Playing with rules

I want to spend some time explaining nerds. In particular, nerds of the type that I get along with. I mentioned in my rant about questioning the assumptions that “The difficulty comes in dealing with people who believe that the rules are the rules full stop.” It’s interesting because after reading that in the context of my rant about being an introvert and not getting along with a lot of people, I realized that this understanding of the social construction of rules was one of the defining characteristics of my friends.

I think this quality manifests itself relatively early in life. Let’s look at several of the defining characteristics of the nerd childhood. Reading fantasy or science fiction, for instance. A lot of people think these genres are just stupid because they’re unrealistic. They can’t happen (of course, these same people are fine with spy or romance novels, but that’s another story). But their very unreality is the attraction for nerds. It’s an exploration of the question: what happens if you change the rules? What things can we expect to be the same? What things will change? In some sense, it’s an exploration of what is essential to our humanity. Fantasy and sci-fi novels are often about contrasting humans with aliens, or placing humans in fantastic situations but showing how they still react in a recognizably human fashion.

D&D and other role-playing games are another good example. Again, they let the young nerd explore other worlds, other rulesets, other possibilities, and grow comfortable with those possibilities. By altering the world rules, and by letting the participant construct an alter ego, it permits the telling of a story that would not be possible under the rules of the real world. These stories are often very powerful to the participants, and my current theory is that this is because it lets them assert aspects of themselves that are not available under the real world ruleset. But by playing with the rules in this virtual way, they can discover these aspects that they can then apply in the real world.

A third example is the fascination of nerds with games of all sorts. Computer games, board games, etc. Taking the playing with rules idea to an extreme are games like Nomic, where changing the rules is the whole point of the game, or Mao, where discovering the rules (and later adding to them) is the point. There’s also a fascination with game design; figuring out how to tweak the rules to make them fairer or more interesting. I had one friend in college who spent time trying to design three-player chess. I had another friend who would buy a computer game a week, generally finishing it by the next weekend; when asked what he was doing, he said “Research” – he’s now one of the top computer game designers in the country.

All of these very stereotypical traits of the nerd childhood share a fascination with tweaking the rules. Part of that is due to the outcast nature of the typical nerd; they dream of changing things such that they are part of the in crowd, or are powerful in other ways. But part of it is just the outlook of understanding that everything is a game, that the rules are never set in stone and instead are put in place by somebody for a reason. One reason that I get along with my friends is that there’s an openness to discussing these sorts of topics. They’re willing to take an analytical look at why certain organizations might have the rules that they do. There’s no taboo on the possibilities of conversation; everything is fair game. And this is really hard for most people to understand. To many people, the world is black and white, right and wrong. There are things you think about, and things you don’t. In contrast, my world is all grays. Everything is contextual. I like to sit around with my friends, batting around ideas, exploring them from all sides, and seeing what we get out of the discussion. I can’t do that with most people, because they don’t see other sides; they have the one view they’re comfortable with and refuse to deviate from it. And that’s so limiting to me that I can’t deal with it.

So there’s my theory. Nerds have a certain openness of mind and of considering other possibilities that is either discovered at a young age, or cultivated by the typical activities of a nerd childhood. They develop a certain playfulness with regard to the rules that lets them see how all rulesets in life are socially constructed. And that’s why I get along with them.