Monday, 29 May 2017

The Pacification of the Nerd

I've been thinking about writing this post for a long time. I'm still not sure if I can put my finger exactly on what it is I want to say - but since that's never stopped me before I might as well go ahead with it.

There was a time when being a nerd was in its own way genuinely subversive. Most people reading this will have been alive and compus mentus in the 1980s and/or 1990s or before - cast your minds back to what it meant to be a nerd or a geek in those days. At least in my experience, there were two categories of such social pariahs. There were the real nerds - the kids who were into chemistry sets, train spotting or amateur dramatics and whatnot; the genuinely unfortunate sensitive and intelligent souls who didn't understand that Anglo-Saxon culture despises earnest and heartfelt interest in intellectual pursuits, and were bullied remorselessly as a result (but are probably now making millions working in STEM industries). Then there was the group which I belonged to, who were generally referred to as "the hippies" by the mainstream kids who we disparagingly referred to as "the trendies". We were nerds but we were into wearing denim and CND badges, and played in bands and drank alcohol and did other things we weren't supposed to. D&D and Warhammer nestled alongside other interests, like hanging out on park benches at night drinking cider or going to "rock night" at a local hotel every Wednesday or listening to Black Sabbath.

Either way, though, there was something about being a nerd that had a sort of punk quality to it. The "trendies" - the kids for whom wearing the latest fashions mattered, listening to chart music mattered, appearing not to care about school mattered, saying the right thing at all times mattered - were hugely suspicious of the "hippies" and hated and feared the real nerds beyond measure. The existence of the hippies and real nerds represented alternative lifestyles and possibilities - the idea that you could actually choose your own path in life and be into D&D or for that matter train spotting if that was what you wanted. (The truest punk of all was a boy I remember, called Paul, who was obsessively interested in chemistry and Land Rovers; he was bullied so much that eventually he had to be taught separately from the other kids for his own safety - that's how subversive he was and how much he threatened the established "popular" types.)

In its own way being a nerd at that time was also pretty strongly anti-consumerist. I don't think this was ever particularly well thought-out, but for us the idea that you had to be wearing the latest clothes, listening to the latest music and so on was anathema. Being a "hippy" was about not giving a fuck about that sort of thing. We got most of our fun out of the local library and musical instruments. The real nerds were into even more esoteric pursuits and were, of course, barely even aware of such concepts as fashion at all. It seemed to us (though I don't think I would have put it like this back then!) that physical status symbols like the Nike trainers or goretex jackets that were popular at the time were irrelevant to one's actual status. And we made a point of acting as if that were the case, with our greasy long hair, Doc Martens and West German army surplus jackets.

In any event, the point I want to make, I suppose, is that at one time being a nerd meant being rather strongly counter-cultural in certain important ways that, if you were being overly romantic, you could see as an important corrective to societal pressures to conform. The nerd was non-violent but also rather unpleasant to behold, difficult to understand, and bloody-mindedly unimpressed with the prospect of conforming. He was in his own way vaguely monstrous in the eyes of mainstream society.

Fast forward to 2017 and it seems to me that the dangerous, weird nerd has become pacified. It is hard to detail exactly how or when this happened, but the release of The Fellowship of the Ring film is a good place to begin the search. Nowadays there is such a thing as "geek culture" and it is all the range - from Hollywood to the world of fashion to the professional video game playing industry. The nerd is no longer the outsider; he is the king of Silicon Valley and hence the world. He is not the awkward, sharp, non-conformist splinter in the skin of the mainstream. He increasingly is the mainstream.

It's good that mainstream culture no longer militates quite so destructively against the defenseless nerd - I think poor Paul would have fit in a lot better if he had been born 15 years later - but quite a few things have been lost as a result. Not least of those things is what the nerd used to represent - the possibility and promise of non-conformity, and particularly non-conformity with consumer capitalism. The nerd as I remember him (whether of the hippy or the real nerd variety) above all wanted to carve enjoyment out of pastimes that weren't readily commercialized. You got your AD&D books, some scrap paper and pencils, a library card, a guitar and a load of hand-me-down Warhammer figures, and you were good to go. You didn't need the latest clothes, the latest gadgets, the latest football shirt.

