6 Reasons Nerd Culture Needs to Take a Long, Hard Look at Itself

Team Silent

The last half year has not been the brightest hour for nerds and nerd culture. While nerds, geeks, gamers, etc. like to see themselves as ahead of the curve – at least when it comes to technology and pushing its limits – we’ve discovered there’s a mean, destructive streak festering at the heart of our culture. Since mid-August, some of the Internet’s most persistent and terrifying harassers have gathered under the banner of GamerGate to drive vocal female critics and developers out of the industry. A dumbass Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode was made out of it. Many of GamerGate’s poisonous attitudes have been fed by video games and comic books and perpetuated by those who play and read them, and while every nerd obviously shouldn’t be blamed for what’s happened, our culture still needs to step back and reflect because…

6. We’re Influenced by Our Media – and Not Necessarily for the Better

Games Don’t Influence Me

Concerned parents can relax: video games, even the violent ones, aren’t going to turn your kids into mass murderers. It’s true that certain studies have revealed associations between violent games and increased aggression and desensitization, but that’s amended by taking frequent breaks and not letting 14-year-olds play Grand Theft Auto. As it stands, there is no 1:1 correlation between Call of Duty and killing sprees. Were that the case, mass shootings would be happening every hour in North America. The rhetoric that gamers are being turned into a generation of Manchurian candidates died with Jack Thompson’s law career.

But that isn’t the only way culture influences us. More often than not, media can introduce and reinforce skewed, negative attitudes toward various groups, women chief among them. Anita Sarkeesian’s series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games – the one which resulted in the horrifying threats leveled at her body and life – has provided countless examples of how, from a young age, gamers are taught to regard women as helpless damsels or scantily-clad eye candy. If that isn’t rigorous enough for you, a 2012 study by Oklahoma State University faculty demonstrated a correlation between sexist games and the sexist attitudes held by their male players.

And these attitudes aren’t restricted to some controlled lab setting. GamerGate began as slut-shaming by a vengeful ex-boyfriend, the term itself coined by actor Adam “Jayne” Baldwin as he shared videos scrutinizing Zo? Quinn’s sex life. Basic game mechanics have become entrenched in some of these harassers’ language.

Games Don’t Influence Me

Yes, that is something an actual human being wrote. Revel in its inane glory.

5. We’re Being Taught That Only Violence Solves Problems

Irrational Games

Again, there’s no direct connection between violent media and violent behaviour. If there was, goodness, I would probably be serving a life sentence given the stuff I like to play and watch. But if we look over the media nerd culture produces, it’s clear that violent stories tend to be the most popular. And as we think more about that, it gets increasingly troubling.

Sure, you have your Marios and Sonics and Archies, but most of the best-selling AAA games see you gunning down swaths of enemies. BioShock Infinite, a screenshot of which is shown above, renders a lot of this violence in gruesome, first-person detail. While most superheroes abide by some kind of no-killing rule, all but a few of them solve their problems kicking asses left and right. Hell, Christian Bale’s Batman dished out more beatings in three movies than some UFC fighters do in their whole careers.

And while the Doctor has spent over 50 years going out of his way to avoid using violence, much of the rest of science fiction takes a less pacifistic bent. Luke Skywalker killed over a million people blowing up the Death Star, and one of the most famous scenes in The Matrix shows Neo shooting up a bunch of security guards who, for all intents and purposes, are just doing their jobs.

You might scoff and say that you’re able to discern fantasy from reality, and while that’s all well and good the majority of violent thoughts and actions aren’t rooted in delusions but impulses and attitudes. As uncomfortable as it may be to admit, we’ve grown up in a culture – an entire society, really – where it’s hammered home again and again that problems are solved with violence, and that your opponents are basically faceless mobs. When that message is pumped through a culture that caters to your whim for years, and you accept it uncritically, chances are it’s going to result in an ugly mode of thinking. This isn’t a matter of psychosis, but conditioning.

Complain all you want, but maybe we do need more games like Gone Home.

