Geek Culture: Where Originality Goes to Die
Here’s a pop quiz: What do “geek culture” and heavy metal have in common? How about video games and 70’s exploitation cinema? Brand loyalty and The cult of Elvis Presley?
It’s a trick question of course: all of these things are actually one and the same, in terms of operation. These are, lacking a better term, “scenes”, and while the passwords, dress codes and technical jargon may differ depending on whether you listen to Napalm Death or watch Naruto, what remains constant is a certain regressive and reactionary behavior in the scene’s tenants.
The Japanese have a much more eloquent word for this kind of person: They call them “otaku”. Though there are certain colloquial associations between otaku and anime/manga subculture, the word literally translates to “another’s house.” An otaku is an obsessive fan of something, and in this case the “house” refers to the accumulation of the data, knowledge and physical objects related to his obsession. The translation also recognizes the strangeness of the otaku’s obsession to the outside observer, and how to the outsider this person’s “house” will never be home. For the otaku, real criticism of his obsession is impossible. Objectivity will never be obtained, nor is it particularly desired. People outside the otaku’s scene are regarded with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
Video games have always been a “scene”. This type of personality has always existed at the core of gaming culture. And for video games to move forward in any real way, that culture has to die.
From the beginning video games have been tied to “geek culture” in a way that books, music and film never have. These mediums can sometimes affect the trappings of a genre (black metal, hardcore punk, exploitation cinema) and thus become purview to the culture that genre is tied to, but no other medium besides video games has ever been so immersed in the culture itself. Games may fall within one genre or another, but unlike reading a book playing video games itself marks you as “one of them”. People who play video games regularly have a common vernacular, a set of social assumptions, and sometimes even a mode of dress that frequently crosses over into larger “geek culture”.
The problem with “geek culture” (and with scenes at large) is that it’s not a culture; it’s a mish-mash of appropriated quotes, memes, characters, settings, stories and archetypes. The otaku of mainstream “geekdom” – the hardcore gamers, the cosplayers, the fan fiction writers – aren’t actually creating anything new, but recontextualizing someone else’s ideas to form some kind of still-born religion where they feel like they can belong. This is a culture that creates nothing, because everything it is has already been created by others. And cultures that create nothing – whether for reasons of reverence for what came before, or arguments for “artistic purity”, or intellectual laziness – are already dead. Ask the hardcore punks.
I’m not here to criticize someone’s passions, though by now some of you have probably concluded that I am. If dressing up as a character from a cartoon or rewriting Mass Effect’s story so that your fictional love triangle ends just so sounds like a great way to spend a weekend, then it’s not my place to say you should be playing outside or something. The problem here is that obsession leads to an inability to think critically, in this case about video games. There is a problem when I can stand in a reasonably crowded room and point out that Final Fantasy games are linear and derivative (not to mention hilariously sexist) and have a sizable minority (majority?) of people there try to burn me at the stake. In case you’re wondering, this is indeed the attitude that puts a Twilight fan fiction at the top of the Amazon best sellers list.
I’ve often criticized mainstream games journalism for not being critical enough – “critics” seem content with going through a check list – graphics? Sound? Mechanics? Control? – and then penciling that number into a box and calling it a review. There’s an inability to talk about games in any other terms than what we see on the screen. And while I’m still convinced that’s partly due to outright laziness in mainstream criticism, more and more I wonder if it has to do with our inability to legitimately criticize anything “genre”.
In his piece about the Eurogamer debacle, Erik Kain, writing for Forbes, wonders if games journalists have difficulty criticizing the games they play because they are “fans” of them. Never forgetting that “fan” is short for “fanatic”, the correct answer here is “of course they do.” When you take on an aspect of yourself as your entire identity (“gamer” “metal head” “anime fan”) then looking objectively at some facets of that thing becomes impossible. The house the gamer builds is exclusionary and thus insulated against criticism by any but those who are already in love with it.
The only disappointing part of Kain’s article is that it misses the chance for deeper self reflection. The thrum of discontent among the mainstream gaming community regarding original content has reached fiendish pitch. Devolver Digital is giving away free games for tweeting your hatred of the new Medal of Honor, Frank Gibeau at EA proudly admits he hates single player games, and if you can tell the difference between Crysis 3 and Battlefield 3 at a glance I’ll eat my fucking hat. Everywhere there is a dearth of originality in games, and the people most to blame is ourselves.
Blame the geek, because “geek culture” isn’t a thing that grows organically – it’s prepackaged, digested, repackaged and resold to people as something resembling an identity. You don’t think that the bean counters and the suits have caught on that you just love you some spiky-haired effeminate male characters/bald space marines/gruff American marines/dragons/ponies/I don’t know what the fuck else? Do you actually believe that there’s a group of people sitting around in a dev office somewhere in California that thinks that “Modern Manshoot Seven: IN SPACE” is an original idea? Of course not. You know what’s easier than creating original content? Almost anything else. They know what you like. They know exactly what shapes to make the faces, what colors to make the logos, and they’ve focus tested their game and designed it to death and you’re going to eat that spoonful of shit because you’re their “target demographic”. The crisis of originality comes from the only group of people who ever gave it legitimacy – you.
You could call this an argument against the insular nature of video games. Imagine a world in which everyone who read books had a vernacular which was incomprehensible to a person who didn’t read, or only read on occasion. What would it be like If Ebert or Maltin spoke in tongues foreign to us, treated the average movie-goer as the enemy and refused to criticize rom-coms because they happened to be a big fan of a single rom-com dating thirty years prior? Where the hell would film criticism be then?
The scary thing is that as difficult as it is for geeks to communicate with outsiders, it may be more difficult to communicate with each another. If gamers are so attached to certain ideas and genres and tropes, then how could they ever be expected to criticize them? How could they be expected to understand that the thing they love is derivative and cliché and sometimes just plain awful? They can’t. They’re incapable of making a value judgment, and they’re stifling the rest of us who can.