Reflecting on PCA/ACA 2008

Last week blogging was a little light as I attended the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association 2008 conference (PDF schedule here). The word “geek” came up way more than I expected, considering that I was presenting on my games research and wasn’t even bringing up geeks there myself.

I thought I’d share some thoughts on a few of the panels and presentations I saw, including the panel I chaired in the Digital Games division. It’s not representative of everything I saw, and sadly, I had to miss several things I wanted to catch, but that’s the way things are at a big conference with lots of interesting stuff going on.

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The Motivations and Problems Behind Geek-Media Activism

You might recall that I wrote a recent post about the oft-heard question of whether geeky media, like comics and video games, would ever “grow up.” In it, I suggested that video games and comics can be promoted as “adult” (or at least “not juvenile”) through concerted creative and marketing efforts. Matt S. has an interesting post up in response which asks a fair question: Why bother? Geek-friendly media clearly have relevance for geeks, and trying to make these products palatable to “high-culture” interests runs the risk of ruining what actually works about them. I started writing a comment for his blog, but it got so long that I figured I should just put it here as another post. (And I might be delayed in replying to comments, as I was delayed in posting this, due to traveling.)

Ultimately, I think we might agree more than we disagree. As I said in the original post, I don’t think all our media has to have high-brow pretensions, and I do think that adults are entitled to media that seek to do no more than to entertain (even in ways that seem juvenile to some). But it is still interesting to discuss whether the motivation to be seen as “legitimate” is even worth it.

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Geek Chic (and Geek Studies) in the News

Jeremy Jacobs has written an article for the Columbia News Service (destined for other venues, such as The Columbus Dispatch) about “geek chic” as “the new brand of cool.” The article takes the Mac versus PC guys from the Apple ad campaign (played by Justin Long and John Hodgman) as its starting point. Dan, a friend of mine who works for Macworld/Macuser, IMed me the link because of the apparent relevance to my research. Then he said, “Gahh,” because shortly after pasting the article for me, he got to the end and saw that I was quoted.

I suppose I won’t say much in the way of analysis, but I will say that is fun to talk to a reporter (at least one who is nice) and to feel like you’re writing about something interesting enough to be quoted in a newspaper. I am also pleasantly surprised to see that my blog has somehow been elevated to the status of “Institute.” I only regret that I have had to turn down one esteemed colleague‘s request for grant funding.

D&D, Pretend, and Geek Culture

The passing of Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax seems to have sent aftershocks through the internet and news media, and then back out into the world beyond. Every day, I happen upon more stories and examples of people reflecting on the impact that his creation has had on the development of gaming, technology, and geek identity. Of particular interest to me are those who have started musing on where gaming and geeks fit in our world, and how a game based around pretend came to inspire so much.

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Notes on David Anderegg’s Nerds

I just read David Anderegg’s new book, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. It’s a very quick read—I got through it in two sittings, taking notes—but rather interesting and engaging. I noted in an earlier comment here that it seemed to lack academic references, but in fact these are at the end, with no superscript numbers in the text to indicate which claims have corresponding endnotes. As a result, it reads much more like a journalistic account than an academic book (though the author certainly employs his own observational data and theoretical background). Basically, this book is meant to convince parents to help eradicate the nerd/geek stereotype among middle schoolers, and to give some helpful tips to parents of beleaguered nerds and geeks in the meantime.

Dr. Anderegg analyzes a variety of statistics and cultural objects in attempting to come up with a comprehensive account of what behaviors get kids labeled as geeks and nerds (sometimes reaching conclusions very similar to those of my own dissertation!). This includes discussion of things like nerds’ interest in “magic” and fantasy fiction, but focuses most of all on why kids might feel like they can’t (or shouldn’t) be good at science and math. His strongest arguments, I think, are those that draw upon his direct experience and knowledge as a child psychologist. His discussion of the connection (or lack thereof) between geek stereotypes and Asperger syndrome is the most compelling I’ve read, and all the quotes from conversations with kids and parents really help give a sense of how non-nerds go out of their way not to be seen as nerds.

