In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner, then twenty-two years of age, attempted to assassinate US representative Gabrielle Giffords at a meet-and-greet with her constituents. Giffords survived, but six people died that day in a supermarket parking lot. A few days later, Slate published an essay about Loughner under the headline “Angry Nerds.”
While Loughner’s specific motivations apparently emerged from a miasma of untreated mental illness, his crime also fit into a pattern of violence perpetrated by young, mostly white, and mostly middle-class men and boys. As sociologist Michael Kimmel notes, they were “mercilessly and constantly teased, picked on, and threatened” for being different from their peers: “shy, bookish, an honor student, artistic, musical, theatrical, non-athletic, a ‘geek,’ or weird.”
We know that such students are more likely to be harassed and bullied, particularly when they attend schools that value athletics and popularity more than academics and that implicitly tolerate the treatment kids labelled as geeks and nerds receive. In a handful of cases—Montreal, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Isla Vista, to name a few—these unhappy, alienated young men try to inflict the pain they feel onto others. As the “alt-right” jumped from the geekier edges of the entertainment industries to the centre of political discourse and political culture in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, some journalists suggested that geek culture has become a way for young men to be radicalized into a particularly toxic form of misogynist and racist masculinity.
In this context, political commentator Charles J. Sykes’s advice to “be nice to nerds” takes on much more sinister overtones. But it wasn’t so long ago that geek culture promised something different—another, perhaps better, way of being a man. How did we get from sensitive new-age geeks to “angry young nerds”?
When Disney and Lucasfilm announced their intentions to restart the Star Wars franchise with a seventh instalment, fans were obviously anxious. While The Force Awakens would include many cast members from the original films reprising their roles, it would also pass the torch to a new trio of heroes: the force-sensitive scavenger Rey, rogue storm trooper Finn, and Resistance pilot Poe Dameron—played by a woman (Daisy Ridley), a black man (John Boyega), and a Latino man (Oscar Isaac), respectively. It also featured a notably more diverse secondary cast than many films. Episode VII was the midpoint in a year—beginning with Mad Max: Fury Road and ending with Ghostbusters—that put women and people of colour at the centre of franchises previously dominated by white, male bodies.
While some welcomed the increased visibility of women and people of colour in and around geeky blockbusters, a segment of fandom decried these films as evidence of an agenda to politicize simple entertainment and take cherished properties away from their “real” fans. Some fans even went so far as to call for boycotts of these films as “anti-white” and/or as feminist “propaganda.”
Geek culture has long been imagined as a space principally, if not exclusively, for straight white men. This stereotype enabled labels such as “geek,” “nerd,” and “gamer” to form the basis of an ersatz identity politics for certain members of these communities, who imagined themselves to be the field’s rightful occupants.
For instance, early on, Gamergate drew as much of its animus from a series of editorials declaring the “death of the gamer.” The phrase was meant to refer to the end of the young, white, heterosexual, and cisgender male player of AAA games as the primary audience of an increasingly diverse video-game culture. In response to progressive developers and critics signalling an open-door policy, Gamergate supporters appropriated the rhetorical tropes of progressive identity politics and turned them back against those critics and journalists who were attempting to envision a “post-gamer” culture: “Although their movement targets women specifically,” wrote Jay Hathaway in “What Is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks” “#Gamergaters insist they speak for a victimized ‘demographic,’ and that anyone who opposes misogyny while making generalizations about gamers must be a hypocrite.”
The dilemma of victimization is encapsulated by the “fake geek girl” discourse, which pop-culture critic Alyssa Rosenberg describes as “one of the most hilarious and self-defeating memes to emerge” from the churn of male internet outrage. This bogeywoman, as she appeared in online commentary, is supposedly engaged in some kind of long con, merely simulating, according to Rosenberg, “an interest in geek culture for the purpose of attracting men who like comics, science fiction, fantasy, superhero movies, etc., in order to later emotionally mutilate them.”
The fake geek girl idea plays into a longer standing incredulity among certain male fans that women would—or indeed could—participate with them, as well as the resulting gendered gatekeeping that is a staple of many women’s narratives about their experiences of participation. That is, some women entering comic shops, game stores, conventions, and other spaces associated with geek culture report being required to authenticate their membership in ways that men, generally speaking, are not. If they are not taken as fake geek girls, they were likely to be miscategorized as the girlfriend, wife, or mother of a male participant who has somehow dragged them there.
Many people I spoke with in my field research would speak of “guys” who had to sell off their collections or stop playing games with their friends because they’d married and of “bored girlfriends” being dragged along to conventions. As someone named Hank put it, “A role-playing game is so much time to invest[.…]Wives don’t like that.” Meanwhile, Fox described a gaming session cancelled because one of the players had to celebrate his “year-and-a-half anniversary,” which Fox described as a pseudo-event and the “girlfriend’s idea.” Indeed, jokes about “wives and girlfriends” that would have been tired in 1950s sitcoms were still current features of conversation in comic shops and at game days while I was conducting field research.
Along with the assumption that the default geek is male, this idea that women “spoil the fun” is one of the most basic and pervasive forms of sexism I observed in geek culture. Women, people of colour, and sexual minorities as outsiders trying to meddle with or impose some nefarious “agenda” on geek culture owes something to this rhetorical tradition.
From message-board trolls to comment-section flame wars, it has long been common to attribute the vitriolic nature of much online interaction to the anonymity that the medium affords its users. This explanation, favoured by scholars, journalists, and laypeople alike, was infamously portrayed in a Penny Arcade comic strip, where a “normal person” given an audience to perform in front of from behind a screen of anonymity results in a “total fuckwad.”
