Choosing Sides in the Geek Wars

Fanboys got me thinking about this a while back, and then more recently, I’ve had this pop into my head as I read various MMO blogs. People are very adamant about their favorite intellectual property (IP), so much so that—generally—if someone doesn’t like the exact same IP, they have to be enemies.

And I just don’t get it.

In Fanboys, there’s the famous (infamous?) Star Wars vs. Star Trek dichotomy. Trekkies hate Star Wars fans, and Star Wars fans hate Trekkies. It’s been that way forever…or well, since probably close to 1977. It’s been around for so long as a part of just being a geek that I have no idea where and why it came about. The thing is, though, I don’t think it’s valid. There is nowhere that says that Star Wars is better than Star Trek or vice versa.

I’m a huge fan of both. I have a Yoda statue from F.A.O. Schwartz and walls of Star Wars action figures in my old bedroom at my parents’ house, and I also have complete DVD sets of The Next Generation and Voyager on my DVD shelf. I don’t consider myself a fan of one over the other because that would be absurd and limiting. Why, if I consider myself a science-fiction fan, would I automatically remove one of the biggest franchises from my list simply because I happen to like the other one slightly better?

This radical elimination and hostility happens in every single aspect of geekdom, not just sci-fi.

In gaming, it’s pervasive and even a little bit annoying, specifically regarding MMOs. I remember when I started playing MMOs, the two big names were Ultima Online and EverQuest. And fans from both games hated each other. Now, to be fair, the games were night and day different (one was a skills-based sandbox while the other was a level-based raid environment), but there was no reason that fans could not like them both. And again, I did. I had a Classic EQ account as well as a T2A UO account. At the same time. *gasp*

But fanboys of each game would continually cite the virtues of one over the other, continually attacking fans of the other.

Like I said, this still happens today. Except today, MMO gamers are typically split over one game: World of Warcraft. And in the blogosphere, you either like it or you don’t. There doesn’t seem to be an ambivalent faction, or at least there’s not one in the vehement comments that on a lot of the blogs that I read. Either WoW did a lot of good in bringing the MMORPG genre to the mainstream consciousness or it harmed the genre by making it too “casual friendly” so that a pure environment is ruined by “tourists.”

The debate really gets heated sometimes. And I really want to know why.

I think, at base, it is because we’re all geeks, and according to Geekgirl Diva, “being a geek means possessing and being passionate about knowledge that no one cares about or considers.” To take that one and run, such geeks might feel they have to defend their hobbies because if they don’t, then who will? If no one else (or at the very least, a very specialized group) cares about these hobbies, then it is the geek’s job to make sure that they get the treatment they deserve.

Every geek, then, has a penchant for getting in a little too heavily in something obscure. Whether it’s knowing Klingon and understanding stardates from Star Trek, completing every Ulduar hard-mode in World of Warcraft, or adamantly learning and defending the spelling of Wookiee from Star Wars (there are two E’s, people!), we all have something that we care about, and we don’t want someone else coming in and making us feel as though our time has been wasted.

And that’s where my problem comes in. Just because someone else likes something else more than I do doesn’t necessarily mean that my opinion has suddenly become invalidated. Someone else liking Runes of Magic more than World of Warcraft doesn’t mean that my time spent in WoW was a waste, nor does the fact that I still enjoy some facets of WoW hinder anyone else’s enjoyment of anything else. So why should we fight about it? My game doesn’t have to be better than your game, as long as we’re both having fun. And if we’re not, we need to seriously re-evaluate our hobbies anyway.

So in one corner, there’s the idea that geeky hobbies need to be defended because of their relative levels of cultural obscurity. In the other corner, I present the idea that geeks are loyal to particular intellectual properties and franchises because if they were not so steadfast (and belligerent in recruiting new blood), the properties they love would be forced to shut down for lack of interest and profit.

I can see this argument being made in the late-70’s when I see it originating with Wars vs. Trek with a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons thrown in for good measure. At that point, geekdom as we know it now was an infant subculture doing its best just to survive, and the IP pickings were pretty slim for hardcore fans. The pool of fans from which new IPs could draw was pretty much considered finite, and creators had to vie for the attention from that limited pool. If there was only a limited number of people, that meant there was a limited amount of money. And one can assume that most people had to limit their spending to what they cared the most about.

IPs can only persist if they turn a profit. And if a geek absolutely loved Star Wars, then the only way to be sure there was more Star Wars was to support it financially and, in most cases, get others to support it. In order for fledgling IPs to survive, they needed a solid fanbase, of which there were only so many people to choose. The more people who are willing to spend money on an IP they love, the more likely it is to stick around. And geeks, being so obsessive in what they care about, might have banded together in order for the biggest and the best properties to continue, becoming more aggressive and opinionated as they went.

