(Partial edit­ing cred­it goes to the won­der­ful @yutt on Twitter!)

I don’t believe in a uni­fied geek cul­ture; I don’t believe there is one. Games, comic books, sci-fi, etc. are dif­fer­ent indus­tries with dif­fer­ent audi­ences. Yes, there is crossover. But it’s not a homo­ge­neous blob. “Geekery” is a series of nich­es, and each with its own unique split of gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, pol­i­tics, and race and each with its own unique wants. If this sounds famil­iar it’s because I opened one of the first edi­to­ri­als I ever wrote with this exact point.

If you read a lot of my work you will find a num­ber of com­mon themes: free­dom to express dis­agree­ment, an aver­sion to cen­sor­ship, the empha­sis on the indi­vid­u­al, and the val­ue of indi­vid­u­al choic­es and expres­sion — even those con­sid­ered neg­a­tive. These are facets of my world­view, and it’s a world­view I’m very away not every­one shares. But nev­er­the­less they under­pin most of what I write about. With that in mind I’m going to explore just why I think the term “Geek cul­ture” is non­sense.
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Two decades ago the terms “geek,” “nerd,” and asso­ci­at­ed stereo­types were uni­ver­sal­ly seen as neg­a­tives and pejo­ra­tives; yet peo­ple now scram­ble over them­selves to self-identify with those terms. That is puz­zling to me. I’ve always thought of “Geeks” as being over­ly pas­sion­ate about some­thing and soci­ety saw that as abnor­mal, or being a cause for deri­sion. Now that peo­ple val­ue deep pas­sion and knowl­edge about sub­jects it’s become cool, or in fash­ion, and has gained a foot­ing in pop­u­lar cul­ture. We have geek con­fer­ences, geek t-shirts, even geek bev­er­ages. Along with the­se com­mer­cial shifts there has been a shift of focus to so called “Geek Culture” as more than just a derid­ed, niche con­cept.

One of the first prob­lems with the con­cept is there are — at my count — at least three com­pet­ing ideas of what Geek Culture is. The first con­cept is the main­stream stereo­type of mod­ern Geek Culture. This has stemmed from the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of the con­cept in TV shows like The Bang Theory; this is the exter­nal view for peo­ple who want to buy into being a geek whilst it is at its apex in pop cul­ture. Second of the­se is the idea of “Toxic Geek Culture;” that geeks are exclu­sive­ly leery male sex­ists straight out of a 1950s but hav­ing trad­ed coun­try clubs for base­ments — com­plete with racism and neg­a­tive views of wom­en. This idea is instilled by those who push the third idea of “Geek Culture;” that it needs to be an ultra-progressive space in order to fight back again­st the tox­i­c­i­ty of the past, and be on “the right side of his­to­ry.”

All of the­se things can’t be true at once, so we already have a prob­lem.

Geek cul­ture is prepo­si­tioned on the idea of a mod­el geek. This is at odds with the indi­vid­u­al­i­ty of self and thought that under­pined why peo­ple were seen as geeks and nerds in the first place. Being labelled a geek was a sign of not accept­ing social norms; the idea that now geeks should con­form to a cul­ture, and set of accept­able opin­ions and prac­tices, com­plete­ly con­tra­dicts that indi­vid­u­al spir­it. It’s also at odds with a healthy exchange of ideas and diver­si­ty. Not the iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics ver­sion of diver­si­ty, but diver­si­ty of ideas; a wealth of dif­fer­ing world­views coex­ist­ing. Modern ideas of Geek Culture aims to cre­ate a group of peo­ple who have dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties on a sur­face lev­el but have com­plete­ly uni­form thought enforced through the press, social media activism, and con­ven­tion poli­cies.

Geek culture insert 1

This is best demon­strat­ed with harass­ment poli­cies that have become meth­ods of mod­er­at­ing thought, and fil­ter­ing out indi­vid­u­als express­ing ideas con­sid­ered “unde­sir­able.” Conventions have become polit­i­cal bat­tle­grounds where the “no plat­form” pio­neered in uni­ver­si­ties is being trans­plant­ed to all com­mu­ni­ties and events regard­ed as “geek.” For those unaware, the “no plat­form” posi­tion gives an event the right to block a speak­er if they some­how think their opin­ions will be harm­ful to the peo­ple at the event, or the insti­tu­tion where it is tak­ing place. Very often this deci­sion is made by a hand­ful of peo­ple for pure­ly ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons, and is a real blow to free­dom of expres­sion. The idea that “Geek spaces” should also be “Safe spaces” has also been adopt­ed with fright­en­ing speed and vorac­i­ty. Safe space doc­trine is based on the right to not have your ideas chal­lenged; it con­tests that nor­mal, live­ly dis­course is in fact a form of harass­ment, and that sim­ply by stat­ing an alter­nate view­point you might trig­ger some­one into some PTSD rid­dled fit when in real­i­ty they are just uncom­fort­able with ideas that dis­agree with theirs.

