Seriousness and the Sublime: An Outsider’s Guide to Nerd Culture

by Annabel Howard

Annabel Howard is from Norfolk, England. She has published three books of art history and currently lives in BC, where she teaches for the department of writing at the University of Victoria.

These days I will, on occasion, drop a casual reference to Captain America or Mass Effect, or mention BioWare or Batman, or finally agree to my husband’s pleas that I join him for a round of HeroQuest, “mother of modern board games.” On such occasions, a rare pride burnishes his eye, as if I’ve done something truly exceptional—which, in a way, I have. For the record, I am not a gaming gal; I’m not a gamer at all, nor a “gal,” for that matter. And I’m definitely not a nerd. I’ve learnt since childhood to admire the humanities, read the classics, and pay attention to things like shoes and hairstyles and interior design. My proper English accent and I are more likely found with a glass of Syrah and the complete works of Ovid than rolling a twenty-sided die or gripping a console control. The first time my husband asked if I played board games at university, I replied, “No—we had fun.” It took me a long time to understand why he found this so amusing.

Wikipedia defines a nerd as “overly intellectual, obsessive, or lacking social skills.” It adds that nerds may be “shy, quirky, pedantic, and unattractive, and may have difficulty participating in, or even following, sports.” When I found this entry, it made sense to me. It did not, apparently, make sense to the twenty-first century. It turns out that Wikipedia is out of date—and so am I for (admittedly) finding this definition very funny.

These days, nerds are cool. Their upward trajectory started in the late ’80s, but really erupted into hive-mind consciousness with the release of the first Lord of the Rings movie (2001), and then Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). It became official when Topshop started selling NERD-branded T-shirts, and punters realized it’s tougher to get a ticket for San Diego ComicCon than Glastonbury. Even as a non-nerd, I subconsciously rode the wave. Last year, I was excited to read an in-depth New Yorker article on an avant-garde computer game. I ran next door to show my husband how I was right there with him on the bleeding edge, that I knew before he did about the transformative, algorithm-driven space exploration game that is No Man’s Sky. I was waiting for the look of pride, but instead he just raised an eyebrow. I recognized this sign: it indicated a healthy scepticism toward my new-found enthusiasm.

In case it wasn’t clear, my husband (call him DW) is a nerd—no doubt about it. And I’m not talking Portland-style large round glasses and careful side-parting: I’m talking old-school. At the beginning of our friendship, he’d never had a professional hair cut. His jeans didn’t fit, his skin cried out for sunlight, and he was bone-thin in a way that wasn’t chic so much as vaguely troubling. He had a great jawline, though—sharp as a cliff edge. Broad shoulders, too. And a noble, Grecian nose. It was just hard to see these things under the low-slung ball cap and bad glasses. Not that I was judging a book by its cover (surely I’m not that shallow); we became friends, after all. It helped that he edited some stories I wrote, exuding an expertise, patience, and empathy that proved he not only knew what he was doing, but was—in this area—considerably smarter than I.

DW loved everything I’d learned to despise: computer games, collectible cards, superheroes, ’80s rock, embarrassing tech (he still clings to the dream of Google Glass). We lived in parallel universes. He was astonished that I didn’t know WOW was an acronym for World of Warcraft, that I’d never heard of Professor X or Boba Fett and didn’t know the difference between RAM and CPU, that I had never watched Back to the Future and had no interest in AC/DC or Led Zeppelin.

Marrying a nerd may be the hippest thing I’ve done in my life. It wasn’t him that underwent a metamorphosis: it was me.

Likewise, I reeled to discover the man didn’t know that MoMA was an acronym for the Museum of Modern Art, that he didn’t want to watch every winner of the Palme d’Or, that he genuinely had no idea who sculpted The Thinker or composed Turandot or designed the Centre Georges Pompidou. Worse: that he didn’t care.

For the first, strictly-platonic 14 months of our relationship, I tried not to judge. He was, after all, a writer. A writer who, it turned out, could quote great swathes from contemporary authors like Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, and Sherman Alexie. A writer who actually knew quite a lot about what Al-Ghazali and Spinoza were on about. Who, when drunk enough, forgot not to be serious, and talked about astronomy and physics and the Lumière Brothers. Who liked to repeat, after two bottles of wine, how Aristotle took 6,000 pages to say, “everything in moderation.”