Or that’s my way of looking at it, anyway.

But that doesn’t hold true today. The mainstream success of games like World of Warcraft and other sci-fi/fantasy properties like Harry Potter has proven that the pool from which to draw fans is not finite, but quite the opposite. Being a geek no longer means being part of an obscure subculture. Most companies realize that geeks are where the money is, and that’s why a high percentage of films that made the most money in recent years have been based around franchises and IPs that appeal to fanboys.

With that in mind, there is no need for the aggression and obsessive defense, but it persists. Sure, the more money that is thrown at a property, the better its chances of perpetuation (which is why I highly advocate not seeing trash like Transformers 2), but despite today’s economic hard-times, very few geeks limit themselves to one single-minded pursuit. We all might have our niche, but rarely do we spend all our geeky energy on one single IP. We live in a diverse global culture, and, whether we want to admit it or not, lots of us have MTV attention spans.

So then, I think it’s time to do away with the hostility. I like some parts of WoW, and I’m not a fan of others. I like both Star Wars and Star Trek. I happen to enjoy a lot of eclectic pursuits, within all ranges of “geeky.” And you know what? I’ll do that whether or not you or your brother or your mom or whoever else does the same. And you’ll go about your business, enjoying your hobbies and interests, completely ignorant and unhindered by my entertainment choices. So why, then, can we not put aside our juvenile squabbles and actually enhance the communities to which we belong instead of playing the role of some self-appointed gatekeeper to a gate that’s been unlocked for quite some time now?

Image Courtesy of Goodman Games.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. Ultima Online player here. I think they should re-boot the UO idea, and forget about making more DIKU MUD flavors. But I do not play either WoW or UO at the moment.

    I think it is good if people care for some particular ideas behind their favorite game. I just never understood the blind fanboyish worship that some players developed.

    I enjoy both Star Trek and Star Wars and believe both to have some serious flaws. But if you are really into one or the other, you might see some fundamental differences between apparently not that different franchises that bring you on the fence.

    I still do not get it how much hate and all that people can produce because of this, being passionate is okay, but I still cannot get the extreme geeks.

  2. I tend to think of myself as globally geeky. 🙂

    I don't mind the extremists. I wonder if the geek wars aren't becoming more vehement since we're in a sort of a liminal period, as the geek subculture changes and becomes more mainstream and socially acceptable. Maybe there's a bit of a geek identity crisis.

    There's that weird social thing that happens when a subculture becomes mainstream, and the people who originally were part of that subculture struggle to differentiate themselves from the newcomers. They don't *want* to transition on to what they perceive as the bandwagon. So they ensconce themselves more firmly in their passion for their particular IP, while the whole thing is changing around them.

  3. nice post. It's easy to get caught up in these mini turf wars. As geekdom thrives well see how much of the faction wars continue.

  4. @Ben: It's easy to do. I'm guilty of starting bashing one property based on another, too, but I think if we want the subculture to survive, we need to become a lot more openminded.

    @Sharon: I think you hit the nail on the head, so to speak. What gets me is that even when geeks don't want to actually make the transition from niche to mainstream, they want the outcome and increase in quality/quantity of their product that only mainstream attention can give.

    @Longasc: That fanboyish worship you mention is why I actually stopped reading forums for a while and avoided getting into blogging. I was too far from the fanboy mentality myself to want to be around it. Luckily, I have found a circle of blogs I read regularly that avoid that which have replaced the forums I used to frequent, but the fanboy worship is one of the main reasons I've avoided being an active community of any IP I love for a long time. You're right: being passionate is fine, but when it crosses the line into zealotry, there's a problem.

  5. This brings back floods of memories about how I used to bitch to my friends that Star Trek technology was so utterly silly and how, if it was at all real, they'd just duplicate Data using the transporter (yes, it's possible – they did it to Riker!) a million times and get him to run everything whilst everyone else lived in the holodecks!

  6. I'm fairly ambivalent about WoW. I think it does a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. I think it's done good for the industry and that it's caused problems. I can be hypercritical sometimes, but it's because I'm a game designer and a scientist, digging into the "why" of design choices and business choices, with the goal of making better ones in the future.

    I don't understand the rabid fans or foes, either, but then, I do try to see these things objectively, and the whole "us vs. them" is anything but objective.

    Star Trek is good (my significant complaints about the recent film and Enterprise notwithstanding), Star Wars is good (lame Anakin plot and pathetic New Jedi Order notwithstanding), and I have plenty of products from both IP dynasties.

