The knights who say “nerd”
1. Star Trek
It’s the elephant in the nerdy-obsessions room, and in the Venn diagram of nerd-dom, it may be the meeting point for everything else on this list, with good reason. The original Star Trek-there are only 80 episodes-spawned movies, TV series both good and bad, and a billion fantasies about leadership and green poontang. That’s probably because it’s simultaneously heady and ridiculous, smart and overwhelmingly dumb. For a brilliant taste of the cult Star Trek has spawned, see Trekkies, a feature-length documentary hosted by Star Trek: The Next Generation star Denise Crosby. It gently, hilariously examines fans whose obsession with the franchise takes up a huge portion of their lives-a teen who’s inspired to make his own Trek movie, a copy-shop worker who insists on being called “Commander,” and a woman so obsessed with Brent Spiner’s cyborg character Data that she takes “Brent breaks.”
2. Renaissance faires
“Huzzah! A shilling for the king! Enjoy thy mead, kind sirrah.” No, dude, it’s not a shilling, it’s $8. And it’s not mead, it’s Bud Light in a plastic cup with a picture of a unicorn on it. Don’t get us wrong, the notion of spending a Saturday visiting a reconstituted medieval village is all good fun, with the jousting and the turkey legs and the roaming Shakespearian clowns yelling insults at people. But it’s all too easy to see the cardboard-and-felt fa?ade that most ren-fests are built on, and the compromises necessary to make a true medieval experience palatable to a modern audience. (The true Middle Ages lifestyle involved more plague rats, religious persecution, and plumbing “systems” that are really just buckets tossed out of your front window.)
3. Fantasy sports leagues
That scene in Knocked Up says it all: A woman who suspects her husband of infidelity instead finds him shacked up with a bunch of pot-bellied dudes in jerseys and caps, deep into a mock draft. In the moment, she’s so horrified by what she’s witnessing that she thinks it’s worse than him cheating on her. That may be overly harsh, but even rotisserie addicts are likely to admit that pretending to be the general manager of your own baseball or football team is a bit pathetic, like being the asthmatic boy who watches the other kids play from his bedroom window. And fantasy-sports junkies can’t claim superiority over face-painting superfan yahoos, either, because they watch every game with conflicting rooting interests. If you’re a Chicago Cubs fan in the real world and own St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols on your fantasy squad, you have to root for Pujols to rack up HR, RBI, R, OBP, and SLG numbers while hoping the Cubbies survive the onslaught. There’s no loyalty to it, and little satisfaction beyond the bloodless accounting it takes to win. (Mitigating factor: Thanks to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball-and the stat-centered baseball revolution described therein-the nerds have the upper hand on the jocks, at least in the front office.)
4. Michael Jackson
It should come as no surprise that Michael Jackson has inspired overwhelming obsession: For a while, he seemed to be the most famous person on the planet. But now that he’s gotten certifiably creepy, that African tribe that crowned him king probably wants their crown back. Still, anyone who can maintain millions of diehard fans while fighting court battles and not releasing much/any new music has clearly done something right. There’s plenty of Jacko fanfic and poetry to be found on the web, but the fact that his supporters follow his every move and still show up to support him at his court appearances probably means more than all of that.
We could have filled this entire inventory out just by going down the list of interests, habits, and abilities “Weird Al” Yankovic credits himself with in his hit song “White & Nerdy.” But his proclamation “I edit Wikipedia!” seems particularly apt, given the amount of tinkery focus and emotional energy people put into it. Wikipedia represents a lot of admirable goals, and it’s a damn useful jumping-off point for any research project, but the process of keeping it up to date, accurate, and informative requires a lot of people to be monomaniacal about maintaining it, and particularly about fighting endlessly over whether a given entry is detailed enough, objective enough, deserving of splitting or cleanup or deletion or being folded into another entry, etc. Which is geekier, dedicating weeks to making sure that every single episode of Battlestar Galactica in all its various iterations is listed on a website for future fans, or spending hours furiously arguing with other diehard fans over the structure of the Galactica pages?