At the van­guard of this push are col­lec­tives like Geek Feminism Wiki whose tem­plate harass­ment poli­cies have been blind­ly adopt­ed by many con­ven­tions.

The most egre­gious exam­ple of their brand of busy-body bul­ly­ing is the “Creeper Move Card

The Creeper Move cards are red and yel­low card­board cards which are designed to be hand­ed to peo­ple at geek events who are harass­ing oth­ers or oth­er­wise being creepy.”

Note the use of “Geek events.” By virtue of an event being seen as “Geek,” fem­i­nist and oth­er inter­est groups assume they have con­trol of that event, but it’s real­ly just a meet­ing of a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple for lots of dif­fer­ent rea­sons. These cards can be given out at any time, and for any rea­son. You don’t even have to be told what that rea­son is. The “Red Card” exam­ple also includes an implied phys­i­cal threat stat­ing:

You should be hap­py you got a card and not a punch in the face. Check your­self — you might not be this lucky twice!”

In a nor­mal social set­tings, peo­ple under­tak­ing activ­i­ties like dis­sem­i­nat­ing threat­en­ing notes would be round­ly eject­ed, but in the warped world of “fem­i­nist geek cul­ture” the­se are the peo­ple sup­pos­ed­ly mak­ing the event more wel­com­ing and safe.

This isn’t an iso­lat­ed prob­lem either; being seen as “anti-feminist” and neb­u­lous accu­sa­tions of harass­ment are what caused The Honey Badger Brigade to be unfair­ly eject­ed from Calgary Expo, an event which has caused them to pur­sue ongo­ing legal action. There were also attempts to ban actor Adam Baldwin from var­i­ous events due to his affil­i­a­tion with the hash­tag GamerGate. These peo­ple don’t fit into the pre­vail­ing ideas of “pro­gres­sive” geek cul­ture, and are there­fore seen as some­how a dan­ger to the­se events. The fact that many dif­fer­ing peo­ple with many dif­fer­ing ideas might want to meet and inter­act with them isn’t con­sid­ered. Simply not agree­ing with and not lik­ing some­one is seen as a cul­tur­al­ly accept­able rea­son to ban them.

An idea is being put for­ward on mul­ti­ple fronts. At con­ven­tions, in the video game com­mu­ni­ty, in the comic com­mu­ni­ty, in the table-top com­mu­ni­ty, and in the col­lectible card games com­mu­ni­ty; the idea that in order to belong to a “geek” com­mu­ni­ty you must embrace ideas of third wave fem­i­nism, male/white priv­i­lege, and social jus­tice . People who dis­agree with social jus­tice ideas are rou­tine­ly the sub­ject of hound­ing on social media, in the press, and even in per­son at events and con­ven­tions. This is being facil­i­tat­ed by the belief in the puri­ty and nobil­i­ty of the pro­gres­sive Geek Culture being put for­ward.

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In pol­i­tics we call this “Pork-barrelling”, sta­pling a seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed issue into a more pop­u­lar cause then push­ing them as one and the same in order to ben­e­fit a small group of peo­ple. That’s how amend­ments to the Kitten hug­ging bill end up fund­ing nuclear space lasers; it’s also why you can’t have a con­ver­sa­tion about equal rights for wom­en with­out peo­ple try­ing to bring up office air con­di­tion­ing, and how peo­ple sit on the sub­way. Geek cul­ture is used as a way to make peo­ple behave in a speci­fic man­ner, or believe a cer­tain ide­ol­o­gy in order to be “allowed” to like some­thing. I see peo­ple in fan­doms say­ing those they dis­like “need to get out,” or cel­e­brat­ing when peo­ple leave a com­mu­ni­ty due to polit­i­cal dis­agree­ments. The exclu­sion of “unde­sir­ables” should nev­er be cause for cel­e­bra­tion, and is the hall­mark of a very unhealthy com­mu­ni­ty and dis­course.

