Research Article: A Psychological Exploration of Engagement in Geek Culture

Date Published: November 18, 2015

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Jessica McCain, Brittany Gentile, W. Keith Campbell, Thomas Niederkrotenthaler.


Geek culture is a subculture of enthusiasts that is traditionally associated with obscure media (Japanese animation, science fiction, video games, etc.). However, geek culture is becoming increasingly mainstream; for example, in the past year alone, Dragon*Con, a major Geek convention in Atlanta, Georgia, attracted an attendance of over 57,000 members. The present article uses an individual differences approach to examine three theoretical accounts of geek culture. Seven studies (N = 2354) develop the Geek Culture Engagement Scale (GCES) to quantify geek engagement and assess its relationships to theoretically relevant personality and individual differences variables. These studies present evidence that individuals may engage in geek culture in order to maintain narcissistic self-views (the great fantasy migration hypothesis), to fulfill belongingness needs (the belongingness hypothesis), and to satisfy needs for creative expression (the need for engagement hypothesis). Geek engagement is found to be associated with elevated grandiose narcissism, extraversion, openness to experience, depression, and subjective well-being across multiple samples. These data lay the groundwork for further exploration of geek culture as well as provide a foundation for examining other forms of subculture participation.

Partial Text

A geek is traditionally defined as an enthusiast who develops expertise on a topic through exceptional determination and devotion [1]. The word “geek” is used to describe not only enthusiasts in science, technology, and engineering but also especially devoted fans of media (i.e., “fandom geeks”). Here, we refer to geek culture as a subculture of enthusiasts that is traditionally associated with obscure media (Japanese animation, science fiction, video games, etc.). However, geek culture is becoming an increasingly mainstream influence on contemporary culture. Geek culture includes a range of activities such as role-playing games (e.g., Dungeons and Dragons), science fiction (e.g., Star Trek), comic books, and dressing in costumes (i.e., cosplay). Although geek interests were once marginalized [2], comic book movie adaptations (e.g., Iron Man, Thor) [3] are now major box office draws. Likewise, science-fiction (sci-fi) and fantasy themed video games (e.g., World of Warcraft) have become multi-billion dollar industries. There has also been enormous growth in geek conventions such as Comic-con and Dragon*Con. In the past year alone, New York Comic-Con, one of the premier geek conventions in the United States, attracted over 130,000 attendees [4] and Dragon*Con in Atlanta has grown from 2,400 fans in 1989 to 57,000 fans in 2013 [5].

We first sought to operationalize geek culture by creating a scale that could be used to test our hypotheses. Because geek culture defines itself through identification with media interests, we proposed that geek culture engagement could be operationalized by quantifying participation in the interests and activities present at major geek conventions. We thus combined the activities and genres listed in the programs of the internationally successful multigenre convention, Dragon*Con, and added in non-redundant geek-related activities from two other conventions local to Atlanta (Furry Weekend Atlanta and Frolicon, a science fiction and kink convention) to create a representative sample of geek activities. Based in Atlanta, GA, Dragon*Con drew over 57,000 members in 2013, and offers over 30 different “fan tracks” reflecting the varied interests and niches of geek culture [5]. In two Amazon MTurk samples, we used a listing of these fan tracks as well as several measures of personality and emotional needs to begin to validate the construct of geek culture engagement and explore its nomological network (i.e., the set of lawful relationships that define geek culture in relation to other constructs [45]). In our choice of personality measures, we also began to explore all three theoretical accounts by exploring the relationships between geek engagement and narcissism, Big Five personality, and basic emotional needs.

In order to validate the GCES in the population for which it was intended, we gave the GCES-S as well as measures of narcissism and self-esteem to attendees at the 2013 meeting of Dragon*Con. If the GCES is a valid measure of geek engagement, we expect attendees at a major geek convention to score significantly higher on average than participants in non-geek specific populations (e.g., Samples A and B from MTurk). In addition, we wanted to further validate geek engagement as a construct by testing whether it was observable to naïve strangers. Studies have shown that outside observers can accurately perceive individual difference variables from photographs, [61] especially when the subject of the photograph has some control over the picture (e.g., pose, outfit, smile). If geek engagement is a valid construct, we can expect individuals higher in geek engagement to appear “geekier” than individuals lower in geek engagement in photos. Therefore, we took a photograph of each participant to examine whether observers’ perceptions of their appearance are consistent with their geek engagement score. Because narcissism can also be perceived through appearance [62], we also tested whether observers’ perceptions of their appearance are consistent with the hypothesized relationship between geek engagement and narcissism.

In Studies 1 and 2, engagement in geek culture activities related positively to narcissism. These results provide preliminary support for the great fantasy migration hypothesis, which predicts that persons high in narcissism may migrate to the fantasy worlds provided in geek culture, and thus become less engaged in real life activities. We further examined this hypothesis by measuring geek culture engagement, life goals, and civic engagement in a sample of normal adults to test whether geek cultural engagement would be associated with less civic engagement and lower interest in life goals pertaining to career, family, and political achievement. We also tested whether geek engagement was associated with lower future orientation—we predicted that individuals showing less engagement with real life would also show less concern for the future and potential consequences of their actions.