6. Battlestar Galactica
Speaking of which? a science-fiction series doesn’t have to be super-successful to inspire crazed devotion. Battlestar Galactica capitalized on Star Wars mania in 1978 as a film and a quickly cancelled TV series. A sequel series, Galactica 1980, was also quickly dropped, but a cult of followers still formed. Twenty-five years later, the SCI FI Channel debuted a re-imagined version, which quickly spawned a new generation of BSG nerds. For whatever reason, all rabid science-fiction fans love starring in related amateur live-action videos, and SCI FI has obliged its contingent with a “Video Maker Toolkit,” supplying the life-deprived hordes with BSG sounds and visuals to incorporate into poorly produced clips. (Giggle at them here.) Die-hards on vacation can head to Vancouver, where the show is filmed, to tour spots around town depicted as the robot-controlled planet Caprica; those who still hold the original series dear can book a spot on the Galacticruise, which sets out to sea this year with cast members on board.
7. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
A rite of passage for every high-school theater geek, Rocky Horror is designed to be off-putting to outsiders. It’s an intentionally cheesy movie-musical with audience heckling built into the script; the only way to really understand why people are throwing toast and toilet paper in the air or shouting “asshole” at seemingly random moments is to see it, preferably a couple of times, with people who already know what’s going on. Insularity breeds dorkiness, which becomes accentuated when you add in the not-ready-for-dinner-theater live shows that grace many Rocky Horror screenings. Of course, the whole point of Rocky Horror is that you should never be ashamed to be different, so it isn’t surprising that its subculture embraces that ideal.
8. Joss Whedon
We need a Venn diagram for this one, too. (Maybe diagram-making deserves its own entry?) Map out one with traditional geeky obsessions (vampires, spaceships, superheroes) in one portion, a desire to see strong female characters (see clip below) in a second portion, and a gift for wittily unforced and infinitely quotable dialogue in the third portion, and you’ll find Joss Whedon’s work in the overlap. It’s an almost perfect storm for rabid fandom, and Whedon fans have risen to the occasion. Those folks you see at comic conventions wearing Joss Whedon Is My Master T-shirtsare only half-kidding. It doesn’t hurt that Whedon has remained humble and approachable in spite of the raving fan-love his shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly have sparked. On the fan site whedonesque.com, he comes off more like one of the gang than like a creative overlord. (Of course, some high-profile setbacks might also help keep his ego in check.) But beyond that, Whedon has become an unassumingly inspiring figure, using his entertainment as a Trojan horse for social commentary and dedicating his free time to good causes like Equality Now, as in this clip:
9. Media-specific role-playing
You know what’s totally cooler than watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer endlessly on DVD? Actually getting to be Buffy the vampire slayer. At least virtually. Especially since you can probably make much better life choices than she did, even if you can’t manage the banter. To that end, Eden Studios published a handful of rulebooks for role-playing in the Buffyverse, letting would-be slayers (and witches, and Watchers, and so forth) create their own Buffyverse characters, or use pre-modeled statistics to pretend to be pre-existing characters from Buffy and Angel. Nor is Buffy the only show with an official, licensed role-playing tie-in: Other publishers have released rulebooks to let players officially bang around in the universes of Firefly, Star Wars, Star Trek, Hercules and Xena, Dr. Who, James Bond, Species, Highlander, and Stargate. And that isn’t even getting into the at-least-thousands of unlicensed, fan-created fora, MUDs, MUSHes, AIM channels, etc. that let people get together for the express purpose of pretending to be their favorite characters from Pirates Of The Caribbean, Anne Rice novels, and especially the Harry Potter series. Some people just can’t let go of their favorite fictional world, even once the authors and creators have; others want to experience what it’s like to be cool, like their chosen characters, instead of dorky, like the people who want to role-play them. And still others just prefer for their netsex to be flavored with a lot of angsty, complicated backstory. Ohhh, Draco!