In contemporary geek culture, that seems less and less the case: whether it's the latest collectible, the latest £50 PS4 game, or the latest $200 million dollar Star Wars extravaganza, it is all about the money and all about the status that comes from having the latest whatever-it-is-that's-cool. You could make the argument that in the last 15 years nerd-dom has colonised the mainstream but I increasingly tend to think it is the other way round, and the two-fingers-up to the "real world" that was the 80s/90s nerd has all but disappeared.

41 comments:

  1. It's weird: I never knew the nerd scene of the 80s or 90s, being far too young and / or nonexistent at the time to partake, but stuff like this (the feeling of perhaps something was lost, an edge was softened) resonates with me.

    At the same time, I think that a lot of people use it as a lead in to a kids-these-days knee jerk. Sure you have the bland, market driven juggernauts, but you also have new people bringing in new life, and the undercurrent of odd people who are amazingly, obsessively devoted to odd things never really went away. It just changes shape, like it always does.

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    1. Yeah, I don't blame kids these days. They're not the ones responsible for the commercialization

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  2. Punk today is about:
    • Steroid abuse
    • Torrenting occult ebooks en masse
    • The revival of bicameral consciousness
    • Ecoterrorism
    • Meditation on Cellini's 'Perseus with the Head of Medusa'
    • Conquering the weak
    etc.

    https://twitter.com/Logo_Daedalus

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    1. These are the hipsters you are talking about ...

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    2. Pepe Memes & cod Nazism seem to be where it's at.

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  3. I think this is precisely right. There's some sort of "movement" afoot to democratize gaming or finally lower the gates to "minorities" or whatever - people that might earlier have been called "social outcasts." But back in the day, the only people who played were outcasts. And, yes, that meant there were a higher percentage of, say, gay kids or kids in wheelchairs or just out and out "weird" kids than in many more standard social settings (or, at least, that was the case where I hung out). There were also girls - the girls who were either so uncool or so uncaring about being cool that they wanted to hang out with a bunch of unpopular pimply boys.

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    1. I think you are probably right about that in the main.

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  4. It was commoditized, as all successful subcultures eventually are.

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  5. You're a hipster. There's nothing good wrong with that.

    If you really want to be a subversive these days, become a Tory.

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    1. I'm one step ahead of you. Been there and had the membership card, but I am more of a Peter Hitchens or Roger Scruton style disillusioned traditional conservative these days.

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    2. That's the closest thing there is to a Punk Tory. :p

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  6. As someone that started playing D&D in '83 in middle school, I completely agree. The idea of "geek culture" simply didn't exist yet.

    Like you, I had a foot both in the nerd world and the hippie/punk/goth crowd (none of those scenes were big enough to exist alone locally. They intermingled). Some of my friends use to joke that I was the punkest one around because through most of high school, I steadfastly wore vaguely uncool department store clothes. A lot of my friends drifted into various subcultural uniforms, but I couldn't do it. I didn't really mind them doing it, but the idea of taking on some look just appalled me.

    By the end of the '90s, I began to get the same feeling of people wearing a costume from some younger nerds. There was a premeditation to it rather than a lack of caring.

    The real shift seemed to happen around the time the "Geek Fallacy" idea started to circulate. It seemed clever to me at first. I'd always been selective in who I gamed with, and I didn't automatically befriend someone because they were a fellow nerd. On a personal level, it made sense. Unfortunately, some people seemed to take it a movement. We needed gatekeepers, and people unworthy needed to be driven out of Geekdom, whatever that was.

    It's odd to me some of the things that get lumped in to Geekdom, such as video games. As part of the original Atari generation, everyone liked video games under a certain age. There was never any sense of it being a geeky thing. The trendies and jocks liked them. The stoners liked them. The honor students liked them.

    Yet when video gamers act badly, it is somehow always because of "geeks".

    Anyway, I am drifting into another topic entirely, so I will stop. Good column. I also received my hard copy of Yoon-Suin this week, and I am absolutely delighted by it.

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    1. Excellent. I'm really glad you like it.

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  7. Eh. A couple things about the way it was vs. the way it is now, 'cos I'm in that age range of coming up thru the 80's & 90's. I was the kid who was happiest in study hall getting to draw science fiction stuff in my sketchbooks or read whatever book I'd picked up with my Waldenbooks "Otherworlds Club" membership.