With the exception of a brief note in the conclusion about a 17-year-old who considers herself a member of a “Geek Club,” the book mostly considers “nerd identity” as synonymous with “the nerd stereotype”—something negative that we need to do away with. This means, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there isn’t really much consideration of geek/nerd identity and culture as something celebrated among adults; it’s something kids mostly grow out of, the author suggests, before they go on to make tons of money. In some ways, though, this was just a necessary limitation in scope, and I’m hoping to help fill in the gaps in this area myself.

If you happen to read this book yourself, I’d be very curious of your take on it. Please feel free to leave comments on this post or shoot me an email at jason at geekstudies dot org.

More on Death in Games

Dear Bay Area: I’ll be at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in San Francisco in a couple weeks, presenting a paper on protagonist death and failure in video games (which I’ve written about in a few posts here). Feel free to let me know if you’d like to grab a cup of coffee and chat about geeky (and/or academic) stuff.

Here are some links about death in games I’ve been saving up for a while. I figure I might as well throw these out for you as I sort through my materials for this paper.

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Gary Gygax

Today I received an email from my friend Chris that Gary Gygax has passed away. The obituary Chris sent refers to Gary’s most famous creations, Dungeons & Dragons, as “the quintessential geek pastime” (with affection, I believe).

When I got home, I had four more IMs waiting for me from friends (thanks Dan, Tony, Jordan, and Jacob) notifying me of the same, and found that Z. and Lev had already written some nice words on his passing on their respective geek culture blogs.

I wish I had more to say about Gary Gygax himself, but I honestly don’t even know much about him as a figure in the gaming world. I will say, though, that while I get a lot of tips for geeky content here, it’s rare that I see so many people reacting so quickly to the same news. I suppose not everyone’s taking this news entirely seriously (what with all the “saving throw” jokes flying around), but it’s still something of a testament to the influence his work has had, both directly and indirectly, on our lives and our subcultures.

Update, especially for Boston-area readers: Pandemonium Books and Games is having a gathering in Gary Gygax’s honor, potentially this Saturday. Read more.

The Measure of Technological Success

Over at Manifest Density, Tom has a couple interesting posts up arguing that the success of Blu-Ray in our marketplace should not be taken as proof that it’s a “better” technology than HD DVD, as many seem to have contended.

Megan’s right [as stated here] that I and a lot of my fellow nerds aren’t very happy about this outcome, but she’s wrong to say that “[e]very time there’s a format war, the losers complain that the inferior product won through nefarious methods.” I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. In this case I can admit that Blu-Ray is the technically superior standard. Many technologists didn’t like it because it seemed a bit more DRM-laden, because it didn’t seem worth the price premium, and because Sony has behaved very badly with respect to proprietary media formats in the past […]

It’s just that it’s frustratingly obvious that the factors determining a technology’s success frequently have little to do with its capabilities, price, performance or other innate attributes. Rather, they’re the result of quirks of the business environment into which the technology is born.

I don’t think I have much to add to this debate, but I thought it was interesting enough to be worth sharing. I’m not convinced (as some of those in this debate have suggested) that all economists would argue that the “better” technology is the one that succeeds in the marketplace, and I disagree with the criticism that Tom’s idea of technological superiority is devoid of consideration of human and market concerns. I think (in agreement with Tom) that any technology has its pros and its cons in its design, but that these formal features may have little or nothing to do with what plays out in the marketplace in the long run thanks to the quirks of the business world.

It’s important to consider that “better” is subjective to group interests—better for whom? Arguably, Blu-Ray is better for movie studios in the short run view because it seems to offer better DRM. Maybe HD DVD was better for consumers because of less restriction in this way (which, some will certainly argue, would have been better for everyone in the long run, as the lack of rights management in audio cassettes was likely a boon to the music recording industry). We’ll never get to see how this plays out long-term in a real, idealized “market” scenario, though, because some major studios threw their support to one side early and made up consumers’ minds for them.

For my part, I wasn’t interested in committing to an expensive, high-def movie format right now. I must admit, though, that I appreciate the free bag I got from the Consumer Electronics Show much more now because of the HD DVD ad embroidered on the outside. In five to ten years, that will be about as hip as a Betamax t-shirt.

(This entry has been cross-posted at Shouting Loudly.)