What is geek culture’s big problem with criticism?

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I do understand why people often react poorly to cultural criticism. If I was in a dark, atmospheric cinema watching Avengers 2 : Age of Ultron and just before every witty Joss Whedon one liner I popped up and said “you do realise that’s just a sweetener to help you swallow Whedon’s implicit American triumphalism”, I’d probably punch me in the face as well. And then give me a good kicking when I insisted I was actually right, actually.

“when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem”

Actor, comedian, writer and all round geek icon Simon Pegg unleashed the fury of the geek mob when he had the temerity to suggest that geeks who carry an infantile love of SpiderMan or My Little Pony into their 30s or 40s might possibly be a little bit childish. Pegg wasn’t literally shouting this into the face of every slightly immature geek, but many geeks felt personally insulted by even this relatively mild criticism. Like a stage illusionist pointing out the smoke and mirrors, Pegg was spoiling the illusion of geek culture.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard might seem like an odd authority to reference in a critique of geek culture, but in a post following his initial criticism Pegg made a compelling case for Baudrillard’s postmodern philosophy. Geek culture is poorly defined at best. To the majority of their audience the recent massive popularity of MMORPGs, superhero movies and fantasy novels from Harry Potter to Twilight is simply a new spin on pop culture. Baudrillard and other postmodern critical thinkers like Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School made insightful criticisms of the mass media and pop culture, criticisms that apply equally to geek culture.

The defining characteristic of geek culture is its fascination with escapist fantasy. Whether it’s the sci-fi escapism of computer generated fantasy worlds like Mass Effect, or escaping into the lush linguistic universe of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the core of the geek cultural experience is encapsulated by the word “immersion”. Geeks want to be immersed in a story, an experience, in a world that takes them as far outside reality as possible. The popularity of geek culture has increased as ever larger audiences have fallen for the allure of escapist fantasy.

Jean Baudrillard's classic Simulacra and Simulation.
Jean Baudrillard’s classic Simulacra and Simulation.

Postmodern philosophy provides an interesting critique of fantasy and escapism, and hence of geek culture. Fantasy appeals to our desire to return to childhood, escaping our adult understanding of reality. It is a good vehicle for spectacle, mindless visual stimulation like explosions, gun fights, naked bodies, dragons or anything we can focus our attention on without being made to think. At the core of the postmodern critique is the idea that the “entertainment industry” has a structural purpose in society other than entertainment, a purpose that is served very well by escapist fantasy. All this entertainment is provided to keep you distracted from reality.

The Matrix trilogy, that electrified audiences in the the early 1990s, drew heavily from postmodern philosophy, and in particular the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. When Laurence Fishburne reveals to Keanu Reeves that the only reason for his existence is to be a Duracell battery powering a machine dictatorship, it caps a complex metaphor crafted by writer-director team Andy and Lana Wachowski. Like all great fantasy heroes Neo is an everyman. He is you, the audience watching. And you in turn are a Duracell battery, exploited for your energy by a society intent on keeping you under control.

“The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today.”

Postmodern philosophy argues that, like the machine controlled Matrix of the movies, society controls you by keeping you abstracted from reality. Like Neo in his goop-filled pod, you are kept entertained in your living room by a relentless procession of TV shows, films and games. Today you can even carry the entertainment around with you on your eight- hour work shift, just so long as you keep being a good little Duracell. And the hard truth is, like the character who asks to be put back inside the Matrix, many people prefer to stay in their goop tank. And if confronted with something or someone that wakes them up, they get angry.

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Very angry.

When the critic Anita Sarkeesian confronted gamers with the reality of their culture, the response was rage and abuse. It was because Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of gamer culture was so brutally honest and accurate that it incited such intense anger. In the words of former US president Jimmy Carter, “the worst human rights abuse on Earth is the horrible persecution and deprivation of equal rights of women and girls”. Consider that statement. Worse than mankind’s many wars, worse than the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, worse than global terrorism, is the daily and routine persecution of women and girls.

The reality you live in is one where women are forced to serve, forced to humiliate themselves, denied freedoms, raped and murdered. That is your reality today. But the gamers who attacked Anita Sarkeesian don’t live in reality. They live in a series of computer generated fantasy worlds, provided specifically to keep them abstracted from reality. Fantasy worlds that often turn on the freedom to murder and abuse others, frequently women and girls, without consequence. And like all fantasists, when confronted with reality in the form of honest criticism, gamer culture went apeshit.

You don’t have to worship Baudrillard or accept every part of postmodern philosophy to see that geek culture is popular, in large part, because it provides its audiences with expertly made and highly effective escape routes from reality. When geek audiences respond poorly to criticism, it’s because we’re being rudely awoken from the dream worlds we are given to escape into. There is nothing implicitly wrong with fantasy or escapism. When expertly crafted an escapist fantasy like The Matrix can point the way back to reality more powerfully than anything else.