While anonymity may be a necessary condition, it is hardly sufficient to explain the periodic eruptions of bile and spleen to which the internet is subjected. On the one hand, early theorists of online interaction believed that, under different circumstances, the anonymity of the computer-mediated communication could open up progressive possibilities for identity construction. On the other hand, more people are using their real names on the web than ever before without a notable impact on the quality of digital discourse. Something else is missing from “the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory”—namely, the “play element” of online culture.
Play requires the creation of a special space. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga called it a “magic circle.” On the playground, like any other consecrated space, the rules of “so-called real life” are displaced by the rules of a game, even one as simple as “let’s pretend.” The boxing ring, for example, establishes a magic circle within which it is not only acceptable but desirable and laudable to punch someone. The double vision of play is central to the intellectual enjoyment of geek culture’s immersive narrative worlds. But, as media theorist Elizabeth Losh argues, the magic circle must be defended from reality. For instance, when debating the rules of a tabletop war game, one customer began to justify his argument with an appeal to realism, to which another customer responded by crying out, “Don’t bring reality in!”
Similarly, the threatening and harassing behaviour associated with Gamergate and other more-or-less organized groups of internet trolls can be understood as attempts to defend gaming as a “zone of exception,” a space that is perceived to be free of politics: “Social justice warriors,” writes Losh, “must be treated as aggressors to be repulsed by Gamergaters from the magic circles of game worlds in order to reclaim these spaces and return them to their proper exceptional status and thus maintain their security from real world incursions.”
However, it is not only that video games (or comic books or cinematic properties such as Star Wars and Ghostbusters) represent, as immersive and enchanting worlds, a magic circle but also that the acts of harassment themselves may constitute a perverse form of play. Psychologist John Suler speculates that one factor (among several) contributing to the “online disinhibition effect” is the dissociation of “virtual” acts from “real” consequences: “Consciously or unconsciously, people may feel that the imaginary characters they ‘created’ exist in a different space, that one’s online persona along with the online others live in a make-believe dimension, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world. They split or dissociate online fiction from offline fact.” Or, as Mercer University scholar Whitney Phillips argues, based on interviews with participants in “troll” culture: “The vast majority of trolls I’ve worked with[…]insist that their troll selves and their offline (‘real’) selves are subject to totally different sets of rules.”
That is to say, trolling behaviour is real, but it is not indicative of their real self. It is, rather, a kind of avatar or character taken up within the “play frame” Phillips refers to as the “troll mask.”
Take, for instance, the statements about “wives and girlfriends” quoted above. When asked explicitly to talk about gender and geek identity, people typically gave much more “politically correct” responses. Retailers, in particular, were usually careful to emphasize that geek culture was for everyone—it was, after all, in their material interest to do so. In retrospect, trolls might well be horrified with what they said. Yet, within a joking “play frame,” they were willing to express sentiments that seem, with the benefit of hindsight, quite sexist.
Games are, essentially, technologies that configure agency. Adopting a play frame is a way of displacing the ordinary rules of everyday life, which offer certain circumscribed possibilities for agency, with another set, which offer different possibilities. To describe trolling, harassment, and other anti-social features of contemporary geek culture as a kind of game is by no means to excuse or trivialize it, but it helps us to understand how investments in fantasy and play can have very real effects.
I was in grade ten the year of the Columbine massacre. I remember how my school’s own small “trench coat mafia” suddenly went from being mostly ignored to the subject of intense scrutiny from administration. The way they dressed, the music they listened to, and the video games they played were enough to make them seem dangerous. Because I played Dungeons & Dragons with a couple of guys in that group, I often ate lunch with them, though I rarely socialized outside of school with the rest. I didn’t share their taste for military fatigues or their interest in guns. I was more of a classic nerd, highly invested in academics and formal extracurricular activities (the only time I wore a trench coat was playing a detective in the school play).
What we shared was a feeling of alienation from a school culture that prized sports and displays of piety that seemed to us—with all of our teenage insight into the human condition—hypocritical and insincere. However different we may have been from one another, we were united by our felt experience of difference from the normative high-school student.
It is in the nature of social groups to erect boundaries—the “figure” of the in-group requires the “ground” of an out-group—and this goes double for the groups we have conventionally labelled subcultures, which may be united by nothing but a culturally arbitrary boundary with a so-called mainstream. Indeed, “geekdom,” writes Communication Studies professor Joseph Reagle, “is actually constituted by these ongoing struggles,” struggles between a conception of geekiness as an exclusive “category based on one’s knowledge of trivia or rejection of the mainstream” or an inclusive one “based on a love of sharing.”
There is, not to put too fine a point on it, a battle going on for the soul of geek culture. I know who I want to win. An open, inclusive version of geek culture that makes space for and celebrates difference strikes me as infinitely preferable to a narrow, backward-looking, angry, and resentful one. But my mind also turns back to my lunch crowd in high school. I’ve lost touch with them and wouldn’t want to presume anything about the paths their lives have taken since then, but back then, they might have sympathized with the Gamergaters and anti-SJW arguments—as might I.
To an extent, that’s what gives me hope. Geek culture isn’t any one thing. It’s neither the seething stew of sociopathy nor the waypoint en route to an enlightened future that it has, at various times, been imagined to be. Geek culture is perpetually reproduced and remade: just as fans’ creator-oriented consumption can result in thrilling forms of vernacular creativity or witch hunts against perceived desecrators of canon, just as the “backstage” camaraderie of the game shop or comic store can be extended to welcome new participants or turned into a clubhouse for the same old cohort of aging fanboys, and just as playfulness and imagination can enchant our experience of everyday life through immersive fantasies or dissociate us from the consequences of our actions towards vulnerable people and communities, we ought not to give up on geek culture.
Excerpted from Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture by Benjamin Woo (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018).