Saturday, December 19, 2009

Peter's notations on nerdiness reviewed

Half Sigma has previously discussed blogger Peter's working theory on how some activities invariably come to be classified as nerdy while others do not. Concisely put, non-athletic activities not traditionally regarded as masculine that are primarily participated in by men are nerdy.

That strikes me as a pretty good description, but as I'll get to below, there is an element Half Sigma and Peter leave out. Athletic and non-athletic activities need to be looked at separately, because the sex ratio effects them in different ways. The more male-dominated an athletic activity is, the less nerdy it is. American football is among the least (if not the very least) nerdy sport in existence. Female participation in the game is accordingly paltry. This is in some contrast to baseball, a relatively nerdier sport with a significant amount of female participation in the form of softball. Tennis, a sport in which female competitions garner something close to as much media attention as male competitions do, is nerdier still. Again, this nerdiness is relative to other athletic activities--by virtue of gauging some combination of dexterity, strength, physical endurance, and kinesthetic coordination (often referred to as "athleticism" in aggregate), athletic activities are virtually all non-nerdy.

In contrast, the greater the female participation in non-athletic activities is, the lower the level of perceived nerdiness among those partaking. Activities primarily participated in by women, like interior decorating, are not considered nerdy. If a man happens to take interest in them, he is often suspected of being gay or at least effete, but not nerdy. Nerdiness is the male's domain. To the extent that women can be nerds, it is in being exceptions to the rule and participating in male-dominated nerdy activities.

Where Peter is a bit off the mark is in focusing on the level of masculinity (in the sense of majority-male participation, not necessarily the amount of virility required) traditionally associated with an activity. As Half Sigma points out, if time is what's required to move a male-dominated non-athletic activity from the nerdy category into non-nerdiness, we've had to wait a long time for chess to come around, and I still don't see the train coming into the station.

A more useful parameter for gauging nerdiness among male-dominated activities is to consider the intelligence threshold required of participants engaging in them. After all, the commonly understood definition* of a nerd is "an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit".

Chess is nerdier than checkers is because it requires greater intelligence to fully comprehend the elements of the game than checkers does. IT guys are similarly nerdier than auto mechanics are. The same goes for classical music votaries in relation to those who like rap. That is not to say that intelligence is unhelpful in becoming a champion checkers player, a top-tier car mechanic, or a hip hop connoisseur, but the participant pool of these activities extends further into the left half of the bell curve than it does for chess players, ITers, and classical fans. By way of being brainiacs, those who participate in nerdy activities engage in and discuss it with other brainiacs. Because they're all cerebral types, the level of discourse is such that average folks are unable to follow what the participants are talking about and consequently are also unable to see how it could be enjoyable and fulfilling from a 'normal' person's perspective (that is, their own).

That brings me to my own recently rekindled nerdy passion, Magic: The Gathering. Stripped of its Tolkienesque themes (with several historical references thrown in, many of them delightfully politically incorrect), which are completely irrelevant to actual gameplay, Magic is a competitive card game. It is to poker what chess is to checkers, except the gap is an order of magnitude wider than it is between the two board games. As the official rulebook demonstrates, the game's complexity is intimidating (and also rewarding). Most people can learn to play Texas Hold 'Em in a matter of minutes. Magic, in contrast, takes a few hours just to get the basics, and many people are going to be lost if attempting to go beyond that. A hold'em conversation is consequently comprehendible to most people, while overhearing a Magic conversation is like eavesdropping on a couple of klingons. With the essential aspects of a nerdy activity in place--male-dominated, non-athletic, high IQ threshold--Magic is quintessentially nerdy.

* Like the words "peruse", "terrific", and "awful", "nerd" is often used in a manner at odds with its primary literal meaning, which describes a foolish, inept, and unattractive person.


silly girl said...

Is bridge nerdy?

Basil Ransom said...

Cross Country guys tend to be pretty nerdy. Worst is cross-country skiing - dated a girl on the team at my college, and every guy I met on the team was extremely nerdy.

The downhill team is by contrast, comprised of lots of fraternity-sorority types. The Nordics had none, IIRC.

Sprint Sports > Endurance Sports.

generic commenter said...

It's evolutionary psychology, and PC nonsense aside it is only an attribute of boys and men, not of girls or women. The closer a guy is to the front lines of something that looks like a tribal battle, the less nerdy he is. Thus football jocks are cooler than baseball jocks who are cooler than track-and-field and (as Basil points out) cross-country runners.

The most dangerous part of a war between hunter-gatherer clans was the fastest-paced part, so Basil's rule that sprint sports are cooler than endurance sports is a corollary. Another corollary is that team sports are cooler than competitions between individuals.

Soldiers are cooler than tank mechanics who are cooler than the guys who designs the tanks who are cooler than guys who design nonviolent things. Soldiers are cooler than cops, except for white cops working in U.S. inner cities.

For a few years after 9/11 firefighters were the coolest guys in the U.S. There was a general rage among women for guys in uniforms.

Doing direct physical battle with nature (blue collar) is cooler than paper-pushing (white collar). Collecting and shooting guns is not nerdy, but collecting and reading books or Internet blogs is (sorry, folks).

An exception to the above rules are musicians in small bands who play loud and cool music. They are very cool for other ev-psych reasons. Acting and art, being emotional expressions, can be gay, but not nerdy.

Audacious Epigone said...

Silly girl,

I don't know. I've never known a bridge player under the age of 50, at which point nerdiness becomes pretty irrelevant. My impression is that it's no more so than poker is, as a lot of women play (although it's more complicated than standard poker games are).


Great point re: sports types. Thanks.


Your way of arriving at whether or not an activity is nerdy reaches the same conclusions but is more explanatory rather than just being predictive. Thanks.

dk said...

I think you are off the mark by assuming

increased game complexity=greater players IQ

In checkers many top players and champions are/were elite mathematicians. Moreso than in chess.

In poker the least complex form
2 player limit holdem (now mostly a solved game and no longer played much at high stakes) was played by graduate math students and high iq types (thebryce and TLK)

whereas 2 player no limit holdem a far more complex game isnt populated by nearly as many math nerds. (they are over repped however).

Audacious Epigone said...


The lower bound of the participant pool's intelligence distribution is what matters. The best checkers, chess, limit holdem, and no limit holdem players are all high IQ types. The reason chess is the nerdiest of those games is because its appeal is the least concentrated among those populating the middle and left end of the intelligence distribution. Whether or not the checkers' distribution extends further to the right than chess' does is at best marginally relevant to their respective levels of perceived nerdiness.

Anonymous said...

AE, I personally find MTG fascinating. Do you keep up with it? I don't play the game physically, but I love to watch how it evolves.

Lightning Bolt in 2010? THIS IS MADNESS!

Anonymous said...

BTW, Crusade is for chumps.

Audacious Epigone said...


Yes, after the Zendikar pre-release I got back into the standard environment pretty hardcore, after being clean for six years. I'm almost finished with a post detailing the three decks I'm currently working with, which you might find interesting since it appears that you stay current with the game.

Re: Honor of the Pure--that was my exact reaction.

Earthquake is back, too. And burst lightning is simply better than shock. Sligh is potent, but jund (green/black/red) dominates. Blightning and Bloodbraid Elf are both overpowered cards. Bituminous blast into bloodbraid into blightning is sick.

Billare said...

Magic the Gathering guys were at the forefront of the online poker scene, dominating the top ranks as Aspergy-type people tend to.

dearieme said...

"American football is among the least (if not the very least) nerdy sport in existence": it's always seemed rather camp to me.