A lifetime of value and assumptions are not, however, something you just decide to draw a line under. It took 14 months for DW to break through my resistance to his nerdiness. I spent much of that time expecting him to change, waiting for him to see the light and realize it was important to know about Titian and Bach and Beckett—those public symbols of cultural maturity, integrity, and intellectual rigour. I believed he’d come to prioritize my intellectual horizons, which certainly did not include the Marvel Comic Universe or the Mass Effect trilogy or learning how to pursue “High Adventures in a World of Magic.”

I underestimated the power of the nerd. I’d closed my eyes to the facts. As late as 2014, when the New York Times pointed out that “We’re All Nerds Now,” it was news to me. I’ve never been exactly on-the-pulse, but recently I’ve been astonished to discover that marrying a nerd may be the hippest thing I’ve done in my life. It wasn’t him that underwent a metamorphosis: it was me.

If nerd culture is so broadly accepted, why have I had to battle such a strong aversion to it? Apart from when I’m sanctioned by The New Yorker, I can’t help myself. I still carefully peel away the Bat Stickers that intermittently appear on my laptop and phone. I hope that people won’t notice the one ring to rule them all that DW’s worn around his neck since 2002. I try my best to keep it on the DL that he spent upwards of 400 man hours building a bat suit from PVA foam—and that nothing could distract him from this task, not even my quoting Aristotle at him: Where’s your moderation now?

Even when I try to be a nerd, I fail. Two years ago, DW took it upon himself to plan a Batman-themed Halloween party. I watched with some bemusement as he taught himself about Plasti Dip and heat shaping. I listened while he deliberated over his preferred bat suit and bat symbol and bat story. I deflected weekly requests that I be the Catwoman to his Batman. The man does not know restraint. He constructed a giant, back-lit moon and found old Warner Bros. movies to project on the walls. He cut out hundreds of bats to swarm our living room ceiling. He lined our stairwell with tar paper, for dramatic effect. He borrowed an industrial light in a failed attempt to shine the bat signal on our house. The enthusiasm was infectious. Friends would drop by, admire his progress, spit-ball ideas for their Joker or Harlequin or Poison Ivy.

I’ll admit it’s possible that in my attitude to nerd culture, I’m hanging on to the social predilections of my teenage years.

I observed from a distance, but in unguarded moments, found myself dreaming idly of the Bauhaus and its famous costume parties. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to miss out on the action. After a couple of months I gave DW the go-ahead to craft me a Michelle Pfeiffer mask, but I made my reluctance clear. As I buckled myself into PVC boots, I was still complaining that I’d rather be dressed as Frida Khalo or Ziggy Stardust.

D.W. laughed, swept his cape, and handed me a Gotham-themed cocktail.

I’ll admit it’s possible that in my attitude to nerd culture, I’m hanging on to the social predilections of my teenage years. If you grew up in the ’90s, as I did, you’ll understand where Paul Graham is coming from in his essay, “Why Nerds are Unpopular.” The essay takes aim at the school system—how it encourages social interaction to become nothing more than a popularity contest. Popular kids, Graham argues, are the ones who focus their entire attention—their “every waking hour”—on gaining status. Unlike the nerds, popular kids are “always on duty as conformists,” having been trained, their whole lives, “to please.”

If DW is an intellectual obsessive, lacking social skills, I’m a conformist people-pleaser. I knew, for example, practically before I was conscious, that an interest in science or maths was a social death I wasn’t prepared to martyr myself for. I also decided, early on, that I would rather be expelled than caught reading a comic book. This mindset extended through an undergraduate art history degree at Oxford, where, perhaps due to the proximity and density of the nerds, I tried even harder to prove ten degrees of separation. I remained stoically dismissive long after my peers accepted Gandalf and Spider-Man and what I have since learned to call “cosplay.”

Sometimes, when we’re with friends, DW relates how, before we were together, I took myself to watch The A-Team at the cinema. Alone. Of my own accord. The story causes that pride to burnish his eye because that, in his version of events, was the love connection. Not my ready wit or winning smile, but a remake of an ’80s action comedy flick. To hear him tell it is to see crack-commandos, superheroes, and wildfire exploding around the comic-strip of our romance.

I’ve never told DW that The A-Team was a fluke. How could I bring myself, after all this time, to admit that I was just bored and lonely and would rather have done anything than return to my parents’ empty old London townhouse? It wouldn’t matter that I enjoyed the film (I did, actually, I loved it). No one likes their narrative disrupted; we all hate to realize that we’ve been selling ourselves a lie.

