Thursday, February 7, 2013

Forever Nerd

How long have nerds been among us?

If you define “nerd” to mean anyone slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits, I suspect somewhere as far back as the days of Neanderthals, a father became confused and disappointed in a child stubbornly disinterested in clubbing game and skinning carcasses. Long before glasses could be used as an identifying marker, this poor young Neanderthal might have blended in physically with his peers, but as soon as camp-fire activities turned to wrestling and grunting about sexual conquests, he would have been searching for a way out. Granted, his options for “intellectual pursuits” would have been slender, but the enterprising nerd always finds a way. Was he an amateur entomologist, counting legs on bugs and hence making the miraculous discovery that spiders and ants were different? Did he collect leaves? Animal poop? (Probably not; traditionally nerds don’t like to get dirty.)

In spite of all expectations, this ancient nerd somehow managed to hook up and procreate, passing his genetic tendency to think rather than do. (Yes, I know Neanderthals became extinct, but they’ve contributed genetic material to modern humans, so they are, in a way, still with us.)

Fast-forward to 2nd century BC in Egypt. Intellectual and academic pursuits abound for our nerd sub-culture. Was one of them table-top gaming? I like to think so. Witness the proof:

That’s right. It’s a twenty-sided die. It’s made of serpentine and looks to be in really good condition (which makes sense, of course; what nerd doesn’t take meticulous care of their nerd paraphernalia?). The MET in New York has its grubby hands on it, though it isn’t currently on display. (Do you suppose it’s being used for late-night games by the curators? Hope so.) The thing is 2000 years old, give or take, which makes it a darn sight more historic than the pale-blue, blank-faced dice I still have, the ones where you had to fill in the numbers with crayon scrapings.

The specific purpose the d20 served is open to interpretation, of course, but I like to think it was used by a circle of Egyptian nerds to make attack rolls against imaginary versions of monsters they might actually have believed in. How many sphinxes, three-legged crows, and griffins died at the minds of these Egyptian gamers? Questions abound, of course. What was the Egyptian equivalent of Mountain Dew or potato chips? Did they score critical hits on 20s, just like we still do? Was there a cultural right-wing group of fanatics opposed to their fellow citizens pretending to be pharoahs and Anubis on the grounds that it was heretical and would damn them all to the Netherworld? Did these Egyptian nerds get sneered at by Egyptian athletes? Was the female Egyptian nerd the rarest of all creatures?

Out of curiousity, I did an internet search on the origins of the name “Gygax.” Could it be Egyptian? Was he channeling some ancient Egyptian mojo when he helped devise D&D? (He certainly seemed to use some ideas strange enough to justify possession.) Sadly, Google tells me the name is predominantly Swiss in origin, though that doesn’t preclude the idea that Gary G got his hands on something ancient, something forbidden, something “man was not meant to know,” and hereby invented the wonderful and all-too-addictive hobby of table-top gaming. Certainly the thing has been a blessing and a curse for me. Yes, it’s given me countless hours of entertainment, but it’s also true that if even half of the hours I’ve spent on gaming had been used for other activities, I could have a half dozen doctorates. Or a billion dollars. Or be a concert pianist. Or maybe all of the above. (What I’m saying is, I’ve spent a lot of time gaming.)

I regret nothing. Carpe nerd!

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