The Myth of a Monolithic Nerd Space
It is very easy to imagine what peak nerdiness looks like - Cis straight white men in their thirties wasting their money on children’s toys and complaining about women and POC in new media. But is this image reflective of what nerd culture is actually like? The simple answer is no. A key aspect to nerd spaces is diversity. Through interacting with others in these environments, it is clear to see that no single demographic occupies nerd spaces. DND and tabletop role-playing games have become staples in the Queer community, and it takes moments on platforms like YouTube and Twitch to see prominant voices from women and POC on anything from video games to comics. Even vital nerd roots were formed by women and POC. From Mary Shelly, who was a forerunner of the genre of science fiction, to Octavia Butler, an activist whose science fiction stories have left their mark on our modern understandings of the genre. Yet the monolithic image of nerdiness supersedes others in our society.
In 2015, the Pew Research Center released an extensive breakdown of who identifies as a ‘gamer’ as well as the demographic breakdown of who plays videogames. According to them, it can be extrapolated that 50% of men (from the sample size of around 3,000) play video games. To match this, 48% of women play video games. There is some skewing towards men when discussing who identifies as a ‘gamer,’ but it is clear that when it comes to gender, the people who play videogames are not monolithic. For other identities, the study breakdown states, “There are no differences in race or ethnicity in who plays video games,.” (Pew Research, 2015).
Narrowing our view to only those who play video games is not enough to extrapolate over all nerd spaces, but it does give us a tangible data point to show that, for an industry that is deeply tied to nerd culture, the perceived male domination of nerd spaces that exists in the public imagination does not pan out in reality. The idea that nerd and geek culture is the domain of cis straight white men is simply a myth.
The answer to why the public perception of nerd culture so white, male, and straight is that it is socially incentivized to perceive these hobbies in this way. By marketing video games, comics, and movies as ‘boy things’, companies are able to profit greatly from our society’s divisions between the dominant and sub cultures. In the same vein that certain types of shampoo or clothes are arbitrarily designated as only acceptable for a certain gender, so too are nerd hobbies like gaming and comics, despite all evidence pointing to this being untrue.
So because of this social incentive to separate hobbies along demographic lines, we have an accepted paradigm of nerd space that excludes women, POC, and the LGBTQ+ community. This does not make sense when considering the function of nerd culture. Nerd culture is made for and by outcasts, social rejects, and those who feel alienated by hegemonic society. When looking at what kinds of stories are told in nerd spaces, messages that resonate strongly with the oppressed are common. One of the fundamental functions of nerd spaces is to explore multiple ways of being. These messages are so compelling that in the last two decades, nerd spaces have seen wild growth, and have even overtaken many mainstream spaces. This only adds to the idea that nerd spaces have diversified and become more multi faceted.
Nerdiness speaks to the truth that there is something that you are passionate about to a quasi-religious degree (for me, it’s science-fiction books). Essentially, everyone is a nerd about something. At the same time, we do not live in a society that celebrates the pursuit of passions (especially non-productive ones). It follows that nerd spaces, places that are very accepting of these passions, have something to offer everyone. There is a process, however, that those of the dominant culture undergo that convinces them that nerd spaces are theirs and theirs alone.
When we are blasted again and again with the message that nerd culture is a space only for cis, straight, white men, it reinforces the idea that any perceived variation from those identities is an encroachment into nerd spaces. This feeds the knee jerk reaction that these men have to defend nerd-dom. This reaction is then incentivised by capitalistic views on who nerd spaces are for. This quickly transforms this into a self replicating cycle. We see this over and over again anytime a Black actor or woman is cast for a prominent role in ‘nerdy’ movies or when a female videogame character is ‘too muscular.’
Our society promises cisgender straight white men that nerdiness is theirs to possess entirely, and when this group begins to see that this claim is a lie, that nerd culture can belong to anyone, they are rewarded for attacking the perceived aberrations instead of the liars. This in turn cements the idea that nerdiness is their sole domain. This mentality begins in smaller nerd spaces, and then leaks out into wider nerd culture, until entire narratives about what nerd spaces are couldn’t be further from the truth.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
Source:Duggan, Maeve. “Which Americans Play Video Games and Who Identifies as a ‘Gamer.’” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2015/12/15/who-plays-video-games-and-identifies-as-a-gamer/.