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So here I am back in good old London Town, jet-lagged and laden down with assorted trinkets of Americana following a whirlwind tour of Florida and New York. On the marathon voyage back to Blighty, which featured a puzzling interlude experiencing the labyrinthine charms of Philadelphia International Airport, I found myself becoming philosophical about my life. And I concluded, with a startling lucidity that only God awful airplane meals and no sleep can bring about, the following thing: I am a professional geek.
Let me explain. The primary reason for my first ever visit to the States was to deliver a jointly-authored paper at the University of Florida’s first ever Playing the Past Conference, devoted to exploring video games and nostalgia. My particular object of study was the Battlestar Galactica video game, a curious example in that it simultaneously manages to be both a prequel to the campy old Battlestar Galactica series and a prequel to the recently remade and assuredly post-9/11 Battlestar Galactica series.
As a kid I watched every episode of the old Battlestar Galactica on British commercial television: I lapped up the dogfights, the campy costumes, Dirk Benedict’s wisecracks and Lorne Greene’s toupee (is that defamatory? Surely not). And after every episode I’d sit down in front of my Atari 800, plug in the Star Raiders cartridge and assume the role of the heroic Apollo at the cockpit of my Viper fighter craft. (Quite right, too, as when I interviewed the author of Star Raiders, Doug Neubauer, for a British video game magazine, he identified Battlestar Galactica as a major influence on the game’s design). Now I get paid to play a genuine Battlestar Galactica video game, one that looks great, one that makes me nostalgic for my childhood fantasies but one that also gets me excited about the gritty Battlestar Galactica remake. It’s enough to make a grown man cry with joy. Or a professional geek cry, at any rate.
It was ever thus. As a kid, unless the cultural artefact trying to attract my attention was science fiction, science fantasy, or video games, then I just wasn’t interested. Not for me the sports field, except maybe the one in Daley Thompson’s Decathlon for the Commodore 64. Not for me the pleasures of pop music, except maybe Queen’s soundtrack for the camp remake of Flash Gordon. In fact, and please don’t tell those cool muso people on the left hand side of the PopMatters splash page, the first (indeed only) vinyl single I ever purchased was Ray Parker Junior’s theme tune to Ghostbusters.
Video games and science fiction interbred from the very beginning. Spacewar!, generally agreed to be the first video game, emerged out of MIT courtesy of Steve Russell and associates back in 1961, against a backdrop of a real life Space Race that would eventually put a man on the moon and, er, Rupert Murdoch in charge of the planet. Subsequent sci-fi and sci-fantasy themed exploits were many and varied, though thankfully we tend to remember only the really good and the really bad.
Wave after wave of alien invaders arose: in the 1970s we withstood Space Invaders and Asteroids and gibbered to the multiple pleasures of Galaxian and Galaga. In the 1980s we got the space trading game Elite and the comic sci-fi of Llamasoft’s Mutant Camels series. The 1990s saw the arrival of sci-fi racing games like the seminal Wipeout series. Last year, even as we marvelled once again at the gangster-based pleasures afforded by the urban Theatre of Cruelty that is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on the PS2, its big competition on the Xbox and GameCube were the high concept sci-fi actioners Halo 2 and Metroid Prime respectively.
Why the ongoing fertilisation between science fiction/fantasy and video games? A thoughtful answer is that certain types of science fiction are certainly very action-based and consequently well-suited to game and play situations where doing is more important than telling. Plus, of course, the fantastical worlds conjured up by science fiction are great to explore and interact with. But the more obvious conclusion is indeed the one that the same sort of nerdy people who play video games are likely to be the same people who’ve seen every episode of Babylon 5 and know that Gallifrey is in the constellation Kasterborous.
Of course the problem with this is that it is a very simplistic observation. The X-Files, the original Star Wars trilogy, the Quatermass TV shows and HG Wells are all examples of popular science fiction. Metroid Prime, Halo, Asteroids, and Space Invaders, are all examples of popular science fiction video games. If these various sci-fi, sci-fantasy or sword and sorcery themed cultural artefacts films, television shows, radio shows, novels, comic books, video games, you name it are only watched, read or played by geeks then, by Jupiter, just about all of us are geeks by now.
Which, of course, we are. And of course, we always were. The difference is that these days, we’re more honest about it. For the past few weeks in Britain you haven’t been able to move without seeing a billboard, magazine cover, television trailer, or Internet advert for the BBC’s long awaited resurrection of its long-running sci-fi television classic Doctor Who (and the early viewing figures indicate that the publicity blitz has paid off). Similarly entertainment magazines not just sci-fi mags are gearing up for the final installment in the Star Wars saga, despite the abominations of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. And of course Halo 2 is played by geeks and the sophisticated chic-set, alike.
It’s hard to know why we’ve all started being so honest about our geekiness. Perhaps it’s the growth in media courses and academics exploring the nature of pop culture fandom; perhaps we’re just generally living in a more liberal age (the former theory is probably easier to sustain than the latter, I’ll admit). Certainly the tectonic plates seemed to have shifted in terms of what are viewed acceptable kinds of media, which certainly played a part in what kinds of sci-fi were considered acceptable: in the past it seemed to be the case that big budget sci-fi of the Star Wars or Alien or 2001 variety were somehow okay for the wider populace to admit to liking, presumably because of the cinematic spectacle on offer. And of course sci-fi novelists like Jules Verne and HG Wells were legitimate because, you see, they’re proper literature. But mention sci-fi video games or comic books or tie-in novels when I was a nipper and you were likely to be treated like, well, a nipper.
Less so now. A plethora of media professionals unashamed of their love for myriad forms of pop culture have helped crossovers occur between acceptable and unacceptable media forms. Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, and even John Cleese have ventured into the previously distaff realm of comics books. Many of the new Doctor Who television show’s writers have already produced material for non-televisual incarnations of the franchise such as audio plays or novels. And famed graphic book writer Grant Morrison was involved early on in plotting the engaging, baroque narrative of the Battlestar Galactica game.
So we’ve come a long way from when huge quantities of Atari’s lamentable ET tie-in video game for the 2600 VCS console had to be dumped into landfill sites because the units simply weren’t shifting. For years, Star Wars fans have been Force-fed consistently inadequate tie-ins, despite the potential of the environments conjured up by other iterations of the franchise; and the less said about the various video game incarnations of Doctor Who, the better. But recently the Star Wars universe has spawned a number of impressive games; it remains to be seen whether the latest iteration of the good Doctor can similarly furnish us a decent gaming experience, but hopes are high that the professionalism that has characterised the series’ revamp will translate to the interactive arena.
And since we’re geeks now, we can all live long and prosper. Don’tcha think?