    The internet's probably the biggest factor in the difference you're seeing. A person might be into some pretty "out there" stuff, but now there's a communication medium that allows folks of that particular taste to form communities in the safety of their own room or basement. So that painful isolation, that "you might meet a dozen or two young alien types who step out and dare to declare" is very much ameliorated.

    This isn't really that revelatory an observation. We all know it, seeing as I'm making this comment on this blog about a particular niche and vintage of a very esoteric hobby. But back in the day all we had was magazine letters columns and the occasional convention.

    Second, the "mainstream" is like silly putty, and sooner or later will peel up with a distorted impression of the surface of whatever might be of interest until it's stretched and kneaded and ready to pull up whatever's on the next page of the newspaper.

    Hence we have "Big Bang Theory" which has good looking people in glasses pulling the same duty as the guys in blackface doing "Amos N' Andy" seventy years ago. The burlesque of subcultures has been going on for a looong time, and nerd culture ain't any different. How many Beats actually wore black turtlenecks or berets, let alone referred to themselves as "Beatniks"? How many San Francisco style hippies actually wore purple-lensed Lennon glasses, flower decals & fringe?

    I guess my point here is you probably aren't seeing a domesticated version of the real thing here, so much as a mimic that's good at assuming the plumage.

    Those real nerds making their millions in STEM have buying power, and our cohort is now old and monied enough that our nostalgia can be catered to. (I recall a quote from somebody, dunno who, who said. "Thank God that I won't have to care about what the Boomers liked for much longer.")

    Real nerd culture is by it's nature occluded. It's whatever the general populace is not paying attention to. You're not going to hear about that unless you stumble into the right forum or peer into the right basement window. The outcasts are still pursuing their interests, and still suffering the downside for it, and will still grow up and find their place in the world.

    We who have stumbled out of teenagerdom and settled into our skins just aren't gonna hear about it.

    This was probably disjointed and rambling. Ah well... If I was eloquent I wouldn't be a nerd.

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    1. Yeah, you have a point about older nerds now being moneyed and that may be one of the main drivers of commercialization.

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  8. I've been thinking this for ages. You've put it into words better than I could have. Thanks.

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  9. I blame the internet ;-)
    Really ;-)

    Anyway, back in the 80s or 90s, being a geek or nerd was indeed being part of some sort of underground subculture. Playing any form of roleplaying or wargaming during the 80s and a good part of the 90s was hard work. You had to visit obscure shops at least a train ride away (as a teenager without a car), and the mere fact that you played D&D immediately made you part of a satanistic hobby that would ultimately lead to some a demonic suicidial tendency. How cool was that?
    These days, you can simply buy a game in any high-street shop, and D&D or Warhammer is so mainstream that nobody still considers it as something dark and mysterious.

    Underground geek culture becoming mainstraim really started with the democratization of the internet. Suddenly, lots of this "cool hobby stuff" became available for anyone. Add movies about superheroes, LOTR, the success stories of Silicon Valley, and the Big Bang Theory, and suddenly you have Geek Chic. Everybody is a geek now.

    However, I still think there are underground subcultures among teenagers and high school kids. They might still involve science, gaming and computers, but as a 50 year old, it's hard to know. They won't tell you ;-)

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  10. BT, you should look up the geekcode. It's one of those geek things on the very early internet. It captures the geek culture of the early nineties very nicely, although it already shows signs of mainstreamness in its definition of various geek classes.

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  11. I'm not sure that romanticizing the experience of being a "nerd" in the '80's and bemoaning that something was "lost" is a very good idea. Being bullied is profoundly damaging. It leaves marks that take a lifetime to heal, and many of the kids you are describing weren't "nerds" by choice.

    They didn't make some decision to be excluded and harassed. Lots of those kids would have given almost anything - anything - to be accepted by any of the other groups. They were deeply interested in oddly specific pursuits because that's the sort of thing you get into when you are alone. When you don't have friends.

    So yeah - saying that something was "lost" when the kids that didn't have a group and a culture like you did managed to find enough critical mass to have some sort of social support network - it's not helpful.