The goals of Study 4 are twofold. First, we tested the belongingness hypothesis through an adaptation of Leary et al.’s [69] belongingness paradigm. Participants rated each activity from the GCES in terms of how they would feel when they participated in the activity as well as how they believed others would react to them. Based on Sociometer Theory [69], participants will report feeling higher self-esteem and more positive feelings when performing activities that they believe would lead others to accept them. If the belongingness hypothesis holds true, higher geek involvement will be associated with believing others who are important to them would accept them for engaging in geek activities and with feeling more positively when engaging in the same activities.

The belongingness hypothesis proposes that individuals engaging in geek activities form ties with others through those activities. Based on this hypothesis, we would expect to see geeks naming predominately other geeks as members of their social networks, and for their strongest ties to be with others who share their same specific geek interests (e.g., hobbies with hobbies, lifestyles with lifestyles). In Study 5, we conducted a social network analysis of the egocentric networks of a sample of normal adults on MTurk. Participants nominated up to 30 of the people closest to them and rated those persons on each of the subscales of the GCES. We predicted strong homophily among geeks—that geeks’ social networks would consist primarily of others with similar geek engagement scores, and that among high scoring geeks their ties would be closest with those who shared similar obscure interests.

In Study 6 we measured intelligence, fantasy proneness, and several known predictors of creativity (e.g., schizotypal personality and dissociative traits) along with geek culture engagement in a general sample of adults.

Another individual difference variable associated with need for engagement is creativity. Creative people are often said to require stimulation and novelty [34], and in addition to having stimulating and novel themes (e.g., fantasy, science fiction) geek culture activities (such as constructing costumes, writing storylines for role playing games, and portraying popular characters through cosplay) offer a plethora of creative outlets. In Study 7, we measured geek culture engagement along with several aspects of creativity including values and attitudes toward creativity, creative activities and behaviors, and the generation of ideas. Because we had not yet measured education in regards to geek engagement, we also included education in our demographics for this study. A positive relationship between geek engagement and creativity would be consistent with the desire for engagement hypothesis.

To make the results more clear, we meta-analyzed results collected in more than one sample and present them in Fig 1. Over the course of five studies, narcissism showed a consistently strong positive relationship to geek engagement, r(2353) = .24, 95% CI [.19, .29]. This relationship persisted after controlling for age, gender, SES, and in Study 7, education. We can say with high confidence that geek engagement is positively related to narcissism, which provides partial support for the great fantasy migration hypothesis. Hypersensitive narcissism, entitlement, depression and subjective well-being all showed relationships consistently above zero over the course of two studies, whereas the Big Five traits of openness, neuroticism, and extraversion showed average relationships above zero over the course of three studies. However, in Studies 1 and 6, the majority of these relationships went away when controlling for gender age, and SES. Only openness, depression, and SWB maintained significance in Study 1, and openness maintained significance in Study 6 except when fantasy proneness and schizotypal personality were controlled for. The consistency with which these patterns of results appear over multiple studies suggest that the higher a person’s geek engagement, the higher their narcissism,openness, depression, and self-reported subjective well-being. In addition, we meta-analyzed the relationship between the GCES item “real life” and full scale geek engagement as a further test of the great fantasy migration hypothesis. This item showed a consistent negative relationship with geek engagement, suggesting that geeks may perceive themselves as less engaged in their daily lives. However, because we provided little guidance as to definition of real (daily) life, and because of the specificity of geek engagement relative to “real life,” this relationship may also reflect differing definitions of “real life” rather than actual disengagement. Further research is required to determine whether this lack in felt engagement is specific to geek engagement.

As recently as the 1980’s, comic book heroes, high fantasy, and science fiction—media interests typically associated with geeks—were considered strange, unpopular, and in many cases taboo. In 2014, these same markers of geek culture are box office smashes, multi-billion dollar industries, and a wide-reaching counterculture with its own brands, fashion trends, and celebrities.

In this paper we have only begun to explore the reasons people engage in geek culture. As we state up front, this is a beginning rather than the last word on the topic. We have relied heavily (although not exclusively) on correlational, self-report data to examine the plausibility of the theories posed above. Experimental, developmental or experience sampling methods would be ideal to more definitively test each of the hypotheses proposed in this paper. We have foregone more complex mediational analyses that will eventually be required to provide a definitive test of the mechanisms we have proposed here. We also have not conducted research using other ethusiasts as a comparison group; research comparing geeks to other groups containing like-minded individuals (e.g., football fans) will be needed to determine whether these relationships are exclusive to geeks. Finally, we have focused on these hypotheses at an individual level. Cultural level work exploring major cultural events and demographic information is needed to examine these hypotheses, as geek engagement is a cultural trend as well as an individual behavior.

Although it primarily concerns entertainment and leisure, geek culture is becoming an increasingly prevalent part of our society. The study of geek culture can tell us much about how individuals engage with media and for what reasons. Our findings suggest that geek media is especially attractive to narcissists, independent of demographic variables. Given the trend of rising narcissism in the United States [6], understanding geek media may shed light on the function media plays in the narcissistic process. We have also found geek engagement to be related to subclinical depression, making it potentially relevant to clinical psychologists as either a cause or a potential remedy for depressed mood. The GCES and GIS can be used to do important work on each of these social problems.

Geek Culture Engagement Scale (GCES)