To Geekdom! What Can StarCraft II Tell Us About Attaining Geek-hood?

June 10, 2013

PROJECTS: Leveling Up

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Not long after I first participated in the StarCraft community, I fell in love with it. I admire its members’ activism, congeniality, and camaraderie. The players built the community infrastructure including organizations, learning ethos, social networks, and other programs. The StarCraft II community reveals one possible model of how peer-supported and academically relevant learning may manifest in grassroots and openly-networked settings. But as Mimi Ito pointed out in a thoughtful piece, geek communities like that of StarCraft II are often made up of members who had privileged access to technological cultures and supportive adults at a young age. How can scaffolding be provided to other youth who have had lesser access to geekdom?

Many of our informants told us stories of this sort: geeks “learned on their own,” and through their own efforts, became skillful players or developed a great organization. Indeed, the StarCraft community should be proud that since its genesis in 2001 as an online forum site of, it has grown to include multiple online forums, comprehensive articles, video streams, coaching sites, tournaments and leagues, and even college scholarships! In the early days, professional gamers were more like hobbyists. Duran, a retired professional gamer (see previous entry), recalled how he could only practice with local gamers whom he met at LAN events in California. Duran had opportunities to practice with the best gamers of the nation only once a year, through a national tournament like the World Cyber Games (WCG) USA. When Duran retired from professional gaming in 2006, he used his experience as a professional gamer to organize training matches between clans (as teams are called in gaming communities), so that professionals get more opportunities to practice and with better players. Duran moved on to organize the national level StarCraft tournament, the War of the States, and then the North American Star League which continues to this day.

These stories are inspiring—for me and for all future StarCraft II enthusiasts. But what the informants rarely recounted, unless we probed deeper into their pasts, are stories of what triggered the development of an interest so strong that players became fully committed to StarCraft II. Many like Day[9] had described this interest to learn and to discover new things, as an “amorphous weird [mental] space,” or a burning question, “How can I play even better?” This process at first seems like what community members called “learning on my own.” But we have also found that many players who were “learning on their own” were also supported by a peer culture which is tolerant of failure, self-driven, peer-supported, and openly networked (see previous entry).

How do we reproduce such interests and learning ethos among youth who are not already immersed in geek culture and networks? This is a difficult question. Geeks are often initiated into the culture through caring adults—older siblings, cousins, or parents—and then continue to explore that interest with peers at high schools and colleges (see previous entry). There are no articulated racial or gender prerequisites to becoming a geek; but there are two hurdles.  One, some geek activities like StarCraft II have a high barrier to entry. StarCraft II participants invariably develop a base of geeky language (and knowledge), like “nerd chills,” over many years of gaming and exposure to the existing participants. Mona felt she would not be able to participate in her geeky cliques at high school if she had not been introduced to computer gaming through her older brother (see previous entry).

Learning computer gaming may be difficult for youth without access to expensive gaming gadgets. However, there are other activities that we saw StarCraft II players shared which do not require expensive equipment. For example, participants like Day[9] also engage in  games like Magic: The Gathering and Yu Gi Oh!  Alex, a 15-year-old student, was a member of the chess club in his high school (see previous entry). While we think that geeks love analyzing computer games, there are signs that analyzing precedes gaming. In other words, geeks have maintained their identity through a shared interest in analyzing things. In fact, before computer games existed, geeks like Steve Wozniak were hacking telephone networks across the nation! So there may be other pathways which bridge youth into geekdom, and that is chiefly the analysis and taking apart of, well, stuff. In fact, beyond StarCraft II, Stephen Paolini, a high school student and our guest blogger (see previous entry), and I were thrilled to discover we were both interested in the table top role playing game Dungeons and Dragons! In an education system that tolerates rote learning as a pathway to academic success, analyzing games and technologies is a creative outlet for these students who are tired of regurgitating textbook solutions.

