Son of Geek

By: Terra Clarke Olsen

[This article originally appeared in Seattle Weekly.]

I wrote this article ages ago (…okay, not ages, but it feels like a lifetime ago), but sadly, I still find it relevant. Far too often, really. I wanted to share it on my blog with those who have been on this geektastic journey with me, and challenge all of us to do better. We can make our community better, so why not start? ❤


As I’m writing this, I’m eight months pregnant with my first child—it’s a boy. Huzzah!

Funnily enough, I was convinced I was having a girl, and was mentally preparing to raise the most kick-ass, geeky girl imaginable. Her room would be vintage sci-fi, fixed with all the geeky baby gear I could get my hands on. I would empower her to stand up for her rights and fight the impending battles that come with being a woman. Granted, she might not take to my geekiness, and that’s OK. But that’s how I was raised, so naturally it’s going to influence my parenting style; I know no other way.

Then—a few weeks after starting our planning—the ultrasound technician told my husband and me that we weren’t having a girl. All my worries about how to protect a daughter from sexism vanished. A boy? OK, well, I guess that will make things easier, and at least we didn’t need to change our nursery theme.

That sense of ease did not last long. As it happens, my pregnancy has coincided with a particularly vitriolic gender war in my community. It all started with a game.

In July, organizers of a tournament featuring the online card game Hearthstone announced that women would not be allowed to compete. Online gaming tournaments have become big. Really big. Not only are the prizes impressive ($250,000 is at stake in the Hearthstone World Championship), but the audience and fandom is huge, to the point that some universities now recognize video gaming as a varsity sport. (In Seattle there has even been talk of establishing an e-sports league dedicated to gaming tournaments such as Hearthstone and League of Legends, by far the most watched e-sport). So to exclude women from these tournaments is no small matter. The organizer, the Finnish e-Sports Federation, cited the regulations put forth by the International e-Sports Federation, which didn’t allow women to compete with men. The reaction from fans and players alike was loud and direct; surprisingly, IeSF responded quickly, opening tournaments to all genders.

You would think that would have appeased me, but I couldn’t get past all the online commentary. I read too many remarks defending IeSF’s original rule and expressing anger over its amendment, which created two types of tournament: some open to all, some for women only. For example, one commenter on the Gamespot website accused the new rule of inflicting “absolutely disgusting sexism against men. It was fine before, men and women had their own little playground but now its some sort of PC abomination.”

The commentary failed to recognize that women have been tormented and alienated for so long that many women would feel unwelcome and unsafe in coed tournaments.

The arguments were dumbfounding. Is this the kind of community I am so eagerly preparing to raise my son in? A community where boys are taught that women cannot compete on an intellectual level with men? It was difficult for me to believe that all these male gamers lacked female role models or peers who could disprove their misguided beliefs. Yet there they were, blatantly defending sexism within the gaming community.

As I dealt with the joys and pains of pregnancy, the discouraging news kept rolling.

For example, the artist of the new Wonder Woman comic came out saying he didn’t want her to be a “feminist”; cosplayers from San Diego were verbally attacked for rebuking sexual harassers by stating “cosplay does not equal consent”; and, most famously, a sexist movement called #Gamergate emerged, trying to defame women in the gaming community. The list goes on and on.

It all adds up to this fact: The community I’ve always held so close to my heart is failing us. Every new story seems to highlight how far we have yet to go toward gender equality, toward respect for all our fellow geeks. I can’t help but think of the families of these offending geeks and wonder how they were raised.

I’ve always been aware of the sexism and misogyny within the geek community, but my awareness stems from the fact that I am a woman, the embattled. But now, as I’m dealing with all the fears and uncertainties that await me in parenthood, I have been thinking about my arriving son and re-examining things from a more masculine perspective.

A daughter would need to know how to protect herself from sexism and fight injustice. But a son does not require this protection, and his privilege allows him to ignore injustice—or think that he can ignore it. But sexism is still a threat to him, in that he could very well become a perpetrator of it.

How, I’m wondering, can I protect him?

Photo by Nate Watters

I was raised in an immensely geeky family. Board games and prolonged discussions of the writing of Isaac Asimov were just another normal night at the Clarke household. My father paved the way for my geektastic childhood, never once telling me that gaming or comic books were only for boys. He raised me and my brother to like what he liked (a tradition I’m hoping to continue). The fact that I was a girl never affected my involvement with my family’s nerdy shenanigans. (In fact, if I hadn’t been into gaming or comics, I probably would have been shunned. I’m only half-joking.)

I found nerdy acceptance outside my family as well, in a seemingly unlikely place—an otherwise all-male Dungeons & Dragons group. It was an experience, I was to later learn, deliberately created by one parent.