Lies or not, it’s strange that I went to The A-Team, and stranger still that I admitted it. At that time, I took myself very seriously. I still had a lot of things to prove, and first among them were my intellectual stripes. For a while, I denied myself anything that wasn’t dyed-in-the-wool High Culture. I absolutely refused to subscribe to Netflix, forcing myself to prefer films in black-and-white, preferably by foreign-language directors. I chose classics over best-sellers. I listened to music made in Iceland on theremins and electrocardiophones. I thumbed my nose at comprehensible art and narrative theatre. Ironically, I prided myself on being open-minded.

If The New Yorker told me that No Man’s Sky was worth talking about, I’d talk about it.

The A-Team did not fit in this picture. Had I been speaking to one of my highfalutin friends, I probably would’ve skipped over my little cinema visit and turned the conversation to an interesting snippet I’d read in Teju Cole or Maggie Nelson, any writer less obviously-flashy than Proust or Derrida, but who still pointed in a certain intellectual direction, if you know what I mean.

I’m forced to wonder whether resistance to nerd culture is predicated on nothing less surprising or more predictable than age-old intellectual snobbery. After all, I was embarrassed to have watched The A-Team. That would have been true even if the show had been more interesting: something like The Dark Knight or Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman, which isn’t really nerd culture but might just count, being both a critique and a celebration of the superhero movie. Part of me has found it very hard to shake a predisposition to rank forms of creative expression. That’s the part that would’ve hidden my dirty little cinema secret, had DW not established so quickly and definitively his irreverent attitude to anything approaching intellectual or academic pretension. High Culture did not impress him. Not one bit. He was a nerd.

I’m happy to entertain the thought that intellectual and social snobbery created a barrier between nerd culture and me. But there was something else: the struggle to be perceived as an adult. The two were related, clearly, but not identical. I didn’t just want to be smart; I wanted people to think of me as a grown up. Games and superhero movies and dressing up in costumes did not support that image. If The New Yorker told me that No Man’s Sky was worth talking about, I’d talk about it. The same was not true of Batman (childhood comic book) or HeroQuest (adolescence) or World of Warcraft (let’s not even go there).

DW takes a very different approach. Frankly, he doesn’t worry what other people think. Shortly after we got together, a literary festival invited him to deliver a video lecture as part of a series where authors “curate” the internet. He told me he wanted to give a talk on “epic shit.” This meant a compilation of YouTube clips from Pacific Rim, Melody Sheep, and Chris Hadfield singing Bowie in space. I didn’t believe he’d go through with it. I thought that surely he was joking.

At the event I nodded diligently as the Oxford-educated speaker who preceded him spoke in five-syllable words about a philosophical concept so complex that even DW couldn’t explain it, despite his philosophy degree. I proceeded to feel sick when he opened, as promised, with a clip from Pacific Rim, a film he accurately described as “132 minutes [in which] giant robots punch progressively-more-giant monsters in a bid to save the Earth.” That was followed by about 45 minutes filled with odd-ball clips of Carl Sagan auto-tuned to sing about the breadth of the cosmos, and Einstein “throwing shade” on Steven Hawking in a rap battle. To my surprise (and relief) the audience laughed like they were watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In the official photograph taken by the host, DW held rabbit ears over the philosopher’s head. She glared at him and said, “So it’s true. You really are five years old.” He took it as a compliment.

Over the past few years, a lot has been written about how society’s embrace of the nerd reflects a wider trend towards puerile escapism—a desperate flight from maturity. The puritan in me nods along, and can’t help but notice that in the time it took DW to make his bat suit, he probably could have written a novel.

In 2015, Simon Pegg, poster child for the nerds, took aim at the very culture he’d helped create. In an interview with The Radio Times, he described the nerd trend as “the product of a late-capitalist conspiracy, designed to infantilize the consumer as a means of non-aggressive control.” Clearly, he’d been reading Huxley. And clearly no one else had. The internet exploded: there was outrage, there was head-nodding, there was the usual soul-searching.

But mainly there was outrage, which was quickly co-opted as proof that Pegg was right: nerd culture had intellectually and emotionally neutered an entire generation of (primarily male) consumers who lacked the basic ability to engage in meaningful discussion, and who evaded the complexities of adulthood and modernity (the reality of politics and economics, for example) through cheap escapism.

I have to admit that I find Pegg’s position seductive, probably because it rewards my dismissal of nerd culture by making me the adult. Plus, if you start (as I do) with the assumption that nerd culture is commercial and derivative and unchallenging, the argument for infantilism becomes a happy confirmation of what you already think.

