The geeky addictions debate: Part 3

November 29, 2008

Harrysaxon raises some interesting points in his recent Geeky Addictions: harrysaxon’s reply, but ultimately, I think he’s guilty of oversimplifying the issue. In fact, “addiction” is a perfectly applicable term for the degrees to which geeks (and mainstreamers, as I noted in my original post) pursue their interests (to great lengths) and can be applied not necessarily with self-loathing, but merely as a means of self-honesty.

The first thrust of harrysaxon’s post is that addiction = extreme behavour, and therefore shouldn’t be associated with more moderate geeky indulgence. He uses examples like gaming for 30 hours straight, ignoring hygiene and diet, and purchasing books in large amounts despite debt.

But it is important to note that these are extreme examples, and the world, geek culture, and geeks themselves, are a lot more complex than that. What harrysaxon is ignoring is that there are degrees of addiction. Certainly you wouldn’t say a cigarette smoker is the same as a heroine or cocaine addict in terms of behaviour or their ability to exercise good judgement. Yet they are both without a doubt addicts.

The fact is the world is filled with examples of small-scale addiction: smoking (as mentioned above); the need some have for coffee/caffeine; the need others have for daily (if not more regular), vigorous exercise. These forms of addiction are commonplace and the fact of their addictive nature has been documented at length. It’s also true that these pursuits/behaviours as exhibited by the vast majority of the population are not considered extreme.

It is perfectly reasonable and accurate then to apply the label of addiction to habitual activities like gaming, book buying, comic or figurine collecting, or any of the other geeky activities, even when they are not carried to extremes. I may be on the street, walk near a bookstore, and find myself slowing down to check it out, and quite possibly veer towards the door or go in, even doing quick mental calculations about how much time I can spend in there and if I’ve got the cash to buy something. Why? Because it’s a habit and it makes me feel good. Judgement might kick in a second or two later and tell me I shouldn’t go in (for whatever reason), and I’ll probably feel some level of disappointment. This would be similar to your everyday garden-variety joe getting up in the morning and heading towards the coffee machine because he needs his morning java. If he doesn’t have time to make a pot, he’ll probably be disappointed, to say the least. Clearly, some form of mild addiction is at work. By the same token, you, harrysaxon, might have a huge pile of games to play, which, given the chance, you will, and will undoubtedly look forward to, because you do it habitually and you enjoy it. You’ll probably even shift priorities around to facilitate this (as you admitted in your post “My shameful lack of updates“, using words/phrases like “overwhelmed”, “must-play” and “sucking my life away” which go part and parcel with addictive states) because gaming makes you feel good. When something interferes with that, you get frustrated. Again, similar stimulus and behaviour response that one might see in an exercise addict who habitually does yoga in the morning, followed by a run or trip to the gym in the afternoon and gets a runners’ high, and who “feels it” if they don’t engage in exercise. Whether the endorphine rush is caused by an external chemical like caffein or provoked internally by exercise or book-buying or gaming, when the action is habitual and provokes positive/negative responses such that it affects action and decision-making (even in a trivial way) a person’s probably got some level of addiction going on.

And it’s important to remember that we’re talking levels here. Not all low-level addictions interfere with lives significantly, and there are many degrees between those and the immediately destructive ones like gaming for 30 hours straight or shooting smack.

Also, those degrees of addiction can very much depend on the observer. There are doubtless many people (more likely mainstreamers) who would say that 20 hours a week of gaming or 10 unread books in the in-box do indicate a low to moderate addiction. Personally, because it doesn’t adversely affect my life (just as you have indicated it doesn’t affect yours), I don’t care. I can admit it, see the humour that lies within that, and go back to thinking about buying the next book.

To invoke words like “hobby” as a preference over “addiction” when the pursuit of geeky passions is habitual and has some influence over satisfaction level and behaviour is hair-splitting at best, and hiding from the truth at worst. Better to be honest with ourselves and call a spade a spade. Many geeks have some degree of addiction to their passions.

The second significant point raised in harrysaxon’s post was that geeks are self-loathing and ashamed of our addictions/passions/whatever. This couldn’t be further from the truth for most of the geek population.

Mainstream condemnation of SF and associated aspects of our culture and cluster of sub-cultures does inspire strong feelings among geeks. Certainly there’s resentment at this kind of treatment. But rather than self-loathing, it tends to foster pride (finding greater importance and meaning in that which geeks love, and a value for the strength and courage associated with going against the grain), and, in a kind of seige mentality, occasionally disdain for the mainstream. Yes, there may be angst about geek culture, but not of the self-loathing kind so much as it is concern for the survival of this culture, for the continued opportunities for expression of this culture in the face of a larger mainstream group that could cut off these means of expression. This is a concern shared by many minority groups around the world today and throughout history and tends to result in a resurgence of community pride and greater value of shared sense of self.

Some youth and the video game playing friends you’ve spoken with, harrysaxon, may feel self-loathing, but they’re in the minority.  Neither I, nor any other fan of books, movies, figurines, comics, rpg’s, etc – even video games – who I’ve encountered in many, many years of hanging around in bookstores, SF specialty bookstores, comic/collectibles shops in several cities in Canada and the US, nor those who I’ve chatted with and read in many SF websites and blogs, nor those who I’ve talked to and observed while attending local, national and international conventions, loathes themselves. Quite the contrary. The majority of adult geeks enjoy the hell out of their areas of the culture and are proud of who they are and what they enjoy. I’m not just saying this as a proud geek either. For years I stomped the streets as a reporter and interviewed every type of person in pretty much every type of situation you can imagine. Reporters are experts at observing individuals and groups and figuring out what makes them tick.  Get out from in front of the computer, go out to an SF bookstore or a comic shop or an RPG/table-top-strategy-game store and look through the window at the customers. Wander around at a con, especially the dealers’ room where the delegates are spending hundreds of dollars on you-name-it to feed their addictions. You won’t see shame in their eyes. They aren’t like the 40-year-old guy slipping furtively into the adult entertainment store to buy foot-fetish porn who’s wracked with Catholic guilt and afraid his clients and business partners or his kids will see him. Not remotely. No, you’ll see happiness and engagement, for in these centres of geek culture they can be themselves – they’ve come home. Geeks may feel hurt or annoyed by mainstream condemnation, but most shuck it off rather than let it eat at them. Some learn to joke about it. As with the vast majority of people, as geeks grow into adults, they become more secure in themselves and cease to care about the high-schoolesque opinions of mainstreamers who waste time condeming geek culture. That’s why geeks open specialty shops and organize and attend cons and give out international literary awards complete with cash prizes and idolize geek media stars and discuss geek stuff online ad-nauseum. Self-loathing just isn’t there for most of the adult geek community.

As for the last bit in the harrysaxon rant about the future of the mainstream and geek cultures… who knows? Fads come and go. Cultures evolve or not, converge, diverge or are destroyed for any number of reasons.

It is comforting though, at the end of the day, to know that because geeks are proud of their culture/sub-cultures and because they’re so ferociously loyal to their passions that many are addicted to them to some degree, geek culture will continue to thrive and offer more experiences for us to explore.

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