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The Mainstreaming of Nerd Culture
This is the first time it’s ever happened. It came close last year, closer than it’s ever been before, but even then it felt a little…well, a little forced. People like superhero movies, sure, and Wonder Woman was good enough, but a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards? Isn’t that reserved for films a bit more highbrow than superhero flicks? But here we are, one year later, and one such movie has made the jump: Black Panther has received a nod from the Academy in the Best Picture category, and a few others too. And nobody is surprised. Frankly, it would have been a bit shocking not to see Black Panther among the nominees. Not because it necessarily deserves a nomination, but because we’ve been moving toward this for a while now. “This” referring not just to the acceptance of CGI-slugfests at the Oscars, but towards a broader cultural movement. “This” referring to the mainstreaming of geek culture.
That traditionally nerdy interests are entering the mainstream is far from a controversial proposition. Comic book movies have dominated cinema the past few years and will likely do so for some time to come. There is no film more hotly anticipated this year than Avengers: Endgame, and in 2018 Black Panther was the highest earning film of the year in America. Four more movies based on comic book properties took spots in the domestic top 10 last year, along with a movie from the equally geeky genre of sci-fi, Solo: A Star Wars Story. 2017 saw a similar pattern, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi taking the top spot in the American market and five comic book movies occupying spots in the top 10. And back in 2016, a Star Wars movie ended the year first again, with four comic book movies joining it in the top 10.
And it’s not just the big screen, the reach of geek culture extends to television as well. Ever heard of a show called Game of Thrones? How about Westworld? Rick and Morty? And as if one Star Trek show on the air wasn’t enough, CBS is developing another that focuses just on Jean-Luc Picard, a very French name that just doesn’t seem to fit the very British Patrick Stewart who plays him. Even more shocking than the success of nerdy-topic TV shows is how the portrayal of nerds has shifted as well. Nerds are now the heroes in shows like The Big Bang Theory and its spin-off Young Sheldon, Parks and Rec, and, most especially, Stranger Things.
But perhaps the greatest evidence of geek culture’s growing influence is the normalization and increasingly widespread playing of video games. A study performed by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 62 percent of Gen Xers have a video game console in their home, along with 66 percent of millennials and 73 percent of Gen Zers. It’s become so popular that competitive gaming organizations have sprung up, complete with tournaments, rankings, and prize money. Some devotees are calling for video game playing to be recognized as a sport, euphemistically referring to it as “eSports,” and just last year the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body of athletic competition for over 19,000 high schools in America, recognized eSports as a varsity sport. Colleges are even starting to put together eSports teams, making it a very real possibility that it could wind up being an NCAA-sanctioned sport. Especially since it’s already going to be a medaling event in the 2022 Asian Games, and members of the International Olympic Committee have stated support for its inclusion in the Olympics—though whether it should be in the summer or winter games (or both?) is unclear.
What unites all these hobbies, and what makes their pervasiveness troubling, is their attitude of anti-reality. Be it through comic books, fantasy TV shows, or video games, geek culture separates adherents from the real world, encouraging them to escape the reality rather than engage with it. The geeks of yore turned to these pastimes because they weren’t good at sports or couldn’t get a date or didn’t have a wide social circle. They turned to these pastimes because, essentially, they had nothing better to do. That geek culture provided an escape for the unpopular and awkward isn’t a bad thing in itself. But, sola dosis facit venenum; the dose makes the poison. And right now we’re overdosing on geek culture.
Take, for example, video games. They are, as I explained in more detail two paragraphs ago, very popular. They are so popular, in fact, that the average American spends more time with their video game controller in hand than they do at church or volunteering or even just going to social events. Regardless of your feelings on religion, we all ought to agree that human beings require social interaction and that community involvement is part of a healthy life. That video games are now taking precedence over activities historically associated with a sense of community may be a contributing factor in millennials’ and Gen Zers’ record high levels of loneliness.
Comic book movies contribute in their own way too. While children of years past may have looked up to athletes or actors, the heroes of today’s children are fictional beings. While these figures may embody certain heroic traits, the veneer of fiction distorts viewers’ understanding of these traits and makes them less relatable. The heroes of these movies have incredible powers that make them larger than life, making them impossible to stack up to. There is nothing wrong with superheroes in and of themselves, and the stories about them can be enjoyable. But when they overwhelm our culture, it’s easy to forget that real-world problems are solved by normal people.
Even more dangerous, comic book movies, and fantasy and sci-fi stories as well, have helped reinforce the idea that everything needs to be a big, epic fight. Just look at the Trump resistance, where protestors take their cues from Harry Potter, The Handmaid’s Tale, Star Trek, and other works of fantasy. After the Parkland shooting in 2018, author Patrick Tomlinson noted the same phenomenon, though in a more supportive manner, on his now-suspended Twitter account:
“You watched a generation grow up on a diet of Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Marvel movies, you stripped away their hope, their jobs, their futures, and then backed the most cartoonish super-villain in history for President, and you’re shocked the children are fighting back?”