Fighting for” what geek cul­ture should be is an exten­sion of the wider con­cept of the “cul­ture war” that is invad­ing many com­mu­ni­ties and types of media; as well as being a top­ic cov­ered in this loose tril­o­gy of arti­cles. The invent­ed idea of the sex­ist “No girls allowed tree­house” was nev­er true. It is in my view back­wards; gam­ing and geek things were stereo­typed as “for male losers” because it was an out­cast activ­i­ty in the past. It was always tak­en up by who­ev­er was around at the time. Until it became com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful and lucra­tive there wasn’t much care given to who was doing the­se par­tic­u­lar activ­i­ties — no one real­ly cared. All geeks have been des­per­ate to show oth­ers their inter­ests — their “secret” nerdy world. Many of the­se com­mu­ni­ties were skewed male, but there was nev­er any kind of plan to make it that way. It’s just how the­se com­mu­ni­ties coa­lesced. This of course ignores the size­able female pop­u­la­tions that have exist­ed in all of the­se com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple. Women and girls have always played and devel­oped video games, table-top games, and comic books. We nev­er seem con­cerned by fan­doms that skew almost exclu­sive­ly female, yet we always see hand-wringing about gen­der quo­tas in geek com­mu­ni­ties.

The ridicule and spite towards “White Male Neckbeards” is an exploita­tion of people’s yearn­ing for accep­tance and val­i­da­tion. These type of attacks caus­es many to go back into their shell, or believe there is some­thing wrong with them.  It’s an attack on a group who only want­ed to have their long derid­ed pas­sions be under­stood, and it’s an emo­tion­al bat­ter­ing ram. The lie of “tox­ic geek cul­ture” was invent­ed as an excuse to impose ideas based on iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics; the log­ic being this author­i­tar­i­an shift was prefer­able to what was there before. It requires re-writing his­to­ry, and shut­ting out the voic­es that remind us most enthu­si­ast com­mu­ni­ties have always been wel­com­ing to those will­ing to under­stand them and devel­op a pas­sion for the sub­ject mat­ter. I think many of those who don’t feel wel­come in enthu­si­ast com­mu­ni­ties do so because they are more a fan of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, and their own ide­ol­o­gy, than the sub­ject at hand. When some­one isn’t knowl­edge­able about a top­ic, or is doing some­thing for the wrong rea­sons, it’s imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent to those already immersed in the fan­dom or activ­i­ty.

Geek culture insert 2

Wrapping up your up iden­ti­ty and ego too heav­i­ly in your inter­ests and pol­i­tics is nev­er a good move; by virtue of being a pro­gres­sive geek peo­ple some­how think that makes them bet­ter or unable to be an ass­hole or a bul­ly. Many see them­selves as cham­pi­ons of caus­es and think being a male “geek” means they have to be sub­servient to, or advo­cate on behalf of, wom­en, or that being a “female geek” some­how enti­tles them to a lev­el of pref­er­en­tial treat­ment. The idea of “Geek Feminism,” as cham­pi­oned by men, has unleashed a self-superior fedo­ra tip­ping night­mare upon the world. Individuals like Bob Chipman (for­mer­ly MovieBob until his unpleas­ant rav­ings got him removed from The Escapist) real­ly do think by being the “right kind of geek” you become some kind of pro­gres­sive über­men­sch able to expel those who share inter­ests with you but dare to indul­ge in “wrong-think.” Bob is — in my mind — the log­i­cal end­point of the politi­ciza­tion of “Geek Culture;” a liv­ing, breath­ing PSA for not inter­twin­ing your polit­i­cal ideas with your pop-culture inter­ests, and try­ing too hard to use one to lever­age the oth­er. People like comic books and movies; they don’t like being told how to think.

There is also the issue of who decides what the prop­er “Geek Culture” is? With the rise of geekary to main­stream pop­u­lar­i­ty as a pop-culture fad it has been celebri­ties rather than the com­mu­ni­ty itself who have set the tone. I’m going to cov­er the issues with peo­ple who are famous for mere­ly being “Geeks” in more detail my next arti­cle, but the effect is stark: it becomes about nor­mal­iz­ing the polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy of celebri­ties with a large plat­form, and lean­ing on oth­ers to con­form if they want to feel like they belong. Those set­ting this agen­da are attempt­ing to wield a mas­sive amount of influ­ence over our cul­ture at large. In their mind, media has a huge influ­ence on people’s deci­sion mak­ing rather than being a reflec­tion of it.