    Further, it's not an "either way though" situation. You had a group of friends. Your situation was not analogous to theirs. Something is only subversive and counter-culture if you do it with friends. For many kids, being a "nerd" involved being terribly lonely, stressed, fearful and angry. If having a larger culture that kids in that situation can identify with is "pacification", so be it, but I think it's incredibly wrong-headed to romanticize the "dangerous weird nerd" label that was really just a profoundly painful existence for lots of kids.

    Further, most bullied kids aren't making millions in stem. I'm sure a few are. And lots more have moved on and made a decent life for themselves. The ones that didn't kill themselves, get addicted to drugs or alcohol or just drift into isolation, anyways.

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    1. It's possible for it to be sad that kids get bullied and also sad that nerdiness has become commmercialized.

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    2. Bemoaning some halcyon, imaginary lost time where being socially isolated because now people buy Game of Thrones merchandise is like complaining that you miss the times when people died of smallpox because now people have to buy health insurance and it's so commercialized.

      It's like Victorians going out to their romanticized versions of "Pastoral Idylls" because being a shepherd is so authentic. Nevermind the shepherd in question was a malnourished semi-literate tenant farmer. The past was not a better place, and it was not somehow subversive to be a nerd.

      Romanticizing a shitty situation caused by shitty behavior by imagining arbitrary positive characteristics that have somehow been lost is just... wrongheaded.

      Anyway, I disagree with you. Everything in North American society has been commercialized since always. What do you think TSR and Games Workshop have been up to since whenever, if not commercializing the nerd market? The fact that a larger slice of the population is interested in traditional nerd pursuits is for the good, at least in a development of common ground sense.

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    3. I don't think you are so much reacting to my post as taking an opportunity to vent, but knock yourself out. I am not blaming anybody for anything here, nor making any sort of normative argument, which you'll realise if you read the post again.

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    4. I don't think that anyone is defending the idea that bullying was or is or will be good. Of course it isn't.
      Being a geek or nerd in the 80s or 90s or even now did not equate being bullied. It meant having interests that were atypical and out of the mainstream. We can see that the geeky interests of 30 years ago have become mainstream, i.e. commercialized now. This might be a bad or good thing ;-)

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    5. I was bullied for being a nerd back in the 80s and early 90s. It sucked. However, I wasn't isolated ... I was a nerd with a group of nerd friends and we did our thing and it was great. I do miss that time when what we did was weirder than anything; it was exciting to find a creative outlet; it was epic weekends of crappy food and sneaking beers.

      I do feel like those times have been cheapened and can pine for "better days". I don't miss the bad parts though, and that is what nostalgia is all about. Hiding out of breath in the Ben Franklin store after running from the tough guys and helping my buddy after he got jumped and they "cut his hair" were terrible. Those events shaped who i am as well, but frankly I don't care about remembering and dwelling on that because the good stuff was more important.

      I thought this was a solid post.

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  12. Every generation starts on the outside, then becomes the target demographic when it gets a job. Every Hippie becomes a Yuppie. Today's Hipsters will be told they don't understand whatever their kids get into. Plus ca change.

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  13. I still think the acceptance of nerd pursuits is fairly limited: people might like Marvel movies (but are often ironic or self-deprecating about this) or Game of Thrones, but table-top RPGs, for example, are a grubby corner a long way from the mainstream. Comics or 'graphic novels' are acceptable if artsy (Sandman, Maus etc) but probably not if they're standard superhero fare. And again, how much of this is an echo chamber? Most people out there don't know what Dungeons and Dragons is.

    A lot of it seems to be driven by three major factors:

    1) Major franchises with mass appeal and marketing budgets.
    2) Video games becoming more mainstream as an art form - which is possibly linked to the Internet and a rapid improvement in the technology.
    3) The internet allows weird basement-dwelling subcultures to emerge, network and codify themselves into an easily marketable blob - whilst you might be a minority in your geographical pocket of the world, once geography is irrelevant you are legion. See; the international Old School Renaissance milieu.

    I saw the terrible Guy Ritchie King Arthur film last night, and it was interesting to me how the trappings of fantasy (swords, wizards, monsters) can be so divorced from anything that is *fantasy* and saddled to a silly, macho, badly-cut London gangster film clearly aimed at replicating the same audience as Lock Stock.