“Really? You followed the damned script to a T. You pumped up millions of kids, for two decades, to believe they and their friends could make a difference. Then you thrust them all into a dystopian nightmare of violence and persecution. And NOW you’re shocked they’re all Katniss?”
A generation truly interested in creating change might think to start at the local level, but, they’re far more interested in the big fights playing out on a major scale. And even those debates are being blown too far out of proportion to better fit youngsters’ desire for a blockbuster struggle against evil.
Our current time was, in many ways, the perfect setting for nerd culture. Technology has already separated us in so many ways, and thanks to the politically correct world in which we live many virtues that were once celebrated are starting to fall out of favor. Admiring athletic prowess is ableist; good looks, body-shaming; sociability and charm, unfair to introverts. But as these “jock values” exit the mainstream, so to do the tangential virtues they engender.
Participating in sports teaches lessons about commitment, self-control, discipline, and hard work in a way video games never can. Face to face interaction makes athletics an inherently social activity, forcing participants to engage with each other. And while “eSports” may require hours of practice to master too, it’s a stretch to say they require hard work—you’ll never see a gamer pouring their literal blood, sweat, and tears into their craft after all. And sociability is a good in itself, or at least it used to be thought of as such. Even attractiveness, while it might have a genetic base, requires a level of skill with self-presentation, exercise, and fine attention to detail. With these virtues gone, we’re on track to have a generation of obese hermits who dress like Mark Zuckerberg.
Black Panther is a perfectly good movie, but its acceptance at the Oscars 20 years ago would have been laughable. But things have changed since then; the nerds have won, their culture is mainstream now, and so, too, are the virtues and vices that come along with it. Welcome, to repurpose a line from Dr. Ian Malcolm, to Poindexter World.Published in General
Hey, I resemble that remark! :)
Why belittle someone who is one of the best players of Street Fighter (earning a living winning tournaments) as having worked less hard then, a guy who makes a living throwing a ball around to people? How hard is it to throw a ball? Every idiot child does it just like every idiot child can win a game of Street Fighter? So I reject your very characterization of the skills of professional video game players. I play video games for entertainment I am not very good at them, especially fighting games. The people who win tournaments are as much separated from my video game skills as LeBron James is separated from my basketball skills. For the same exact reason, they both have put in far more work and practice then I ever will at these tasks (not of course counting any natural endowments that also favor them). You seem to think that any one could be good at video games, but that is no more true than saying anyone can be good at basketball. Sure we can all play it in the park with friends and have a good time, but only really few people can ever make a living off of it and to do that they have to work hard at it. Same is true for video games.
Now as to your critique of Black Panther as somehow unworthy of its nomination because it is CGI spectacle. I would like to point out that Titanic, Lord of the Rings, and Ben Hur were all also large budget spectacle movies and these are the three largest Osscar winners of all times. Separated by decades. Perhaps you feel none of these movies deserved the recognition they got too. Going further back into history what was the Odyssey but the blockbuster spectacle of its day? Imagery and tales of superhuman heroism is as old as humanity itself. From Hercules to the Hulk everyone loves hearing or seeing a story about a strong guy who punches things.
By definition, nerds cannot be mainstream. A nerd is an outsider. If nerdiness becomes popular, it’s no longer nerdy.
Alec, interesting and sobering observations. Thank you.
Regarding Black Panther, I think its award prospects might be influenced substantially by racial considerations. I’m not a movie critic, but I didn’t think it was particularly exceptional.
Regarding the issue of sports and video games, I hope it isn’t as bad as you’re describing. I was a thoroughly geeky kid, all reading and electronics and science projects, with a deep disdain for everything athletic. But my three younger kids became involved in high school athletics and it was transformative, for them and for my sense of the role of sports in a young person’s life.
It was, quite simply, the best single thing that happened to them in high school. Competitive sports, at least at the high school level, is a multi-faceted character-building activity. At its best, it develops a sense of participation and commitment, of responsibility and perspective. I think it was profoundly valuable.
My three older children never participated in sports; it just wasn’t part of our family culture. My number three son once remarked to me, upon becoming an Army artillery officer, that he wished he’d participated in sports when younger, as he thought the camaraderie of athleticism would have helped him relate more naturally with the people under his command. Having seen its effect on my younger children, I don’t doubt that he was right.
Video games, in contrast, while I’m sure they must have some redeeming qualities, foster insularity and indolence.
(Oh, and get off my lawn.)
