It pays to be a nerd

15th February 2013 at 00:00

Nerds are curious, usually friendly and interested in learning. Clearly, they deserve our focused ridicule. So much so that in days of yore we developed a loose taxonomy to mock them. There was the intellectual nerd, teased for taking enjoyment in absorbing knowledge; the hobby nerd, sneered at for showing dedication to a specific field of interest; and a special strain of derision was reserved for the computer nerd, the stereotype being a lank-haired teenager, clacking on a Commodore 64 in a gloomy bedroom.

But in recent years, on the cringeworthy occasions that the phrase "computer nerd" has been used as an attempted insult, it has served more to highlight the outdated cultural landscape of the person using the term.

The descent into insult obsolescence has much to do with the fact that by necessity we are all computer nerds now. The catalyst for change, however, lies in the popularity of video games and the ubiquitous nature of technology. A debt of gratitude must also go to the man who gave people the mechanism on which to poke and update statuses: Mark Zuckerberg.

The creator of Facebook is a computer science genius and hard-headed businessman who appears to be indifferent to authority. The ultimate entreprenerd.

My theories surrounding the way young people can link digital proficiency and economic success were cemented when Ian Livingstone recently visited the FE college where I work. Oft-cited as one of the founding fathers of video games, Livingstone is life president of Eidos, the British video game publisher best known for creating Lara Croft.

Committed fans react to him with the same sweaty awkwardness as I would if Bruce Springsteen entered a room. It would be no overstatement to describe him as a living legend to a certain demographic, usually men aged between 35 and 45.

Livingstone spent a day at college visiting computer science classes, sharing stories of his adventures in the early days of Games Workshop, which he co-founded, and presenting a talk about his journey from enthusiastic hobbyist to the position he now holds.

I wondered how well the young people of Mansfield, an area of considerable disadvantage, would relate to this captain of industry.

The talk, entitled Life is a Game, was open to anyone who chose to attend, and everyone did. The theatre was packed. Livingstone apologised for being a bit knackered, admitting to having stayed up playing video games until 1am even though he knew he would have to be up at 6am. This comment had the audience eating out of his hand.

The young people instantly identified with him, and at the end of his talk they surrounded him to request photos and autographs.

It was an inspirational day. Not just because of the response that our charismatic visitor elicited, but for the recognition that young people were so accepting of the diversity of interests among them. The opportunities and successes that Livingstone had achieved suddenly became possibilities for them, and the room was transformed into hundreds of new nerds, hungry to choose their own adventures.

Sarah Simons teaches at a large FE college in Mansfield.

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