The world­view put for­ward by those who want to police and con­trol who is allowed in “geek spaces” is not pro­gres­sive; it is regres­sive, exclu­sion­ary, and out­dat­ed. Geekary is defined as hav­ing many dif­fer­ent cul­tures and sub-cultures that nev­er­the­less come togeth­er to cel­e­brate their love of a sin­gle sub­ject. The sin­gle shared expe­ri­ence is that sub­ject. The cul­ture of the comic com­mu­ni­ty is comic books, the cul­ture of the MtG com­mu­ni­ty is Magic the Gathering; any­thing beyond that is extra­ne­ous, and any­one want­i­ng to attach out­side ideas to meet­ings of the­se fans is push­ing a most­ly unwant­ed agen­da. Two peo­ple might have noth­ing in com­mon except their love of Batman, but through that shared inter­est they can come togeth­er despite not shar­ing any­thing else cul­tur­al­ly in com­mon.

Geek culture insert 3

Our beliefs are a lot more com­plex than sim­ply what media we con­sume; as rig­or­ous stud­ies of video games have shown, our upbring­ing and peers have a much big­ger effect on us than enter­tain­ment. In short, real life is much more real and impact­ful to us than the fic­tion we con­sume or fan­doms we enjoy. This con­clu­sion is not only backed up by a wealth of evi­dence, it is also indica­tive to how most of us see the world.

These facts mean that impos­ing an arti­fi­cial “Geek Culture” is inevitably going to leave many peo­ple feel­ing exclud­ed because it goes again­st this idea of polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al plu­ral­i­ty. Ideas that “Geeks can’t be right-wing” or “Geeks need to also be fem­i­nist” are absurd, because in order to hold an inter­est you don’t have to jump through polit­i­cal hoops. Anyone can like any­thing. My ver­sion (and I think most people’s ver­sion) of a healthy geek com­mu­ni­ty is one based on the clas­si­cal ideas of lib­er­al­ism and tol­er­ance. Yes, that means tol­er­at­ing peo­ple who don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly agree with you. I don’t think Geek cul­ture exists because — as enthu­si­asts about dif­fer­ing sub­jects — we don’t need it to.

Geekery is a series of loose­ly over­lap­ping cir­cles — like a Venn-diagram. Not a sin­gle mono­lithic enti­ty. I don’t write about comic books because in my every­day life I don’t pur­chase and read them very much. That’s not to say I don’t own a few, or haven’t researched them at all, but I am not a comic book “geek” for want of a bet­ter term. The more updat­ed stereo­type that has emerged in a pop-culture of nerds and geeks also ignores that many peo­ple are often only a fan of a sin­gle thing. With its count­less sur­face lev­el “geek” accou­trements to con­sume and pur­chase the main­stream media vision of a geek is out of touch with the real­i­ty. Interests in sub­jects like comic books or video games are seen as a pre­req­ui­site to geek sta­tus when fans of sports or cars are just as pas­sion­ate, and have knowl­edge of their hob­by as ency­clo­pe­dic as any hard­core comic book fan.

geek culture side 3

We don’t lump togeth­er mod­el train enthu­si­asts with bird watch­ers, we don’t see petrol-heads as the same as stamp col­lec­tors, we don’t bundle audio­philes and cinephiles as part of the same over­ar­ch­ing group. These are enthu­si­ast com­mu­ni­ties of their own, so why do peo­ple put video game enthu­si­asts and live action role-playing fans in the same cat­e­go­ry?

Many enthu­si­asts are not seen as part of the “geek com­mu­ni­ty” when they exhibit the same behav­iours, the same lev­el of enthu­si­asm, and same eye for detail. Sports fans are gen­er­al­ly por­trayed in media as being at odds with the stereo­typ­i­cal geek when in actu­al­i­ty they have a lot more in com­mon than one may think.

