Nerds of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your bags of holding.


That’s a clip from Mazes and Monsters, the made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks, created to exploit the widespread (okay, pretty narrowly spread) fear that Dungeons & Dragons would make kids commit suicide and/or worship Satan. It was the eighties; everything was going to make kids commit suicide and worship Satan. Remember “Suicide Submission,” and the culture that briefly took Judas Priest seriously? The 700 Club was full of reports of kids all across America who became level 20 magic-users and killed themselves thinking they would achieve immortality, or sacrificed their little brothers to get the ingredients necessary for Power Word: Kill. It turned out that was like, two kids, but the message was disseminated nonetheless: Dungeons & Dragons will make your kid insane.

Of course, the truth was much more harrowing: Dungeons & Dragons will make your kid a nerd. I played D&D a lot when I was a kid. Probably, you’re saying “Oh, Dan, you must have just dabbled. You’re so socially adept and cool; you can’t have really played Dungeons & Dragons.”* But I was serious. I didn’t just have a couple sets of dice and Unearthed Arcana. I had Monster Manual II, and the inexplicably more difficult to find Monster Manual. I knew the radius on a Bozak explosion without having to look it up. Bitch, I played Dark Sun. On the other hand, I had no idea what a boob felt like. I was a profound nerd, at an age before I fully understood what a nerd was. My mother has a picture of me running the Tom Karpan Track Meet in corduroy pants and a sweater vest, in Iowa, in June.** I routinely used the word “encumbrance” in conversation. To this day, every time I go into somebody’s basement, the smell makes me think about hobgoblins, and I am shamed.

Hobgoblins are dicks, but they’re nothing compared to fifth-graders. For any schoolchildren who happen to be reading Combat! blog, I urge you to hide your true self as much as possible. Do not let other children find out that you are a nerd. When you are a nerd, there are three things you don’t talk about: Dungeons & Dragons, video games, Isaac Asimov. I internalized this rule at a young age and carried it with me through college, where A) I was pretty into Magic: The Gathering and B) nobody cared. Somewhere in the transition to adulthood that occurred between sophomore and junior year,*** social strata became sufficiently fragmented that people could not really profit by pointing out to others that I was a nerd. The binary cool/not cool system of social designation that governed high school social relations gave way to the slightly more adult dynamics of sexual competition, and because I pretty much always had a girlfriend, my putative nerdery didn’t really matter. Don’t get me wrong—I still actively hid the time I spent doing anything that involved elves, but in retrospect I probably didn’t need to. The concept of “nerd” ceased to be a powerful meme in adult society.

I mention all this now because A) nothing really happened in the news today and B) the nerd appears to be enjoying a renaissance in contemporary pop culture. There is, obviously, the iconography of hipsterism, which not only embraces classic nerd talismans in dress but also encourages an affected social awkwardness. There is the gradual mainstream acceptance of video games, which have gone from a taboo pastime of the pale and fat to a borderline artistic medium. There is, of course, Ira Glass. And let us not forget the internet, which has tuned ICQ chatting into IM’ing and BBS’es into comments sections. Maybe the label “nerd” has lost its teeth because I’m an adult now, but maybe it’s because we pretty much all live like nerds now.

Except, of course, ain’t nobody play Dungeons & Dragons. That ur-text of nerdiness, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, has faded into obscurity even as Oregon Trail references become fodder for t-shirts. Part of the problem is economic: it turns out that “the only limit is your imagination” is a horrible business model compared to “the only limit is whether you bought the expansion pack.” Part of it is that you can play video games or listen to Belle and Sebastian when you’re drunk, while—as any frustrated DM will tell you—the committee nature of D&D makes it impossible to conduct a game while everyone is wasted. But I think the real problem is that Dungeons & Dragons is so nerdy that even the majority of nerds found it distasteful. It was uncool even to the uncool, and while any given 30 year-old might have felt like a nerd in high school, he could reassure himself by taking a look at the guys rolling 20-sided dice in the student center. There’s a word for stuff like this that’s nerdy to the nerds: nerdcore.

So my question for y’all is, are nerds still an oppositional subculture? Does it mean anything to be an adult nerd in contemporary society, or is it just mildly humiliating memories of nerdcore, plus the inability to throw away your Boba Fett action figures? Now that the Comments section is useful for something other than Cialis advertisements, I encourage you to weigh in. Pretend it’s a CommonLink BBS.

