Geek As Citizen: Marketing, Games, And Our Un-Separate Culture


Some time ago I was introduced to the article “No Girls Allowed” by Tracey Lien. It looked at why video games were considered “for boys” and the cultural and economic forces behind that attitude.

The article is well worth reading, but a thing that stands out is that there’s one huge factor in this issue – and many issues of gender divides – and that’s Marketing and the audiences it choses to pursue. Lien focuses on the role of marketing in our lives – and in how it can affect attitudes about gender. She chooses the geeky area of video games to do it.

Games were deliberately marketed to a male audience years ago. Now today, this has become a social norm, a social assumption – and one you see in geek culture and in people’s discussions of geek culture.

We, the geeks, got “normed” by people trying to sell games.

Marketing As Normalizing

Marketing is something we’re completely used to as noted. We know people are trying to sell to us, we know they target demographics where money is. As much as we may criticize it, or shrug it off, or love doing it, we know it’s there.

However, Marketing can also make norms. The above-mentioned article notes how deliberate targeting of males for a “safe” audience (ironically, by Nintendo initially) skewed how people saw games, and, ironically, future marketing. Fast-forward a few years and it seems games are still trying to extricate themselves from the “faux-macho” trap . . . and not doing it that well.

Marketing ended up creating a norm – in the sense of “what people think is true and normal.”. A norm that had many exceptions (Myst, The Sims, etc.), and one that is ironic as 45% of gamers are female┬áthese days.

In short, part of geek culture was thoroughly affected by a rather ham-handed idea of gender identity that really hasn’t actually been that true and is less true over time.

Makes you wonder how much else in our culture has been affected by marketing and other cultural factors.

We Were Never Separate

Now I’ve gladly praised the fact that it is the Age of Geek. Film, technology, movies, anime, what have you – it’s apparently “our time.” I’m glad for this because it’s giving some acceptance to wider ideas, it’s nice to see knowledge (sometimes) validated, and it’s hopeful for some of the future. I’m not going to complain in general – just specifically.

Geek Culture however was never separate from other cultural or economic forces as the story of gendering video games shows. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the idea that it was – I’m old enough geek to remember when people “freaked the ‘danes” and it seemed the culture was indeed separate, but that was never true. It may have been off to the side, but people were still trying to sell us stuff.

Or in the case of anime fans and many slick marketing machines behind them? That was pretty blatant especially once things took off on this side of the Atlantic.

How about fiction, targeted to specific audiences? How many “paranormal romances” are just rollicking good supernatural reads but were pitched to a given audience (knowing several romance fans, they’d answer “lots.”). How many books got cover art designed to “focus on the audience?”

So how many of our norms were actually dictated by people marketing to us? Or selling us? Criticizing us?

Be Aware Of Our Influencers

It’s important for anyone who wants to be an effective citizen to know how and why people are trying to influence them. If you’re not aware, you’re easily manipulated, and gods only knows what you might end up doing. If you ever wondered “how can X group of people be so stupid?” you can probably quickly find a case where you were led around by your nose to be equally stupid.

You probably thought it was your own free will.

Now, since I speak to a given demographic, the geek crowd of makers, comic fans, anime enthusiasts, and the like, I’ll be focusing on the given issues there. But either way no matter what you are, you need to be aware of this fact.

For we geeks (and yes, I am speaking broadly) I’m concerned we’ve often missed the influences of other culture – and I’m not talking humiliation caused by “nerd” stereotypes or arguments over the Big Bang Theory (disclaimer: I hate it). I’m talking the decades of influence caused by marketing, sales, media, and more.

For all the idea of a geek culture being separate, as noted, I don’t think it ever was. I recall the D&D scares of the 70’s and 80’s – as dumb as those seemed, those were influencers. I remember attempts to create appeals to the geek and SF crowd post-Star Wars, and among the many failures were also gems like Battlestar Galactica. People we wouldn’t consider “geeks” were affecting us.

This isn’t unusual – we are always affecting each other, that’s part of society. We just need to be aware of it.

Geek As Citizen: Culture And Choice

As Geek Citizens we have to realize we don’t own our culture as much as we thought; the influences are there. Some of them, like gendering games, were pretty negative. Others may have been benevolent such as the celebrating of the geek. But they are there, were there, and will be there.

But now that we’re more prominent – and now that it seems we’re proud to self-identify – it’s also time to realize we’ve got to make some choices. We were never separate. We need to own our culture and decide what we’re doing. We need to understand we got here through influences that include external ones.

Geeks, as I note, function as middle people – and we’re rather influential today even if we don’t always realize it or use it or appreciate it. But we exist at a strange liminal state of having a culture partially “our own and mysterious” (if only as people don’t understand what the hell we do) and partially one defined by other cultural forces. In our time of increasing influence, we need to ask how much of “us” is . . . well, us.

That will let us ask about our role and how we function.

I’m not sure I have an answer, but i do want to raise the question. When I look back and see how much gaming culture was influenced by gendered marketing (and this is a culture I’m in), I have to ask how much of our own culture we own. When I see someone call themselves a “gamer girl” with trepidation I get concerned.

I want us to be “ourselves” – whatever the hell that is – so we can make our social contributions. As a subculture we do need our uniqueness because that’s one of the things that makes us valuable in the larger culture.

We can’t be the best us when we’re busy being someone else’s.

– Steven Savage