Culture Games

A recent Reddit post, which targets women who fake their “nerdiness” for male approval, has launched the internet into polarized opinions on what it means to be a nerd and to have nerd cred. The post features a busty woman saying “I own over 50 X-Men comics! I’m a total geek!” and a male responding with a dismissive, page-long rant.

No—no you’re not.
You’re just a sad girl who at some point let a marketing campaign convince her that “geeky” was vogue and having spent the 10 years since high school graduation desperately scrambling to amalgamate the idiosyncrasies and opinions of others into an ineffectual Franken-avatar to stand guard at the gates to the maddeningly black abyss that should house the unique personality that you never bothered to cultivate, you were more than willing to adopt this paradigm—watered down as it may be—for use as a sort of Cliff’s Notes to the person that you aren’t.

And it goes on, in similarly verbose, self-important prose until it comes to a sexist joke at the end.

As I mentioned in a recent post, nerd culture is not particularly female friendly. But the backlash from the sexist attitudes—the more frequent feminist posts on popular gaming blogs, the increased attention to women in games—shows that women are really getting tired of being told they can’t be in the club.

At Tinderbox Weekend in San Francisco, I met Neil LaChapelle, who is working on an app to engage and foster budding cultural scenes. LaChapelle introduced me to the idea of “scenius,” a term coined by Brian Eno to capture the idea that genius and creation are often surrounded by a culture of freely-flowing ideas. LaChapelle has done research on cultural scenes, and he gave me a brief template for the life-cycle of a scene. It turns out, not surprisingly, that gaming culture (and nerd culture if you view them as two distinct cultures) has followed the model pretty closely, and is now beginning to see a very typical backlash, one that was also experienced by the 80s punk scene, the 90s grunge scene, Harry Potter fandom, and is even reflected in sports fandoms as a team goes through its highs and lows.

The lifecycle of a culture goes something like this:

In the beginning, there is a spark of nebulous cohesion, people bonding over a shared value or idea. Often, this is nothing more than a reaction to a shared problem. As more people join the cause, the group’s goals start to coalesce. The group recognizes common traits or interest as points of shared identity. Eventually, a budding scene comes together around a central figure, place, or event, with those common interests now serving as the focus of “cred” to show that one belongs to that scene.

With the stabilization around a central focus, the scene expands, becomes more public, and more appealing to outsiders. As the scene becomes flooded with new members, many original members cling to the idea of cred and see the increased popularity of the culture with disdain. The culture becoming increasingly “mainstream” is a source for contention between members, and the increasing number of members leads to new ideologies within the group. At this point, the group may disintegrate and disperse, or a section might break off and establish a counter-culture.

Sound familiar?

Gamers I knew were first excited then fiercely angered when popular stores like Hot Topic started selling video game T-shirts, once a very public badge of cred within the community (see also this black shirt with a smarmy sentence in white letters) but now a symbol of “gamer” as mainstream ideal. The casual revolution was a further slap in the face to “hardcore” gamers, who saw the type of male-centric console gaming that they were doing as superior to the moms playing the Wii. Somehow the hardcore scale also coincidentally settled along a corresponding “masculine scale” with highly masculine console games getting the most cred, fantasy/RPGs somewhere in the middle, and casual games at the bottom. And if you aren’t hardcore enough, you can’t call yourself a gamer. Especially if you’re a girl.

Now that attitude is getting resistance in the gaming community, particularly from women who are tired of men assuming they don’t belong. It’s possible that we’re starting to see the rise of a counter-culture that values feminist ideals, challenges the idea of masculinity as the foundation of gaming cred, and rejects stereotypes that seem be getting worse, not better. It’s a counter-culture that I support and hope to help foster into the new age of gaming culture.