later that night– grabbing a couple beers then going to a group thing they do every week. If the group thing hadn’t been dressing like vampires and role-playing life in the 14th century (which, in fact, it was) I may have considered it. He apologized to me for not playing better. Devastating.
I can only imagine he was an agent for my next opponent, who was a fellow Un-Nerd. He wasn’t substantially better than me, but he did have strategy. And there I was, an emotional tempest in a teapot and a strategic nightmare, sitting across from him. He evenly and methodically tore me to pieces– three games in about twenty-five minutes. (The average was three games in about forty-five minutes.) Just like that, my day was done. The whole process– from draft to draw to playing all three opponents–lasted about four hours.
This was even more embarrassing, because we were allowed to put our own names on the dry erase board for the standings before we got going. Other people put their names on it. I put “The Alabaster Porkchop” where my name was supposed to go. My rationale was, when I won the final game and the big prize, I would karate-punch my opponent’s throat until it stippled then shout “you just got CHOPPED, son!” But there I was, in a room full of people representing .0005% of EMU’s student population, at a tournament where 2 people paid money to show up then thought about it later and were like, “mmmmnaaaah, I don’t think I’ll do that,” on a Saturday at 1 PM when the number of other things any of us could have been doing besides this tournament was so inconceivable that your aneurisms would catch leprosy just from trying to think about it…
in that room on EMU’s campus, at that tournament, at that time, you could’ve walked in and seen all the legerdemain and cunning of the world’s foremost warlock and eye into the future walking slump-shouldered back to his car, and the unmistakable signature of hubris burning like neon sex into the dry erase board:
The Alabaster Porkchop.
Dead fucking last place.
On the whole, the experience was a good one. As a country, we’re so horny for nostalgia that a tragic percentage of entertainment is sampled, stolen, remade, reissued or reworked. The main problem with this, besides pandering to intellectual sloth and creating a culture of vapidity, is it never really works either way: the old who experienced it around the first time won’t appreciate the added sensationalism needed to sell it to a younger audience, and the young don’t have the cultural background or history to understand why this, why now? In the end, the product never truly hits either audience, but each audience will patronize it before being let down, justifying this process of creative abortion by agreeing to its terms. I think that’s why it’s so easy to go to something like this tournament; it’s not like they’ve added hookers or jetpacks or solid gold credenzas just to bring in a newer audience. The game has evolved a bit, but it hasn’t changed. Lots of “nerd” culture is like this. The fans and participants are militant about rules, accuracy and constancy, because it is their thing, and they won’t let what is important to them be changed without a fight. For some, the childhood dream to see their favorite things become a movie, show or toy isn’t eclipsed by the fanhood that gave birth to that dream. There are some pockets, some social spheres, where a sense of integrity still adheres to the things which brought them together in the first place. And when you can look at something you did half a lifetime ago and return to find it essentially unchanged, I think it begs an interesting question:
who, exactly, is keeping who out?