I wasn’t keeping a count, but I believe that Ricochet was about due for another post of this nature.
I disagree. I’ve “engaged” people I was playing video games with much more than anyone I played sports with, not that I’m all that much for multiplayer video games either. I could also talk about the tradition of the LAN party, but I do have to admit that’s not a thing that happens as much as it used to, at least for me.
So what’s the tipping point? When does something become popular enough that it’s no longer nerdy?
It stops being nerdy when it no longer diminishes your prospects of dating a cheerleader.
Okay, I can buy that.
Not that I can honestly say I ever, you know, approached that lofty degree of acceptability. (Fortunately I had a pretty sweet HP 67 pocket calculator, so I was never lonely.)
How many people do you know who got married because they met playing sports? I can name three happy couples who met through video games.
How indolent are they?
Are you including @kaladin and @juliesnapp as one of them?
Yes. @cudouglas is another. I’m still friends with guild members I haven’t played with for years.
People my age aren’t playing video games instead of socializing; we’re playing video games to socialize.
LOLing out loud.
Oh yes, why look up to people who embody heroism when you can look up to fornicating jerks whose claim to fame is the ability to pretend to be someone else or get people to pay them to play games?
Essentially, how are they any less fictional?
I mean really … WWII soldier who fights for what’s right, actor with five divorces, or athlete with nine bastards by seven women? I can’t imagine thinking athletes or actors are good role models except in the “what not to do” category.
Interestingly, I remember reading a few years ago an article about professional football players and criminality. According to the article — and it seemed reasonable and well-researched — football players are actually less likely to get into trouble than any particular demographic into which you attempt to reduce them. For example, whether you look at men their age, black men their age, wealthy men their age, fellow male college students, etc., you found higher rates of criminal misconduct in the more general population than in the football-playing population. This was true, as I recall, for both college and professional players.
I don’t know that that’s true but, having watched two sons practice for and play high school football, I can attest to the dedication and self-discipline it required. I find it quite plausible.
Better than average for their demographic isn’t all that impressive when the demographic in question has 1/4 of itself in prison and a 70% out of wedlock birth rate.
That would be one of the demographics I mentioned, but not the others.
I guess we need to define our terms here…..
Next lesson geeks.
Actually, Amanda and I met through nerdy matchmaking site, Geek2Geek. We did however bond while playing MMO, Lord of the Rings Online In fact, here’s our engagement photo:
The trouble is that they are constantly in the limelight, and anything bad that happens to one stains the rest.
There is indeed a lot wrong in this post. That’s not to say it offers nothing worthy of consideration.
I played half-a-dozen team sports as a kid and simultaneously played a lot of video games. I also enjoyed puzzles, books, camping, outings, parties, verbal reparte, and plenty else, if it matters. The point is that one passtime does not interfere with the other, nor demonstrate a particular personality type. Gamers are as varied as athletes.
Actually, if I had played football in video game form before I played it physically, I would have been a better athlete. Games taught me the full range and depth of strategy involved. They exposed me to entire playbooks, whereas coaches only cared that I understood my little part in each play. Video games helped me appreciate every position, not just my own.
Only a non-gamer could believe that video games generally are anti-social.
The most anticipated console game next month was design for “co-op”…meaning cooperative play (a team) among a regular group of friends or impromptu groups formed with strangers (most of whom will interact via “voice chat” as if they were together on a conference phone call).
The top-grossing game last year was Fortnite, a multiplayer game. Half of bestselling games and as many of games generally are designed for cooperative and competitive play.
Are video games and sports equivalent in every way? No. Should video games be included among Olympic events? I would say not… and many avid gamers would agree. The reasons have nothing to do with skills.
Like Henry, I believe Black Panther has been nominated for political reasons, though it is a good film. The over-abundance of superhero movies has less to do with changing audiences than with producer resources and priorities. We are inundated with CGI action for the same reason yellow journalism abounds: spectacle is easy and it sells.
As for the need of real heroes and real villains in the moral development of young people — not in lieu of tall tales, but in addition to them — I agree.
Some interesting questions have been raised. Are nerds by definition outsiders? Are they typically socially awkward? Do most nerds like comic book characters, or is that a subset?
Dead on. My best friend and I bonded while video gaming. Most of my friends who are liberal are either co-workers or people I game with. A really good friend I game with met his fiancee via gaming.
One of the most open communities I was ever in was a Minecraft server. Youngest player was 13, oldest was 45. Several people gamed with their family members. My father and I would video game together while I was a kid.
For those unfamiliar with high-level video gaming, it often requires intense teamwork and practice. No one role succeeds alone.
I’m going with yes, yes in the context of nom-nerd social groups, and subset.
Just want to add this to the discussion: