Geeksploitation Is a Small Price to Pay for Geek Culture Dominance

Columbia Pictures

The first attempt was a failure, but in June 2003, Bill Wasik, then a senior editor at Harper’s Magaine, successfully organized 130 people into milling around a specific rug at a Macy’s department store in Manhattan. The modern flash mob was born. By the time Wasik admitted to being the anonymous organizer three years later, flash mobs had become a global phenomenon fueled by the very willingness to be silly in public that Wasik wanted to explore. Wasik wanted to inject whimsy into public and commercial spaces, and it didn’t take long for the movement to encompass political action, performance art, and ‐ as Wasik predicted ‐ corporate marketing.

Because it was cool, it got co-opted, so where the first flash mob playfully mocked consumerism by crowding around an expensive rug, companies were now using them to sell stuff (cars, phones, rugs, whatever), and a pocket industry of mobs-for-hire emerged.

Eventually, anything that becomes popular will be used to sell something.

Co-opted to an even larger extent, geek culture is a lot harder to pin down. For one, “geek” isn’t clearly defined at all, so one’s person Renaissance-era raptor cosplay might not be another person’s Batman/Doctor Who slash fic. It’s undeniable that the concept of being a geek has evolved greatly over the past century ‐ from a WWI-era circus performer who bit heads and chunks off small animals to the indoor kids of the 1980s who were fascinated more by emergent computer tech than tossing around the pigskin.

Even that, though, is reductive. In a pure Revenge of the Nerds sense, defining geek culture has almost always been a matter of what it isn’t ‐ specifically popularity and athleticism ‐ more than what it narrowly is. Even the members of Lambda Lambda Lambda and Omega Mu are a grab bag of different outsiders who all land under the big tent of “geekdom.”

Now that geekery is profitable in the mainstream, it’s even harder to define beyond a vague sensibility of aged-in authenticity. It’s become popular, a Bizarro world shift for a culture defined by its not being popular. Once you see a bulky guy doing CrossFit in a Doomhammer t-shirt, it’s hard to be certain about what “being geek” means in 2015.

Naturally, there was a soul-searching period as superhero movies and zombies became more popular (and profitable) ‐ an era that gave rise to articles like “Dear Geek Girls: Please Go Away,” and invited a hipster-challenging aesthetic that questioned how deep or sincere fandom was. Rooting out GINOs, the geeks in name only. Attempting to appreciate the influx of casual numbers that made Avengers possible, while still maintaining an authentic identity.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to say that geek culture has been truly co-opted because so much of its trappings have always belonged to gigantic corporations (as well as plucky upstarts and plucky upstarts that become gigantic corporations). Almost every signal of geek culture (broadly defined) is a consumer product. Something we paid to see, paid to play, paid to dress up as, paid to own and put on a shelf. If it were co-opted, it happened a long time ago and in varying degrees of genuineness. The current co-opting is simply a continuation that’s been turned up to eleven.

That existential crisis was never as clear as it was in Zero Charisma ‐ a great film where an obsessed D&D player’s entire world is brought down by a charming tourist in geekland. By the end of the movie, the GINO Miles (Garrett Graham) is outed, and the true geek Scott (Sam Eidson) has earned some confidence in his own identity, not needing to defend his passions so fiercely, recognizing that he can take them seriously without being a lunatic who drives everyone away. When it premiered at SXSW in 2013 (a few months before a reboot of Evil Dead and a third Iron Man movie), it felt like an optimistic personification of everything going on in the cultural sphere.

Zero Charisma 2013 Movie

When I interviewed Zero Charisma co-directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews, Matthews made a sharp point that touched on that interloper sensibility in a lot of films, whether they touch on geek culture or not:

When you see your typical movie about an anti-hero or an outsider, he may on paper be an outsider, but through the casting, the art direction, all the choices they make, they still feel the need to imbue this character with an underlying coolness or hipness. They want, no matter how much of a loser the character is on paper, they want the women in the audience to find him attractive and the men in the audience to want to be them.

In crafting the main character of their film, Graham and Matthews went all-in on a guy who none of us want to be, but who is still compelling to watch.

For years now, movies based on comic books and video games have been praised for their authenticity as well as mocked as either not getting or not caring about the original characters. It’s an acceptable new metric wherein noticing the filmmakers’ lack of genuine love can be shorthand for slamming the lack of the film’s quality. This ranges from complaints about costume coloration and canon to concern for plot logic and character portrayals (or betrayals).

This is one of the best reasons I can think of to explain the consistent clamor for Marvel characters to return to the Marvel fold. If there’s going to be a corporation spending hundreds of millions to try to make billions off a character, it had better be the corporation that knows, understands and loves both the character and the fans. Just ask Sony.

On that front, the box office delivered a resounding bit of symmetry this weekend as the GINO-stamped Pixels failed to dethrone Ant-Man from the top of the receipt pile. To be clear, I haven’t seen Pixels, so I can’t speak about the movie, but only to the response to it, which seems to focus on disliking Sandler for the stupidity of the film and for his mistreatment of a grab bag of geek symbols.