* Say it!

** Fourth!

*** Or, hopefully, will occur sometime next year.

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  1. “are nerds still an oppositional subculture?” No, because the center has shifted and the ‘mainstream’ has fragmented so there is no majority-accepted culture to be in opposition to.

    However, I agree that ‘nerdcore’ (or the term I prefer, ‘ubernerd’) is a subculture, because it embraces things that even nerds acknowledge as nerdy. Like D&D. Like ‘maquettes’ (action figures for adults). Like kluge tech. Like calculator watches (Pete).

    Are you an uberner if, in social situations, you think about how you can maneuver around someone to get a backstab multiplier? No, I’m sorry, the ubernerd is never in social situations.

  2. My brother in law had people over at the house last night to play poker. After I had put Lily to bed I started playing Blood Bowl Online. I obviously felt secure enough to play this decidedly Nerd game in front of others but when one of the poker players asked me what I was playing I immediately felt that my nerd fly was open. I tried to explain it without saying the words, “Fantasy”, “Dodge Re-Roll”, “Orcs”, “Star Player points” or “Mighty Blow” and realized that this was probably not an entirely accpentable thing to be doing with my time, especially when dudes and chicks were drinking beer and playing cards for money 10 feet away from me.

    I guess this means that nerds haven’t come as far as we would like, or might think. Nerd culture is only acceptable in the ironic sense – or in the sheepish acknowledgement of what you did when you were 13. If you are not at all attempting to be ironic when you wear your Decepticon t-shirt in public (I’m looking at you, Peter) you are a nerd. And when you go to Magic Pre-releases and think about Blood Bowl at work (hello Mr. Mirror) you are most certainly a nerd and I’m pretty sure nobody thinks we’re cool.

  3. Ok, how to reply to this post…. Let me see.

    First of all, to answer your question Dan, any subculture can be oppositional. I belong to many subcultures, one in particular that I belong to can be VERY oppositional: Vegetarians. However, I am a vegetarian really only for myself and I don’t particularly care what other people do with their eating habits. Thus, I am not oppositional to people who eat cooked dead animal carcasses.

    To me, what we have here is the pretense of others to pass judgement on that which they do not understand. That wasn’t that hard of a conclusion to come to was it?

    In the past I held that pre-judgement against the people who told me I was a nerd and therefore a bad or lesser person for doing the things I loved. Playing role-playing games, painting miniatures, watching anime and being a all-around colossal geek. I hated them for that. In reality I was doing the same thing that I despised them for and I have learned (although it’s been hard) that this is wrong.

    Nerd sub-culture is weird and unusual but so what? I flaunt my nerdiness with pride. I figure if you aren’t proud of what you do, don’t do it. More importantly, why not feel pride in being a nerd? Who am I trying to impress? The girls who looked down on me through the various years of my life (and my wife makes fun of my nerdiness even now) have all passed on to insignifigant roles elsewhere in the world. The “cool kids” have all joined me in the great big “middle” of the social strata.

    What has passing negative judgement on a person such as myself gottem them? I think most would agree: very little.

    In the end, it’s the people who have the ability to think for themselves that succeed in life. It’s unfortunate that this is not something more valued in our very judgemental culture.

  4. You haven’t heard? Oh dear…

    Check it out:

    Get out your nerd shorts so you can cream them when you play this game. It’s pretty sweet even though the computer AI is dismal. At least you can crush your friends in online play.

  5. Q: are nerds still an oppositional subculture?

    A: Yes. If only in matters of degree.

    D&D is rather mainstream these days. In a world where every married man plays call of duty online with his neighbors, and fully 75% of adult males have heard of Azeroth (and I’d guess roughly 25% know their way around), D&D isn’t that uncool. It’s become known that what used to be the pursuits of only the bespectacled, acne-bearing subset is actually kind of fun. Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop games are widespread enough that dozens if not hundreds of people play them regularly in any given municipality. But, it is still the pastime of a minority, and though the social stigma is lessened to a degree, it’s still something that isn’t as accepted as cool in HS/college as, say, sports, or cars, or date rape.

    The thing is, once someone leaves the small town they grew up in, no matter how esoteric or stigmatized their interests are, they can find a plethora of people with similar interests. Especially with all the internet fora available.

    That is why the new uncool is furries, LARPers, and slash fic writers.

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