Self-Labeling and Geek Culture

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be part of geek culture. To be a “nerd” or a “gamer.” To like science fiction, or just to be a fan of something.

For a long time, I very much participated in the community of people who called themselves those names: gamer, geek, nerd, fan. We label ourselves that way proudly. Like other geeks, I watched marathons of sci-fi shows nobody’s ever heard of, read comic books on my commute, collected action figures from my favorite series, and played every video game I could get my hands on.

I liked it all… but some things more than others. Even though I knew my own preferences, I went ahead and kept searching for those obscure sci-fi shows and reading graphics novels that I might not have otherwise picked up, except that a bunch of geeks online were reading them. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, maybe even join in the conversation. Instead of playing just one or two video games that really, truly appealed to me on some deep level, I dabbled in everything I could find.

I guess I was trying to be an expert. I wanted to be a participant and contributor to this culture, and I succeeded. As a geek, I felt accepted.

Bad Geek

But I’ll be honest: I get burnt out. It’s not that I don’t love these things — they’re a huge part of who I am — but they’re also part of my job. That can lead to real excitement at work, but it can also leave me with less energy to pursue those same things as hobbies during my off-hours. I write all day, and usually it has to do with video games. I suppose the balance of work and fandom has shifted for me.


There was a time when I would have played through Dragon Age: Inquisition in two weeks or less, but that just hasn’t fit into my schedule the past few months… so I’m still in the middle of that playthrough. I guess it’s fine, nobody’s checking up on me, yet I feel kind of guilty about it. It’s on a private, personal level, and I know it’s kind of silly — but I do. Especially hearing from all the people who have put in way more hours than me and finished the game in a respectable amount of time. Dragon Age is one of my series — how can others beat me to finishing the new game? What kind of fan am I?

Working at something you love is nothing to complain about, but nowadays I spend my free hours catching up on must-dos like creative writing and being with the people I love. As a result, I find myself gaming less and less. I don’t look up obscure sci-fi shows anymore. I keep meaning to watch Agent Carter and write a blog post about Continuum but haven’t gotten around to them yet.

In short, sometimes I feel like a bad geek. I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I do feel like as a geek, I have this measuring stick that’s based on how the rest of the community operates — how much time they put into things, how knowledgable they are — and if I don’t keep up, I feel like I don’t belong. I know I shouldn’t feel bad about things, but it’s gotten me thinking about the fine balance between enjoying something as a sometimes-hobby and actually calling yourself part of a certain culture.

Gaming as a Hobby, Not an Identity?

I know many people who play video games once or twice a week, when they don’t have any plans and are a little bored. They get into it. They enjoy themselves. But they wouldn’t call themselves “geeks” or even “gamers.” They play just a few games — maybe all sports games, or just titles on their handheld consoles, or exclusively the big shooters like Call of Duty or Halo. They know what they like, but they don’t call themselves “gamers” and don’t expect to fit into any culture consisting of people who do. They have other hobbies that draw their interests more. They don’t label themselves or feel the need to be a part of any community related to these interests.

Having less time to game lately, for me, means being more selective about the video games I play. Typically I write an annual wrap-up blog post about my favorite things in video games, but at the end of 2014, I simply hadn’t played enough games. There were also a few games sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to get back from an end-of-year work trip… So they were not played in time for that blog post. So I didn’t write it.

I felt kind of bad about myself then and wondered if I could still even call myself a “gamer.” Like it’s so important. Like anybody would call me out on it if I did or didn’t.

Of my friends who play video games just once in a while, or as a sideline hobby, most consider me an expert on video games even when I’m only playing a few hours a week or a few sit-down sessions a month. They think I know way more than they do. I probably do, but will I still if I keep up this casual schedule for the next five years? I don’t want to be out of the loop. I really like the loop.

Self-Labeling to Belong

I guess it’s just easy to be hard on yourself as a geek. Because of the self-labeling that goes along with it. Maybe that’s silly. Maybe we take things too seriously and feel like we need to do it all and know it all and be everywhere in the community all at once. If we’re behind on the latest geek trends or TV or video games, we feel like we stop belonging. Like we’re not proving ourselves when we should be. We shame ourselves a little bit… or sometimes I do, anyway. I might be the only one, but I don’t think I am.

Recently I had a conversation with a couple of friends about the “gamer” community and how its definition is becoming increasingly rigid. It’s like the more popular video games become, the more the inner circle of gamers shrinks. The definition tightens. Maybe some gamers feel the need to cling to the exclusivity of their favorite passion, but I don’t know that I like that. I didn’t grow up with video games — not too much, anyway — so I don’t feel like part of that inner circle anyway.

But I do wonder about the self-labeling aspect of it all, the community aspect and the need to feel like you belong based on shared interests that not many people have. After all, there’s a great joy in being able to fall into conversation with a stranger about the different paths to take in The Witcher 2 or being complimented by a fellow fan on your N7 gear.

And I suppose that while I sympathize with the concept that part of that thrill is the exclusivity, I feel the same sense of community meeting a fellow San Francisco Giants fan — and let me tell you, that’s an overpopulated crowd where I live. So maybe we overrate exclusivity a little bit when it comes to geekdom… though every fandom has its standards.


