Pokémon Go, and the endless revenge of the nerds
The revenge of the nerds is a permanent revolution.
The latest victory is Pokémon Go, a mobile video game that, within a week of release, eclipsed Tinder and Twitter in active daily users and is now being used to add relevance to everything worth selling, from safe sex to the carceral state. It joins Star Wars, Hamilton, The Avengers, and nearly every other massively successful intellectual property of the past decade as an example of ostensible "nerd" culture that has thoroughly captured the mainstream.
There were of course dissenters, but they were quickly dispensed with: Who could hate this honest fun, this special and important nostalgia for a generation of nerds? Didn't they know that Pokémon Go was encouraging exercise and boosting mental health by getting people outside? At best, the skeptics were snobs and pedants, typically and terminally not with it.
But the ease with which criticism of Pokémon Go was dismissed wasn't reflected in the dismissals. Defenders of the game cast themselves as underdogs: culturally maligned nerds being shamed once again for their joy. In some cases, the defense even took on a social inflection, like an identity politics defined not by any immutable characteristic, but by consumption. Not liking this thing — worse yet, openly questioning its value — was not just a disagreement about taste, but an affront to a fan's politics and dignity.
This has become familiar in recent years, as game after album after movie ostensibly servicing a maligned and mocked "nerd" culture has been defended viciously even as it was consumed by everyone.
The underdogs win so often, you begin to wonder how hard the battle really is. They talk about standing up to a culture that ridicules their taste, but who precisely are they standing up against? Vanguards of "high art," who haven't wielded meaningful power over public taste in a generation? The general public, who by and large love Star Wars and Hamilton and Pokémon? The corporations selling them their rebellion in the first place?
For all the rhetorical urgency of nerd culture rebellion, there does not seem to be much left to rebel against. Where are these snobs, sneering at any entertainment less serious than opera? If you can find one, you'll be even harder pressed to find his or her sympathetic audience. The last defenders of a high art/low art divide went out of fashion last century. The idea that adults, even educated and professional ones, can and should enjoy pop culture triumphed decades ago, and for the better. Bros and nerds, academics and presidents: We are all encouraged to love Game of Thrones and Beyoncé now.
You would imagine the "nerds" — that is to say, most consumers of American media these days — would be happy. They won! But they're not. They remain on high alert for anybody trying to shame them, against a world of killjoys still out to spoil their fun.
I have begun to believe that for a narrow sliver of society, the thrill of nerd culture in rebellion is an essential part of the fun. The belief that entertainment, consumption, and taste constitute meaningful political acts have become indispensable to the product being purchased. You're not just spending money a movie or an album or a game: You're sticking it to everybody who ever said you shouldn't, as powerless and few as they may be. You aren't just buying a popular bit of entertainment, you're buying the act of defiance.
Some critics have identified nostalgia as a selling point, but that's not quite right. The nostalgia is not for the past but for the realized present: I am an adult now, and I can eat however many cookies I like.
Movie studios and game makers are happy to encourage this tendency. A national media that has, in part, dedicated itself to celebrating the bravery of the prevailing taste consensus is a form of free advertising you don't contradict. But it is the prevailing consensus.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with the mainstream. There is, of course, nothing wrong with fun. The most honest defenses of these products is that they function as pure escape, as pure comfort. And comfort is good and healthy! So is fun. I like all kinds of fun and comforting things, including some comic book movies. But that's all it is: just liking. Just taste. They are not politics.
There is a danger in the conflation. There may be no such thing as objectively good taste, but there is a such a thing as balanced taste. Comfort is good. Joy is good. Even nostalgia is good. But not everything can be nostalgia: That defies curiosity and denies the possibility of growth. Not everything can be a comfort: Any healthy culture contains art that challenges, that isn't fun, that complicates the world instead of solving it. Seeking out that kind of art is an essential function of adult life, not a burden imposed by snobs.
When comfort is recast as rebellion, it deceives. It allows you to consume pure comfort and believe that it is something more. When fun is marketed as a challenge, when participating in that challenge becomes politics, becomes meaning, then you begin to feel that you are doing something more than just fun when you're not.
That's enough for the marketing men. But it shouldn't be enough for you.