Think Geek

As “nerd culture” becomes more mainstream, what can your attraction learn from this trend? What do your geeks want from you?

Shaquille O’Neil stans 7 feet, I inch tall and weights well over 300 pounds. He is an NBA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, a movie star, and a spokesmen for countless products and services. For the past two decades he’s been one of the most recognizable people on the planet and helped define “cool” for a generation.

In other words, he’s not exactly the dictionary definition of geek, right? Not so fast.

“I’m a techie, I’m a nerd. I’m a geek. And I’m proud to say it and acknowledge it,” the global icon said earlier this year during the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.

“I’m the world’s tallest geek.”

The historical paradigm has always been the jocks versus the geeks—think “Revenge of the Nerds” or “Goonies.” But Shaq’s declaration is demonstrative of a broader cultural shift that’s occurred over the past decade or so, where geek culture has morphed into mainstream pop culture, blurring the lines between the two.

The attractions industry is no stranger to our own sub-genre of geeks, a.k.a. “enthusiasts.” We will address them later, but first it’s important to establish how geek culture has changed in recent years, and how our industry is already adapting to these societal shifts.

Because if Shaquille O’Neal—the ultimate jock—is proudly proclaiming himself to be the ultimate nerd, then just what does it mean to be a geek in 2013 … and what are these newly emboldened nerds expecting from the attractions industry?

“The trajectory of ‘nerd’ has gone the same way as ‘cool,’” says Dave Cobb, senior creative director for Thinkwell Group, a themed entertainment design and production firm based in Burbank, California (www.thinkwell.staging.work). “Cool in the ’50s was a very specific kind of attitude, and now it’s used to just describe something you like. Nerd and geek have also been diluted … the stigma has mostly been shed, and it’s not used as an insult anymore. As far as our business is concerned, it’s an opportunity for a whole new kind of audience that is ready and raring to go for anything we have to throw at them.”

‘The War Is Over, and We Won’

“We’ve typically used the term ‘geek’ for gamers, early adopters for technology, or people who love comic books and superheroes,” says Susan Bonds, CEO of 42 Entertainment, also based in Burbank, which develops immersive online games and marketing campaigns (www.42entertainment.com). “But geek culture has become mainstream and highly influential.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than Hollywood, where traditionally geeky movies have dominated the box office for the past decade-plus. Sure films like “Star Wars,” “Superman,” and the like have been popular for years, but when Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won the Aca-demy Award for Best Picture in 2004, things changed.

Nerd-oriented movies have defined the past decade, with franchises from Harry Potter to Transformers to Batman smashing box office records; girl-friendly geek fare like Twilight and The Hunger Games have also been inescapable. It all culminated in 2012 with “Marvel’s The Avengers,” which raked in $1.5 billion worldwide and ranks now as the third-highest grossing movie of all time.

“Geek culture has, to some extent, taken over,” says Matt Blum, managing editor for Wired magazine’s GeekDad blog (www.geekdad.com). “The war is over, and we won. When I was growing up, being a geek meant you were an outsider. Fortunately, that’s not the case most places now.”

Blum credits video games, as well, with pushing this cultural transition. Much like comic books (upon which most of these moneymaking movies are based), he says video games carried a negative stigma for the first couple decades of their existence. But that’s all changed in the past several years with the emergence of smartphones and more social gaming systems such as the Nintendo Wii.

“People who never would’ve thought of picking up a video game started playing ‘Angry Birds,’” Blum says. “Now it’s so accessible, you can literally carry around a dozen video games in your pocket.”

“Everybody’s kinda a gamer now,” agrees Christian Lachel, vice president and senior creative director for BRC Imagination Arts, another Burbank-based attraction design and production firm (www.brcweb.com). “I wouldn’t even call it ‘geek’ at this point. To me, there’s just an acceptance of being who you are. There’s a tribe for everybody, and you can wear your tribe on your sleeve without having to worry how it’s perceived in society. It’s completely mashed up now—it’s OK that I love ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ and I still play sports.”

This rising tide of geek culture goes hand in hand with what Bonds calls the first and second “digital decades,” which started with the turn of the millennium and mark the explosive influence of the Internet. “There are geeks everywhere, in all walks of life,” Blum says, but until the Internet took hold they had no idea how many like-minded souls were truly out there. “There’s no way geek culture would be where it is without the Internet. It’s fundamental.”

“Consumer culture is more connected and collaborative than any time in history,” adds Thinkwell’s Cobb. “People with passions about the things they love—if it’s comic books, movies, theme parks, or whatever—they’ve been empowered by the Internet, social media, and mobile technology. That’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Of Wizards and Wheels: The Attractions Industry’s Response to Geek Culture

If the geeks have won the war, what is the attractions industry supposed to do with all these newfound nerds? How do we engage this heightened level of intense fandom? In some ways, the answer is simple: Just keep doing what you’re doing.

