Web Geeks (and Geek Studies) in the News

I recently had a nice conversation with Carolyn Johnson for a Boston Globe piece on ROFLCon and internet fame, “Web celebs consider their role: Internet ‘geeks’ gain niche in mainstream culture.” (Thanks again to Dan for sending along the link. As before, he remains my source for articles that quote me.)

The focus in this piece is on how the internet has enabled culture to develop in niches, where people can feel comfortable about reveling in the things they might have otherwise hidden. As one interviewee notes, “Until I launched my company in January, I always kept this part of my life—Internet, humor, in the closet. […] I had no real purpose except to meet kindred spirits.”

It’s more for non-geek audiences, so there won’t be many surprises here for most of you readers. I will say, though, that I found it more respectful than many other newspaper convention pieces (which have a nasty habit of sounding patronizing about the attendees).

Also consider checking out The Weekly Dig‘s ROFLCon-themed issue, available for download online, complete with headlines written in LOLcat/AOL-speak. If nothing else, you may find it kind of funny to see articles that ostensibly have nothing to do with geek culture get so thoroughly web-ified.

Geek Weekend

The problem with being a lone ethnographer working on a multi-site project is that you can only be in one place at a time. This weekend is an exciting and devastating example of that problem, as a number of geeky events are going down around the various places I frequent (and beyond).

Make:Philly: Philadelphia, PA. This Sunday, Make:Philly will be doing an intro to NES video graphics. The Maker Challenge will involve hacking a NES ROM to alter its graphics. It hurts my soul to know that I will miss this. Tune in to Geekadelphia to find out how it goes if you can’t make it, either.

Geek Week: Utica, NY. Church emails me to let me know that this is “Geek Week” at SUNYIT. Lots of gaming, science-fiction, and rocket-building will ensue.

“The idea is to bring people together to enjoy the things they’re passionate about,” Brenda Dow, alumni and advancement services officer, said in a news release.
“Everyone has a hobby or a pastime they engage in to the point of ‘geekiness,’ whether it’s technology, sci-fi movies, gaming or something else.”

Arisia 2008: Boston, MA. In Boston, this weekend hosts Arisia, which happens to be the first science-fiction convention I ever attended. The panel I most regret having to miss this year is titled, “What am I? A fan? A geek? A nerd?” Check it out Sunday at 7:00:

What is a geek? A nerd? A fan? A hardcore fan? Which one are you? What does it mean, and should you even care? Discuss how labels affect fandom and what can be done to benefit from or break down the structures that distinguish us.

MIT Mystery Hunt: Cambridge, MA. My time, however, will be spent at the MIT Mystery Hunt, which I have been meaning to (and unable to) attend in person for several years in a row. Depending on where I get a job after I graduate this year, I figure it may be my last chance to attend it for awhile (or at all), and my last chance to get in some time at MIT before I finish the dissertation.

I am also remiss in my blogging duties as of late, thanks to all my recent travels and other work duties. In the coming days/weeks, anyway, expect some updates and photos from the last Make:Philly, Nerd Nite Boston, the Consumer Electronics Show, and the Mystery Hunt.

From the Floor of CES

Yesterday I was walking through the exhibitors’ booths in the Sands hotel in Las Vegas, carrying a colorful box with large, plastic toys inside. The toys—a giveaway by Cartoon Network to promote a new show—had been distributed at a panel I attended in the morning on “new frontiers of play.” The charmingly bizarre design aesthetic prompted me to take one, unsure of what I would do with it later, so I had to lug it around for a few hours.

Somewhere near the life-size toy Halo guns and the “Air Guitar Hero” booth, a woman gasped with delight upon seeing the box under my arm. “Where did you get this?” she asked. She seemed East Asian, somewhere between her late 20s and mid 30s.

I explained which room the toys were at, and said there were probably many left, based on how fast they were being taken. “Are you a collector?” I asked.

“No,” she said, still smiling, “I have a three-year-old who would love this, though.”

Though they are both comparably large conventions that look pretty similar from the show floor, the Consumer Electronics Show is very different from Comic Con International. This was my favorite example illustrating this point, but it’s certainly not the most extreme example. I’ll be writing about this (and some other recent research excursions) once I get back home to Philadelphia this week. In the meantime, go check out the still ongoing conversation about geek music which I blogged about the other day. I just realized there’s a whole second page (and maybe more) of posts which I completely missed, so I need to return to that soon, too.

Convention-related Links

Very soon, I would like to put the post on Bioshock I’ve been taking occasional notes for, reflect a bit on the dissertation proposal writing process, and discuss how the image of the Jewish male fits into the nerd stereotype (which came up in my proposal defense and when someone from The Jewish Chronicle recently told me about an article he’s writing about nerds, both of which inspired me to find this “nerd vs. nebbish” article from 1998). For now, though, it’s all I can do just to keep up with some links that have been piling up.