10. Magic: The Gathering
Pretty much any collectible card game could go on this list-the entire CCG industry rests on the assumption that players will become obsessively nerdy over certain games, and pour an endless stream of money into the quest to be the best. But Magic, at least in America, is the granddaddy of them all: an endlessly variable pyramid scheme in which the most successful players have to sink vast amounts of money into buying all the latest and greatest cards, in order to keep their complicated strategies up to date. Actual Magic games tend to be fairly short, often 10 minutes or less; it’s the shopping, strategizing, and endless deck-refining that eats years of players’ lives. Dedicated players have thousands of cards, but have to choose only a bare handful of them for each game, which makes deck-building and deck-tuning a major obsession. Aggro or control? Creatures or spells? One-color deck or mixed colors? Is Akroma’s Memorial worth it if you don’t know whether your opponent is playing a black or red deck? Are thallids worth the work? Argh! Only hours of Internet arguments and days of painstaking sorting, planning, and thinking through card interactions could possibly answer these fiddly, incredibly trivial questions.
11. World Of Warcraft
Similarly, the vast number of variables in complicated video games like World Of Warcraft call out for serious wankery, as players choose races, classes, professions, specializations, guilds, abilities, and strategies, then grind their way obsessively toward becoming the ass-kickingest of the virtual ass-kickers. Five minutes in a room with any two World Of Warcraft players will drive any non-player mad, amid jargony babble like “Next time we run MC, sheep one of the core hounds while I rush in and pull aggro. Damn, I wish they hadn’t nerfed paladins.” That’s if the players are actually talking, rather than editing together funny little WoW videos for YouTube, reading the WoW comic, shopping online for WoW collectable figures, playing the WoW board or card game, or, more likely, silently hitting their 14th straight hour of playing WoW.
12. The Simpsons
Everybody loves The Simpsons. It’s one of the few things in this world you can call “great” and have it almost qualify as fact, rather than mere subjective judgment. But some folks (not pointing any fingers here) approach Simpsons fandom with a zeal and passion that would creep out David Koresh. It isn’t just that super-fans speak in the densely coded language of Simpsons references-shoehorning Ralph Wiggum quotes into conversations about anything-or that they start frothing at the mouth the moment somebody suggests the show maybe kinda sorta is not all that funny anymore. It’s that these people clearly prefer the Simpsons universe to the one in which real people reside. And given the liberal use of the Simpsons trademark for every kind of merchandise under the sun, it’s frighteningly easy to live in the fictional Springfield.
13. Doctor Who
As nerdy as a Star Trek fan can be, the potential nerdiness of the Doctor Who fan is far greater. That’s not a knock on the quality of either show (please, let’s not start that debate), but the result of two other factors: Trek‘s much greater mainstream success, with half a dozen TV series and 10 feature films boosting the brand, means that when someone says “Beam me up, Scotty,” at least people know what the hell they’re referencing. The relative obscurity of Doctor Who, especially in the days when it was only viewable in America on PBS, kept it further underground. And the fact that the central character of Doctor Who is a flamboyant eccentric who wears things like a 25-foot scarf or a piece of celery on his lapel, whereas Star Trek favors dashing ladies’ men in uniform-well, at best, you can say that one encourages individualism where the other encourages conformity. But dress like the Doctor in real life, and your ensemble is only barely missing a KICK ME sign. (That’s less true of the new BBC series, at least.)
14. Frank Zappa
Because Frank Zappa was so prodigious, so eclectic, and so keen on parodying modern music, fans of his work can dive in so deep that they rarely listen to anything else. (After all, what Zappa fan can be expected to take doo-wop seriously after hearing Cruising With Ruben And The Jets?) Zappa’s style and sensibility-combining the ambition of prog, the improvisation of jazz, and the chummy snark of Steve Allen-particularly appeals to misfits and music-theory majors, who respect Zappa’s musicality and identify with his superior attitude. Those fans often aspire to become as smart and skilled as Zappa, so that they too can, with authority, mock a culture that they perceive as excluding them.
15. Game-show tape trading
Pity the poor game-show fans, who’ve been either pandered to or ignored by the major networks for the past decade, and have seen their one TV refuge-the Game Show Network-gradually shed its retro programming in favor of less appealing originals. So the stalwarts gather on the Internet, offering videocassettes and DVD-Rs of Classic Concentration and The Joker’s Wild, and comparing notes about the greatest hosts, the greatest contestants, the greatest celebrity guests, and the greatest eras of long-running series. And the really faithful gather in person at the Game Show Congress in Los Angeles, where they attend panels, meet legends, and play the games themselves. The ranks of those who remember Bullseye and Blockbusters may be dwindling, but they’re all going to go down together.
