Gaming is an extremely popular activity, all around the world. This is especially the case if we consider not just video games, but puzzle games that you can play on your phone; board games; and card games. Human beings like to play and it is arguably one of our defining qualities.
Some people, however, are more into games than others. People who become obsessed with a particular phenomenon are often labeled as nerds by the wider public, who can’t understand their enthusiasm and desire to know everything about a particular subject and dedicate all their time to it. Of course, we nerds wear this identity as a badge of pride!
Not Just for Nerds
The question, then, is what makes certain games nerdier than others? Best-selling video games like Call of Duty and Fortnite are enjoyed and played regularly by millions of people around the world, but most of those players would not be considered nerds. Equally, you’re not necessarily a nerd if you enjoy best-selling board games like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit.
It’s not particularly nerdy to go online to play live dealer roulette in New Jersey, even though casino games contain many elements that appeal to nerds, like math, vintage style, and movie or TV tie-ins (as seen in many slot machines). Perhaps this is because casino games appeal to people of all ages and from all walks of life; meanwhile, nerd games are those that are loved by a small but passionate minority.
“Nerdy” games include those that have a cult following. These games may not have been popular on their initial release. But they have been kept alive over the years by a loyal fanbase for whom the lack of wider acclaim has only enhanced the feeling of belonging. This game, they think, is ignored by the wider world; but it is an exciting shared secret among a particular community, for whom knowledge of the game provides common ground.
Sometimes games fail to be popular successes despite gaining critical acclaim on release. Look at Ico (2001). This gentle, visually enchanting game stood out at the time for focusing on puzzle-solving and a unique mood rather than violent combat. It sold poorly. But it has proven hugely influential, and its reputation spread among a loyal following of nerds who kept the game alive.
Games can also have nerd appeal for being based on existing nerd favorites, like games based on comic books.
Making an Effort
Nerds are often fans who are prepared to go the extra mile and appreciate that having to put a bit more effort in can make you appreciate a game more. Big blockbuster movies often spoon-feed an audience with spectacular special effects and predictable plots. Conversely, nerd films may be cheaply made and difficult to follow, but are all the more rewarding for it.
It’s the same with games. Difficult, outdated, or less obvious formats, like text adventure games, are often beloved by nerds. Tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons will always have nerd appeal, with the paraphernalia of multiple dice, pencil, and paper and lead figures giving nerd attraction even as they dissuade casual players.
Part of the Story
By keeping overlooked games alive, nerds become part of the story. And this is even more the case with the “modding” community. Nerds love to add their own elements to games and design new variants, just as with TV shows and movies they can explore other possibilities through fan fiction. Games like Baldur’s Gate have strong characters and themes, plus a fully-realized world that fires the imagination, encouraging speculation on the minutiae of day-to-day life within the gaming environment. To the casual player, all of this is beside the point, but to a nerd, it’s manna from heaven.
Complexity and Humor
Nerds like complexity, and also humor, preferably a bit dark or off-beat. Games that are unimaginative and straightforward tend not to interest nerds. But a subversive, satirical shooter like Spec Ops: The Line is right up their street, for exactly the same reasons as most gamers just don’t get it.
This game questions the assumptions that most war genre games reinforce, with gameplay that is deliberately banal and frustrating to reflect real-life combat. Its strong narrative and characterization draw on the cult novel Heart of Darkness. If this appeals to you, you’re definitely a nerd.
Of course, not all nerds love the same games. And the existence of many different fan communities is at the heart of a diverse nerd culture. The internet has allowed nerds to get together and share their obsessions; cult followings have grown and spread as a result. What gives a game nerd appeal? The answer is: if you’re a nerd, you’ll know it when you see it.