Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Slow Yet Inevitable Death of Nerd Culture and What Comes After

I've been thinking about "nerd culture" and what that means as of late. Both to me personally and in the wider culture. And the more I think about it, the more I feel it's fundamentally broken as a concept.

But that begs the question, what really IS "nerd culture" in the rapidly approaching new decade? Is it just an appreciation for Sci-fi and Fantasy media? Perhaps it was at one point, but it seems those things have lost their stigma in the wider culture. It's no longer "weird" to like spaceships or wizards or video games and japanese cartoons. Hell, even Dungeons & Dragons, the supposed holy grail of basement-dwelling geekazoids, is a mainstream hobby now. One enjoyed by everyone from deployed soldiers to basically everyone else. So if all that's mainstream, then just what in the hell is nerdy in our current year? Well in the words of Red Letter Media's Nerd Crew, it's "don't ask questions just consume product, then get excited for next products."

 Don't believe me? Head on over to Collider or Geek and Sundry or any other "nerd culture" channel on Youtube. You'll be met with images of merchandise stacked upon merchandise. Funko Pops and Legos and a whole assortment of branded tat, all blended together in a horrid mass. People freaking out and crying over a mass-produced movie made by the Walt Disney Corporation. Teeming crowds all paying for flights and hotels to watch a trailer for a multimedia franchise they'll buy tickets to anyway. In other words, naked consumerism at its very worst.

It wasn't always like this though. While much of it was before my time, Nerd Culture was once largely defined by a sort of hobby attitude, one which glorified the active participation of its fans over everything else. Being a fantasy geek meant painting your minis, running your games, writing short pastiches to Robert E. Howard or physically going to renaissance faires. Sci-fi had zines and anthologies, fan magazines, costumes, and of course, a focus on actual science. Being into these hobbies often meant you picked up real-world skills, stuff you could take outside the fantastical and into real life. Many are the stories of MIT alumni who started as starry-eyed youths watching Star Trek, or history buffs  who found their profession through the tomes of Middle-Earth. Fascinations such as these are healthy and have even contributed towards real historical and scientific research (HEMA for example, has thrived in large part due to SFF fans). But today's "nerd culture" is a wholly different beast. One that, like many of our social media services, is increasingly controlled and less about personal expression.

What was once driven largely by fans and independent artists has slowly been taken over by large multimedia corporations. You need only look at Comic-Con, which is little more than an expensive trade show at this point. Yes, you have cosplay and artists' alleys and the like, but bit by bit they've been overshadowed by the massive WARNER BROTHERS logo towering over them like the Eye of Sauron. And even when big companies owned the properties of old-school nerddom, the focus of these fan gatherings and of the culture at large was fans and creators. And while that hasn't been wholly snuffed out, the media companies are doing their absolute damnest to make sure they're the focus of modern-day nerd culture. One example that stuck out to me are the various "lifestyle" shows that Marvel Entertainment's been putting out, such as "Eat the Universe" and this unboxing video literally uploaded by the Funko channel. The former is the sort of content that should be made by fans, while the latter is basically a naked commercial to go buy their stuff. And when you look at that and the other "nerd culture" content out there (be it sponsored or directly uploaded by the company) the message is very clear. "We make the content. You consume."

And again, this isn't some boomerific "back in MY day things were better," rant. I didn't exist back in those days, and much of my knowledge comes from documentaries and articles from back in the 60's, 70's and early 80's. But looking back, I can't help but feel that we lost something crucial. And that in order for SFF fandom to truly thrive, it has to cast off the nasty larval cocoon of mass market blandness, and return to its specialized, hobby-focused origins. And because the internet is a thing, there's already a few areas of SFF fiction and gaming where this mentality not only survives, but thrives. And they are in my opinion, the best of genre entertainment at the moment.

If you're familiar with tabletop games, you may have heard of "OSR" Dungeons & Dragons. Essentially, these are games which use the mechanics of original or first edition D&D, but remix or utilize them in unique and awesome ways. For example, "Gangbusters" by Mark Hunt is a two-fisted 1920s pulp action game where you fight crime. "Stars Without Number" lets you embark on a hard sci-fi journey, and Lion and Dragon delivers medieval fantasy with painstaking historical accuracy. All of these games are mechanically compatible with early D&D and its retro-clones, meaning you can mix and match elements from them if you so choose. If you really wanted to run a 1920s sci-fi bootlegging campaign with wizards and dragons, there's no reason you can't. If you wanted to publish a game inspired by Christian fantasy a la Narnia, or a setting themed around gay vampire hunters, there is literally no one who can stop you. Anyone can publish just about anything via print on demand/PDF gamebooks on DriveThruRPG. Everyone who plays these games houserules them, and even casual players will inevitably share said rules on their blogs or social media, making them creators as well. When you become a part of this hobby you're not just a passive consumer, but an active content creator on some level.

