For the past few days, I’ve been inundated with live data from people I know, who are all fortunate enough to participate in Gen Con this year. Gen Con, for the unaware, is Nerd Mecca, a four-day-long convention in Indianapolis dedicated to everything and anything you can think of that pertains to Nerd Culture.
And I’m not there. But that’s ok.
On my bucket list of things to do before I’m old, feeble, and unable to maintain my bladder, attending Gen Con (along with a number of other conventions) is near the top of the list. For four days and nights—and I do mean days and nights; no one sleeps if they can help it, you miss too much—people seek out their passions and find new things to be passionate about as the world of gaming, comics, costumes, movies, and really anything you can imagine descends on Indy.
I’ll get there eventually, but the details and excitement about the convention aren’t the real focus of our discussion here today.
Where do you draw the line between Nerd Culture and mainstream culture these days? What’s the difference between something found at a place like Gen Con—the home of Dungeons and Dragons, cosplay, and comic books, and something found in the sales tents at a NASCAR race? Or more to the point, is the culture surrounding the Indy 500 really all that different from the culture at Gen Con Indy? From my perspective the differences aren’t all that significant, though I imagine there would be a fair amount of resistance to that sales pitch from both sides of the fence.
Nerd Culture has spent the last few years seeping its slippery tentacles into the world at large. You can see it everywhere around you. From the wide acceptance of comic book superhero movies to the smorgasbord of t-shirts with Nintendo game logos emblazoned across the chest, the things we love are getting packaged up, shipped out, and sold to us at a markup. We’re actually being marketed to, which many of us have little familiarity with or interest in, as we spent most of our time seeking out information and products within our interests since they were, by definition if not by design, counter-cultural. There are people out there being accused of being fake geeks. I find the idea of a “fake geek” dumbfounding. Why would anyone want to go out of their way to pretend to be something that’s caused me and those around me to be subjects of derision nearly our whole lives?
Because Nerd Culture has saturated the mainstream. And there’s money to be made.
The single most divisive subject I’ve seen in discussions of this trend is The Big Bang Theory. If you want to see two nerds go head to head, drop a Bazinga in their laps, and watch the sparks fly. For many, the show is a harmless foray of Hollywood minds into the subject matter that appeals to geeks—they don’t always understand it (or us) but they’re making an effort, and some of the things they say are actually pretty funny if you get the source material, letting us flex our nerd muscles when we get the jokes and others don’t. To another set of viewers, the show is an unholy abomination that slights the very essence of what it means to self-identify as a nerd, and the shallow façade of nerddom is insulting, demeaning, and offensive. The show is rife with stereotypes, panders to the lowest common denominator, and shows the worst of what fandom has to offer, rather than exploring the heights. The laugh track tells the viewer when to laugh, and by doing so dumbs down the already bottom-rung jokes, removing any sense of comedic timing.
Nothing could be more entertaining for me than a nerd-fight about whether or not a show for and about nerds was nerdy enough to be “real” nerd culture, or merely a front for “The Man” to capitalize on a new demographic. It is so utterly perfect that I just stand back and throw gasoline on the fire at every chance I get, hoping to see someone’s head explode in a fit of rage.
That we’ve come so far as a subculture to warrant an entire show on network television dedicated to the exploration of that culture is amazing. While we weren’t looking (most of us were too busy playing Dungeons and Dragons), the geeks have inherited the earth.
I’m a born geek. I can’t help it. Everything I do is nerdy. I tried to fight it as a kid, to embrace the mainstream culture and to force myself and my life into a mold delivered to me by movies and television. I grew up in the era of Dawson’s Creek and 90210. In the time of Saved by the Bell and Can’t Hardly Wait. I tried my best to emulate the things I saw in media, not recognizing or understanding that there were other ways to exist, other ways to find happiness. I thought, and those thoughts were supported through the popular culture of the day, that there was a thick dividing line between the “cool” and the “uncool.” I let it define my reality, and I lost out on time that I could have spent openly pursuing my passions.
Today, at the very least, shows like The Big Bang Theory allow kids like I was to understand that your future does not live and die on Friday night with the high school football team’s success or failure. It doesn’t revolve around whether that girl or guy you like returns those feelings, or if your sense of style is in line with what’s popular in stores these days. Seeing people of a variety of backgrounds and interests become successful, and see that highlighted and applauded—even with the litany of flaws that a show like The Big Bang Theory‘s—is something that can steer the ship in the right direction for a generation of nerdy kids who are terrified at the prospects of non-conformity.
In my life, this began with Magic, but certainly didn’t end there.
I am an avid reader. Much like many of you, I’m sure, my interest in Magic began with the flavor, and it wasn’t until I was much more proficient at the game than those first few months that I began to see it for anything beyond the struggle of one wizard and his horde of minions against the might of another wizard. But that storyline, that high fantasy mask covering the math game we love was what drew me in and got me hooked. It turned my penchant for reading fantasy epics into a gateway. Right now, as I’m writing this piece, there’s a copy of the newest Terry Brooks novel on my desk, which I’m reading during lunch breaks at work. Nothing has changed in the last 25 years to reduce my love of fantasy, and Magic is a massive part of that.
