The Decline of Geek Culture?

(WARNING: This might meander around a bit. I will strive to keep it consistent, but this is a subject about which I’m rather passionate, and the examples are from disparate media.)

Geek culture appears to be on a slow decline and, unless arrested, will eventually collapse altogether.

What absolute poppycock”, you might say. “Geek culture is alive and well. Look at all the geek fandoms around. Geek culture has never been healthier!” It’s not a simple answer, though, so bear with me as I attempt to explain.

The Past

Years ago, more than I care to recall at times, being a geek was roughly synonymous with being a nerd. You were unpopular in school. You were probably picked on, from as mildly as people ostracizing you to daily beatings by the school bully. Whatever the case, though, you had hobbies which weren’t tied to the sorts of things that “normal” kids liked. While many boys were playing sports, ogling cars, and chasing girls (and girls were “supposed” to be worried about boys, makeup, shopping, and shoes), you might have been dialing a computer Bulletin Board System (BBS), playing Dungeons & Dragons, watching anime, practicing your Klingon warcries, reading sci-fi and fantasy books, stargazing, or participating in any number of other activities that you found immensely fun, that weren’t considered “cool” or “grown up”.

You may have been able to hide these activities, so you were left relatively alone, or you may have boldly proclaimed them, damning the consequences for the football captain seeing you walking down the hall. You may have been small enough that you were picked on daily, or you may have been big enough that it took numbers for you to suffer any kind of bullying. Yet, through it all, you found a joy and a purpose in these various activities, and as you aged, you saw those “juvenile” hobbies become more and more popular. Connecting with people over a shared interest became easier.

The rise of the Internet made it even easier, and you began making friends all over the globe, united initially with one thing in common: your love of some hobby that used to be a source of ridicule. Obtaining merchandise related to your hobbies and interests became easier and easier. Movies, video games, television shows were exploring the concept of science fiction or fantasy for subject matter. It was almost a golden age. Almost.

I began to notice a trend back in the early 90s. Back then, it was so close to nonexistent that it was hard to notice at all. I would see a piece of merchandise from some fandom in the order catalog that my comic store would use. Maybe it was a Superman bust or a card set for some comic book series. As time went on, though, I began to notice that more and more “stuff” was being released on a monthly basis. For example, DC Comics launched the Vertigo imprint, and they soon released a set of tarot cards, busts and statues, and limited edition posters.

It still wasn’t really an issue. I didn’t have much in the way of disposable income, so I made sure that what I did get was a good deal for the price. To me, that was represented by books: fantasy/sci-fi novels, RPG books, comic books, manga. Merchandise like toys, posters, statues, limited edition card sets, chase inserts, first printings, mammoth collected editions, videos (VHS wasn’t cheap!), and games were something that I carefully considered before I bought them. To my mind, I could reread a book, but a toy was just a piece of plastic that sat there, doing nothing. You could say I was a book nerd (still am).

Too Many Cooks?

It was during this golden age that I began to read the Star Wars novels. Naturally, I first picked up Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn. I loved it. Here was told a story that was a fitting successor to Return of the Jedi, one of my three favorite movies of all time. I completed the trilogy and was thrilled, because I had new stories and information about Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. I also had new characters I liked, like Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn (had he been at the Battle of Endor, RotJ would have ended differently), and Talon Karrde. Then, I found another book, by another author. And another. And another.

Through it all, I didn’t question all of this new information, and I shrugged when it altered some perception I’d held about the trilogy, because I’d heard that George Lucas himself approved each item released to the public with the Star Wars logo on it. That meant he was okay with the Han Solo in Stormtrooper gear mail-away deal from Froot Loops back in 1995. That meant he was okay with Kevin Anderson’s “Jedi Academy Trilogy”. It meant that this was all okay, and part of the universe, because my beloved creator was overseeing the further development with loving care and attention to detail.

In 1997, the original Star Wars Trilogy was rereleased as Special Editions, with new footage, effects, and cleaned up frames. We were told that the original cut of the movie was lost in creating these special editions, and that had they not been made, we’d have lost Star Wars altogether. Standing in line at noon the day that Return of the Jedi: Special Edition opened, my brother, my friends, and I were talking with someone behind us about some of the things Lucas had seemingly approved, and the person in line scoffed and told us that the “Lucas as benevolent overseer of all things Star Wars” was a myth. I refused to believe him, but had my belief shattered a couple of years later, when I saw Lucas himself say the same thing. If this wasn’t all carefully orchestrated and planned, then was it simply just an attempt to (successfully) part me from my money?

I was forced to come to terms with the fact that, while the world was initially created by George Lucas and further developed by the directors and actors in the movies, the “Expanded Universe” – as it had become known – was largely a work of fan-created material. This didn’t exactly bother me at the time. After all, I loved the idea of expanding the lore of the Star Wars universe.