    I teach in a secondary school. The 'trendies' are still the largest demographic, and they still care about football, crap pop music, fashion and social status. There are still the 'nerds', but their interests might be different (anime, horror films, emo) and they still have a distaste for the establishment. I was in school in the late noughties so I saw gaming become more mainstream first hand, but it was chiefly Fifa and Call of Duty rather than fantasy/ sci fi titles.

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    1. I think you are partly right but think how odd it would have been 20 years ago for a series like Game of Thrones to even exist, let alone take off. Geekiness is starting from a very low base in the public eye.

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  14. I presented in a Philosophy class about the commercialization of childhood. Feeling a resonation right now with one of my core topics. The mainstream is finally connecting money with intelligence. Hopefully the next step will be connecting self-worth with non-material values - oh, wait, our consumer economy would drastically suffer.

    Shit.

    There is yet hope, as evidenced by you people. Thanks for the post. We are now accepted, but we now have to recognize all the other subtle forms of mainstream culture that have wormed themselves into nerdism/geekery. I'm not sure whether that tradeoff was worth making.

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    1. I'm not sure connecting money with intelligence is the way forward, although I agree that's what's happening. By definition half the population has an IQ below the median. What happens to them?

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  15. Hmm...the concept of "nerd-dom" across the pond appears a bit different from mine. Counter-culture types (punks or freaks or whatnot) were a very different class of animal (and faced a different type of ostracism) than what I'd call "nerds" where I grew up in the 80s. There was nothing punk about nerds...they (we) tended to be self-absorbed in our own worlds. I don't see anything particularly subversive in "checking out" of reality for the sanctuary of escapism. We were still consumers, just consumers of a different type.

    But, as I said, that may have just been the peculiarities of my region.

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    1. Definitely much nerd-freak crossover even in the '90s. Look at Vampire: The Masquerade.

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  16. It is odd what has happened with nerd/geek culture. I was in youth theater (attended the Emerson College summer program even), wrote computer games for fun, could do math with a slide rule quicker than some folks could with a calculator(at the time) BUT I also played D&D with three guys that were kicked off the school football team for being too violent so while I got lot's of crap for being a dungeons and dragons player I didn't get too much crap for it. I'm sort of glad the nerds are safer today but they also don't have that same secret connection nerds did in the old days.
    The past is a foreign country inddeed and the future isnkt like anyone expected.

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  17. I kind of have to disagree. On the one hand, you're right on the money that what used to be fringe nerd culture - various kinds of gaming, genre-fiction fandom, etc. - have been colonized and commercialized and watered down to some degree. But that was inevitable. As a rule things either flourish, or they die out.

    But the proportion of people who are on the fringe of society probably isn't going to change a lot... they're just indulging in different specific hobbies. There are still dangerous/weird/ostracized subcultures: Bronies, for example. Furries. The trolls who inhabit certain corners of Reddit or 4chan.

    It used to be that if you played D&D, you were doing a thing that nobody around you had heard of and nobody understood, so you were shunned. You were the guy mocked as inevitably going to die a weird smelly virgin. But now we live in a world post-E.T., when not only fictional characters but TV and movie stars are open about being D&D/Tolkien fans. So if you're the kind of person whose identity includes rejecting society and turning to the "special" small-band-of-brothers feeling you get from being a weird, smelly, doomed virgin, then you're not going to spend a lot of time on those. You're going to identify with stuff that everybody looks askance at.

    And I'm not saying that the PowerPuff Girls products aimed at 30-year-old male fans aren't part of the commercialization you talk about... but then again, fringe nerdery was never free of commercialization. D&D, genre novels, comic books, etc. were all products. They were marketed and sold.

    I'd say this is a case of things staying the same the more they change; it's just that now you're the one in the mainstream, cheerfully ignoring the fringe while you get on with the life you know. ;)

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    1. I think there is a difference between products being sold and rampant commercialization. I mean maybe this goes all the way back to Star Wars but when I go into a Forbidden Planet shop nowadays all I see are collectibles. Books and comics are relegated to a few dusty shelves squirreled away at the back.

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  18. Interesting. So might one conceive of the OSR as being a fringewards re-steering of the course?