Matt Ramsey, a father and Dungeon Master, wanted to introduce his 10-year-old son to tabletop gaming, so he put out a call for players at the local gaming shop. At the same time I was on the hunt for my first gaming group to join. I found his ad and signed up. I nervously showed up at his house for our first gaming session, not sure how I would be received or what I was in for.

Looking back, those fears were unfounded, as it remains the best tabletop-gaming experience I have ever had. Not only was Ramsey an excellent DM—he transcribed every session on a website dedicated to our game, played music to match our adventures, and was patient when we had questions about the rules—but he was, and is, an excellent father and role model. He never used my character (female elven ranger) as the female trope, and he never made me feel out of place because of my gender. The experience was hugely influential in helping me find comfort in my nerd identity. But when I think back on it, I realize that something even more important was happening around that table: Ramsey was setting an important precedent for his young and impressionable son.

As I branched out to further realms of the geek community, I realized that people and parents like Ramsey are not the norm. The equal treatment I received from him, my father, and my uncles may have rendered me temporarily oblivious to the idea that I might be an outcast, that I might not be welcome in the larger nerdy circle. But I would learn soon enough.

By the time I reached college, I had plenty of experience being kept out. As I ventured to comic-book and gaming stores, I was met with questions and accusations from gatekeepers. “Are these comics for your boyfriend?” was by far the most popular, followed by amazement that a girl was buying comics for herself. This was the usual formula: Do you actually like (insert geeky topic here) or are you doing it for a guy? I came to realize that people like me weren’t necessarily welcome at these places. At best, I was thought of as a novelty, a unicorn.

Sexism and misogyny have been part of the geek community for a long time—for example, in early comic books and sci-fi literature, women occupied a limited number of roles, mostly geared toward the sexy damsel in distress—but the current environment feels different, more scary and unnerving. The irony is that this new, depraved world is likely a result of all the progress that women have made in geekdom. As more people rightfully speak out against injustices, the forces of exclusion have battled back. Examples abound, but the most startling have come from Gamergate.

For those unfamiliar, Gamergate is a movement that claims to be upholding ethics in journalism. It all started because one angry ex-boyfriend wrote a post claiming that his ex-girlfriend, an indie game developer, cheated on him with a video-game journalist to get a good review (which, it should be noted, never materialized). What followed was a wave of angry gamers claiming that the integrity of video-game journalism was in decay and something needed to be done. And this is when things got really ugly.

Using the #Gamergate hashtag, people in the community have actually forced multiple women out of their homes via death threats, rape threats, and leaked personal information—all in the name of “ethics.” Among the victims: Zoe Quinn, the above-mentioned indie developer, who creates games handling nontraditional gaming subjects, like depression; and Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist who critically examines the role of women and sexism in video games.

Quinn, Sarkeesian, and others have been actively pushing to include women’s voices in the geek community, hoping to see change. For this, they have been called “social-justice warriors,” a term, delivered with a sneer by their detractors, meant to insinuate that the women are less interested in video games than in their own ideals. Other reactions have been much scarier. At one point, a group of trolls actually created an interactive game that allowed players to beat up Sarkeesian virtually, covering her image in bruises. Recently Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk at Utah State University after receiving violent threats.

Ironically, the voices struggling to be heard represent a huge percentage of the community. The Entertainment Software Association has found that women make up 45 percent of all gamers, and market research found that 46 percent of the self-identified comic-book fans on Facebook are women. This past year, more than half of Emerald City Comicon attendees were women.

I’m not sure if my son will end up being geeky or not, but I do know one thing—if he ventures to his local game store or comic-book shop, women will be there, right by his side, waiting their turn to buy the latest and greatest, just like every other geeky patron.

This is the scenario that has been most on my mind. The fight is no longer about me and my social circles; it’s about my son’s generation. Will the self-declared gatekeepers of geekdom be there as well, indoctrinating my son with their worldview? And who are these men who have created such a hateful and anti-feminist environment, and how can we change it? I would love to talk to their mothers about their behavior.

Photo by Nate Watters

Though underrepresented, women have long been a part of geek culture.

As Seattle pop-cultural historian Jennifer Stuller points out, “Women have always been drivers of fandom, fan conventions, and fan communities—especially since the days of Star Trek: The Original Series—as well as organizers of geek communities.” Women also worked as illustrators and writers in the comic industry’s early years during the wartime 1940s, though they were not in charge of publishing content—that was a field dominated by men.