Not only is the movie bad, critics say, it’s also phony. Insulting even.

Sandler and company are cashing in on a popular something that they couldn’t care less about. The most straightforward version of this critique (in a sea of similar critiques) is the headline, “The Pixels Movie is a Terrible Idea Because It Doesn’t Understand Video Games,” at ‐ where else? ‐ Geek.com.

In other words, it’s geeksploitation.

On the other end of the spectrum is “Armada,” the second novel from “Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline. Adi Robertson at The Verge responds to the book for both displaying (maybe recognizing?) geeky pop cultural references as our new religious-style myths ‐ complete with ceremonies, icons and quotations ‐ and for being too aggressive with its nostalgia.

It’s ironic that “Armada” can’t actually follow through with this premise, mostly settling for quotes and wish-fulfillment instead of ideas. And radical geek inclusivity has its own set of problems, particularly when it treats its culture as the only valid culture. But for something so backwards-looking, it at least gestures at a way forwards. If you have to pick, it’s better to think that everyone is like you than to base your identity on the idea that you stand alone.

In other corners, both fans and critics are complaining that “Armada” is too focused on its geek credibility, buried beneath a constant barrage of all the things that felt like fresh set dressing for “Ready Player One.”

Meanwhile, Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed compares Pixels with “Armada,” thoroughly taking them both to task in different ways for perpetrating a tired fantasy, but she also criticizes Pixels by the metric of genuineness. It’s a criticism that’s risen to consensus levels.

Pixels is not about genuine nerdiness as it might pertain to someone smart, shy, or with obsessive interests. When Brenner [Sandler] uses that term, what he means is that he’s someone who doesn’t feel appropriately appreciated for who he is ‐ that he knows he’s great, and Violet [Michelle Monaghan] should kiss him even though he admits he didn’t bother to brush his teeth that morning.

Violet, of course, is the true nerd (a DARPA scientist who makes awesome weapons for killing video game aliens). In her conclusion, Willmore notes that typical underdog hero journeys feature a schlub with hidden potential learning the skill that will aid in saving the day while the new class of geek-centric stories is more about the fulfilling fantasy of learning that your current hobby is, and maybe has been all along, the key to saving the day. Maybe all that XP means something in the real world after all.

When I was in sixth grade I was a Magic: The Gathering nerd and a theater nerd. I was desperate for an acceptance that was never going to come from other 12-year-old vessels of insecurity. Somehow, most other kids didn’t find Eugene Ionesco and “Twelve Angry Men” as awesome as I did, and it was confusing. Fortunately, a healthy, consistent amount of verbal abuse helped make clear where I stood on the social chain.

In high school, I switched to being a band nerd, terrified that it was specifically acting that made me a dismissable object of scorn. As it turned out, marching band, somehow in spite of how radical the Quads are, is just another form of geekiness. An obsession not easily relateable to a general audience of teenagers who focused their attention on things that, to this day, I never figured out.

Maybe passion is really what it boils down to, a dedication to learning and dissecting everything you can about things you love. In today’s diaspora of geek culture, we’ve come full circle to where sports fans consider themselves geeks, a situation that would have been spit on when I was growing up (“When words still had meaning!” he said half-sarcastically). Back then the schism seemed complete with popular kids who partied instead of studying on one side and table top gaming fans with Yoda posters hung above their Zork-installed 486 on the other.

But looking back, things were never that simple. Not in the Hollywood way. I geeked out over band stuff (I may have never been happier than when I was playing trap set for the school jazz band), but I also surfed, drank at parties, loved The Matrix, got voted onto the Homecoming court, played in Magic tournaments and continued to have almost no idea who I was.

In a way, the co-opting of geek culture isn’t really new. It’s been big business for a while, but it’s flourished to such an enormous extent in the past decade, that an even larger number of companies who don’t care about geek culture want to make money off of geek culture. The Big Bang Theory doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is now a cross-section of movies and TV shows that can be considered “soft Geek properties,” or, less generously, GINO.

It’s this situation that has set the table for a response from fans to see a movie like Pixels and judge it for being insincere, and from fans who flat-out refuse to see a movie featuring Q*bert and Donkey Kong. If everyone is a “geek,” how can you reclaim your classic geekdom?

Is the occasional Pixels worth it to have all of the other beloved properties (including a Star Wars renaissance)? Probably. It’s a small amount of easy-to-ignore salt in an otherwise gigantic slice of cake. It’s also what happens when anything gets this popular, including a subculture defined by a lack of popularity. The sleeping giant of geek nostalgia has awoken, and it’s being co-opted like crazy.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the latest “geeky” movie to be called out for being fake is based off a short film where the entire world is quickly, inexplicably and inescapably taken over by geek icons of the 1980s. It happens too quick for us to fight or even notice it, and it only ends when the entire earth becomes pixelated.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.