There’s a growing debate in social media these days about geek culture and whether or not it is under siege. It’s risen to new heights of hysteria as one gaming critic received death threats and had to leave her home temporarily for the safety of her family. What’s going on?
Well, for a certain subset of geek culture, the move to the mainstream threatens their very identity. And therein lies the flaw. The culture itself is not under threat. If anything, it’s growing, changing, becoming more interesting and more relevant. ComicCon is covered the way rock concerts and fashion shows were once on MTV. It’s hip to be seen with Chris Pine or Peter Dinklage or Hugh Jackman. It’s cool to dress up as your favorite Game of Thrones character or Batman at a large gathering. Suddenly, the public gets the whole Halloween all year vibe of geek culture. Cosplay is in. Video games are in. Scifi/fantasy/horror are in. Wil Wheaton, who spent years taking flack for playing one of the least liked characters on a Star Trek series is rapidly becoming the next Jon Stewart. Welcome to the new age, my friends.
So why the hate?
When I first got into IT back in the nineties, computers were becoming mainstream, and there was a certain degree of this sort of angst around it by people who hunkered down and did arcane things with the pre-Netscape Internet, with distant Unix boxes, and with cryptic command-line operating systems. Now PC’s and even Linux boxes started to look like Macs. “Oh, noze,” they cried. “Everyone can do this now. We’re not special anymore!”
Since I got into the technology realm in the mid-1990’s, I had no stake in the “old ways.” If someone told me to quit using a mouse and use the DOS prompt on a PC, I looked at them like they were stupid. They certainly were telling me stupid things. But the mouse represented change, and not the cool kind of change like big hard drives and high-speed Internet brought. Those icky muggles now knew how to do magic. Ew!
Eventually, that went away, and to some degree, the novelty for the non-technically inclined went away as well. I used to have a rule that, if you graduated high school after me, you had damn well better know where the Start button was, what it could do, and, oh, you also forfeited the right to complain when I said “Reboot” sometime around the Y2K changeover. The old guard looked at these things as secrets of a mystic art. I looked at it (admittedly being an arrogant ass in the process) as a benchmark one needs to function in the modern era. We got more than three channels on the TV, Corky. Better master that remote or no HBO for you.
So it is with geekdom. One columnist complained that too many hot chicks were wearing costumes at conventions without earning their geek cred. Said columnist got his ass handed to him by John Scalzi, whose initiation into geekery happened roughly at the same time as mine did (even though John is younger.) As creator of the Old Man’s War series, a noted expert on all things scifi, a Heinlein scholar, creative consultant for one of the Stargate series, and probably the most popular SF author today, Scalzi made two declarations that, I’m sorry, but are not open for debate: 1.) Anyone who wants to be a geek is a geek. No exceptions; 2.) there is no king of the geeks (though Wil Wheaton could make a case) nor any rules for initiation. It is not a closed society. It is not a mystic cult.
And therein is the parallel to the technology sector in the 1990’s. Long time geeks don’t like all this change!
Man up, buttercup. When you go mainstream, you have to open the gates. Otherwise, you’re no better than those idiots in pretentious literary circles sniffing their own farts and sneering at anything that doesn’t sound like Hemingway or Faulkner and whining if their work does something horrifying like sell over 10,000 copies. (I’m looking at YOU, Franzen, you self-absorbed pretentious hack!) You are no longer the outsiders. Isn’t that what you’ve been pining for? Acceptance? Respect? A little bon ami for whatever franchise it is that you love?
Well, here’s the second part I alluded to earlier. There’s a culture of victimhood in geekery. Not every geek has thought this way. I did cosplay back in the 1990’s when it was “grownups in silly costumes.” And it was fun. It let me blow off steam. It gave me (Surprise!) social skills. But there were plenty of folks in that then-smaller community that felt slighted by the mainstream. They felt hurt to be ridiculed, and much of it was carry-over from adolescence and childhood, when a love of Star Trek or Star Wars replaced the mandatory love of the NFL. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were supposed to be your gods, not Captain Kirk and Han Solo.
And I get that. I was not the most athletic child. I sucked at baseball. (A few dozen men who played Little League with me are reading this and going, “No! Really?” One star pitcher reminds me of it on my birthday every year as a joke.) I found solace in Star Trek, in the monster movies on Saturday afternoons, in repeated viewings of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back on HBO when we first had it. I loved this stuff. I wanted to make up my own.
And then, as a young adult, I fell in with the Trekkies. Often ridiculed, most of them didn’t care. We had a blast together, and it was about more than the television show. I drifted into the Klingon fan groups because, frankly, they threw better parties and were better draws for charity events. Plus, you haven’t lived until you and several of your friends barge into a Denny’s dressed as alien berserkers and growl at the manager, “We demand finger food! Bring us pudding!”
But there’s that obsessive component of which the victim mentality plays into. Fandom began to suck up all my time. The politics of the clubs started intruding on other aspects of my life. I was going broke trying to pay for all the gear it took to be a Klingon, and, alarmingly, I had little time to actually watch the show we all claimed to love. One day, I posted my farewell on a local Fidonet bulletin board, took my costume (which a few fanatics insisted I call a “uniform”), and dumped it in the Salvation Army clothing bin, latex forehead and all.
I have never taken so much flack for a decision in my life. When someone called or emailed me, hurt that I’d turned my back on the group, I said, “I’m in debt. I need to go to school and learn some skills. And I need to have time to myself that’s not devoted to a television show you guys won’t give me time to watch.”
“But that’s not fair!”
No, working sixty hours a week at three jobs for two years so I could catch up on my debts was not fair. Driving cars that were expensive rolling death traps bought for less than I now pay on my mortgage each month wasn’t fair. Having no social life beyond the group wasn’t fair. Even the most fanatical churches acknowledge you have a life beyond the sanctuary (unless it’s a cult.) All this did was bolster my decision to leave. Too many people made it central to their lives, and I, having been vetted and approved to join the sacred congregation, was a traitor.
Some of those people I still called friend afterward. One of them is an online member of my current writer’s group. But the mentality is still there across all franchises and formats, from gaming to movies to comic books and beyond. A small group of hardcore fans feels threatened that they’re suddenly not special anymore. And that victimhood of being outsiders is a huge component of that core belief.
All I have to say, having been in that world and having fond memories of most of it is…
The only threat to geek culture are the hardcore fanatics who can’t stand change. If you want to know what’s threatening your culture?
Go look in the mirror.