Is “Geek Culture” Really Mainstream?

In my article about “gamer shame” I touched on the idea of “acceptance” of games as a medium, and as a pastime. Following writing it, I thought some more about the belief that opposes ideas of “gamer shame” – that “geek” pastimes like comic books, board games and video games are in fact socially acceptable by virtue of popularity. It is equally flawed, for a number of reasons. Firstly, that “geekdom” is inherently meaningless as a term. Secondly, that what is popular does not necessarily align with the majority of what is produced, and thirdly that a constant obsession with things being “acceptable” is completely useless as a way of gauging the value of something.

To begin with, the idea of the “geek” – someone who enjoys niche hobbies proudly. The hobbies associated with this tend to be new media, or mass media – genre fiction, gaming, and so on. It’s undeniable that general awareness of these pastimes has grown, and some have even become “cool” by virtue of being featured in “serious” media like newspapers rather than specific niche publications. This move towards a cultural mainstream is if anything removing the “geek” designation completely rather than making it cool. If taking an interest in computing is no longer seen as an obsessive behaviour, or associated with a lack of a social life, then it is not really geeky, so to speak. The ubiquity of personal computers now, and the penetration of computing into modern society, means that simply being “the computer guy” is not per se a bad thing. Being obsessed with computers may be – as would being obsessed with anything else. The term “geek” is coming to be associated with obsessive fandom rather than simple interest because it still has the connotations of a time when the two were one and the same (if few people care about personal computing then it is more likely anyone with an interest will take a very deep interest in it).

This ultimately manifests as self-defined “geeks” resenting this supposed “devaluation” of their label to encompass “casual” interest – be it someone who cares little for serious games and is happy to play light ones (be they Warhammer, Angry Birds or Munchkin over Advanced Squad Leader, Crusader Kings II or Brass), someone for whom a computer is a tool bought and used as-is (a market segment Apple have capitalised on to the grumbling of computer experts worldwide) or someone for whom the difference between Batman and Spiderman is one is a bat and one is a spider, rather than one is Marvel and one is DC. A form of stratification is evident; “serious” gamers shun “casual” games and play “serious” ones. Computer experts favour Linux and scratchbuilding over Ipads and Windows – this is in order to protect their convenient label. They are fighting a losing, nebulous battle – to see their niche hobby respected while it remains niche and exclusive.

This leads neatly on to my second point – that geek chic as it is called, the “acceptable” face of niche interests, is unrepresentative of what made those hobbies appealing in the first place. I’m not sure this justifies the stratification I talk of above, but it explains it. Initially, niche pastimes like computer programming, Dungeons and Dragons and the like were made by hobbyists for likeminded hobbyists; even things produced for the mass market and adopted for geeks, like science-fiction and anime, were consumed in niche ways – while people happily watched Dr Who, Star Trek and so on, they for the most part did not watch it in the same way as the early “Trekkies” or “Whovians.” Consuming the media was always done – obsessing over the media was what defined one as a geek. Over time, as these things became more mainstream, the “geek” label was almost ironically used to define the act of consumption – but it was “cool” now because that consumption had always been there. Seeing this model, of niche things made mainstream just by brand recognition, other things followed – home video game consoles and personal computers making the previously arcane world of computing a family thing that even kids could do. Movies of superheroes which took the forbidding world of comics and made it into a couple of hours of easily-followed entertainment.

But has this made the geek part popular? I think not in the way that marketers would have you believe. I don’t think that the success, for example, of Batman films has made appreciably more people read DC comics. I don’t think – and sales support this – that the “popularity” of home computing and computer gaming has appreciably impacted Linux installs, or sales of niche “gamer’s” games like God Hand or the Front Mission series. Indeed, while Settlers of Catan and Carcassone may be more popular now than before, I doubt many more people are making the leap to 18XX or Twilight Imperium. The geek image that is “cool” is a carefully curated one. It is popular media being cashed in on. First-person shooters and football games sell well, and so remain the “acceptable” face of gaming while RPGs and complex fighting games languish. Batman films sell well and so remain the acceptable face of comic books while the industry closes ranks and tries to keep selling to an ageing core audience. Geek is not chic – brand recognition is chic.

Finally, the question of what really is “acceptable” as a hobby. This will touch a little on my previous article. It’s the case that any niche hobby will invite some jokes and misunderstanding – as I said before, people assume because I shoot targets I shoot game, or that all folk music goes “hey nonny nonny in the Spring, O”. The more niche a hobby is, and the less anyone knows about it, the more reluctant they will be to try it; it is human nature. If I said to someone “fancy a game of D&D” they’d probably say no because they think it’s really complicated and not fun. This isn’t per se a slight on me as someone interested in it – if I were to not raise the subject again, that would be that. It’s just a universal reluctance to try unfamiliar, or misunderstood things.

The problem comes when “geeks” see this as a continuation of what may have been bullying once and cherish the sense of being an “other.” While it’s “cool” to hide behind the impenetrability of a niche hobby, and look down on it being made more widely known, because it retains a sort of mystique, that hobby will never become truly “accepted” – only marketed. A manufacturer will see “fans” complaining that, say, games are becoming too “casual” but also see that alienating these grognards is more profitable than alienating the mass market. In simple economic terms, mass media and mass-produced culture funds niche culture. The niche cannot shut itself off from the mass because otherwise it becomes a dying club – and comics provide a good example. While the general public still perceive comics as an impenetrable niche, sold in shops with poor customer service and unapproachable clientele, but see a Batman film as a couple of hours’ good entertainment, it will be Batman films that get made. The only way for “geek chic” to escape the marketers, and the bottom line, is for it to completely reject the “geek” label – no longer try to sell itself on the mystique of the niche, but simply become mass media alongside any other.

And for this to happen, there needs to be a sea-change in attitudes. This doesn’t mean rejecting the past and embracing the new, it means understanding that elitism and exclusivity by virtue of superior knowledge (i.e. an encyclopedic knowledge of comic continuity, or making games that eschew clear instructions and explanations and punish inexperience) will not bring fresh blood into a medium. Things need to be made to entice the layman in, to make them interested, and the old guard need to accept this. However, it is a two-way compromise – and the onus is far more on the creators. They need to not chase the lowest-common denominator and simply emulate success, but bring in new interest by taking what made something work in the first place (games as tricky tests of skill which can be mastered, for example) and using the ways in which the medium has developed to make this intuitive and accessible. Take for example the game Skullgirls, which I reviewed some time ago; I had issues with it, but it employed the best possible way of introducing newcomers without compromising complexity; it simply explained it. It assumed a new player knew nothing and explained not only how but why.

I think if more games, and comics, and other niche activities, took this approach – of not compromising on content to draw in newcomers with an “easy way” but instead showed what can be good through reasonable, layman’s explanations, then there truly would be “acceptable geekdom.” There would, in fact, be no geeks.

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