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All Geek to Me: Penn State Researcher Challenges & Celebrates Geek Culture

by on August 31, 2015 6:00 AM

When Penn State doctoral student Stephanie Orme was growing up in a rural town in Missouri in the 90’s, being a geek didn’t mean quite what it means today.

Comic book movies weren’t dominating the box office. Video games weren’t a massive, multi-billion dollar industry. Even the term “geek” itself, somewhat nebulously defined as it is, meant something completely different.

“Geek culture has become cool. People will proudly identify as a geek, but when I was growing up it was a definitely a pejorative term,” says Orme. “Part of what united geeks together was being social outcasts in a lot of ways.”

Without a doubt, the geeks have come a long way since Orme was playing her old Mattel Intellivision or Sega Genesis game consoles with her brother while waiting for their parents to get home from work.

But now that Orme has dedicated her professional and academic life to studying geek culture, she realizes that there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Orme remembers when she was 15 years old playing massively multiplayer online games, and receiving “totally ridiculous and disgusting” sexual solicitations from grown men halfway around the world. Even now, the gamergate debacle (which brought attention to repeated sexual harassment and violent threats toward female gamers and developers) demonstrates that geek culture isn’t exactly all-embracing.

“It’s still this weird subculture with a lot of issues around gender and race and sexuality. People’s lives are really impacted by who they are as a person, and who they are within geek culture,” Orme says. “…Of course this is confrontational. Feminism, for me, isn’t about reaffirming the status quo. It’s about knocking down walls and challenging assumptions.”


Rocket Raccoon from the Guardians of the Galaxy hangs out on Orme's desk with some of her favorite books on geek culture. Photo by Michael Martin Garrett/StateCollege.com.

That’s why Orme, a communications and media studies researcher, is choosing to focus her work on the different ways that geek culture, feminism and the oppression of minorities all intersect – even if other people don’t always quite get it.

Orme, having found her niche at Penn State after completing her undergrad at Illinois State University, has grown comfortable in her identity as an academic, a geek and a geek-academic. But when she recently attended a family wedding and tried to explain her job to others, she got nothing but blank stares.

Even among her colleagues, Orme occasionally runs into a kind of dismissiveness about her chosen field of study, as if quote-unquote 'low culture' media doesn’t have enough intellectual meat to really sink one’s teeth into.

“Video games, for instance, are a really unique form of human interaction that are so different from something like literature or television,” Orme says. “You have so much more control in a video game, and there’s such a greater level of immersion, that you’re given more of a sense of the storytelling process. In essence, you become a storyteller yourself.”

So when Orme studies how young girls are using popular world building game Minecraft to craft narratives and explore their worldviews and sense of identity, she is also studying how video games are changing the idea of narratives themselves.

And when Orme talks to women comic book fans about how they perceive their place in a community dominated by female characters who are either victimized or sexualized, she is holding comic book writers accountable for creating a false narrative about women in popular culture.

But more than that, Orme is celebrating a community of social outcasts whom she grew up with, and she is celebrating a new kind of geek that takes pride in themselves as their interests find a wider acceptance in mainstream culture.

“A professor once told me that the difficulty about writing about pop culture is that there are so many people doing it everyday for place like Wired and the Atlantic, that I’ll have to do it better and smarter than anyone else,” Orme says.

“That’s super intimidating, but this is my passion, and I want to find a new and interesting way to look at this that’s never been done before.”



Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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