Maybe I’m just going through a gaming rut. A busy time. That kind of stuff happens. A little drought doesn’t mean my gaming life isn’t going to stay lush in the long run. It’s a passion that has endured a lot and isn’t going anywhere, even though I may have struck a new balance in my life between that passion and everything-else-going-on.


I guess my real question is this: Is saying “I like video games” different than saying “I’m a gamer”? Does it even matter? Self-labeling myself that way — I’m a geek, I’m a gamer — has been a security blanket for me for so long, it’s hard to give it up. I’ve taken on other labels in my life, and they’ve taken priority.

But really, I’m starting to see that I should quit it with the labels altogether and just be me. Sometimes the balances are going to shift, and that’s okay. It’s still me. Doing something is being someone, but I don’t have to do everything all the time to still be me.

So it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

— Ashley

9 thoughts on “Self-Labeling and Geek Culture”

  1. “But really, I’m starting to see that I should quit it with the labels altogether and just be me. Sometimes the balances are going to shift, and that’s okay. It’s still me. Doing something is being someone, but I don’t have to do everything all the time to still be me.”

    Amen. Despite having a huge amount of games on my backlog, I have only been playing one trying to get a difficult Platinum trophy for my troubles. Other than that, I may dabble in another game or two, but that’s all I have wanted to do.

    I don’t mind, too much. Part of me is annoyed that I am not getting around to anything else and that I am far behind everyone else. But, I am enjoying myself and that is what ultimately matters the most.

  2. Great, reflective post. It seems natural to me that people should be (not to say they are) okay with flip-flopping between different hobbies and identities, because no person is a singular entity. True, *one* hobby might help someone find whatever it is they are looking for in life, any maybe it will come to define that person, but it’s totally okay if that hobby leads to nine others and nine other identities — those are what shape daily living. Right now, I’m a gardener, not a gamer, because that’s my most prominent, non-work activity at the moment. Maybe this weekend I’ll get be a gamer or a chef for a couple hours. I’m trying to rebuild my Star War fandom through reading, so maybe I’ll slip into that persona as well. Most weeknights, I’m expanding my superhero or sci-fi knowledge, because that’s what’s on TV. Granted, I may not label myself within and of these pastimes, but that doesn’t make them any less important in my life.

    Being something other than a “gamer” today, tomorrow, or five years from now is okay. It’s still a huge part of your persona, and likely always will be.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yeah, I like how you mention that things you do can “define” you, maybe, because in a way, that’s different than slapping a label on yourself for something. The first is more natural and shouldn’t be all-inclusive. Like you said, your “identity” is always changing even day to day as you pick up different activities depending on what’s available to you, what you enjoy in that moment, etc.

  3. I don’t focus on labels too much, but in my opinion, if you like games at all even if you’re only playing a few hours a week or just one game alone, you’re considered a gamer. We both have similar experiences with games, neither one of us having been much of gamers or grown up on games as a kid, but does that make us any less of a gamer now that we’ve discovered them later in life? Nope. We’re gamers even if it took us much later to realize there are video games we actually want to play and enjoy.

    I also think when you’re an adult it becomes much harder to hold to any one identity. We have so much going on in our lives and other things we want to pursue or focus on more than other things. I used to pride myself on being an anime/manga fan, always being in the know of the latest series/trends. Nowadays, I’m so behind and out of the loop I wonder if I can even call myself a fan now. I know it isn’t because I lost interest, but there are other things I rather be doing or have to do. As for the gaming, doing the video game challenges for my blog sort of makes me accountable to actually find time to game because I really do want to finish what I currently have. I may not be buying up a storm in video games, but I know I don’t necessarily have to play everything everyone else is playing. Like you said, I rather spend my money wisely and pick a game I know I’ll really get into and have fun playing. It’s also better to care less if you’re playing an old game everyone else probably has beaten by now. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you get out of the experience. Great post! :)

  4. I kinda hoped that was where you were headed…

    I’m in a similar boat, for a couple of reasons. There’s a new job, with new responsibilities, and I recently became a dad. My game/geek time has been whittled down to a sliver of its former glory. I think it’s something that naturally happens as we get older, but I’ve also noticed that the scope of new things that target geek audiences has expanded drastically in recent years. Maybe it’s the success of things like COD and GTA, or the Marvel movies, or any number of other developments.

    My point is, with so many options to geek out over, you almost have to specialize just to keep up with any of it. I definitely feel out of the loop from time to time, but I’m mostly choosing to view it like this: We’ll never run out of cool new things to discover.

  5. Two thoughts:

    First, I think a lot of gamers are facing the same challenges you expressed. As gamers collectively get older as a demographic, we take on other obligations – family, career, etc. – that pull us away from our hobbies. It’s not that games are for kids, it’s just that they have so much more free time. (Enjoy it while you can!)

    Second, the idea that people who only play popular games aren’t real gamers is silly. It’s the same thing as hating a band once they become popular. People say “OMG, this band is so cool, you have to hear them,” but once the band goes mainstream, those same people cannot stand it.

    I think we should celebrate that others enjoy our hobby. Why do people have to be “hardcore” to be a gamer?

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