Themed attractions have been ahead of the game when it comes to appealing to the geek sense of world-building, immersion, and extreme attention to detail. Lachel remembers playing “Dungeons & Dragons” as a child and then going out in his backyard to re-create those scenes in real life; visit a Disney park or a KidZania location—just to name a couple—over the past decade, though, and for a few minutes you could pretend to be a pirate, a princess, an astronaut, a firefighter, or any number of other characters.

“The industry, whether consciously or not, has been tip-toeing into worlds that speak to this next generation of geek culture,” Lachel says. “Our industry has always been about connecting great experiences with the heart of our audience. What you want to do is find the DNA of that audience and then tie it into your brand and the stories you’re trying to tell.”

Two high-profile recent -examples are Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Disney California Adventure’s Cars Land, along with SeaWorld Orlando’s -Antarctica: Empire of the -Penguin, which debuts this -summer. These, Cobb says, demonstrate the next step forward in themed -entertainment as they are not just one-off attractions but rather entire realms where guests can truly lose themselves in immersive storytelling. For example, on one of his visits to the Wizarding World, Cobb saw students dressed in wizards’ robes doing their real-world homework inside the land, as if they were actually studying at Hogwarts, the Potter series’ school for “witchcraft and wizardry.” And it’s not just kids—adults have shown up at the Wizarding World in droves dressed head-to-toe in robes, literally weeping with joy upon entering the land.

“The fact that people are embracing that use of the space—living out their fantasy—is a potent piece of psychology we should take something away from,” Cobb says. “It’s this level of narrative immersion and an assumption that the audience will play along—that’s the key geek culture is opening our eyes to. The audience is playing along more.”

Cobb says Cars Land and the Wizarding World offer guests an invitation to come live in those worlds “as players in a story, not just customers.” But those players are demanding, and today’s geeks expect a heightened level of authenticity and attention to detail that surpasses what’s been done before. In the Wizarding World’s case, all of the storefront windows throughout the land are filled with “magic” pens, books, clothing, and other baubles straight from the stories.

“[Geeks] want a richer, deeper experience,” Lachel says. “They want those little nuggets, and if they don’t get them, they’ll think we missed the boat. And they’ll tell us.”

“All the details add up to something bigger … and people want to be part of something bigger,” says Bonds, who before founding 42 Entertainment was a Walt Disney Imagineer. “So if all the details add up, you can create this protected environment where it all makes sense against that world. And people notice, for sure.”

Geeks Don’t Require $100 Million Rides

To this point, most of what’s been discussed here are big-name projects and properties. But certainly most facilities don’t have access to a brand or license the likes of a Harry Potter—much less the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to build such elaborate attractions to match this new level of fan expectations. But a geek is a geek is a geek, whether you’re talking about Harry Potter’s wizards, Disney’s princesses, or roller coaster enthusiasts. So what’s the lesson from all this?

“Quality is always going to be quality,” Cobb says. “Passionate fans want authenticity, and they want to know the experiences they care about are quality. Cutting-edge is a plus, but authenticity is going to win out every time with this audience.”

Lachel grew up in Chicago and remembers a little hot dog stand he and his buddies frequented; they’d grab a dog, a drink, and play some arcade games. “[The owner] kept watching us and asked us what we were into, and the next week the game would appear. One kid wanted cheese on his fries, and the next thing you knew it was on the menu. It felt like he was catering to our dreams. The best attractions are always constantly in touch with their audiences.”

Look to your own geeks to understand where your brand is, and what your strengths and weaknesses are, Cobb says, and then follow through to enhance the good and minimize the bad.

“It’s about knowing what your product is,” he says. “What do people come here for? What can we plus up in our existing program that will make people feel more ownership of this place than they already do? It’s about fostering that emotional relationship, first and foremost, more than just some new technology.

“That’s the challenge of looking at geek culture as new inspiration for theme parks; not everything has to be a $120 million high-tech attraction. It can be small changes, customer service, refreshing existing rides … things like that your casual user may not notice but your fans will,” Cobb continues. “Our response to fandom is going to be very different from what you’ve seen in larger media and entertainment industries, because we’re a different product. We have an ongoing relationship with our fans that is something they can feel and touch … this is about physical places that interact with actual human beings. It’s different from making a movie or putting out a new album. We have an opportunity to make it more about personalization and direct physical experiences with fans.”

Senior Editor Jeremy Schoolfield is a total nerd, theme park or otherwise, and he geeked out writing this story and getting to talk to these amazingly talented people. He’d like to talk to even more of you about the trends and challenges facing our industry, so please contact him at [email protected]

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