But when the escapist fantasies of geek culture become a denial of reality, then they become a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than dealing with the realities of injustice and suffering in this world, then it becomes a problem. If your fantasy is more important to you than your own well being and growth as a human being, then it becomes a problem. And when your fantasy becomes a problem, that is when criticism is at its most important. Simon Pegg, Jean Baudrillard and Anita Sarkeesian aren’t trying to hurt you, Bilbo Baggins, they’re trying to help you. And if you find yourself among those outraged and offended by their criticism, you may be the most in need of their help.

Coming soon in “Geek Culture”: A Meditation on the Male Chest. You can help make this essay happen by becoming a backer.

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16 thoughts on “What is geek culture’s big problem with criticism?”

  1. Hi – thoughtful post, some good points to consider especially the irony of using The Matrix as a metaphor for reality, when all entertainment is good for (apparently) is escapism. I mean, clearly not if a piece of entertainment is the basis to help others understand your point about fantasy.

    Yes, geek culture does deal in escapism. So does music (depending on the context), so do books and so does pretty much any art form. So… perhaps defining geek culture by escapism isn’t enough differentiation.

    Entertainment’s purpose may be to escape from reality, but there are many other purposes that perhaps your are sidelining. Fairy tales used to be told to express morals in a consumable and enjoyable way. This ‘escapism’ would impart morals that would be used in reality. The same can be said for entertainment today – indeed, you yourself did it (as mentioned) with the Matrix (a piece of entertainment) in this very article. Entertainment can also be a bridge between creator and audience via a means of identifying with themes, characters and stories – in this way it’s not escapism, but facing reality – the reality of the creator’s perspective.

    Moving on to the “rage and abuse” of Anita Sarkeesian. Yes, it happened, it’s awful. But to say it’s merely a product of her being a women speaking the truth to a bunch of basement-dwelling creeps is to take a complex issue and draw a simplistic caricature it. Many did indeed take offense to Anita being a women. Many also took offense to her acting like an authority on a subject that she seemed to have a disconnect for. Like a scientist telling singer how to improve their vocal range via means of theoretical audiological studies… it’s not quite the same. I’m sure the scientist has a great many valid points to raise, but the matter-of-fact, this is how it is, attitude of the scientist rubbed the singer up the wrong way. When the singer tried to object, they found they couldn’t because the comments section was closed… but I digress.

    Oh, and there there are the misrepresentations of certain games to validate preconceived conclusions and the use of “let’s play” footage without permission. But still, that doesn’t warrant “rage and abuse”.

    Your stand of entertainment being an escape from reality is ironic… overall, because you chose a piece of entertainment to share your reality… your perspective. Does this not strike you a little bit, disingenuous. Clearly there’s more value to entertainment than you’re assigning… by virtue of your very article.

    Yours respectfully (sincerely),
    Someone on the internet.

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    1. Sure. But that’s exactly why criticism is important David. It helps determine what is art that helps the audience to a deeper understanding of the world – like The Matrix – and what is junk that leaves people more deeply confused – lets use GTA as a handy example. I said nothing about gamers being enraged at Sarkeesian for being a woman. You’re picking that up as a talking point from somewhere else. The gamers that become enraged because they are drowning in junk culture, and don’t have to tools to know any better. You should be listening to critics like Sarkeesian, not abusing them.

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      1. It’s frustrating, but for a following to listen to a critic, there needs to be respect. People tend to respect “their own” more than “others”.

        Again, it’s frustrating but many in geekdom don’t see Anita’s cred as enough to take heed. It’s clear that Anita has massive respect from Feminism circles, and that’s because she earned it. The Geekdom is no more welcoming to that than say Feminism would be to Christopher Hitchens speaking on Gender Studies.

        Instead of fostering respect, those who do respect Anita speak out against geekdom, not as a thoughtful critique, but calling them all ‘piss babies’, sexist, toxic and other words for not simply saying “Hey, she’s not one of us but lets just listen to her anyway.”

        This created an us versus them culture war… and we’re all surprised by this?

        Now, let’s take ANY community with a passionate following – Feminism, gaming, athiesm, religion etc. Have someone perceived to be an outsider come in and critique them and their culture. Then not accept ANY counterargument, other than to say the counterarguments (and indeed abuse from idiots) are evidence that the entire community is toxic.

        Criticism IS important, but many need to believe that it comes from a place of contextual intelligence (knowledge of the medium, understanding of the context, the actualization of the intention).

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      2. Sarkeesian is far more central to geek culture and has far more credibility with the community than any member of gamergate. But that’s what the remnants of gamergate are annoyed about right? That they’re peripheral, unimportant…just passive anonymous consumers?

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      3. Re: the GamerGate comment. If you think GamerGate encompasses ALL geek culture, then you’re giving it more credit than it deserves. There are many more, outside of GamerGate, who have never heard of Anita.

