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A couple of weeks ago, I was talked into attending a Sunday of table top role playing games with the Grand Edinburgh Adventuring Society, Edinburgh University’s roleplaying game society. This was entirely new to me. But I have lately been ascending the ranks of participation in fan culture, having graduated from occasional geek — mostly Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Star Wars, Leoš Janáček, etc. — to gradual nerd who’s into board games, Marxism and the works of Nadine Gordimer. Being a nerd is probably second-nature to a PhD student. Since I was already knee-deep in all this, I thought I may as well, for a lark, take the plunge into something new.

In his extensive work on the subject, Henry Jenkins describes fan culture as a form of participatory culture which changed alongside developments in mass media and technology, from a time where geeks were peripheral to cultural production to an age when they become active co-creators of the experience of a franchise[1]. What is crucial to this participatory culture is that the fan labour is entirely amateur and unpaid, predicated on the idea of the gift economy: fans contribute to this culture by producing meaning and value out of their own interest, without the desire for reward or compensation.

Geek and nerd subcultures are part of this wider participatory culture. Some people use the terms interchangeably, whereas others create different and inconsistent distinctions between the two. These terms are ultimately adopted through self-identification by members of communities, so their meaning as well as boundaries between them remain vague and fuzzy and people will always differ in their interpretations. But to my mind, geeks and nerds are distinguished by the degree and kind of labour involved. A geek primarily pursues an interest in a franchise as a consumer or collector of merchandise or knowledge who gives value to cultural commodities through their demand for it. A nerd creates value by investing their labour into the franchise to make something new, essentially creating commodities or cultural texts themselves (writing fan fiction, running fan sites, making DIY on Etsy stores, cosplay, et cetera). I would say one goes from being a geek to a nerd when the interest becomes into a hobby in which one needs to invest time and labour[2]: a geek would buy a toy sonic screwdriver, whereas a nerd would make their own.

Table-top, pen-and-paper roleplaying games are a hobby that requires the consistent investment of a lot of time and effort. The game is an exercise in collaborative storytelling, and given that nerds are often marginalised within a wider community, the imaginative storytelling and wish-fulfilment can be subversive escapes from dominant social forces. The recurring fantasy tropes — apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic societies, oppressive empires, structures of racial or class hierarchy, all of which were the basis of one of the games I played — allow for critical reflection on society, and the cooperation between players and roleplaying as a different character is an opportunity for a solidarity across these divisions[3]. The novelist Junot Díaz, famously a D&D fan, describes his experience of it as liberating, giving kids like him the chance to be heroes in their own adventure while their history books gave people of colour short shrift.

But what such a material and discursive analyses of fan labour in roleplaying games do not adequately describe is the depth of love that the gamers have for what they do, particularly the game masters who go to great lengths to facilitate an engaging and imaginative experience. The second game I signed up for was a re-skinning of Blades in the Dark to J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, set in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth. What is especially exciting is the sheer extent of everybody’s geekery, and the encyclopaedic knowledge of all the minutiae of The Lord of the Rings that all other players have (particularly the Game Master, who has transposed the setting and plot to post-War-of-the-Rings Osgiliath). This is what being a nerd is about — making (for free) an entirely new Lord of the Rings experience by investing one’s labour in remixing these games.

And as much as I am embarrassed to admit it, my character is quite close to home: a Gondorian academic and militant saboteur — playing the role of a ‘mastermind’ — who grew disillusioned with the striations of race, class, ethnicity and religion in the new Empire, and is exiled to Osgiliath where he has taken to running a radical underground printing press in order to incite a revolution against the Throne. He is, in part, a Marxist revolutionary inspired by Steven Reed, the protagonist of Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present. Although really this is just an extension of a running gag amongst my friends where I try and shoehorn Marxism or postcolonialism into everything. My character also writes under a pen name that’s an homage to the late Mark Fisher. While all of this is good fun and a tad silly, I like to think that the kind of love and the depth of creative engagement with all of this might just have some bearing on the kind of intellectual labour that goes into writing a PhD. What I love about this aspect of nerd culture is the unabashed pride people have in being nerds. It creates a community where obsessive investment is welcome, and for someone whose thesis is essentially a similar sort of investment of intellectual labour I relish this kind of space where being a nerd is rewarded through community and inclusion.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to game masters Abigail Cassidy Evadamal and Alan Jackson, fellow members of The Night Cats and Shre Lug, as well as Caileigh Marshall for her insightful remarks about the gender politics of nerd/geek culture, and also to all my other geek/nerd friends.


[1] See Jenkins’ two books on the subject, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Intersect (2006).

[2] Brooke Erin Duffy’s (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love is a compelling account of the specific gender politics of this kind of aspirational, creative labour in digital economies, which though not directly related to the matter of fan labour nevertheless can have an interesting bearing on this viz. Etsy stores, geek-chic fashion, etc.

[3] Having said that, geek/nerd culture, as if to lend truth to the stereotypes, has a widespread problem with misogyny.