Nerds v. Jocks: twin brothers from different mothers?

Posted on August 28, 2010


OK, it’s not exactly Superman v. Batman, but a pretty fierce and very nerdy debate has erupted following a post over at Overcoming Bias, and continuing on at Marginal Revolution (two of the consistently smartest blogs in the ‘sphere). Why do nerds — for want of a better term, though we may also be talking about geeks here — like playing games so much? Of course, by “games” we don’t quite mean sports. More like video games and role-playing games; or for old-school nerds, board games and card games.

After his third visit to GenCon, Overcoming Bias’s Robin Hanson was struck by an apparent paradox: nerds have notoriously poor social skills and are awkward in social situations, and yet they gravitate to social game-playing at a much higher frequency than, um, non-nerds. Why? He offers a few theories, including:

“while nerds like to socialize, they are terrified of making social mistakes. This explains why they tend to avoid eye-contact – it is too easy to make the wrong eye contacts. Games let nerds interact socially, yet avoid mistakes via well-defined rules, and a social norm that all legal moves are “fair game.” Role-playing has less well-defined rules, but the norm there is that social mistakes are to be blamed on characters, not players.”

A further explanation proceeds by unpacking the essential nature of games:

“[This] explanation is hinted at by the fact that we use the word “game” to refer both to “fun/frivolous” and to “seriously selfishly strategic.” While social norms usually forbid overt strategic selfishness in social behavior, such strategic selfishness is allowed in games. So when we advise someone to be strategically selfish in an important real situation, we tell them to “game it.” This overt-strategy feature of games lets people use games to signal to others a capacity for being strategically selfish in real social situations. The game subtext is “don’t mess with me because I’m paying attention and know how to retaliate.” This helps explains why nerds especially like social games.”

I invite readers of This Sporting Life to visit the comment-threads of the two blogs mentioned above if they care about validity of these explanations for classic nerd behavior. Over here we are concerned mainly with the behavior, desires, and emotional pay-off for a different kind of nerd, I suppose, namely the sports fan.

So our question is something like this [Click on the button below to read more…] : are sports fans, especially those deeply and “actively” engaged in the dynamics of their favorite sports, seeking similar nerdy rewards? Do jocks play sports for the same reasons nerds play video games? And are sports fans just nerdy jocks without the physical skills to play themselves?

Are males drawn disproportionately to sports because they provide not only a simpler rule-defined world that both promotes and circumscribes competitive behavior, but also presents a “safer” place to engage in emotional lives and story lines of the athletes and teams?

Hanson’s emphasis on “signaling” is a feature of fandom we have not discussed much in these pages. But in most situations, sports fans are sending different signals from the ones Hanson conjectures for nerds. E.g.:

  • Hey! you and I like the same team or sport, so we have something important in common… and maybe more; or at least we don’t have to fight each other.
  • Hey, you like a different team than me: we have to fight!
  • Look at me, I love this team, I bleed their colors, whatever you think about this team (and its brand) you can think about me.
  • You may think of me as a serious, professional, no-nonsense kind of person (or a nerdy anti-social kid…); but look, I’m passionate about this sport, so I’m actually a more normal, approachable person than you thought.

There must be other things that sports fans signal. Help me out. The broader idea, though, is that the experience of the sports fan is almost always a socially embedded experience. Even couch potatoes who watch most of their games at home alone on TV feel themselves to be a part of a shared cultural experience. What happens in the game matters to them in part because of all the ways it matters to others. It may form part of their discourse with others at work or elsewhere; but even if it doesn’t they participate in a simulated discussion through debates shows on TV, and whatever they can read in papers and blogs.

Any big fan of a sport who has moved from a country where it’s popular to somewhere else where it is not (even if it is still accessible on satellite TV) surely has felt a void in his or her fan experience. They can watch the same games, read the same blogs, etc, but the lack of buzz in their new cultural setting dulls the experience somehow. They may then seek out a niche crowd of expatriate fans to hang out with, but even that is now a different social experience, where the fan is signaling a different social-sporting identity for different purposes.

Yes, strip away the kitschy ball cap or team scarf, and we are all just insecure nerds seeking surer footing across a slippery social terrain.

(Shout-out to Chris MacDonald for feeding me the initial links.)