    I will never understand why people have to denigrate someone else's fun if it doesn't align with theirs. It's the core of the solo vs. group debate, incidentally, not just IP fanfights.

    Oh, and yes, let's not perpetuate the Michael Bay strain of Transformers. Oi.

    Nice article. Good call on the infant geek wars as well, that's a pretty good read on things, as far as I can tell.

  7. Oh, and while it's probably not worth too much digression, the "us vs. them" mentality is heavily utilized in politics. It's easier to keep the "bread and circuses" going if there's a fight in the center ring, even if it has to be largely fabricated. Of course, the more the ringmaster wants you looking in his right hand, you can be sure that there's something interesting going on in his left.

    That's as true of politics as it is of the game industry. As long as people are arguing over which DIKU game is better, the basic assumptions of what an MMO is (or ought to be) are conveniently ignored.

  8. So many people so much over analyzing.

    You look over the most basic reason… Because it's fun! 🙂

    You get close when you mention that this is essentially knowledge (or hobbies, or interests, etc) that only geeks are interested in.

    Well it is just as the gladiators of old loved pitting strength and prowess against an opponent. It is a only the human urge to compete with one's best abilities, and despite popular belief, geeks are indeed only human.

    Our infinite bounds of useless knowledge as our strength, and our wit as our sword. There is rarely more fun to me than a good ole' fashion geek-off!

    The biggest problem I see, is when people do start to take it personally, or down right resort to personal attacks. But it has been my experience that only proves their own inadequacies.

    As we become more "civil" in time, the purpose does not change. We still want to better our opponent. Only the battlefield and weapons have changed. We use brain and tongue instead of sword and shield.

    It reminds me of my favorite Conan quote by Robert E. Howard,"Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing."

    Wow… So much I have written only to say so much is over analyzed!

    Hypocrisy or irony?


  9. I think a little of both. 😉

    I agree with everything you said save one point: I don't think it's possible to over analyze things.

    There's a reason that things are "fun." And that reason impacts many different people in many different ways, so understanding the how and the why of that reaction is imperative.

    I plan on dedicating the majority of my scholarship in my life to TV, Film, and contemporary literature. A lot of people don't consider that stuff to be worth analyzing, so any scholarly criticism is going to be seen as over analysis. I disagree. Things are phenomena for a reason, and even if they're "fun" (which I don't deny that the geek wars are in many ways), there is still a foundation that needs to be understood.

    Without people over analyzing as you put it, a lot of meaning is left hidden in work because it's socially deemed as inappropriate to and/or unworthy of study.

  10. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the "it's just a game" or "it's just for fun" excuse is inane and detrimental. Games, movies and other popular media have a profound effect on cultures and individuals, and relegating them to the ignorance of "it's just fun" is vastly understating the potential to learn about the human condition from them. We are the sum of our experiences, virtual, fictional or "real". All of them should be studied and understood.

  11. Edited for grammar, because I graduated from a Tennessee school. Ha!:

    "I think a little of both. ;)"

    Touche` 😉

    "I agree with everything you said save one point: I don't think it's possible to over analyze things"

    I used to think this as well.

    "relegating them to the ignorance of "it's just fun" is vastly understating the potential to learn about the human condition from them."

    Ahh, but relegating the idea of "it's just fun" as ignorance, is ignorant in my opinion. This case in point, if you truly want to learn the human condition, then you will need to accept the point that there are many of us who simplify it down that much. Otherwise, you would be leaving us out of your studies as well.

    I'm not necessarily saying ALL think things are just that simple, but I would say a vast amount does. A good amount of study will of course be needed to learn about it all. Even the idea of why some of us think it is just "fun" could be the reason for much study.

    Looking over the most simple of things is a common mistake, even our best doctors, scientist, etc, do it everyday. Ever have a medical problem that you just know how to fix, but the doctors will almost always say that can't be it for "blah blah" reason. So you never get the treatment you need. All because they won't listen to basic idea that yes, I just do have those problems.

    Happens to millions, including myself, all because the simplest concept wasn't taken. "It just is." Now don't get me wrong. You can then go on to try to study why "it is," but first that takes a step in the direction of admitting "it is."

    Occam's Razor hold relevant for a reason.

    Now look at you, got me babbling on like some intellectual type. How dare you make me think! 😉

  12. "How dare you make me think!"

    All bantering and fun-being-had arguments aside, it really does make me happy that you said this. That was my predominant reason for starting the blog (to get away from the obnoxious 'this is what I did today' or 'OMG dis vid on YOUTUBE is teh awesomest!'), so it makes me feel like that's at least partially succeeding.

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