I was introduced to Ask A Ninja via this podcast. In the podcast, the Ninja complains extensively about the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The gist: “Every single character has their own damned plot line and it’s incredibly hard to figure out what the hell is going on”.
The third movie, At World’s End, only compounded the complexity problem. More characters, more plot lines, and more confusion. I just watched the third movie for the third time and discovered another subtle moment of “Oh, that’s why Calypso said that random thing in the second movie. I get it now.”
Back to the Ninja. His final pitch was: “Movies shouldn’t be this much work”. He’s wrong. Movies can be this hard, especially when they’re designed for nerds.
Nerd Generation Theory
According to my math, there is a huge pile of nerds who are traipsing around their 30s. This is the Apple ][ generation and they’re making some bucks. Financial types call this decade of life “the accumulation years” because, traditionally, this is the time of life when you start gathering piles of cash for use during the rest of your life. You’ve found your ideal gig and you’re hitting your stride.
Advertisers love these 30-somethings because they have large disposable incomes. Consequently, content creators love them as well, which means that for content creators to generate their own piles of cash, they need to develop entertainment targeted at the nerd demographic.
What do we know about nerds? Well, we know a lot. They need a project, are systematic thinkers, and they love puzzles and games. This brings me to a whole pile of entertainment that has shown up over the past ten years. All of which, I believe, is specifically designed for the nerd demographic, since all of the content shares a common characteristic: it’s terribly complex and nerds enjoy making it more so.
J.J. Abrams is a Big Nerd.
One of the more prominent recent examples of nerd entertainment is J.J. Abrams’ Lost. If you don’t follow the show, here’s the pitch: “A plane leaving Sydney, Australia, headed for Los Angeles, crashes in the middle of the Pacific. The survivors end up on a mysterious island where an endless stream of bizarre, unexplained shit goes down.”
I’ve just told you the basic premise of Lost, but I’ve actually told you absolutely nothing about the show. This is because Abrams has constructed a seemingly infinite set of intersecting plot lines involving all the major characters, both on the island and before they got to the island. Combine these elements with the usual science fiction elements such as immortality, time travel, and a creepy black smoke monster and you’ll quickly realize that one of the biggest criticisms of the show is “I have no fucking clue what is going on”.
That’s right. That’s the point. That’s why nerds created the Lost Wiki. That’s why we replay all the trailers in slow motion. We’re looking for that tattoo on the shark in the third episode of the second season because AH HAH! That explains something. I’m just not sure what… yet.
Nerds are systematic thinkers, which means, for entertainment, we want to exercise our systemic comprehension muscles. We want to stare at a thing and figure out what rules define it. In the case of Lost, Abrams get this. He sprinkles hints of systems within the system of the show. He tinkers with time and with personalities to paint brief glimpses of clues. And then he changes everything because he knows that if we ever feel we’ve figured it out, we’ll bail.
Captain Kirk doesn’t know he’s a Big Nerd.
Our search for entertaining complexity is not new; it’s just gone mainstream. In fact, if systemic complexity doesn’t exist in a nerd-appropriate show, we’ll go ahead and create it. Think about the original Star Trek series, which, in my opinion, was one of the first pieces of serious nerd entertainment.
Like Lost, the amount of content and discussion regarding the original series, which hasn’t seen production in FORTY YEARS is mind-boggling. Yes, we’re still arguing about whether Captain Kirk could actually build a cannon to kill that lizard-guy . “In a battle between the Enterprise and a Star Destroyer, who would win?” (cough: Enterprise, duh, Star Destroyers can’t fucking steer.)
I’ve no idea how much backstory Gene Roddenberry constructed behind his characters and his stories. But I know that nerds, with their love of this show, have forced systemic complexity on it. Because if there is no project, no problem to solve, it’s not engaging.
Feluf, also a Big Nerd.
Feluf is my Level 70 Night Elf in World of Warcraft. I was running Karazhan with my guild the other night and I landed two sweet Epics: Ferocious Swift Kicker boots and the Steelhawk Crossbow.
Many of you have no clue what I just said. Some nerd crap about World of Warcraft. If you have no clue whether World of Warcraft would float your boat or not, my question is: what’d you do when you read the previous paragraph? Did you Google Karazhan? How about Epics? If you did, you learned that Karazhan is a dungeon and Epics are apparently really good gear.
Unlike popular TV and movies, World of Warcraft is clearly targeted at the nerd mind set, which means it’s designed with brutal system complexity in mind. Sure, they’ve designed the beginning of the game to be simple and approachable, but that’s how any good drug dealer builds his business: the first hit is free.
Significant engagement in World of Warcraft reveals a world chock full of complexity. You want to stop running all over the place? Well, you need a mount, and those guys show up at Level 40. To get there, you’re going to have to figure out what gear is good for your class. You’re going to have to learn how to make money to buy your mount, either via your profession or via building and selling goods at your local auction house. And once you get your mount at Level 40, you’re already going to know there are faster Epic mounts out there. Shit.
There’s a point where all this complex game drudgery sounds like life, and yeah, there is a lot of social interaction between players and guilds. But it’s intersections within the system to support the system. Warcraft is built to be impossibly complex, but every player is always secretly thinking, “I can totally figure this out”. Which is why Blizzard changes the system every few months.
Kaiser Soze. Unpronounceable Big Nerd.
The Usual Suspects, Memento, and Donnie Darko. These movies represent some of the best of nerd entertainment, and two of these movies didn’t do great at the box office. Yet all of them eventually made a pile of money because of the unique system puzzles they presented. Most folks walked out of those movies thinking, “I’m, uh, not sure quite sure what just happened to my brain”. Whereas we nerds rushed home to the Internet to begin the quest of figuring out the system. IT’S A TIME TRAVEL MOVIE, RIGHT?
We followed that line of questioning up with the immediate purchase of the DVD. In the case of Donnie Darko, this not only made the movie profitable, but also resulted in eventual release of the Director’s Cut of the movie, which only created more mysteries regarding that bunny who is still freaking me out.
Mr. Darcy is a Big Nerd. No, really.
Nerds have no monopoly over mind-bendingly complex plots. Anyone with a girlfriend has already endured multiple adaptations of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice. Yeah, I’ve been there. Yeah, I know the A&E version is the only adaption worth anything and I further know it’s because of that annoyingly charming Colin Firth portraying Mr. Darcy.
Yes, Mr. Darcy. Like the plots of J.J. Abrams, the arrogant intensity of Captain Kirk, and the devious hidden intentions of Kaiser Soze, Mr. Darcy is great nerd entertainment. I mean it.
Once you get past all the “doths” and “thous”, and realize there’s a lot more going on than social climbing and gold-digging, in Mr. Darcy you find a complex and nerd-worthy character. Why’s he being such an arrogant prick? SHE’S NEVER GOING TO LOVE THAT… WAIT… WHAT?
Argument about the natures and motivations of the characters in Pride and Prejudice might seem different than those in Lost or The Usual Suspects, but ultimately, we’re yelling about them because they are beautifully crafted unsolvable puzzles.
And that’s nerdfotainment.