May 25th is Geek Pride Day, a day for geeks all around the world to reclaim the word and celebrate their culture. But what does it mean to be a geek in the digital age of smart phones, 3D printing and omnipresent thick-rimmed glasses? One thing is for sure: it has lost a lot of the aspects that historically coalesced together people who did not fit in (or were rejected by) the mainstream society. Traditionally geek-related occupations (computer programming, science, and engineering) have also taken centre stage with the information revolution.
Has geek become chic? It has definitely become more mainstream. Here’s a timeline of the process, in 10 steps.
1961: In the geek den that is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a handful of students create Spacewar! While not technically the first computer game, it was the first 2-player shoot-em-up. It had sci-fi elements in it with two spaceships trying to blow each other to pieces.
1972: US new wave band Devo is created. With its synthetic instrumentation, awkward front men and sci-fi themed shows, the band quickly gathered a cult following. In the ’80s, acting as music video pioneers, Devo, one of the very first geek rock bands, got a lot of airplay on an up-and-coming channel: MTV.
1974: The first edition of fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons laid the foundation for years of epic quests in living-rooms all over the world. Current RPGs, including MMORPGs played by millions, owe DnD a great deal.
1977: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is released. The galactic saga, whose fans now span three generations, is not going to end soon as a new episode (the 7th) is in the works and should be released in 2015.
1989: The Nintendo Game Boy hits the stores. The original bulky grey turned into lighter, more colourful versions as the year passed but it still sold an astounding 118.69 million units. The handheld game console and its most successful games (Tetris, Super Mario Bros, Zelda, Pokemon) made gaming a lot less sedentary and a lot more cool.
1996: Dancing baby becomes one of the first online viral video of all time. Brought to you by commercial Internet, the video, originally a 3D rendered animation, became a star of the mainstream media, including the TV series Ally McBeal.
2001: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first episode of the Lord of the Rings film series, hits the silver screen. Episodes two and three followed respectively in 2002 and 2003. The cinematographic adaptation of the geeks’ absolute seminal book became simultaneously a commercial success and the fall into the mainstream of a large chunk of the geek culture. Maybe not everybody can speak one of the Elvish languages constructed by J.R.R.Tolkien, but everyone would know a hobbit if they saw one.
2002: Comic book Spiderman is adapted onscreen, with then indie heartthrob Tobey Maguire starring as nerd-turned-superhero Peter Parker. After LOTR and earlier less successful Superman and Batman movies, it’s the comic books world that now falls completely into the mainstream. And Hollywood sure milked that cow until … well they never really stopped, nor do they plan to.
2007: If geeks, nerds and fans of all kind had always used the Internet to find their communities of interest since the early age of the message boards, it is the micro-blogging platform Tumblr launched in 2007 that will bring this practice into the mainstream. Various fandoms, from TV shows to obscure songs, as well as the virality of blog posts have made Tumblr a huge success. It hosts 108 million blogs and even helped to put 90s Internet animated image format .GIF back into fashion. David Karp, the high school dropout, hoodie-clad CEO of Tumblr recently sold his brainchild to Yahoo for $1.1 billion.
2009: Angry Birds take the smart phone and video gaming world by storm. The Finnish video game franchise now counts more than 1.7 billion downloads and has been called “one the most mainstream games out right now”. With digital birds being thrown at pigs in virtually all buses, metros and trains in the Western world, Angry Birds contributed to make gaming, once the exclusive territory of hardcore geeks, a mainstream culture.