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