        Aside, cred is given, not taken – as is respect (in reference to “has far more credibility with the community than any member of gamergate”)

        No one wants a culture war, it gets nasty, people are hurt. We’ve not had social media long enough to predict how culture wars will play out with its inclusion (we sort of know more now though). When the flower power generation clashed with everyone else – there was so social media… only traditional media where talking heads were established. Now there’s no barrier to entry. Anyone can say whatever they want, to detriment or, indeed, to the benefit of the traditionally marginalised.

        We just need to be a bit more patient. Change isn’t as quick as clicking the submit button on a status update. Screw GamerGate the movement. Let’s just get real for a change – let’s have a discussion. Let’s open the comments, cut through the crap and chat.

        Like we are now. :)

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  2. For the same reasons your culture has a godzilla sized problem with criticism.

    I’ve never seen any signs of Anita being good with critcism. At all. When’s she actually acted on it to improve?

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    1. “your culture” which culture do you mean? Sarkeesian is one of MANY critics of geek culture and geek culture rarely responds well to any of them. Where is there any critical response to Sarkeesian? We’re not counting pissy YouTube comments.

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  3. There’s quite a few problems I’d like to discuss – but the tone of the article is the most overwhelming. Sentence 1 is needlessly self-defensive. Sentence 2 puts forward an opinion as fact. Sentence 3 implies that committing violence against critics is OK in the right circumstances.
    Even if the piece is humorous, and you’ve given me no indication beforehand of whether it is or not, you’ve lost my trust. And then going on to talk about Mr. Pegg’s comment without referencing the source, the quote or his follow-up where he explained it – is simply bad writing.

    Geek culture is not about immersion – it’s about lust. We lust after things, and we do it to a degree that to non-geeks, is more than a little worrying.
    We know this, but a lot of us can’t, and often won’t, help it.
    Do people really want Firefly back under any circumstances? No, of course not. Certain things have made it impossible – but we want the feeling of having it back. We want the warm glow that it leaves in our hearts – we want to be able to hear that engine purr – not immersing ourself in it, but lusting after it. And I get that can be a little odd, but it’s no worse than sitting through 400 photos of a child’s first steps.

    Now, if someone kicks your baby – what’s your reaction likely to be?

    And then calls foul when people threaten them?

    And then gets paid to kick other people’s baby’s?

    And then – puts forward ideas that baby’s like to be kicked, while immunizing themselves from criticism?

    Since 2009, what has “Tropes” achieved, against what it has destroyed? Has it made it easier for girls to code? To get published? To clean up the level of trash within our community?

    Or has it, just like the London riots, just divided us all further into the Supporters and Non-Supporters – sharpening our knives on the whetstones of “Well, they’re all like that really”.

    If you want to criticize geek culture, the first criticism should be levelled at the architects of geek culture, and that’s the media that fed them Nintendo Power, Crash, Zzap in order to produce their fanbase – and then turned on them in the late 2000s, after they’d got all their fancy internets.

    Then I’d look at the dog eat dog world of games creation, that chews and spits its way through lives, long before the outrage about certain studios came about, and also at their habit of selling broken products to a willing audience.

    Then I’d look at marketing which relies on mass-sales, with a packaged pair of breasts increasing your chance of survival by 50%.

    Then I’d have a look at if a woman ends up in a fridge; remembering first that animation made an empire out of “Stupid Man marries Attractive, Young, Intelligent Woman”, back while we were still typing in BASIC.

    Then, and only then, I’d have a look at whether you can murder girls in a game about not murdering girls;

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      1. If you’re going to misrepresent me and then bait me, it’s usually best not to have your Twitter feed expressing that idea next to the article.
        But do carry on being paid to criticize people, I’m sure that it won’t have any effect on your bias and personal prejudice.

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      2. Like all gamergaters, you are confusing criticism of a person witj ceiticism of the iseas espoused by that person. This is why you folks scream so loudly over such trivia – you don’t have the self awareness to seperate the two.

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  4. “It was because Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of gamer culture was so brutally honest and accurate that it incited such intense anger”
    No, she made a ton of speculations that have been debunked thoroughly, and she reacted by labeling anyone who disagreed a misogynist and saying the game industry is doesn’t welcome women – despite the fact none of the criticism was because she is a woman.
    Infact even most anti-GG people have called out Sarkeesian, I don’t think there are many people left swallowing her narratives. Perhaps you should inform yourself better, especially the part where she worked with PUAs on circumventing consent before, and how she lies about being “a gamer her whole life” while recorded evidence of herself saying she only started gaming in 2010 to get information to make the videos.
    All this while carefully avoiding any 2-way confrontation with anyone critic of her and blacking out all comment sections to bury any criticism.
    There is a reason Sarkeesian is shunned by feminist circles.
    And yes, getting mean tweets is bad, but it’s no excuse to deflect good criticism as misogyny.

    Like

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