Back in 1977, when I was just a little boy, I went to see Star Wars on its first release. Like a lot of young boys, I was transformed by that film. I became a Geek and I've been one ever since. Tolkien followed, and Dungeons & Dragons and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
So today I went back to the cinema and watched The Force Awakens for the second time. I'm not the sort of person who watches films twice, so this is unusual for me. Actually, I watched The Phantom Menace twice because I desperately hoped I'd see some redeeming quality in it second time around (I didn't). But I went for a second viewing of the new Star Wars Episode VII and, do you know, I was just as moved, amused, excited and thrilled at first time round. It's great to see a film done right and there've been so many sequels and re-boots done badly lately (Indiana Jones, Terminator, Die Hard, Poltergeist, even the latest Star Trek Into Darkness left me cold and don't get me STARTED on everything that was wrong with Man Of Steel).
But it all worked for me in this film: new characters you instantly liked and rooted for, old characters re-capturing their charm, new bad guys who were scary and contemptible in equal measure, heroism, romance... and A Very Important Character dies in a tragic, tear-jerking way. Yes, it's all good.
And cool new lightsabers
So what makes someone a Geek? Why do some people love star destroyers and elves and battle axes and dragons so much? Why the multi-sioded dice and the genre TV shows that keep getting axed because not enough people watch them (still not over Firefly, the wounds are still raw)?
It's tempting to say "personality" and it's a great shame that the Edexcel Psychology course doesn't look at personality theory in any depth. There's Freud of course, who would probably say all this childish obsessing over make-believe worlds is a defence mechanism for people who can't cope with sex or death. I haven't posted up anything on the site yet about Freud, so I'll save that for another blog later in the year.
Maybe "biology" has something to do with it. Perhaps there's a "Geek brain" that is wired to respond to gigantic space ships or ringwraiths or tentacle monsters. That seems unlikely to me, but the Biological Approach isn't up on the site yet, so I'll delay judgement on that too.
Social Identity seems a strong explanation. Geeks are, after all, a social ingroup. You can identify them by their tendency to wear T-shirts with slogans only other Geeks will find funny or images from superhero comics. Once you identify as a Geek, then you are under pressure to conform to your ingroup's behaviours: read graphic novels, play roleplaying games, watch Doctor Who and know the secret identity of every hero in the Avengers.
Social comparison then means you have a tendency to exaggerate the value of your ingroup's products ("Yeah, I think The Watchmen is better literature than Jane Austen!") and dismiss the products of all the other outgroups (football, cars, being attractive to the opposite sex).
So maybe I'm just conforming to my ingroup's expectations when I say I'd rather watch the Millennium Falcon in flight than a Formula 1 racing car or an episode of Eastenders.
It doesn't feel like that to me, of course. It feels to me that I like space ships and wizards because they're really cool, not because my ingroup tells me I have to like them. But that's the whole point about Social Identity Theory - and most Social Psychology, actually - which is that the real reason you do what you do isn't what you think it is. Milgram's poor participants weren't aware of being in an agentic state. In fact, Milgram asked his own students and colleagues what they thought they would do if they were put in that situation, and almost all of them insisted there was no way they would cave in to social pressure and shock an innocent man to death. But the study shows that people aren't very good judges of what they would actually do.
We all like to think we would behave nobly or heroically in a crisis. One of the nice touches in The Force Awakens is the expression on the face of Finn (John Boyega) when Kylo Ren raises his lightsaber. Sheer terror.
Geeks do like to imagine they've got special qualities that non-Geeks lack. Lots of them will tell you they have higher IQs, a better grasp of science or computers and a more exhaustive knowledge of all of Spider-Man's girlfriends than your ordinary folk.
A very recent study backs this up in a surprising way. Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing is a paper by Rivers et al. (2016) that claims to show the people who play roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons (pretty much the pinnacle of Geekiness) score higher for empathy than non-gamers.
Empathy is a very important cognitive ability. It involves sensing what other people are feeling. It's also the ability to imagine what other people must be thinking, to "see things from someone else's viewpoint".
Very flattering! Carol Pinchefsky, writing on the Geek & Sundry blog, draws this conclusion:
... if this study is correct and gamers are empathic, and empathy leads to compassionate action, it would therefore follow that gaming makes the world a better place.
I just can't leave it at that though. I want to start evaluating this study and criticising it.
For one thing, empathy doesn't necessarily lead to compassionate action. Think what B.F. Skinner would say to that! Surely, the best thing to predict someone's actions is the rewards and punishments they've had in the past, their history of reinforcement. A lot of compassionate action is just good habits, drilled in at an early age. Without those habits, empathy makes you feel sorry for people, but it doesn't make you get up and do anything about it.
But what about the study itself? The participants were scored for empathy based on filling out a questionnaire: the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).
There are problems with the external validity of tests like this. As Milgram showed, people aren't good at judging how they actually behave in stressful situations. There's a lot of social desirability bias because, even if I'm really a bit callous and dull, I know that people would find me more appealing if I said that I got really into books and films and always stick up for the underdog, etc.
There's a bigger problem. Scales like this are quite reductionist. You're taking complex human feelings and turning them into numbers. The weird thing is, two people could answer every question differently on the scale and still get the same four scores. This is an even bigger problem if you take the four scores and add them together to produce one gigantic empathy score (which, to be fair, you're not supposed to do with this questionnaire).
Finally, this is a natural experiment: whether or not you're a gamer is a naturally-occurring variable. With an IV like this, you can't be sure if the IV is causing the DV. In other words, does gaming make you more empathic or were the gamers more empathic to begin with (roleplaying games attract imaginative and empathic people)?
I'm a bit dubious about the whole idea of super-empathic gamers. I suspect there's a different explanation for their high scores in empathy. You see, one thing gamers are very good at is filling in forms and adding up scores to get characteristics. It's what you do when you create a character in Dungeons & Dragons. They'll pay much more attention than most people to the different types of questions and the scores you get from them. They'll try to get the best scores because that's what being a gamer is all about. So I dont think this research is very valid.
But maybe someone's reading this, thinking "Dungeons & Dragons? Roleplaying games? What's this guy on about?"
I think you need to watch this rather excellent parody video of the 2010 hit Like a G6.
A "D6" is a six-sided dice
The Psychology Wizard is Jonathan Rowe. I'm a teacher and writer, living in the Fens of Lincolnshire. It sure is flat here. I'm writing a Roman Horror Novel at the moment. Check out Tinderspark and The Thief Of Faces if you fancy a good read.