Things fall apart, Patton: or Phill Plays a Lot of Mortal Kombat

A while back I read an essay by one of my favorite comics, Patton Oswalt, in Wired, one of my favorite publications. In it, Oswalt laments the death of the geek and the emergence of a sort of “commonplace nerd.” He then resolves that the solution to our problems with pop culture are to destroy it and start over. I think a number of his points are spot on, but his essay set me to thinking. I think what has changed isn’t so much what geek culture is but how  being a geek, or a nerd (I like nerd better, since geek has origins in biting the heads off chickens) is practiced.

Herein is a point in case. The digital gent to the left is Noob Saibot, a now standard character in Mortal Kombat. His name– noob– mirrors the term used for “newbie” internet users, but it’s actually Ed Boon, one of the creators of MK, and his partner John Tobias’s names backward. Noob started as a hidden fighter who could only be accessed by a nifty trick on an arcade machine. If I remember right in involved a background element changing then winning the fight without blocking, but it’s been a while and I don’t want to Google it because I’m about to comment on that.

Mortal Kombat— the 10th version of which came out this week– is a good example of how nerd practice has changed that can avoid the “I knew them when” problems that sometimes mark talking about this with music and other arts (though I think that is perfectly apt, too).

The original Mortal Kombat came out as an arcade machine when I was in high school (1994, I believe), back when people stood at arcade machines in the mall, in pizza parlors, in actual arcades, and in truck stops to play. We carried rolls of quarters. We played, we watched others play, we talked.
When MK came out, the basic– and I mean the very basic– moves were printed on the machine itself. And that was all that anyone was given. If you wanted to do special moves, or if you wanted to do the humiliating “fatality” moves to your opponents, you had to somehow learn them (by trial and error, by talking to people at the arcade, by hunting for a guy who saw a guy who knew a guy who did it, etc.).

And so, through afternoons after school at the mall, and late nights at the Petro truck stop (wherein I won many, many $20 bets with bored truckers and trained a sizable dojo of MK warriors) my friend Rodney and I learned everything there was to learn about MK. We’d take road trips to Dayton, OH, to Cincinnati, to Indianapolis… we would find the best players we could,  watch them, talk to them. And eventually… we’d beat them.

The epitome of my Mortal Kombat nerd badassery came during my summer journalism camp stay in 1995. My roommate and friend Ben had to go to a workshop that I’d gone to already, and I was bored, so I walked to the student union with him. We decided to meet back at the MK machine for dinner, 3 hours later, and he took off for his workshop. I put in a quarter. I played, without losing, against a constant stream of Ball State students for three hours (and change– I played a few matches when Ben got back before deciding I wanted food and giving someone else my character to fight with). I did that with skills I honed myself due to my nerdish obsession with a particular game and the activities related to the sort of sub culture (sub zero?) that it creates.

I just bought the new MK game. I started playing Tuesday. It’s now Thursday, and I’ve done a fair amount of fighting. But it’s not the same. It’s a home console. There’s no one here for me to watch, to compete with, etc. I can compete with people online, but… it’s not like going to the arcade. And the game itself teaches me all the moves. What it doesn’t offer, I can get easily from Gamefaqs or IGN gaming. The kids who play online are amazing, but all they did, in most cases (if I’m reading the forums correctly) was read posts to find the “wicked cheap” fighters and the “money” moves then “roflstomppwned” everyone in sight.

So gone away are the days of that gaming community, that set of practices, and that type of nerdery. If we could create a return to those days, we might save “nerdery” from what it has become, but the connectivity of the contemporary 2011 world doesn’t lend itself to that. People would be texting from mall to mall, liveblogging. Someone who knew the developers would spill the beans on a forum.

Nerd gotsta change.

But it’s not dead. It’s just different.


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