The Myth of Geek Culture

John explains why he doesn't agree with the concept of a unified geek culture and the problems with attempting to impose one.


(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
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.
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