In those days, geek culture was a subculture shunned by the nascent mainstream pop culture, its adherents mocked and ridiculed for their fandoms. From that early ridicule, the geek stereotype emerged: a white male virgin with no social skills whose obsessive nature prevented him from thriving outside his parents’ basement. It’s been perpetuated for decades—e.g., Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. But as the entertainment industry has embraced geekdom as a vibrant profit center, that stereotype has been challenged. Being a geek is now considered the norm, even “cool.” Children today expect their classmates to play video games—unlike their parents’ and earlier generations of geeks, many of whom endured years of bullying and torment for the same activities. For older geeks, this new “cool” factor is confusing, and at times infuriating.

The men who dominated geek culture during its underground years found safety and an identity within the geek community, where they could connect with fellow nerds who understood their fandoms. Yet—in a phenomenon that has beleaguered many other subcultures as well—given the chance to open their culture to a larger, more diverse population, these geeky men have reacted with the exclusionary, abusive mind-set of those who once bullied them. As Jackson Katz, Ph.D., famed educator and founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, explains, these men “are repeating the same abuses in their subculture against women. So they can be the victim and the perpetrator.”

This victim mentality, then, has created a sense of entitlement among geek gatekeepers. Recently a friend of mine actually proclaimed, “But I used to be bullied and made fun of for liking video games.” He explained that he essentially earned the right to this culture and community, but now these other people want in because it’s suddenly cool, adding that “They didn’t have to go through the torment like me. It’s not fair.” Although I’ve heard variations of this from random people, this comment came from a friend I consider an ally, so needless to say I was surprised—but also sympathetic.

Recently I was included on a panel devoted to the issue of creating inclusiveness in the geek community when an attendee brought up this rationalization, stating that he felt out of place and no longer special since geek culture has become the norm. He asked what old “gatekeepers” were supposed to do, if not try to protect their identity and community as they once knew it. I understand where this anger and confusion arises from, but I had few words of comfort. The reality is that geek culture is pop culture. And unless he stumbles upon a time machine, there is no escaping that fact.

The popularization of geekdom has been occurring for years, but in the past four or five years in particular we’ve seen some major shifts. As Stuller notes, this is partially due to women and other people on the margins of geek culture coming together via the Internet to create their own spaces where they can safely geek out together.

Seattle, for its part, has been a hub of alternative geekdom for many years; 2010 in particular is viewed as a sea-change year for women, both here and beyond. Stuller remembers it as the year Wallingford’s Comics Dungeon facilitated a safe space for female patrons with a ladies-only night; Comic-Con International held its landmark “Geek Girls Exist” panel; and a call went out to start a female-focused geek convention in Seattle.

In October, that convention, GeekGirlCon, celebrated its fourth anniversary with a sold-out weekend at the Washington State Convention Center. Creating spaces, online and face-to-face, Stuller adds, ensures that the dominant geek culture “has to take notice because our numbers amplify our voices. The Internet in particular is the driving force in creating these communities, as it enables like-minded individuals who may never have otherwise had the opportunity to connect to come together.”

But because of the far reach of the Internet, and human nature, those communities rarely stay self-contained. It is when their ideas inevitably bleed into larger geek culture—through adoption, activism, and generational churn—that the conflict starts. As Katz notes, every time women enter a space that has “historically been a male space, there are predictable tensions,” but as more women enter such spaces, there is also a “pushback because women are forcing a revision of what that culture is.” In response, that “first line of defense is to marginalize the people that are making the challenge”—that is, attack the feminists, like Sarkeesian and Quinn, who are challenging structures of power.

Katz views Sarkeesian as an important figure, who “won’t be bullied into silence by threatened men—that’s leadership.” Sadly, hours after I got off the phone with Katz, the news broke that Sarkeesian was forced to leave her home because of increased threats. Leaders like Sarkeesian are important, and a number of them—brave women and nerdy high-profile celebrities who have stood up to publicly fight misogyny and sexism within the community—have received the same frightening reaction as she.

Yet we also need allies in the trenches.

As my own experience has proven, there are men out there who do not want to push women out of geekdom, violently or otherwise. This might tempt some to declare “Not all geek men . . . ” and absolve themselves of responsibility. But to do this is to pass up an opportunity to take part in a virtuous battle—and what geek does not want to take part in a virtuous battle?

Good men need to start fighting the injustices within the community rather than shifting that burden onto the victims. It doesn’t take much—just an acknowledgement works. As Sarkeesian told the audience at the XOXO Festival in September, “One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.”

Myself, friends, colleagues, and many other women have experienced harassment, sexism, and misogyny on a firsthand basis. These are our war stories, and they are dispiriting at times. Yet we stay in the community because we are geeks—we love gaming, comic books, fantasy, sci-fi. But to stay, we need allies.

I know that a lot of men don’t agree with the events of Gamergate or the general sexism within the community. So why aren’t they more vocal?

