I’ve been gaming my entire life and have been the parasitical worm on society known as a “games journalist” for a good portion of that. Video games, grandma’s short-lived foray into Wii Bowling not withstanding, have always been fairly nerdy. They may have started with Pong, but it wasn’t long before they turned into Zork. When the hobby started attracting lucrative mainstream bucks, however, the geekier titles were given outlier status. Games with big dudes holding big guns, like Halo and Gears of War, ruled the bloody roost. Then along came Skyrim.
Even I know Skyrim is nerdier than wearing a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shirt to junior prom (if only I had such a shirt in those days). The game’s narrative consists mostly of people shouting words like “dragon born” so often that even a hardcore Tolkien-head would get embarrassed. You can actually wander the virtual sphere reading fake books written by fake authors about the fake history of this fake world. There are hundreds of these tomes scattered throughout the realm of Skyrim. Some are even intended for children. Playing Skyrimsometimes makes me think the D&D campaigns I partook in during middle school were the very height of hipness.
Skyrim, once solely thought to be within the purview of oily teenagers whose sex life consists of committing heinous acts against empty toilet paper tubes, was the biggest hit of the holiday season. It sits atop just about every top 10 list in every publication that tracks video games. This includes the lists of mainstream institutions like NPR and Time Magazine. It’s a bona fide pop cultural phenomenon. It became so by not just embracing nerd culture, but by correctly assuming that everyone else was ready to embrace it as well.
There’s a widely held belief in the entertainment industry that the geeks control pop culture. The San Diego Comic Con can make or break a new movie or television franchise. Nerd-friendly websites continue to be the most trafficked original content providers on the web. The Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed over a billion dollars and the success of Avatarhas completely changed movie theaters, forcing us to wear stupid glasses and squint at darkened film prints from now until the end of damned eternity. What were once niche offerings have become worldwide events.
One could say that Skyrim is a fluke, that the sheer technical expertise demanded by the game claimed mainstream devotees despite its inherent geek orientation. There is something to be said for that. The world is vaster and more open than just about anything that has come before it in console gaming. It rewards treading off the beaten path, and a generation of gamers reared on Grand Theft Auto eats that stuff up. Skyrim simply captured the zeitgeist of modern gaming and, at the same time, just happens to be set in a dorky medieval wonderland.
There are a few gamers who only devote a paltry 40 or so hours to Skyrim, but the real heroes are the journeymen losing their jobs and family chasing after virtual dragons. Getting lost in the world is the game.
Skyrim bucks all kinds of modern gaming mainstays. There is no internet connectivity or multiplayer of any kind and the fighting mechanic is a bit clunky. It doesn’t offer that visceral “You stupid fucker! I got you now!” punch that top tier action and adventure titles dole out. It also has more bugs than my last three Brooklyn mattresses combined. You are just as likely to see a giant mammoth floating in the sky as you are to encounter one atop a rolling field. Heck, some PS3 users can’t even play it due to a slowdown glitch. The bugs, and old-school functionality, are of no concern to most players. No other game allows you to live the day-to-day life of a lizard thief, elf wizard, or whatever else you choose with such ridiculous clarity. Yeah. This game wears its nerd on its sleeve.
The utter geek-titude of Skyrim is nothing new though. The series is in its fifth incarnation under the umbrella title Elder Scrolls, and was always, tech limitations aside, pretty much the same. It’s the rest of gaming that has donned pocket protectors and developed strong opinions on whether or not Han should have shot first. (He should have.) Have you gamed lately? Nearly every title has experience points in some way. Nearly every title features some kind of stat bump. Even Call of Duty, the poster-game for jock America, is rife with features that used to only find their way into the shadowy genres that nerds played in secret. The newest entry, Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 3, lets you “level up” just about everything you do, from weapons to team-based activities. The long and short of it is that even in titles like CoD, you are still role-playing.
This goes doubly for smartphone gaming. You think you aren’t a nerd just because you traded in your Gameboy for an iPhone? Think again, dweeb. App Store stalwarts like Doodle Jump and Jetpack Joyride are known for their ridiculous levels of stat tracking. And, come on, Infinity Blade? Just look at that title. You don’t even have to see any screenshots to know that it’s going to be dorkier than a Radio Shack in 1979. Even perennial favorite Angry Birds has a robust trophy system in place, forcing you to replay levels over and over again in an OCD-induced gambit to try to “catch ’em all.” Not too long ago, this kind of gaming obsession would be cause for a bad SNL skit. Now it’s something to brag about to your friends, none of whom work at the local bowling alley.
This leads us, of course, to gamification. This term, which is usually bandied about by marketing executives who want you to click on Facebook Gatorade ads, simply means adding video game tropes to regular life stuff. All of those badges in Foursquare are a good example of this, as is the ubiquitous progress bar on sites like LinkedIn and, gulp, OkCupid. We have been on the Internet all day, every day, for so many years now. Some of us have never known a world without it. Is it any wonder that we are now willing to go further down the gaming rabbit hole? Simply playing a game isn’t enough anymore. We have to be surrounded by it. We demand constant challenge and constant appeasement. We want the holodeck and nothing lends itself to that kind of immersion more than a good fantasy yarn. Since everything we do, from dawn to dusk, is dorky as all get out, it has normalized the playing field. The shackles of genre ghetto-ism have finally rusted off. We can all finally play the kinds of games we want to play without fear of social retribution. Except for people that like steampunk. Those jokers are real nerds.