Nerds. Once a tortured subrace of humans condemned to hiding in dark corners from the brutal hand of social torment … now captains of industry! The explosive popularity of the Internet, videogames, and smartphone technology has made this formerly feeble cluster of pasty virgins “cool.” But I was a nerd when it wasn’t a buzzword yet. I played tournament chess from fifth grade up into high school. (Ladies will be sexually aroused to know that I was the Memphis City Junior High Chess Champion of 1983.)
That was the unironic 1980s. Talk of chess club and Dungeons & Dragons could get you stuffed into a trash can. Let me rephrase that: One day after chess club, I got stuffed into a trash can. It is this type of experience that motivates the nerd to mutter under his breath while picking pork rinds and banana peel off his short-sleeve button-down, “I’ll show you bastards … someday I’ll show you all [crying starts].” But I got caught up in some of the classic unhealthy patterns that keep lots of us from “showing them all,” not the least of which were dumping mammoth amounts of alcohol into my mouth and videogames into my eyes. But more on that in two and a half minutes.
When I was 22, I got a job working as cohost of Singled Out, MTV’s mass human-fluid transfer experiment. It was a weird accident, and had I been mentally prepared to handle the responsibility, it would have been a good thing. But the erroneous lesson that I learned from getting hired at MTV was “work just falls into your lap.”
What followed were several years of laziness, drinking, and fuckups on my part. This “woo-hoo par-tay” attitude piloted my brain through my twenties as I tried desperately to ditch the scared, wienerly nerd I had always been to fit in with the “cool kids,” whoever those oft-referred-to assholes are. Three years after the MTV gig ended, I was doing stand-up full-time and unwittingly tripped over my 30th birthday. It was at this first mortality mile-marker that I began to look around at my life: I was consuming a baby elephant’s weight in alcohol every day. I lived in a shitty apartment near UCLA (where I had gone to school—apparently I had become that dude who wouldn’t leave), my apartment was always a mess, I had ruined my credit, and I had no real work prospects. I had become what I’d always dreaded being—the fat, drunk guy who used to be on television. Back when I was working at MTV (which oddly, at one time, aired short films set to popular music), people used to talk about an MTV curse—that you might not “hit it any bigger” after your time there. I always recoiled at the thought of this curse, and here I was taking active steps every fucking day to make it happen.
Every time you get to the next level, hot jets of reward chemical coat your brain in a lathery foam.
I knew that I had two choices: I could continue living the way I was living and die pickled and unemployed, or make sweeping changes with the hope of salvaging my life. It occurred to me that I had arrogantly banished all the nerd qualities that defined me as a youth. I distinctly remembered that I once had the ability to focus intensely on many things. Programming computers, winning chess tournaments, playing videogames, collecting action figures, Dungeons & Dragon-ing, ruining the bell curve in Latin class. I needed to reconnect with that past and find a way to harness those nerd powers to turn my life around. They had to be useful for something other than frightening girls away by deconstructing the character of Tron as a Christ figure.
Like lycanthropy, the nerd gene can skip a generation. My maternal grandfather was a technophile. He had a laser disc player in ‘79, an early Betamax machine (he said the quality was better than VHS, and he was right), the latest newfangled video camera, an Atari 2600, Colecovision, Intellivision … it was a constant stream of blinking toys. He also had the foresight to put a massive arcade in the bowling alley he owned in Miami, Palm Springs Lanes (where my parents met). I was a spoiled nerd at the dawn of the digital revolution. The timing was gorgeous.
The point here is that I was grown in a bowling center. (Yes, I meant to word it that way.) And that was the decade when bowling alleys figured out the addictive, quarter-munching qualities of videogames. In 1981, Billy Hardwick—my father, a retired Hall of Fame pro bowler—opened his own center, and my gaming continued. Not surprisingly, I was pretty good, having all but officially moved into the arcade. My favorite (and highest-scoring) games were Robotron: 2084, Galaga, Donkey Kong Junior, and Tron.
If I ever made it home, I spent most of my time in the parallel world of home gaming, which at that time was in its 8-bit infancy: Combat, (which came with the Atari 2600 system), Adventure, Superman, and Pitfall. This was a golden age. Those games probably look as ridiculous to kids today as medieval barber tools look to a brain surgeon. (Atari recently released its greatest hits pack for the iPad if you want to test this theory.) Still, they were just as capable of firing a tractor beam at your brain and holding you in front of the television set as Portal or BioShock.
And they kept me there well into adulthood. When I bought my PlayStation in 1997, I got sucked into a role-playing game called Wild Arms. Wild Arms was in the Final Fantasy vein of quest-driven, monster-slaying entertainments. The calendar flipped to 1998. I was 27 years old and working as a radio DJ. I wasn’t sleeping, I was kind of eating, and I was blowing off work stuff to stay home and play this game. When I did happen to wander outside into the world and interact with other humans, my mind was still at home playing Wild Arms. This was great for my Wild Arms characters (Poo, Fartly, and Pretzelbread). This was bad for my career.