The Geeky Lesson of the Magic the Gathering Dating Kerfuffle

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Really, we're still making fun of nerds? Really?

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In this era of graphic-novels-as-blockbusters, pop-stars who give just-be-yourself pep talks, and the rising fame of, like, Jesse Eisenberg, is it OK to be a geek yet? Apparently not, at least judging by a Tuesday's Gizmodo post in which writer Alyssa Bereznak rants about dating a guy who turned out to be a world champion player of the collectible card game Magic the Gathering.

The story's been chewed over plenty. The consensus, happily, is that Bereznak showed herself to be pretty lame by dismissing the guy just for playing Magic. But the underlying problem was in the article's intro, presumably written by Gizmodo's editors: "One person's Magic is another person's fingernail biting."

Is that really true? Fingernail biting comes out of a diagnosable compulsion and can spread infection. Magic is a hobby that more than 6 million people, reportedly, share. Yes, The Guardian writes, Magic is "indisputably associated with geekery." But ditto Game of Thrones, Nate Silver, and, well, online dating—and yet each of those have reached a level of social acceptability and even cred.

The takeaway from this episode is the kind of takeaway that you'd think we wouldn't need anymore: People with niche passions can also be normal. Duh. By most accounts, Jon Finkel, the guy that went on the dates with Bereznak and was the Magic world champion in 2000, is a nice guy. When he started an "Ask Me Anything" thread on Reddit in the aftermath of the Gizmodo article, he came across as cool-headed and savvy about how he was being perceived. Sure, he gave detailed answers to questions about Magic. But he didn't really take the bait when the site's users gave him chances to dump on the girl who dumped on him:

Look I think it's kind of uncool to do what she did. I dont really want my personal life out in public, and I think theres a sort of general understanding that you don't blog about someone you went out with using their real name in an attempt to denigrate them, especially if they weren't an asshole. ... That said I dont think these thoughts were necessarily going through her head, and it seems like enough people are giving her a hard time without me. I dont think this invalidates her as a human being or anything.

I emailed Matt Sperling, a former roommate of mine who happens to be a pro Magic player. He's also a UCLA law grad and was working as a lawyer when I knew him—yes, a normal guy. How are other Magic pros perceiving the Gizmodo dust up?

I don't take offense to her personal dating preferences, we all prefer this type of personality or that type of personality. I just wish people understood the difference between a geek and a nerd.

A geek is an obsessive hobbyist or technophile. A nerd is someone who's intellect appears to have developed at the expense of their social skills.

A geek might also be nerdy (they aren't mutually exclusive), but as [Bereznak] said herself, Jon Finkel was actually more socially skilled than the non-geeks that were messaging her on OkCupid. Jon, and most other people who play on the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour are normal guys who happen to enjoy competitive gaming. If you meet one of us and we appear to be normal and well-adjusted, it isn't a trap.

Yeah: The traditional traps with sites like OK Cupid, where Bereznak and Finkel met, are when you end up sharing drinks with a serial killer or someone who undersold their age by about 20 years. But even those fears feel outdated. Then again, so does thoughtless geek bashing.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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