Lord of the Geeks
By Andrew Leonard
Salon.com – December 30, 2003
Playstation 2 LOTR GameComputer programmers have long been infatuated with “The Lord of the Rings,” says Scott Bennie, the producer of an early ’90s game based on the trilogy, because J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic was “laced with the two factors that geeks admire most: sustained escapism and obsessive attention to detail.”
Anyone who has spent hours pondering Tolkien’s painstakingly constructed Númenorean genealogies or Elvish syntax rules can probably relate. How much different, really, are Tolkien’s minutiae from those encountered banging one’s head against assembler code or making every graphics pixel line up correctly? But Bennie goes even further. In his view, Tolkien midwifed the entire emergence of geek culture.
“Tolkien didn’t invent geek culture,” he says. “That honor probably belongs to the American SF novels of the 1930s-’50s. But ‘Lord’ probably turned on enough ‘proto-geeks’ that the geek audience built up to a critical mass, transforming it from a cult to a subculture. All subcultures have their seminal works, and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was ‘geek’ culture’s.”
One need look no further than computer gaming to see the truth of Bennie’s observation. It’s been about 25 years since computer programmers started making games based, explicitly or implicitly, on “The Lord of the Rings” and its derivative nephew, Dungeons & Dragons. Tracking their progress — from the bare-bones text simplicity of Will Crowther’s Adventure to Electronic Arts‘ new, turbo-powered Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for the PlayStation 2 — is a crash course in the history of computing and the evolution of computer gaming. It’s also a lesson in what computers can do that is different from the experience offered by films or books, as well as a reminder that some quests may be never-ending.
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