The battle over geek culture

Battle of Ideas festival 2015, Sunday 17 October, Barbican, London


Due to the growing appeal of gaming and comics through the enormous success of once-niche genres such as fantasy and sci-fi, geek culture is now fully mainstream. Yet its success seems to have been accompanied with vicious infighting amongst fans that surprises even culture wars veterans. ‘Gamergate’ seemed to move quickly from a dispute between game developers and journalists to a heated political row over gamers’ attitudes towards women and minorities; a similar dispute gave the Hugo Awards 2015 for science fiction a previously warranted level of cultural notoriety. Many found echoes of these debates in the fracas surrounding space scientist Dr Matt Taylor, where many online commentators felt the choice of a bawdy, sexist shirt overshadowed his achievement in landing the Philae lander on a comet (and moved Taylor himself to a tearful apology).

A number of new developments underpin these battles. The rise of social media has led to a tendency to ‘call people out’, harnessing the power of public shaming to challenge perceived more problematic elements of our culture. The arguments have taken on a fresh intensity with a new wave of cultural critics, such as Anita Sarkeesian. Drawing on feminist critiques of ‘rape culture’, new concerns are being articulated about the harmful effects of violently sexist media and its failure to adequately represent women and minorities in these virtual worlds. In turn, these so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ have provoked their own dizzying reactive sub-cultures from Sad Puppies to ‘Gamergaters’ who pride themselves on rejecting perceived politically correct orthodoxies.

How are the frontlines of the culture wars changing? Why have debates over representation and media effects theory – once considered relatively minor academic fields – now become so intensely fraught and high profile? Are these traditional battles between youth culture tribes recast for the digital era, or is there something new in the highly politicised attitude towards lifestyle? What motivates the various factions in the new battles over culture, and where did they come from? And can genuine freedom of expression survive in such a politicised environment?


Allum Bokhari
columnist, Breitbart

Serena Kutchinsky
digital editor, Prospect

Dr Maren Thom
researcher in film, Queen Mary University of London; education advisor

Jason Walsh
journalist; foreign correspondent, CS Monitor

Milo Yiannopoulos
technology editor, Breitbart

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer