A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about rediscovering Magic: The Gathering. The honeymoon isn’t over yet, but my return to gaming culture opened my eyes to an intriguing phenomenon that occurs when nerds grow up. I call it the Neverland Effect.
Let’s rewind a tiny bit. When I moved to Portland a little over two years ago, I worked in a college library. The college dress code is business formal: shirt, tie, the whole nine yards. I have a tendency to showboat, so I frequently wore a waistcoat as well. I often went to my local comic store straight from work on Fridays. The first few times I showed up the store clerks were perplexed. They don’t know I’ve been reading comics since I was a child or that I used to costume at conventions. All they see is the suit. I try to not be insulted at the questions they ask me.
Let’s fast forward to just last month. I wander into my local game store wearing a plain polo shirt and jeans. I browse the shelves of games and display cases of Magic cards. A well-intentioned employee greets me.
“Can I help you find anything today?”
“Just browsing the new cards, but thanks.”
“Okay. Who are you purchasing for, perhaps I can make a suggestion.”
“I’m buying for myself.”
I start analyzing all similar interactions. It’s not my age; there are plenty of customers older than me. There is an ethnically diverse population of customers in the stores. Female customers and employees are all over the store. That’s when it hits me. I don’t look like “one of them.” I don’t look like a typical nerd who walked off the set of The Big Bang Theory. I’ve grown out of wearing fandom on my sleeve, but I’m still a nerd at heart. That’s what I call The Neverland Effect: nerds and geeks don’t recognize me as one of their own because I look grown up.
I still love gaming and comics just as much as I did when I dressed the part, but I don’t care about geek cred anymore. I enjoy what I like, and I couldn’t care less what anyone’s opinion is about how I choose to display my nerdiness. It’s upsetting that geek culture continues to value your look rather than your passion. I went to a prerelease event for Kaladesh and specifically packed a Green Lantern shirt so I could fit in with the crowd. (Aside: everyone loved the shirt!) As an extrovert I thrive on social interaction; making one slight adjustment/conscious decision to my clothing for the promise of easier socializing isn’t any real inconvenience for me. The fact remains that I shouldn’t have to do this. None of us should. Collared shirts should not mark me as the odd man out.
Every interaction I’ve ever had after experiencing The Neverland Effect (except one) has ended positively. It’s easy for me to disarm people with cordiality and shop talk, and everything is blue skies from there. You should have seen how many ears perked up when they discovered that I learned to play Magic during the Rath Cycle, let alone that I own original copies of Scroll Rack, Cursed Scroll, and Lotus Petal. A comic store owner loved my Green Lantern ring once he noticed its subtlety, and we launched a great conversation about the Geoff Johns run.
I should not need to prove myself to anyone, but because I love this community and want to interact with it, I must always be the one to break the barrier. Your appearance doesn’t make you’re a nerd. That gray matter in your skull does. I grew out of my old style, but that does not mean I’m grown up; I’m very much Peter Pan at heart. I am NOT a nerd who can “pass as an adult” or “pass as normal;” I can simultaneously be a gamer, a comic book fan, a hockey & football fan, a hiker, and an adult. Having “mainstream interests” or plain taste in clothing does not invalidate nerdiness. (For now, we’re just going to ignore the fact that nerd subculture is currently mainstream.)
Make no assumptions about who walks into your local nerd haunts. Accept everyone regardless if they’re wearing a Captain Hammer shirt, a suit and tie, or sports teams logos. Once you can do that without judgment, then you’ll know what it’s like when nerds grow up. Maybe then we’ll eradicate the Neverland Effect before the next generation knows what it feels like.