This is all — on a basic lev­el — a form of stereo­typ­ing. For exam­ple, the “Bro vs. Geek” dis­tinc­tion has been tak­en up enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly by fem­i­nists who have attacked so called “Brogrammers” who don’t fit the weak and sub­servient stereo­type of the male geek. Women who don’t fall into their stereo­types are also given a hard time; I’ve seen count­less exam­ples of wom­en being dubbed “too pret­ty” to be gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in geeky things, accused of try­ing to be “one of the guys” and dubbed a gen­der trai­tor for not feel­ing like a vic­tim in their respec­tive hob­bies. Women who reject the vision of safe spaces and mod­er­at­ing speech often come into the harsh­est crit­i­cism because their dis­sent blows a gap­ing hole in the false stereo­type of a female-unfriendly geek cul­ture.

Enthusiasts come in all shapes and sizes; they share all kinds of oth­er inter­ests. There is no need for homo­gene­ity, and we don’t need peo­ple who fit into a neat list of pro­nouns and inter­ests. People are much more com­plex than that, and you can’t sum a per­son up in a short social media pro­file. You can be a fit­ness and sports fanat­ic, but also play Dungeons and Dragons; you can be a porn actress and also love video games. These things are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive.

I’ve been told in social set­tings, “You’ll get on with him, he’s a geek too” when in actu­al fact there is no guar­an­tee we will have any kind of shared inter­ests. If there is a geek cul­ture, I cer­tain­ly don’t feel like I belong to it, or even real­ly know how to define it. I find it iron­ic that the same peo­ple who try to avoid using the word gamer also like to wax philo­soph­i­cal about who “should and shouldn’t be allowed” in var­i­ous geek com­mu­ni­ties. I think there is a fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tion in what peo­ple cham­pi­oning so-called “diver­si­ty and inclu­sion” actu­al­ly believe. The term “geek” is far less well defined than the term “gamer,” but the word is con­tin­u­al­ly applied to col­lec­tives and “spaces” in order to mod­er­ate how peo­ple act.

Geek culture insert 4

There is no right way to be a geek. Believe what you want to believe as long as you don’t impose it on oth­er peo­ple. Contrary to how they make it appear the­se self-appointed gate­keep­ers can’t actu­al­ly police your thoughts. What they can do is make con­ven­tions and com­mu­ni­ties as mis­er­able as pos­si­ble in an attempt to squeeze out peo­ple sim­ply for dis­agree­ing with them. The truth is, if you are pas­sion­ate about some­thing then you are will­ing to put your dif­fer­ences aside to share and cel­e­brate that with oth­er pas­sion­ate peo­ple. People speak of the abil­i­ty of sports to bring adver­saries togeth­er over a shared activ­i­ty, and the many fan­doms and com­mu­ni­ties put under the “geek” ban­ner are capa­ble of doing just that if we don’t move to push out those with dif­fer­ent ideas.

I sup­pose you could boil my issue with the idea of Geek Culture down to this: cul­ture is syn­ony­mous with shared iden­ti­ty and uni­for­mi­ty. What I see in dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties is any­thing but that. Culture is tra­di­tion­al­ly defined by nation­al­i­ty, reli­gion, class and her­itage. But the new com­mu­ni­ties that have sprung up with the advent of instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion are based on shared inter­est, and are a jum­ble of dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of attrib­ut­es. I would argue peo­ple con­gre­gat­ing over shared inter­ests are defined by putting aside tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal bound­aries in order to share those inter­ests. They are made up of mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent cul­tures due to their glob­al nature. How can all the­se diverse peo­ple be crammed into one nar­row def­i­n­i­tion or world­view? How could all the­se diverse peo­ple also belong to a white male exclu­sion­ist con­spir­a­cy? How can all of the­se diverse peo­ple be expect­ed to adhere to a sin­gle set of pol­i­tics? The answer is: they can’t, they don’t, and they shouldn’t.

There is no such thing as a uni­fied geek cul­ture, and there shouldn’t be one. SweeneyCultureOpinionCulture,Opinion(Partial edit­ing cred­it goes to the won­der­ful @yutt on Twitter!) I don’t believe in a uni­fied geek cul­ture; I don’t believe there is one. Games, comic books, sci-fi, etc. are dif­fer­ent indus­tries with dif­fer­ent audi­ences. Yes, there is crossover. But it’s not a homo­ge­neous blob. “Geekery” is a series of nich­es, and…
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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in engi­neer­ing. He writes long-form edi­to­ri­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games media and inter­net cul­ture. He also does the occa­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our inter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven media and sus­pi­cious of unac­cou­table author­i­ty but always hope­ful for change.