4. Our Heroes Are Increasingly Toxic

Rockstar Games

This is a very specific issue, one I’m going to give a proper name. Let’s call it Don Rickles Syndrome. Basically, a lot of our heroes and protagonists are turning into absolute jerks, and we don’t seem to have a problem with that.

Grand Theft Auto, the latest especially, is populated with just the worst people. That’s to be expected, given the series’ history of satirical humour and antiheroes. With GTA V, the trifecta of main characters – Michael, Franklin and Trevor – are all self-absorbed, occasionally intoxicated, hyperviolent monsters. And I guess this wouldn’t be much of a problem if Rockstar made a point of criticizing the trio. There are definitely some halfhearted attempts during the course of the game, but by the time the credits roll it’s clear that these three are basically the only sane, non-self-deluded people in San Andreas. Which… basically puts them in the right? I mean, I love the game – I’ve beaten it twice – but each time I play through it I find myself skipping more and more cut scenes because I just can’t put up with these assholes anymore.

In comics, Mark Millar has basically made a career out of creating utterly unlikeable, shitbag protagonists like Kick-Ass and Wesley Gibson, and whether or not he’s writing them ironically or unironically, they remain ridiculously popular. Even Superman’s an asshole now.

DC Comics
Well, even more than he used to be.

We can see this outside of fiction, too with an increasing number of video game critics and YouTube personalities playing off the smug, cynical asshole angle: Yahtzee Crowshaw, John “TotalBiscuit” Bain, Angry Joe, etc. This isn’t to say they can’t be critical but, geez, maybe some positivity might improve the atmosphere of this culture.

I mean, it’s troubling enough that so many characters use violence as a crutch. Do they need to be absolute pricks too?

3. We’re Reinforcing Nerd Stereotypes – and Making Even Worse Ones

20th Century Fox

People have given The Big Bang Theory crap for a portrayal of nerds and nerd culture that is about as modern and accurate as Steve Urkel. And for the most part, I agree with them; having grown up as a nerd in the 1990s and 2000s, I can safely say I have rarely if ever encountered anyone in the vein of that show’s main characters (there was one, but we don’t talk about him anymore). Even Moss from The IT Crowd – a show that’s received a much warmer welcome among the nerd community – is less a character and more a running gag.

But if there’s one character whose stereotype is all too rooted in reality, it’s the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Not in appearance, mind you, but in attitude. I read contemptuous, know-it-all screeds and hear them in that bored, sneering voice in comment sections all the time. They’re some of the most vocal people in the community: entitled, self-professed “consumers” who poison any conversation they touch. Some of them may show up in the comment thread below. And this wouldn’t be as much of a problem were it not for nerds priding themselves on their devotion to their tastes and knowledge. You can see terms like “filthy casuals” and “fake nerd girls” thrown around on message boards. “PC Master Race” is a label a segment of PC gamers apply to themselves, and whether ironic or unironic it’s still incredibly ignorant. It’s nerd culture taken to puritanical extremes.

So yeah, The Big Bang Theory‘s characters may not resemble actual nerds, but I’d still take them over old cheeseburgers and loneliness up there.

2. We’re Struggling Against Diversity

The Mary Sue

Miles Morales, the first mixed-heritage Spider-Man, may end up in the recently announced Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Kamala Khan, the new Muslim Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, has been critically acclaimed. And Black Panther is going to be getting his own movie starring Chadwick Boseman. These are all great steps forward for the comics and nerd community in general, recognizing that the people who read comics and play games and enjoy sci-fi all come from different backgrounds and lived experiences. But it’s taken way too long to get to this point, and even when creators venture into into new territory with these characters, there’s still a surprisingly large backlash.

Remember when people got upset that Idris Elba was cast as a fictionalized Norse god? Or how Michael B. Jordan wearily addressed concerns that his Johnny Storm didn’t have the same skin color as “classic” Johnny Storm? And let’s not forget how the Internet got up in arms over a black stormtrooper, or most recently the casting of an all-female Ghostbusters team. Hell, when it comes to video games we have problems just making them physically accessible. Ben Kuchera at Polygon wrote about how gamers and game designers place so much emphasis on player dexterity and complex control schemes and mechanics that those with physical disabilities are effectively cut off from playing them.