Honestly? I like this approach a hell of a lot better than whatever Disney's doing these days. And it's one of the reasons that as a writer, I've become so adamant about self-published fantasy and sci-fi fiction. Like the OSR games, anyone can put out anything on the web. And contributing or reading makes you part of a wider hobby with specialized sub-communities. It becomes less about slavishly buying corporate bric-a-brac, and more about a general love of a genre. Also, most indie SFF entertainment has a seriously low barrier of entry -- Amazon books start at $0.99, and many OSR role-playing games are cheap or even free. So if you're low on cash or don't want to invest a ton up front, you can buy in for cheap and support the creators further if you enjoy their products.

This isn't to say I think all movies or large corporate products and companies are terrible, mind you. It's largely thanks to Amazon that indie fiction's had such a huge boom after all. But over time, I've really soured "nerd culture" as is currently doled out by our corporate overlords. I'm honestly not sure what you'd even call this emerging creator-driven genre hobby culture, yet I feel it's the future for us dissatisfied nerds. It's got a much broader appeal than the geekdom of old, yet it still has a specialized focus that makes being part of the "club" something special. Zines, anthology magazines, print on demand and digital are amazing tools inspired by the old ways. But thanks to the internet, you don't need to be a wargamer in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in 1967 to be part of "the club." All you need to do is find an online group on Facebook or Discord or MeWe, or just buy and/or download the book or game and share it with your friends. The future I thin,isn't "nerd culture," but creator culture. One that takes advantage of the mianstream appeal of corporatized modern geek media, but steers it towards a creator-driven, hobby-centered culture. One where it doesn't matter whether you're a guy or a gal, jock or nerd, black, white, jew, asian, martian or telepathic siamese cat. Just that you have an interest in the given hobby and are willing to contribute to the proverbial potluck.

And hell, maybe this is just me having been weaned on moddable PC games and creator-driven web content like Youtube, the SCP Foundation and various podcasts. When you place the onus on fans, readers or gamers to be co-creators of a sort, wonderful things happen. And going back to PC games, it's why games like TF2 are still alive after ten years while literally hundreds of shiner, newer games sit at bargain bins with dead multiplayer servers. The top-down approach to content creation is awful and it's gripping nerd culture more and more every year like a giant anaconda. And at some point, I feel the Hollywood film and multimedia wing of it's gonna collapse under its own weight. At least, that's what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg said, and they're kind of okay filmmakers, I guess. Not like they made one of my favorite things ever or anything.

Anyway, that's my rant. I have a few more, including one where I'll expand a bit more on the different between Hobby and Lifestyle fandoms, and why I think the former is superior in just about every conceivable way. But for now, that's enough geek culture griping for one day I guess.


  1. Glad to read this, thanks for this inspiring rant!

  2. Very interesting POV. I'm 47 and what made me and mine "nerds" was a devotion to something very few people ever like or even knew about. We were socially immature and retreated to books and textbooks to live a life far more to our liking within our daydreams.

    I'm not saying ours is the one true way, but it's still strange to realize that Watchmen is an HBO series and a network allowed Supernatural to run so long and tell the story of a Flash of two worlds.

    1. Absolutely! And there's positives to that too, I think the influx of new blood will be good in the long term, and a lot of fun media's resulted from this wave of "nerd culture." But going into 2020, I do think that the "maker" or "indie" SFF culture needs to disassociate itself from the wider "nerd" culture.

      The term "nerd" is meaningless, and no longer has any hobby implications. All it does is reference an outdated stereotype about AV and Chess Club kids that was never fully accurate to begin with. Going back to D&D, there were always metalhead jock types, gay guys/gals, weapons enthusiasts, history buffs, drama club kids, and just about every conceivable type of person who played and does play. If all those people are "nerds" because they're into a certain thing, then the term "nerd" is meaningless, because everyone has SOME hobbies, even if said hobbies are climbing the office ladder and trading stocks.

      That's why I like terms like "gamer" or "fan" better. They actively describe what a person is instead of loosely associating a stereotype to them. A "gamer" could be a classical nerd, or a Call of Duty bro, a church youth group or the LGBT boardgame co-op at a local college, it doesn't matter. What matters is they GAME and are enthusiasts of gaming.