It’s 1994. I had just moved to a new part of town. I had just finished in some of the last rounds of the local Magic The Gathering Tournament in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The first DCI tournament had been held a few short months before (although I had to look that factoid up in 2017 to corroborate my OG-ness), and I had just made a set of friends who were into Dungeons & Dragons.
But let’s back up for a second.
It’s 1985. My father works for Beechcraft in Wichita Kansas. He brings home a very fancy mechanical briefcase that somehow, magically, plays space invaders (Aliens, a space invaders clone for those fact checkers out there).
I can tactically remember typing on that keyboard, with its satisfying CLACK as you hit the keys.
It’s a feeling I still try to recreate today with my ludicrous collection of mechanical keyboards.
Fast forward to 1987. For Christmas that year, my parents sprung for a Commodore 64 that my brother and I shared in our room. My dad gave us a stack of games that he had copied from other engineers where he worked. He said my brother and I could play as much as we wanted, as long as we could figure out how to load the games on our computer.
We rigged up an old television to serve as our monitor, and once that machine fired up, and I saw that initial boot screen, I knew I was hooked.
I knew right then and there that I had found a certain place, and a sense of belonging to an identity, a community, at such a tender age I couldn’t even name yet. But I knew then that staring at that blue, blinking interface, my world was somehow coming into focus in a way that had never happened before.
My brother, five years my senior, was the pioneer nerd in our household. We would talk endlessly about Star Wars and we tried to recreate what I think is arguably a better representation of the Clone Wars with our large collection of official Star Wars branded action figures.
My brother was (and still is) a rabid comic book aficionado. I was partial to Batman, the first issue I bought with my own allowance was only a few months before the controversial “Death in the Family” series
Of course my brother was into way cooler stuff than me, and I was really jealous of his access to the “seedier” world of Marvel Comics. I would sneak reads of his extensive collection of the Punisher Series.
Comic shops back then were rough, probably because I was only 6 or 7 years old. Also probably because they were exclusively run by white, straight, cis dudes and it was quite literally a boys club in almost all places. The guys there would curse and smoke, and argue endlessly about the most detailed, nuanced stories, engaging in verbal riposte about which character had the most interesting backstory, or the most significant story arcs at the time.
My family would watch endless hours of the Twilight Zone, especially the New Year’s Day marathons that happened every year where I grew up in El Paso, Texas.
We were devotees to Star Trek. I can remember being at home with the Chicken Pox, barely peering over my blanket while Kirk fought the Horta, affectionately known in my house as the “carpet monster”, based on the hideous carpets we had in our basement at the time.
Naturally we were thrilled in 1987 when Star Trek: The Next Generation came out. Watching it as a family became one of the few family rituals we all willingly engaged in.
On special nights, we would rent a betamax player and my father would let us watch movies that, based on today’s standards, no child should probably see until they are at least of some sort of voting or legal chemical consumption age.
I saw Bladerunner at such a young age it probably warped my sensibilities, but it remains my all time favorite films, with a close second being Zardoz, which I also saw at a young and tender age. Talk about something you can’t unsee- Sean Connery in an orange man diaper.
Not everything was fair game in my house. My parents were pretty religious, and definitely bought into the Satanic Panic of the decade. Certain fantasy material that involved “witchcraft” or “black magic” was verboten in my house. Dungeons & Dragons made you crazy and was a road to devil worship and drug use. I won’t lie that there were a lot of Chic Tracts floating around my household at that time. My parents used to give them out in favor of candy on Halloween.
Perhaps hilariously, another storied family ritual was our annual reading of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, my mother’s favorite books. The Irony is not lost on me.
So, we can be honest. I was raised in a family of nerds. My Aunt even self-published a science fiction work for chrissakes. As I alluded to before, my father was an engineer, and we were steeped to appreciate that way of viewing the world before we could fully form words or walk around.
So, in 1994, when I moved to that other part of town in El Paso, and I fell into a group of my own social circle of nerds, I felt like I finally belonged somewhere. Maybe my family wasn’t so weird, and maybe there were more nerds out there than I ever knew about.
Perhaps this feeling of acceptance was one manufactured by savvy advertisers. Maybe it arose out of my own painful sense of my lack of social skills and to a degree, empathy. It definitely had a lot to do with the fact that I was privileged enough to have access to something as expensive and exclusive as a home computer in my very own room. The outside factors are not lost on me at this point in my life.
I think there’s a subtlety I’ve been missing before about nerd power. I used to hold it close to me, like a cherished childhood memory, or an anchor to my identity as a person. But much like the dichotomy of my family reading The Lord of The Rings and banning Dungeons & Dragons, and much like the exclusivity of the comic book shops I used to frequent, there’s something disconcerting about where the nerd identity comes from.
I think it has been coopted by the wrong people, for too long.
So rather than see myself as an outsider who stuck with the nerd identity from some sense of survival because I was so maligned or misfortunate in my youth, I see it now as the result of the privilege, the access, the fortune that I had by the very nature that I was born into a specific set of parameters that made it almost inevitable that I would become a nerd.
I set all this exposition up, with the extremely critical elements of circumstance, to say that I feel like now nerd power is more important than ever.
Today you can go to a movie theater and watch a really damn good translation of a comic book story, and every one loves it. Star Wars is finally good again. The exclusive access to technology is now being broken down and made more democratic, more accessible, more routine, and in a word, better, thanks to including everyone in the nerdy zeitgeist of our time.
Nerds are everywhere. Nerds are everybody.
I don’t bring up the history of my own nerdiness to try to claim any sort of hipster-like there-before-it-was-cool bullshit. Quite the contrary. I feel like Zardoz, computers, and Star Trek absolutely should be available for everyone if they are into it. And I marvel at how the access to these tropes are already changing our world for the better.
I am disheartened by the state of the industry I work in. A lot of times, it seems like people who share my privilege are often unfairly rewarded for being there, before others. I feel really hopeless when I see people hiding their misogyny and bigotry behind the curtain of being an outsider, when their exclusion is self imposed. And they often mirror the upbringing and privilege that I shared growing up. It casts a scary reflection on what you can be if you allow yourself to lose sight of everyone else.
If we look at how Wikipedia defines a nerd, I think it reinforces some of the nuances of the identity that a lot of misguided people out there are clinging on to:
A nerd is a person seen as overly intellectual, obsessive, or lacking social skills. Such a person may spend inordinate amounts of time on unpopular, little known, or non-mainstream activities, which are generally either highly technical, abstract, or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities
I think we can categorically deny that definition. Clearly, the activities that “are highly technical, abstract, or relating to topics of fiction or fantasy” are increasingly accessible to more and more people. And damn it, they should be.
So I put this out there to make a claim for nerd power as a power that absolutely anyone can and should enjoy.
If you’re a nerd, from the generation of nerds that I come from, don’t bemoan the fact that the world has more access to things that you call cherished in your own view. The simple fact of the matter that more people have access to computers, comic books, and the highly technical or abstract means the world is becoming a better place- maybe even a world that a Jean-Luc Picard might maybe kind of feel almost comfortable in. Almost.
There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads — untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads — it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.
And I hope, for my limited part, that I can do my best to make sure that no one feels excluded in the nerd revolution, and that they have an ally in a geeky middle aged dork who still plays Dungeons & Dragons.