Attention to Detail: A Bad Thing?

In 2001, I discovered an absolutely fantastic game setting for Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition (D&D 3e). Published by Kenzer & Company, it was called Kingdoms of Kalamar (KoK). Apparently, they had a custom setting and updated it for official release as a D&D setting. I loved the amount of detail in the book, and the map was absolutely gorgeous. I picked it up, and began hungrily reading it, for I was convinced that my gaming group would switch to this setting as soon as I managed to finish reading the book. Then, a funny thing happened: I lost interest.

My style of play has always to play fast and loose with the settings that I ran my players in. After all, they’re basically participants in the imagined stories related to whatever place I chose. As a child, I imagined visiting Narnia. As a fresh teenager, I dreamed about visiting Krynn, home of the DragonLance series. As a late teen, I wanted to visit Middle-Earth. By the time D&D 3e was released, I’d discovered “splatbooks” – accessories that fleshed out the world or the rules in some way. So, naturally, I had begun to move away from making the stories my own, and was trying to make them work within the confines of the setting material that had been released. KoK took this belief in setting detail, and embraced it. In other words, I didn’t lose interest because the content wasn’t good; rather, I lost interest because there was too much of it.

While this could be (and is) counted as a failing on my part, the fact remains that, in an attempt to give their players a “living” world in which to play, the creators left little room to expand where a potential storyteller wouldn’t feel like he was conflicting with the established material. Many sections even had rumors/adventure seeds listed. I finally decided that it was so populated with details, that I would never be happy running it, for fear that I was fundamentally altering some aspect of the setting which would have unintended consequences elsewhere. I still own that book, and I love it with all that I am. I just do not trust myself to use it as is (I’ve mined a few random details out of it before, though).

The Present

Since then, I’ve become increasingly wary when companies release some new merchandise tied to a property, and have begun greeting the growth of details about various properties with unease. I’ve begun to notice it everywhere. From open-ended book series featuring characters loved by those who first read them, to more limited edition prints, to crossed genres (Lego Star Wars is a popular example), to television shows, the list just goes on and on. I used to love walking into the fantasy/sci-fi section at my local bookstore; now, I cringe, because there are far too many books with either “A Tale of _____” or “Another _____ Story” on it. While finding a Star Wars Monopoly or Star Trek Settlers of Cataan game is nifty, I find myself sighing when I find the Dr. Who Monopoly game.

We come down to my point about geeks: we are in danger. Once upon a time, our interests defined us. To an extent, that still holds true. The fundamental difference, now, is that the companies that sell these various products have twisted geek to mean “someone who will buy anything with a particular logo on it.” (I understand that exceptions exist, but please continue to bear with me.) It’s no longer enough to say you’re a fan of Doctor Who or Star Trek or My Little Pony; you have to be a Whovian, a Trekkie (or Trekker), or a Bronie. You have to buy up anything with that fandom’s logo, because “that’s so cool! I must have it!” Being passionate about your likes is perfectly fine. In fact, I suppose that’s what really helps us keep going, and why you always hear the advice to do what you like for your career. However, there must be limits.

Unfortunately, though, in order to keep up with demand for rising profits, those very things that we enjoyed years ago, now produce new things monthly, in an attempt to grab some portion of your disposable income. I’m not saying that a company shouldn’t make money. I’m saying that I question the ethics of a company that releases a new set of toys every 3-4 months, and sells certain toys to certain stores to be “exclusives”. I question the business ethics of a company that releases episodes of a series on DVD, then sells the two halves of the season separately, then sells them together, and finally packages the whole series together as a premium box set, and spaces the releases out just enough to help motivate a person to buy them each time. I question the practice of paying authors to continue to create “further adventures” of beloved characters, solely because another book is more money for the publishing house (for example, I adored the first two Drizzt Do’Urden trilogies: Dark Elf and Icewind Dale; now, you couldn’t pay me to touch a new Drizzt book).

To an extent, this is my gripe with the Star Wars prequels: they feel to me like they were made to springboard people into buying all of the Star Wars stuff that’s getting released. Disney does it with their princesses (I challenge you to find an item category that doesn’t have a “princesses” variation). Wizards of the Coast did it with their Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition release, with a new Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual every year, expanding the line (I know you can stop when you like, but the point is that the model they encouraged was that of the annual purchase, coupled with other purchases scattered throughout the year).

Legos are perhaps the best example of this danger we face. When I was young, Legos came in big boxes of random bricks. The point was similar to Lincoln Logs and TinkerToys: you had raw materials, so get to building something cool. Now, the Lego aisle is an example of corporate licensing, and the old boxes of random blocks are artifacts from a bygone day. The specialized sets are definitely fun, but they also very obviously put a boundary on where a person’s imagination will go.

