Nerds, Dragons, and Culture: Have Geeks Finally Found Acceptance in Society?

The Dragonborn ranger lops off the heads of the goblins, as he and his companions – a half-elf, a barbarian, and a dwarf – enter the forgotten castle.  As strange otherworldly lights flicker, an evil cackle echoes down the halls, but the brave adventurers press onward in search of treasure.  This actually happened.  Sort of.  It took place in the wonderful world of Dungeons and Dragons, a world I’ve been part of for a few years, but have largely kept secret.  Growing up, being a “geek” or “nerd” would get you beaten up – and there are few things more ‘geeky’ than rolling dice to explore an imaginary world.

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A Dragonborn Warrior (copyright: Wizards of the Coast)

Fortunately, times are changing.  The growing trend of ‘geek-chic’ has seen the very things that made geeks outsiders – love of comic books, fantasy, and computers for example – become mainstream.  As the tagline for the 1984 American comedy ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ says: “They’ve been laughed at, picked on and put down.  But now it’s time for the odd to get even!”

The funny thing about Revenge of the Nerds, though, is that it was a comedy; the idea of geeks and nerds rising up and becoming popular at the expense of the jocks was supposed to be ridiculous, but in the thirty years since the film was released, that “joke” has become a reality.  That said, it’s not all smiles and cheerleaders – there’s still a lot of debate around why geek culture is on the rise, and whether it’s actually a good thing for ‘real’ geeks.

One of the most significant factors ushering in the ‘age of the geek’ is the world’s growing reliance on technology and the Internet.  Ask an ordinary member of public how their iPhone works, or what the best way to fix a recursive error on their PC is, and expect to receive befuddled responses, but to many geeks such information is old hat.

In their beginning, computers were one of those niche subjects left to the geeks, and this, says Shawnee Johnson, one of the admins at The Geek Society.org, was vital for the creation of geek culture.

“With the rise of the internet and outcasts finding and supporting each other,” she said, “I believe on a massive level that those who had been othered or othered themselves found acceptance and joy in the escapist tendencies that helped them cope with society.”  Whilst many geeks had become outsiders, over the Internet they were able to bond and create their own virtual societies around their shared interests.

It’s only natural for such a culture to rise in stature as gadgets and technology spread across the globe.  With technology being trendy, its creators, the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates types, have become heroes and celebrity figures, making love of computing, and by extension other aspects of geekiness, not just socially accepted by celebrated.

Jon Shilling, a true geek, says that he is much more comfortable being ‘geeky’ now: “just the other day at work I got talking with a colleague who mentioned that her dad played World of Tanks, and we just laughed about it and carried on, and at the same workplace I was perfectly at ease talking with someone else about my rebuilt super computer.”

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Polyhedral dice, the weapon of choice for any DnD player (credit: Scott Akerman)

It’s not only the tech geniuses that have become celebrities; the increasing presence of geeky characters on television, most notably on the IT Crowd and the Big Bang Theory, has made geek culture more accessible, providing an entertaining way to learn more.

The problem, though, is that despite purporting to be about geeks, at their core shows like the Big Bang Theory are simply making fun of them.  Almost all of the jokes are about how weird and awkward its characters are, with the audience positioned in the same place as Kaley Cuoco’s character Penny – outsiders who don’t appreciate all the nerdy hobbies of the “heroes”, and can’t understand any of their bizarre nerdy vocabulary.

This betrays the fact that, despite assertions otherwise, geek culture hasn’t truly been accepted.  Movies provide the perfect example –Jon Shilling points to the recent widespread popularity and success of ‘superhero’ films, which, despite being based on comics, have been widely accepted.

Initially this holds up: according to IMDB, since 2000 around half of the top fifty grossing films could be described as geeky.  Even more significantly, five of the top six grossing films are unequivocally geeky, being either comic book or sci-fi blockbusters.

But for all those people that went to watch The Dark Knight and Avengers Assemble, how many then picked up a comic book?  How many realise that hit movies like 300 and V for Vendetta are actually based on graphic novels?

Many ‘proper’ geeks see this co-option of their hobbies and loves as an intrusion.  As Shawnee explains: “For some, it was nearly traumatic when what made them different and special became “invaded” by “outsiders” who didn’t know much but were eager to learn.”  It would have been hard for many geeks to see the very people who used to bully them for playing D&D and enjoying comics, suddenly going around wearing t-shirts with “GEEK” emblazoned across the front.

That said, the fact that the masses are embracing even just the surface of geek culture has benefits.  Despite hating GEEK t-shirts, Reddit user ‘PartyPoison98’ realises: “now that being a ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ is cool, I can get cheap licensed marvel stuff from every shop.”  A few decades ago, geeks could only discuss their hobbies hidden away or over the Internet.  Now, they can stride into a cinema with thousands of others to see their heroes on the big screen.  It’s a huge step forward, and one that looks set to continue growing for some time to come.  Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s an evil wizard’s loot to steal.

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Author: James Walker

Recent Masters graduate spreading his "valuable" views on journalism, politics, and video gaming

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