Compared to where anime was 20 years ago, it’s practically mainstream today. Not that long ago, non-Japanese-speaking fans (or otaku, as many of them prefer to be called, even though that Japanese word for “fanboy” is heavily pejorative) had to get their fix by buying imported Japanese-only laserdiscs and watching them while reading script translations they exchanged online. Today, a handful of distributors exist just to license and market anime DVDs in America. There’s an Anime Network, Cartoon Network has made anime a staple of after-school viewing, American animation is increasingly anime-inspired, and the popularity of anime has dragged manga into American markets, heavily influencing the American comics industry. And yet anime still has a rep as a haven for arrested-development pervs who like watching battling robots, tentacle porn, and big-eyed, saccharine magical girls with a tendency to lose their clothes whenever they change costumes. Funny, Japanese otaku face similar prejudices in Japan.
To paraphrase a popular office poster, you don’t have to be crazy about anime to engage in cosplay-the act of dressing up as your favorite cartoon character-but it certainly helps. Why else would grown adults cross-dress, show obscene amounts of cleavage, don capes, style their hair impossibly high, and strap tails onto their belts? It’s far more interesting than dressing up like Bob Newhart from Newhart, plus non-anime enthusiasts can easily/snottily be brought up to speed: “It’s from an anime! I’m [obscure character] from [equally obscure anime]!” And isn’t flaunting your esoteric knowledge about things the world at large couldn’t care less about the very essence of being a nerd?
18. Live-action role-playing
The dice required to play Dungeons & Dragons lack the weight and heft of a mighty broadsword or a +3 wizard’s staff, so it was only a matter of time before role-players donned costumes, took to the woods, and maxed out their charisma and dexterity by poking each other with padded “weapons.” So while it’s easy to ridicule LARPers (live-action role-players), when was the last time you got together with 50 of your best friends in a forest and ran around having the time of your life, even if you didn’t get any experience points or potions? (Or, alternately, skulked around university meeting rooms with 50 of your direst enemies, politicking it up as a creature of the night.) Plus, LARPing has adapted to the 21st century swimmingly. YouTube is overflowing with endless footage of videos with serious production values: Boffer weapons strike with skull-shattering cracks, wizards unleash lightning bolts from their pasty white hands, and a kick-ass orchestral score from a Lord Of The Rings-like soundtrack instantly makes the whole endeavor majestic.
19. Second Life / MySpace / FaceBook
It goes by many names, but it’s really just a digital substitute for socializing. But if you’re lonely, shy, live in the sticks, or just don’t know anyone, you’d probably be encouraged when your computer screen effectively announces: “You are connected to 243,502,001 friends through 1 friend(s).” These “friendships” would probably resemble normal interactions if the participants interacted in any way at all, but aside from Second Life (which actually gives people the rare opportunity to write each other sentences in real-time), it boils down to an exchange of images (usually from some drunken party), e-vites (to some drunken party), and the now-immortal words “Thanks for the add!” But whether you’re an amateur child molester who wants to send your favorite links, or you just met a carbon-based life form on the street, you’ll probably demand digital friendship-and now the only thing more annoying than someone who sniffs, “I won’t give you my MySpace page,” is someone who smugly announces, “I don’t have a MySpace account.”
Because cartoonist Jim Davis, for instance, will probably never tap the raw, unspoken sexual tension between Garfield and Odie, diehard fans are obliged to write their fan-fiction version of the steamy scene, post it on the Internet, and insecurely encourage readers to review the typo-ridden and laughably out-of-character scripts of their favorite book/game/movie/TV show. True, fan fiction isn’t always relegated to weird, unnecessarily erotic original stories with awkward dialogue, plot holes, and spelling errors, but it frequently is, and even fanfic devotees know their hobby lapses into the unfathomable: fanfiction.net’s Garfield board yields a good cross-section of reader responses, from the justified “WTF” to the not-helpful “the writing is good. But the jokes are horrible!” Yes, there are also interesting scripts, like a Home Improvement where Mark gets addicted to drugs, or a Fight Club epilogue that finds Tyler Durden eerily resurrected, but who wants to read that? There’s also a Dilbert where Dilbert finally rapes Dogbert.