Another barrier informants mentioned in the interviews is that “nerd” (as geeks are often called in schools) is a highly stigmatized identity. Most StarCraft players reported that the middle school years were when they felt most stigmatized for being known as gamers (see previous entry). And some informants intentionally avoided mentioning their computer gaming interest while conversing with friends at school. This may be why personal social networks like family and close friends become important support in nurturing geek interests at both elementary and middle schools. Learning in StarCraft II is most effective when the learning is supported by peers. While having family support is always helpful, players can also learn more if there is a larger pool of peers at school with whom they can share their interests.

But not all schools are the same. For example, some middle schools near technology centers have enough geeky students to form cliques of geeks within the school compound. Among our informants is Kelvin Lin, a 16-year-old high school student from San Diego, who learned about video gaming from his elementary school friends.  Kelvin described the area where he lives as “extremely tech-savvy.”  Kelvin said that nearly everyone at his elementary school, which is nearly 50% white and 50% Asian with a small percentage of Hispanic and black students, owned video games. Few students played mainstream sports like soccer, although most would enjoy dodgeball with their friends. Kelvin recalled that after school, he would hang out with elementary school friends biking, going to the park, and playing video games. They had shared many games together. For example, they played a Star Wars game together soon after the movie was released. Kelvin’s parents were much less geeky. The only video game Kelvin’s father played was bridge. Nonetheless, his parents tolerated his video gaming as it seemed to be a common interest for children in their neighborhood.  At home, Kelvin introduced StarCraft to his sister, who became a gamer, even though she seemed more interested in MapleStory and Super Smash Bros.

In localities where there is a critical mass of students playing computer games, gaming seems normal. The roles of family members in supporting gaming interests, though still valuable,  may be less critical for young people in these settings. For students who were not in such schools, they found the social stigma against geekiness becoming less acute when they entered an academically-inclined program like Advanced Placement classes in high schools, and completely evaporated if they entered colleges with a technology-focus (see previous entry).

Gaming communities like that of StarCraft II are quite well-known to be male dominant, and predominantly white and Asian. However, in the StarCraft II community, we have seen little observable discrimination against women and non-Asian minorities. Explicit racism and sexism is curtailed by the elite gamers who monitor and administer the discussion channels (see previous entry). In comparison with some other gaming communities, e.g., that of fighting games, in which “trash talk” is part of their daily discourses, StarCraft II administrators and leaders actively warn players or take down forum posts demeaning minority gamers. A recent example is Scarlett, a transgender female, who is most notably the best Canadian StarCraft II gamer. Scarlett received a fair share of derogatory statements online from offensive anonymous players, or trolls, as these people are labeled by StarCraft II players and members of other online communities. As a result, such unruly practices have to go “underground”—places where trolls are known to reside. In such an environment, minority gamers can still succeed by foregrounding their achievements, rather than their identity, in public discourse; and this was how StarCraft II females like Scarlett and Mona Zhang became pillars of the community.

Among a majority of our informants, support at home has been tremendously important for nurturing their geek interests. Most of our informants have been initiated into geekdom through siblings and parents, cousins, and family friends. They may get just one opportunity to watch these people play, but that may be sufficient for them to begin looking further into what geekdom has to offer. One thing to note is that most of our StarCraft II informants reported their first encounter with video games to take place between 5 to 11 years old, even though they only engage with the StarCraft community much later, thus suggesting a possibility that youth who were introduced to these interests earlier are more likely to continue the interests into their young adult life.

Our interviews pointed out that children learning to be geeks need to participate in geek activities in order to develop a set of skills and language used within the geek culture. The StarCraft II players participated in many such activities, including sharing with friends the joy of seeing a new game release; playing games with friends like StarCraft, Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, or even chess; analyzing a game deeply and sharing new insights with their friends; and also sharing with friends a eureka moment such as when they hack a game for the very first time. Our data has assured us, that in time some of these youth will be ready to step into a geek community like StarCraft II and engage with people beyond their family and close friends.  But until players reach this point, it seems that geek activities are mostly shared among people whom they trust and know locally. That is, young geeks-to-be still need local sanctuaries of the like-minded–away from stigma and with supportive peers–to nurture their interests. How we can develop such sanctuaries in localities where geek culture is missing still remains an important question. 



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