It's a geek's world

Pop culture finally embraces tastes of the kids once deemed uncool

Micah Adams is a child of the Nintendo generation. He spent his early years punching the A and B buttons on a controller that guided an Italian plumber through a land of mushrooms and Koopa Troopers.

Back then, he and so many others sat on the periphery of popular culture. They read of futuristic societies, scooped up Nintendo games by the dozens and whiled away afternoons at the movie theater catching up on the wars among the stars.

In short, they were the geeks.

Now, the geeks are all grown up, and the genre they supported with their weekly allowance also has matured. Pixelated, 16-color graphics have given way to wide-screen presentations that look more like movies than video games. Dog-eared copies of the most coveted science-fiction books can be found in elegant hardcover editions, and new heroes, like a certain bespectacled boy wizard, have been born. Even characters of comic book and fantasy fame are wielding their prowess on the big screen - and raking in big bucks.

It's a good time to be a geek.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the video game industry, where Brian Harris, owner of the Game Guy in Lawrence, has seen drastic changes in just the past few years.

"Over the last generation of consoles, the age has steadily climbed up. Two of the three major consoles are aimed at, I'd say, 18- to 35-year-olds," Harris says of the Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox.

And now users can immerse themselves in the "Star Wars" universe or in the 2005-2006 NFL season.

"Its kind of funny seeing frat boys buying the latest edition of Madden (a football video game by EA Sports)," says Adams, a Game Guy employee. "Video games are a good time-waster. People didn't realize it back then, but they're starting to now."

Video game makers have noticed that people who first learned to punch the A and B buttons while playing Super Mario Brothers have grown up and are adjusting their games accordingly.

A quick glance around Harris' store shows an ample supply of Mature-rated video games, nearly equaling the number of Teen and Everyone-rated versions.


KRT Illustration

"They're trying to get a market that's a little bit older with a little more disposable income," Harris says.

They're also exploring alternative outlets to target more mature gamers. Many magazines carry video game advertisements once relegated only to video game publications. Microsoft wheeled out its newest console, Xbox 360, in a half-hour show on MTV.

"Gaming has become very mainstream," Harris says. "It's becoming fairly ubiquitous in households. ... It's becoming more socially acceptable to be an older person who plays games."

Book nerds

Older gamers with deep pockets also carry their wallets into bookstores.

"A lot of people who grew up reading science fiction can now buy those hardcover editions," says James Gunn, Kansas University English professor.

And at upwards of $25 a book, publishers companies are rushing to sate the appetites of sci-fi fans.

The evidence

Film Some of the past decade's most successful movies - at the box office and the Oscars, in some cases - have involved space-age storm troopers, hobbits and comic book superheroes. Video games Game creators have cashed in as enthusiasts of the Nintendo generation have grown up and demanded more sophisticated systems to hold their interest. It's hard not to be impressed - even if you're not a gamer. Books When Isaac Asimov hits the best-sellers list, you know the science fiction and fantasy genres have exploded. "Star Wars" novels and a boy wizard named Harry Potter certainly haven't hurt the enterprise either.

"During what was called the golden age of science fiction, there was a little bit of variety, but now I think we have 10 or 20 times as many books published a month as we had published a year back then," says Chris McKitterick, KU English professor.

Gunn and McKitterick run the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at KU and have both noticed a major change in the way science fiction is accepted by readers and publishers.

A glance at The New York Times best sellers list for fiction finds the novelization of "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" in the Top 10.

Gunn points to the release of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation's Edge" in 1982 as moment when science fiction hit the big time.

"(It was) the first best seller he'd ever had," Gunn says. "The reason it became a best seller was because a lot of people had grown very fond of the 'Foundations' trilogy and Isaac Asimov's writing, and now they were able to go out and buy his new book."

Perhaps even Asimov would be surprised to the see the shift in the acceptance of science fiction and fantasy novels today, especially when it comes to a British school boy who happens to be a wizard.

"Harry Potter is a phenomena that probably will influence the kinds of publishing decisions that are made," Gunn says of J.K. Rowling's book series, which has been spun into a lucrative film franchise and spawned diehard fans among children and grown-ups alike.

Older and wiser

Success on the printed page is also equaling success on the big screen for many science fiction and fantasy stories, but this time around, it's not just Trekkies or "Star Wars" fans filling the seats. Recent big-budget successes include the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the "Spider-Man" movies.


Micah Adams, who works at Game Guy, a new and used video game store, plucks a video game purchased by Shawn Hastie, left, for her children.

"I think people are starting to realize that science fiction and fantasy films don't have to be aimed at an audience with lowered expectations," says Matt Jacobson, KU film professor.

In fact, science fiction and fantasy movies are becoming more notable for solid plot lines and character development - a draw for any movie fan - than explosions and over-the-top special effects.

"I think the work Peter Jackson has done with the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy is tremendous," Jacobson says. "It brought a whole new legitimacy to science fiction and fantasy filmmaking."

And it paid off for Jackson, who earned more than $2.9 billion at the international box office, according to

Sure, there are lots of fans of J.R.R. Tolkien in the world, but how many of them vote for the Oscars? "Return of the King" dominated the 2003 Academy Awards, sweeping 11 categories.

"I don't think Peter Jackson received those awards, though, because he did a great fantasy film," Jacobson says. "He received those awards because he created a great film."

Yes, the trappings of geekdom appear to be growing up. Obsessions once relegated to secrecy have become part of a pop culture wave that's surging forward one wallet at a time.

It's all part of the fans - and the product - getting older and wiser.

Says Jacobson: "The science-fiction genre is no longer seen as just kids stuff."


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