It’d be reassuring if these were simply the concerns of some old, out-of-touch media pundits spending their days shaking their fists at youth, but these are coming from the fans themselves. You might know a few of them personally. It turns out the calls, as they say, have been coming from inside the house all along.

1. Our Attitudes and Actions Toward Women Are Driving Them out of the Culture


This will be long. This will be angry. And there’s not going to be a humorous kicker at the end of it. Buckle up.

Nerd culture likes to bill itself as a sanctuary for those who have been bullied and ostracized or who suffer from social anxiety, like yours truly. Not built for sports? Not popular or conventionally “cool”? Shy as all Hell? Come on in. We nerds have an open-door policy. We’ll share in your obscure interests, we’ll give you a place to vent and chill out, we’ll let you participate in a community that doesn’t rank people based on how popular they are.

What a load of bullshit. Turns out that door slams shut the moment any nerd who isn’t male, straight, white or cisgendered speaks up about issues they may have with this culture and some of its works.

Our subculture is no more free from the prejudice, hostility and abuse that infest others. We might call out the NFL for the poor physical treatment of its players and lack of penalties imposed on those who abuse their wives and girlfriends, but major games press outlets like GameSpot, IGN and Polygon had to be basically pressured into writing editorials condemning the actions of GamerGate or even simply reporting on it.

Six months on, the casual observer might be tricked into thinking this horrific period is over – industry figures at the DICE Summit are barely talking about it – but it’s still alive and raging. Anita Sarkeesian now needs armed security at talks and panels. Brianna Wu had to recently file a restraining order against a Z-list YouTube personality who made verbal, violent threats against her and crashed his car on the way to her house – which was apparently an elaborate and truly tasteless “prank.” Zo? Quinn still gets daily threats and harassment and has basically given up on the hope that things will get better for her personally. Randi Harper is compiling testimonials from those who have borne the brunt of Internet harassment. I’ve contributed. The following tweets that were sent to me will appear in her project.


I hadn’t even spoken with that guy directly. I got that simply for sending Zo? a few encouraging tweets. And make no mistake, if I were a woman, or a person of color, or someone who isn’t straight or cisgendered, it would be a hell of a lot worse. No one has accused me of faking those Tweets, either through Photoshop or through an alternate Twitter account. Meanwhile Zo?, Brianna, Anita and all the rest have had their Twitter timelines subjected to extreme scrutiny for proof of fakery, even though such a hoax has no financial benefit and would require a bunch of women to suddenly and inexplicably develope Munchausen’s.

And we’re hemorrhaging talent. Brianna and Zo? have both spoken about the numerous emails sent to them by women – some as young as 12 – who have given up their dreams of entering the video game industry thanks to the terror GamerGate has enacted in the last half year. Accomplished critics and designers like Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice have basically said “fuck it” and quit rather than put up with cultural poison. A top female Hearthstone player was hounded out of the community because people assumed she was faking her skills. This hate mob, and the inaction and silence of industry figureheads, has turned video game culture and nerd culture at large into something utterly toxic toward anyone who doesn’t fit the conventional nerd “mold.” Who would want to get close to that?

I’m sick of it. I’m sick of a culture that once gave me shelter and comfort now denying that same refuge to others. I’m sick of hearing about how women have been issued graphic rape and death threats for criticizing certain comics and games. I’m sick to my stomach that some of them have not been able to go home, or have given in to despair. I’m sick of influential men dancing around these issues rather than using their considerable clout to stop this shit before it spreads even further. We can be better than this. We need to be better than this.

I stand with Zo?, Anita, Brianna and all the rest who have had their lives overturned or even ruined by this movement. I resolve to signal boost their words and work, to report those who engage in abusive behaviour toward them and others, and to make sure people know that these threats and harassment have not gone away just because they’re no longer front page stories. I will fight to make nerd culture more inclusive and less toxic, to show reactionary assholes the door, and to make it a safe place for people regardless of their sex, gender, race or orientation.

And maybe, hopefully, the rest of you will too.

Previously by Daniel Link

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