It’s no longer enough to imagine for ourselves what may happen with a certain character like Harry Potter, Drizzt Do’Urden, or Anita Blake after we close the book; we demand a new book to explain it for us.
It’s no longer enough to be given some dice, some paper, and some rules, and be told to have fun; we have to have an adventure path of adventures to take our creations on.
It’s no longer enough to build a TARDIS out of your spare blue Legos; you want them to release an “official” TARDIS Lego set, complete with 12, 11, 10, and Clara figures.
It’s no longer enough to like a show a lot, to study about it online, and not buy anything related to it; we have to buy the most, so we can claim “#1 Fan”.
It’s no longer enough to put out one comic a month with a well-respected creative team; instead, Marvel has to have a rotating stable of writers/artists. More comics = more money.

The proliferation of merchandise related to various geek-related interests has increased by several orders of magnitude, and the geek, for all of their passion related to their interests, is being told more and more frequently that they must buy product related to the license of their choosing. As pointed out above, even books have fallen prey to the idea of “sticking to a license is more lucrative than original stories.” The geek is also being told that they aren’t really a fan, if they don’t have two rooms dedicated to their fandom (three things offset this: that you can afford to do it, that you have the room to do it, and that you’d do it without acclaim/envy for doing it – I acknowledge that some people just like some fandoms that much).

Also, find a geek, who calls themselves a geek, whose interests don’t lie with a licensed property like Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers, He-Man, et al. Computer geeks still exist, but with computers being cheaper to buy than build, you see fewer people obsessed with making their computer the best. The term still means what it did, more or less, but it’s been corrupted by the avalanche of merchandise we have to sift through now.

Sadly, in a way, it’s our fault. We bought the stuff in record numbers, convincing the people running the various companies that there was a market to tap, if they could just keep the supply going.

The Future

I love stories that end. It gives me something to think about for later. That longing I have, because I want to know more, is a far preferable sensation compared to the bitter tang of disappointment, when I’ve followed a property long enough to be disappointed by how it’s going (I’m looking at you, Star Wars). Before you rush to defend your fandom and say, “yes, but this happened and _____”, think back to what you thought before the new thing came out, and how you felt about your hypothesis regarding what was going to happen (or would have happened, if the series appeared to be over already). I would almost bet that you preferred your own theory, most of the time. Even if the publisher/creator did something else that you liked, there is almost certainly going to be something that you didn’t like about it. More details of the world don’t necessarily make for a better world. As you digest a story, you do so through the lens of your own experiences, so what you get from a story is almost certainly going to be different – even in a minor way – from what the author thought.

Next time, instead of gushing about how you hope to see some creator make a sequel or “another book in the series”, consider pondering over it in your own head while you’re driving to work or washing the dishes. You know those characters intimately. You’re familiar with where they had their adventures. Play it out in your head, or write a short story if you’re so inclined. Using your brain can only be a good thing, especially if you’re normally digesting one fandom TV show or another. Doing it about a book series will give you a better idea of what an author goes through to make those stories.

Who knows? You might discover a previously unknown and untapped talent, and that talent is precisely what I fear we will lose, if we just absorb only the stories they tell us and buy the stuff they make to go with those stories. Someone has to be creative enough to write the next Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, to have the vision to draw the next Spider-Man or X-Men, to have the imagination to create the next Doctor Who or Star Wars.

As for the merchandising aspect of things, well, that’s a difficult thing to fix. We have to buy something, or they will decide that they properties aren’t popular anymore, and quit making the shows or comics. With book series, I wouldn’t mind seeing them come to an end, but I don’t want a good author to be out of work because their publisher refused to let them do anything but Popular Property A.

So, all I can suggest is to be smart with your discretionary income. Don’t buy something just because it has a logo that matches something you like. Instead, ask yourself:

  • Can I afford it?
  • Is the item useful to me in some way (notebook, pencils, bedsheets)?
  • Is it an item to handle (book, comic, game)?
  • Can the item bring joy to those around me (game, mug, movie/show on DVD)?
  • Do I want it just because of the logo?
    • Do I have room to store it?
    • Would I buy this, regardless of whether or not I could compare my collection with others?

Maybe, if we can shop a little smarter, we can force the companies that make merchandise for those things we like to actually give some serious thought about what they are going to make. This isn’t foolproof, nor is it intended to be an all-around solution. Humans are also very, well, human. (Case in point: when I hear about Iron Maiden, I tend to get glassy-eyed and think about the purchase after I’ve made it.)

In closing, I hope you understand why I felt compelled to write this long-winded disquisition. I love geek culture, and want it to thrive, but being a geek is about more than simply loving a subject enough to buy a lot of shit with that logo on it. Good geek fandom will uplift you and help you realize your potential. Even if that potential is relatively minor in the scheme of things, it isn’t minor to YOU

…and that’s what matters.

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