Reflections on Comic Con: David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for the huge pop culture festival known as Comic Con, has given a couple interviews with The Comics Reporter‘s Tom Spurgeon and Comic Book Resources‘s Jonah Weiland. Apparently the show saw 125,000 this year. I believe it, especially considering how much waiting in line has become a standard feature of the weekend. Some people I spoke with waited in line for hours in the hopes of seeing the trailer for the next Batman movie (i.e., waited in line for a commercial) at the DC panel, but it was not shown. Anyway, there’s a lot of business-oriented stuff in those interviews (which some of you may find more engaging than others), but also some interesting stuff about how conventions function within geek culture, such as when Tom asks about the con’s role to “consummate (in the g-rated sense) on-line friendships,” which leads to increased space for clubs. Actually, even more space seemed needed for that this year, I think; the Browncoats’ (Firefly/Serenity fans’) meeting seemed filled to capacity with regulars, so I had to meet folks through other means, chatting with some fellow Browncoat-curious attendees standing outside.

The Vibe of PAX: Mike (“Gabe”) at Penny Arcade reflects on how the vibe of PAX is so different from other conventions because it really feels by and for the gamers themselves. Having been to PAX three times, this actually sounds pretty accurate and not just touchy-feely, self-congratulatory stuff. While the con hosts plenty of panels and the obligatory exhibitors’ room, much of the space simply hosts tables with tabletop games going, beanbag chairs seating handheld gamers, and TVs and computers for console and PC gamers. People are just there to have fun with friends and strangers, participating in the hobby that brought them all there in the first place. Plus, Mike and Jerry go out of their way to make the visitors feel like they’re the ones in charge, allowing people to come onstage to fulfill silly requests, and fielding every personal question (except who would win in a fight between ninjas and pirates). My first year there (before I was officially there for research), they even let my friend Tony take a photo of my friend Kai pretending to lick Jerry’s head. “You were a good sport about that,” I told him, to which he replied, “I am here for your amusement.” He wandered off, presumably to do something more official. Now that is dedication to your fans.

Update (again): Mike also posts links to PAX desktop wallpapers made by PA designer Kiko. As of now, some of the links seem to not be working, but I expect that will be fixed. (Yes: see the Flickr set on PAX culture in particular. This is fairly representative of what it looks like from the convention floor: a huge line, colorful shirts, and DS’s aplenty.) For now, you can still see a good pic of a giant crowd holding aloft their phones and DS’s—the PAX equivalent of holding up a lighter at a concert.

Checking in from Seattle

I’m in Seattle for a couple more days, but I thought it was about time to check in now that things are quieting down following the Penny Arcade Expo. I should mention, too, that I passed my dissertation proposal defense on the day before I left (hooray), so after I turn in some brief additional material, I’ll finally get to pay some more attention to a couple gaming-related papers I’ve got floating around.

Continue reading “Checking in from Seattle”

The Saga of Ball

For many, the highlight of last year’s Penny Arcade Expo was entirely unplanned: A crowd of people made the best of their long wait in line by knocking a big, blue ball around. Later, while Gabe drew a strip onstage and Tycho fielded audience questions, someone requested that the ball be included in the strip, and the artist happily obliged him. (See lower left corner, third panel. An old character made it to the second panel by special request, too. I’m blanking on the relevance of the still-beating heart and the crowned hot dog, but those were last-minute additions too.) After the convention, the event apparently became somewhat legendary, with “ball footage” posted around the web and references among my interviewees. One of these people suggested that this illustrates the heart of gamer culture: Geeks just wanna play.

I’m fascinated to see now that Penny Arcade has made an “All hail BALL” t-shirt, announced the week before PAX 2008. This strikes me as a fairly brilliant merchandising/marketing technique. The only ones who will really be interested are those who have fond memories of the ball at last year’s PAX, which drastically limits the market for such a product. That’s okay, though: PA has its own venue where their most fervent fans are sure to appear, and some of those people seemed intent on getting the ball somehow included in the annals of PA history. The reference will be completely opaque to outsiders, so the shirt basically functions like a secret handshake with other fans. And, as I realized at Comic Con this year, some people buy fannish and geeky apparel just to wear at other cons—as a button on one person’s backpack said, “Being a fan means never having to ask, ‘Where would I wear that?'” When I go to PAX next weekend, I’ll be surprised if I don’t see dozens of people wearing this shirt.

This move really helps characterize Penny Arcade as an outfit that takes its cues from its own fans, while still doing projects in their own style. Kudos, too, for having the restraint to let the subject lie dormant awhile and suddenly announce the shirt the week before the next con.