    I mean, it's most certainly nostalgia and emulation, but it might also be faced as a flight from commercial and mainstream colonization, a resettling upon places where the normal will not follow, leading to this pervasion of the "weird" aesthetic not just as a fanciful choice but as a very deliberate way of checking appropriation.

    Credible movies about superheroes being now a thing and hence prompting the nerd to dig deeper into the weirdness to preserve his social identity.

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    1. You could well be right, although I think sometimes OSR types are a bit too self-congratulatory about that.

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  19. Its interesting to learn that the association of "D&D" and "nerd" isn't just an American thing.

    Few of the people I played with in my corner of Canada, in the 70s and 80s, were part of any marginalized group. Typically they wore the styles that were in fashion, were involved in athletics, were liked well enough by their peers, and didn't have any particular difficulty getting laid. And I'm talking about the few girls I played with, too.

    The one thing they had in common was they had an easy time getting along with a variety of different groups. But then, the groups were less clearly defined as well; pretty much every male in the school had read LoTR in junior high.

    Very few people would have fallen into the definition of "nerd" at the time, and I think on some level I wondered if it was a construct of the American media. Gamers in my group and others would sometimes self-identify as "nerds", but we did it a bit ironically.

    Now I wonder if my area was unusual in this way, or if early non-nerd gamers are more common than people generally think.

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    1. Noisms' experience was pretty close to mine in 1980s Northern Ireland, except we didn't have real slacker-rebel types like him at my Grammar school. >:)
      RPGs in the UK were and are definitely associated with nerds, BUT I would caution that even UK nerd culture is not as clearly delineated or separated from the mainstream as in the USA.

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  20. I agree with your points. Another example of the mainstream (consumer) culture mining the counter-culture for something fresh to market was the folk-rock movement of the mid 60's.

    By the late 60's/early 70's that "look and feel" which rejected consumerism was now marketed as fashion. Don Henley said he wrote the song "Hotel California" in 1977 about the death of the hippy dream of the 60's.

    Same thing happened with 'grunge' in the early 1990s. Kurt Cobain and others were disgusted by the hordes of trendy fans that used to deride him in high school (e.g. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', 'In Bloom', etc.)

    For us kids of the seventies and eighties, it's weird to see our nerdy comic books, fantasy, and sci-fi stories presented as polished blockbusters.

    If it's any consolation, most people still think actually PLAYING D&D is pretty weird (unless it's a video game). :)

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  21. Sorry, one more observation, now that you've got me thinking (and thanks for that!)

    Maybe there's two contradictory innate human drives at work inside all of our psyche's.

    Let's call the first one the "leadership drive". There is a basic desire to stand above ones peers and be a candidate for tribe leadership---to show visionary understanding of the future. You have to be different from everyone else, but in a way that shows you are a forward thinker (that will be proved right eventually). One sad stereotype that fits this mold is the rich socialite affecting the counterculture of artists and the disfranchised as a break with the past (to which they are the heir apparent). Something I think of this as the privileged baby-boom generation petulantly telling their parents (who basically won WWII and conquered the world): "Everything you did sucks! Industrialization sucks! I don't want a job running your stupid factories, I'm running away to join a commune!"

    The second force at work here is the fact that everyone IS actually different and we don't know why. We worry about fitting in to society as a whole, and as teenagers its painfully obvious when we begin to leave the cocoon of our families and need to forge a new group identity.

    Some folk struggle to 'seem' different, when in fact they are more or less unremarkable. They adopt counter-culture fashion and get the derisive label "hippster". They desire individual recognition, but generally don't do much to warrant it. That is their unlucky fate.

    The odd souls who are VERY different due to birth or circumstance struggle with this frustration all their lives. And even when they have had some success in this world, often can't shake the feeling of being out of place---this sometimes leads to tragic ends (e.g. Allen Turing, Chris Cornell, R.E. Howard).

    Although we tend to see a dichotomy (nerds vs trendies) its a spectrum, and only luck-of-the-draw often places you in one category or the other. I think the truth is, that to be human is to struggle---to be at peace is not in our nature.

    Famously in Monty Python's 'The Life of Brian', the huge crowd collectively shouts: "We're all individuals!", and then one ragged bloke mutters, "I'm not."

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