If I have any hobby that does not involve the gratuitous exchange of money for material goods, it is the observation of the dork in his natural habitat. It’s not just that I was educated by dorks at a school that was mostly dorky. Or that I work with dorks in an industry whose products are primarily concerned with parting dorks from their dork cash. The fact is that even without these advantages, I spend all 24 hours of every day in the head of a dork (mine), so there is nothing I know better than what drives the dork psychology.
I have always suspected that there are common bonds that hold all the dorks of the world together. I think this is especially true with respect to how the male dork becomes emotionally invested in the objects of his interest and affection. Until now we never had the ability to gather enough data about this. Information about various male enthusiasms were inconveniently scattered among thousands of small scale publications or local clubs. Clubs which met in the less desirable parts of town at the end of dark alleyways and behind doors that could barely contain the stink. It was a lot of work to even find these places, much less endure actual social contact to observe the interactions of the club members.
Like many things, the Internet has changed all of this. Over the last decade or so, our capacity to observe the dork has increased a thousand-fold as the Internet has brought the desires and concerns of millions of dorks into sharp focus. Thus, on the blogs, in the audio podcasts (no video please) and most of all in the forums, we can observe the dork from the relative safety of our living rooms, free from the fear of physical contact.
Thus, I have collected my data, and thus I can present the grand (yet obvious) conclusion that all male enthusiasts basically have the same set of behaviors and emotional responses to the subject of their desires. These behaviors are nearly universal and independent of the actual area of interest and they cut across all socioeconomic boundaries. I have a few humble examples.
Arbitrary Technical Stratification
In the dork’s world there are only two kinds of products, those that are good and those that suck. Products that make the cut are spoken of in hushed and respectful tones. Products that suck are binned into categories and given various derogatory names. In general the distinction between the good and the bad is the thinnest and most arbitrary set of technical distinctions.
Examples: Good games are “hard core” or “deep” and have “meaningful moral choices”. Bad games are “kiddie”, “shallow”, “casual minigames” or worst of all: just a tech demo.
Good cameras are serious instruments that will help you capture excellent images (always images, never pictures). Bad cameras are always “too plasticky” and missing some critical feature that you will only use twice, like mirror lockup. Also, you have to carry a 10lb tripod anywhere or you are just a loser.
Good cars are fast, handle well and are fun to drive. Bad cars are “appliances” or a tinny “penalty box” with no speed, “numb” steering, and lots of useless features, like a radio.
You could do this forever.
Dorks demand innovation. I doubt that there is a dork complaint more universal than “they just don’t make anything new anymore.” But when “they” do make something new, the people who hate it most are usually the enthusiasts. What enthusiasts really want is for the new stuff to be just like the old stuff, but different. The most common complaint here takes the form “all they had to do was take X and do Y, but instead they did the whole thing wrong.”
Examples: Zelda: Wind Waker was a “kiddie cartoon” instead of just like the N64 Zelda with higher resolution textures and a teenage Link.
The Chris Bangle BMWs were wildly popular with consumers and widely copied by the rest of the industry. Enthusiasts didn’t see why BMW couldn’t have just tweaked the existing styling, which was nearly perfect already. The Truth About Cars has the largest collection of complaints like this yet collected on the Internet, as far as I can tell.
A twist on the previous syndrome, nostalgia is a powerful force that colors how the enthusiast evaluates every new product. It is generally the case that every new product will be evaluated against a platonic ideal that was put in place by whatever the dork was lusting after when he was 14. In video games, this accounts for the inordinate amount of praise that is lavished on the Bioware RPGs for the PC, or the original Final Fantasy games, or Chrono-Trigger.
In cameras, no camera is ever as good as that Leica you wanted, or the manual Nikon your dad had. Although really, any digital point and shoot is probably better for most people.
In stereo equipment, it’s turntables and tubes.
In bicycles, it’s steel frames and side-pull brakes.
And of course in cars there are the old Volvos, anything with real wheel drive, and my personal favorite the old Honda Civic Hatchbacks.
Nostalgia in an of itself is understandable and natural. But the enthusiast tends to elevate his nostalgic favorites above all of what the modern world has to offer. But the truth is that the older stuff wasn’t that good. Not even back then.
Obsession with Control
All I need to illustrate this one is a series of quotes.
“I’ll never buy any game that doesn’t use a mouse and keyboard.”
“I’ll never buy a car that doesn’t have a manual transmission. I hate slushboxes.”
“That camera is useless because it doesn’t have a manual mode.”
“I can’t use any operating system that doesn’t let me completely control everything that I install or manage. And it has to be totally flexible too.”
So, you know what I mean now, right?
The Oppression of the Masses
This one is short and sweet. The “mass market” are a bunch of know-nothing drones who will buy whatever crap is foisted upon them by the forces of mediocrity. The enthusiast “knows better”, and is more discerning and generally more intelligent. He wouldn’t be caught dead in some plasticky appliance that takes all his fun and control away and thus doesn’t let him capture the complete and mature experience. Or something. In any case, all enthusiasts are beaten down and oppressed by the man whose only goal is commerce. Instead, the industry should go broke by catering to a tiny niche of dorks instead. That’s always a winning strategy, in the mind of the enthusiast anyway.
Latent Object Hysteria
Finally we come back to an observation that I made with almost my very first post on this great web site. It is universally true that the next thing will always be the best thing ever.
I still think the video game people do this best. Just today I was listening to the podcast over at Gamers With Jobs when one of the speakers launched into a multi-minute drooling and gasping tirade about how a few upcoming games from Bioware were going to be so good that it would be as if Jesus himself came back to earth to shepherd everyone up to video game nirvana. I found this idea curious, especially because Bioware really hasn’t done anything that good since KOTOR. And really, it’s not clear to me that the stuff before KOTOR was that good either. No doubt I’m setting myself up for assault and battery here.
Nonetheless, no one loves the unreleased product more than than enthusiast. And, no one is more disappointed with the released product than, you guessed it, the enthusiast. This is the inevitable way of the world. When you think about it, how else could the dorks keep up this level of the energy and interest? The desire has to come from somewhere. It comes from the capacity that all of us have to want to replicate that which can’t be repeated: that first, perfect experience with whatever it was that got us hooked for life. We keep looking anyway, even if it makes us act like dorks.
Exercise for the Reader
At this point you should be able to figure out which of the above behaviors I have indulged in. Hint: this is an easy question.