It’s been uncomfortable to realize that in some way games are not escapist enough.

And yet we would do well to remember—we who are prone to criticize the nerds—that we’re lying to ourselves if we generalize; if we fail to acknowledge ground-breaking games and films and technology. A few years ago, I would have mapped Pegg’s argument straight over to video games. Now I’ve learnt enough to know that it’s ludicrous to assume that “technology” consists only of the facile apps and the self-involvement of much social media. Or to dismiss Marvel out of hand. Or to base my adult opinion of games solely on tabloid scare-stories about the impact of first-person-shooters and a brief, early-teen encounter with GoldenEye 007. Games are not just first-person-shooters and uninspired escapism—they can contain cutting-edge graphics, sophisticated story-lines, and moral ambiguity.

It’s been uncomfortable to realize that in some way games are not escapist enough: that they require a degree of emotional and intellectual commitment that I’m uncomfortable submitting to, and that creates a resistance so solid I somehow cannot suspend my disbelief, cannot float away from the weight of my body in its swivel chair or the pressure of the headphones against my ear-lobes or the sensation of the smooth-plastic mouse butted against my palm.

What’s more, I’ve become aware that the debate over whether or not video games are art is well over. Now the question is: how far can the genre be taken? By choosing to ignore the trail-blazing elements of nerd culture, I’ve deployed intellectual snobbery to needlessly confine my creative world. Taking ourselves too seriously can limit thinking and behaviour, in the same way that infantilization can.

It’s not just culture at large that we can miss out on when we’re trying too hard to be adult—we can lose sight of what’s right in front of us. In the case of DW’s video lecture, I realized while writing this essay that I’d forgotten the actual argument he was making. I was too worried about what everyone in the lecture hall was thinking to pay attention. I asked him recently to jog my memory: what was the point of it all?

“Epicness,” he said. “Just to show epic shit. To entertain.”

He said the lecture was online, so I looked it up. Between goof-ball clips and references to Pacific Rim’s tagline (Go Big or Go Extinct) I found the line: “I’m awed and always have been by the cosmic mysteries that our best minds can only half-heartedly explain: dark energy, the super-luminal death rattle of stars. There are parts of the universe that, because of the physics of light, we will never be able to see.”

I didn’t remember that at all.

One reason the argument about nerd culture gets confused is because it’s so easy to mix intellectual judgements and social behaviours—as I have done throughout this essay. Pegg’s sweeping generalizations made a subtle (but real) distinction between old-school nerds and a new, expanded audience, which isn’t interested in sci-fi and fantasy content unless it’s modified or dumbed down. Pegg wasn’t dismissing smart tech guys who play cutting-edge games in their down time; he was directing his attention at people who engage with crappy games or films and identity with nerd culture through minimal intellectual effort—by quoting The New Yorker, for example, when the magazine raves about a game like No Man’s Sky—which turns out to be dross. They are people like me, people who have finally cracked and allowed themselves to be beguiled by the humour of Guardians of the Galaxy and the bad-assery of Wonder Woman. For all my rhetoric about open-mindedness, I have to admit a pang of affronted pride: I’m not used to being on the wrong side of the intellectual tracks.

Shortly after the Radio Times article was released, Pegg issued an apology in which he admitted that his comments had been “a huge generalization by an A-grade asshorn.” He did not acknowledge the inherent divisiveness in his article—how it set him apart, clarified his position as an “authentic” nerd, identified him as a person of maturity, integrity, and a certain intellectual rigour. It did not address the fact that, whichever way you look at it, he was taking great care to clarify his own discernment. And perhaps that’s just the way things are: perhaps it’s impossible to wrestle out from beneath the imposing hierarchies of taste.

In the end, we can ruminate ad infinitum on the attack that nerd culture poses to high art and sophisticated thinking. We can debate the relative values of childishness and maturity—both of which are necessary for any meaningful embrace of creative freedom.

But I keep coming back to DW’s lecture. After the line about cosmic mysteries, he mentioned something else before he returned to giant robots and alien monsters.

“Yes: this is epic,” he said. “But in this case by ‘epic’ I mean something more akin to ‘sublime.’” Whatever DW says about pure entertainment, that looks like a narrative to me. It looks like art. And I missed it, worrying about the philosophical speaker, watching for her disapproval. I won’t forget her face that night, how cross she was about DW’s silly talk. How important it was for her to be serious.


Annabel Howard is from Norfolk, England. She has published three books of art history and currently lives in BC, where she teaches for the department of writing at the University of Victoria.