I don’t really talk about video games or comic books or any of the other flotsam and jetsam of nerd culture I’ve been into over the years and I feel like maybe it’s because it feels like nerd culture, if such a thing still exists, left me behind and I’m just an old man yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, or despite the fact that I still play video games and read comic books, I just don’t feel like I’m part of it anymore, or maybe to be completely honest, it’s that I don’t really want to be a part of it anymore. I feel like over the last ten, maybe fifteen years or so, it’s become more and more exclusionary, and less and less open, which was its defining quality when I was growing up.
In the beginning, there just weren’t enough of us to be exclusionary – I’m talking specifically about my small town experience – there simply weren’t enough nerds to be exclusionary, no matter how weird you were, no matter the colour of your skin (and this is Apartheid South Africa I’m talking about here), if you liked the same video games as me or played Dungeons and Dragons or knew about some obscure fantasy novel I was reading, we were friends for life. I’m glad to say that, as I approach my forties, for the most part, this seems to have held true for a lot of those friends I made along the way.
But now nerd culture is popular culture. I remember sitting around the one comic book shop in our city that only lasted about two years before it shut down, talking about what an X-Men movie might be like and who we would cast (Sylvester Stallone as Wolverine and Arnold as Colossus) very aware that we were day dreaming. Remember, everyone else thought the same thing which is why Marvel sold off all their film rights in the nineties. And even though it’s obvious in retrospect that nerds all over the world would grow up and have disposable income and technology would advance to a point where it could create the kind of visual magic needed to bring these things to life, it wasn’t obvious then. There aren’t nerds anymore because everyone’s a nerd. And the bigger a group is, the easier it is to divide it.
The problem with Ready Player One:
I always had a soft spot for Ernest Cline, or Ernie Cline as he was known when he was known more for his nerd-centric slam poetry (Look up Ultraman is Airwolf or Dance Monkey Dance) than as the writer of Ready Player One. But I don’t like Ready Player One. I know I’m one of many and I don’t think I’m taking a fringe position here but I do feel like it’s only recently that I’ve been able to put it into words. I don’t like it because it is the epitome of exclusionary nerd culture. The functional benefit of watching the movie to many is being able to nod and wink at how many catchphrases, how many more nerd properties you can identify than “Normies” would be able to. The first season of Stranger Things has elements of this too. It’s about belonging to an exclusive club, it’s about creating an “us” and a “them.” To many I’m sure it’s nostalgic but that nostalgia hides something that I feel, however unintentional, is insidious and divisive.
I feel like there is a connection, however tenuous, to phenomena like the dark side of 4chan and gamergate and if you look at a Venn diagram of that, and things like the incel movement, I honestly believe you’ll see some overlap. It all starts with taking something you enjoy, and turning it into an “us” club, that “they” don’t have access to.
I just don’t believe the things we like make us special, and they certainly don’t make us more special than other people.
Back in that small comic book shop on the tip of Africa, the idea of excluding anyone, the idea of telling anyone that they weren’t cool enough (who were we to be the arbiters of cool?) or weren’t welcome at our game of Dungeons and Dragons, or to pick up a second controller was crazy.
Maybe some part of us knew back then, that was the way of fear.
And fear, leads to hate.