Katz notes that men are “fearful they will lose status among their peers, and will be seen as less of a man. Essentially their manhood or position in the brotherhood will be undermined,” so they remain silent. All the while, Internet trolls are angrily blaming feminism and “social-justice warriors” for ruining their world. And the silence of our would-be allies is perceived as consent—not just that sexism and misogyny in the geek community are OK, but that feminism is bad.

Those who speak out can be the role models to a new generation of geeky men, including my son. But what role do we, the parents, play? It’s no longer enough to encourage our children to find positive people in geeky communities, as I did when I was younger. My family protected me from the sexism within the community, allowing a blissful and geeky childhood. But now, with the vast network of gaming, social-media, and Internet communities, the protection I was provided seems utterly impossible.

If I were to have a daughter, I would encourage her to use this access to find an accepting, nurturing pocket of geekdom in which to thrive. But what of my son? He will be welcome everywhere in geek culture. How do I make sure he does not go to the dark side?

Photo by Nate Watters

So here is where I have arrived, just weeks away from the miracle of birth that will force me to turn my ideas into action. Parents—geeky ones like me and non-geeky ones like, perhaps, you—need to take a more active role in making our children aware of the rights and wrongs of the geek community.

Seeking advice on exactly how to do this with my own son, I asked my old Dungeon Master, Matt Ramsey, how he approached raising his son as a nerd. Did he do anything in particular to combat the negative aspects of the geek community? He said that he explained and challenged sexism to his son. Ramsey even cited our tabletop games as an example of fighting the “boys-only club” mentality. And it wasn’t just when I was around. He said his sons never played games that “fed into the chain-mail-bikini or damsel-in-distress tropes,” adding that “blatant sexism within our games was never tolerated.” Ramsey wholeheartedly believes that education is the key to combating “things that undermined my values as a parent.” Ramsey’s approach seems to have worked; his son is now 21 and, I have to say, a rad individual who is a caring soul and ally to women in the community.

But, as I said, we live in a different, geekier world than the one in which Ramsey raised his son. So I spoke with parents currently navigating the nerdy terrain to get a sense of how they’re combating sexism in the community.

Emilie Shimkus—tech writer, actor in the web series JourneyQuest, singer for the nerd band RockLab, and mother of a 4-year-old girl (with another on the way!)—told me that she encourages her daughter to wear anything or do anything that boys are doing, and that she wants her to be “strong . . . funny . . . brave . . . kind—words I think all genders should strive to be.” Shimkus adds that she is mindful of the violence and oversexualized image of women in pop culture and geek culture, so she filters what movies and books she exposes her daughter to. And, like Ramsey, she stresses the importance of inclusion.

“I love that my daughter sees Mom and Dad put on costumes and be in shows written by and for nerds, with—when I’m lucky!—clever, complex, flawed women characters,” she says. “I love that I’m bringing my daughter up in a house where a bunch of guys play an imaginative storytelling game once a week, and that they listen when she wants to chat and ask questions or make up a rule, and sometimes roll the dice for Dad. We have great geek friends—a lot of smart, funny, kind men who are great vocal allies for the women in their lives, gamer or otherwise.”

That is similar to the life I imagined for a daughter—one that was simply about creating that safe space. But what about my little boy? I asked Laurel McJannet, GeekGirlCon staffer, marketing communications specialist, and a mother of an 8-year-old boy.

McJannet says she worries about violence in games, and that she monitors which games he plays—no Assassin’s Creed, for instance. But when it comes to sexism, McJannet says the issue hasn’t gotten much further than her son identifying pink as a “girl’s color,” and that she prefers to address issues as they come up.

“I think at 8 years old, we have yet to go to battle,” she says. “I anticipate having more of those kinds of discussions as Aidan gets into his tweet years. Right now, the most we get is, ‘How come so and so gets to do this and not me?’ Usually, a simple ‘Because we said so’ would suffice, but as he gets older, he’s wanting to know the ‘why’ and ‘how come’ a little more.”

Taking a slightly different approach, Adam Parent, father of a 5-year-old boy and all-around geeky guy, is hyper-aware of the injustices in both geek culture and the world at large. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I don’t accompany everything he sees with a disclaimer,” he says. Parent talks openly to his son, engaging him in topics that other parents might think are too mature for a child, but he insists it’s for the best.

And I find myself leaning in this direction. Parenting is a big job, one I can’t even begin to understand until our little guy enters the world. But by taking an active role, I think I can influence my son, and I hope to help mold him into a good human being who will add positivity to the world and fight for equal rights—in the geek community and beyond.

“I see this age as the perfect opportunity to (for better or worse) influence his worldview,” Parent told me. “That’s my job. If he grows up to be an a**hole, that’s on me. I’ve failed him.”