At one time, I had to hide my interest in reading, because it wasn’t cool. On the school bus, I was often the target of ridicule, because I chose to spend my time to and from school reading a book, rather than participating in the ritual hazing process that is the American school bus. I spent weeks of summer vacation as a kid laying on a porch swing at my parents’ house, reading through The Belgariad over and over. Plenty of kids my age would have found the idea of spending a day curled up with a book revolting—books were for school, and you only read when you were forced to. Not me. I was the kind of kid that had the school reading list complete within days of the assignment and moved on to better and more interesting books from there.
Today, Game of Thrones is one of the most popular television programs on the air. I am a source of reference for more than a few of my friends and coworkers, who haven’t read the books but enjoy the show. They come to me for information to put the pieces together that are harder to pick up visually. I’m the exposition that fills in the gaps between scenes.
Of the five highest selling (single volume) books of all time, two are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The highest selling book series of all time is the Harry Potter series, by a margin of 1.5:1 over the next highest seller. Once relegated to a small rack over in the dark, dingy corner of the bookstore, the Fantasy and Science Fiction section is growing ever more prominent.
My former boss, who has recently retired, had a connection to me that none of our other department members held—because of our mutual love of reading science fiction and fantasy novels, and our shared experiences reading Tolkien and Asimov. Recently I reread The Foundation Trilogy, and another coworker and I sparked a long conversation about our favorite writers, which has led to us essentially starting a two-man book club.
Reading has gone from a way to separate myself from those around me to one that brings me closer to others. A love for Fantasy and Science Fiction has taken me from the weird kid on the bus with his nose stuck in a book to the knowledgeable resource for those not ensconced in the genre, as it has become more and more prominent in the “normal” world.
Beyond the reaches of even my own hobbies, I have a working knowledge of most things geek. Because of the intersections between our own world and other subcultures, I can speak with some familiarity on a wide variety of topics without having specifically immersed myself in them.
For example, I’m not particularly versed in comic books. I read a fair amount of them as a kid, because my older brother was into them and had a bunch lying around. For the most part, I was happier without the images to cloud my imagination’s own, and would rather read a novel than a comic. Additionally, most comic books were just too short for me to really get into; I didn’t have time to invest in the storyline before the end of the comic, and I wasn’t willing to wait for the next issue to find out more. And yet, I find myself regularly brought into the discussion on comic books, because of the perception that a guy like me, who spends his free time in a comic store playing around with nerdy games, would know a lot about comics.
And the weird thing is, I actually DO know a pretty large amount about them for someone who has never considered them a part of his sphere. I’m familiar with a wide swath of superheroes and supervillains, their back stories and their motivations. I know enough that when I watch a movie like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I can get pissed that they wasted the Deadpool character on such a strange plot device, even more so because casting Ryan Reynolds in the role of Wade Winston was perfect. And I knew that Wade Winston was Deadpool without needing to look it up, despite having read maybe two total Deadpool comics in my life.
I know these things not because I have some kind of photographic memory, or because I care deeply about the source material, but because I’m surrounded by others who do care deeply. I’ve learned by osmosis, or perhaps I’ve died of exposure.
It’s my belief that this is the root cause of the proliferation of nerd culture. Our passion and drive to share that passion have forced others to see. They’ve been held against their will as we shove the things we love down their throat, and proven to them why anything could be worth the effort of loving it to the extent that we do.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to experience the Pro Tour as a player. Prior to winning the PTQ that earned me that honor, very few people outside those closest to me really knew or cared about the fact that I play Magic, or that I take it as seriously as I do. It was with some reserve that I told my coworkers why I would be taking a week off from work, after having taken a week off only a little over a month earlier for a vacation.
To my surprise, not only were they excited for me, in no small part because the win came with a trip to Spain, but also because they could recognize the accomplishment and the fervor I had for the game. Some of them pressed me for details about the game, and some even admitted to me having played when they were younger.
When I left for the Pro Tour, my boss sent out an email to my entire group with a link to where the coverage would be, and they followed along for the weekend. When I got home, they all congratulated me for doing as well as I did, and commiserated with me that I hadn’t strung another Q out of the event.
This stood in stark contrast to the expectations I had based on my previous experiences “outing” myself. The support and enthusiasm made me feel like I could let my freak flag fly, and not have to struggle to fit into the perception of what I thought others think I should be. It’s ok that I don’t really care what football team won last night’s game. It’s ok that I don’t golf. I don’t know a damn thing about cars—but I know what the mana base of a Limited deck should look like, and what to first pick in M14 draft. And that’s ok.
From my work with this site, I’ve earned a modicum of recognition in the greater Magic world. I’ve met people in some unassuming places (including my office) who have done a double take when they see me—and I can tell the difference between, “Hey, that guy looks like Zac Brown” and, “Hey, I think I recognize that nerd” pretty easily at this point. The variety of places I’ve been asked about Magic—the gas station, for example, never ceases to amaze me, and it’s a constant reminder that the culture of Magic, and greater nerddom at large, has saturated into the mainstream in a way that we should all be proud of. We’re the front line, fighting for the causes of passion, enthusiasm, and obsession—and everyone the world over should be so lucky as to love something the way we do. It’s getting there. More and more every day, we’re not nerds—we’re just people.