July of 2015 is officially the moment of both peak geek nostalgia and peak geek nostalgia criticism. In less than two weeks, we’ve seen the release of Ernest Cline’s book Armada and the Adam Sandler movie Pixels, two different pieces of fiction with the same weirdly specific premise: aliens are here to kill us all, and only gamers obsessed with the 1980s can save us. Armada and Pixels are both stories for tribes, not readers or viewers. Their characters exist to string together references, their plots to affirm that a certain group’s shared cultural ephemera is actually a matter of life and death.
Arriving after a year-long geek culture war that’s touched almost every fictional medium, both stories have been accused of embodying the dark side of that culture — slavish repetition, shameless pandering, and regressive politics. But they’re also two very distinct paths forward. And one, for all its flaws, could at least help kill the very worst trait of all: the persecution complex.
As critic Laura Hudson noted in her review of Armada, geek love letters are "designed entirely around getting the reference — high-fiving the readers who recognize its shoutouts while leaving everyone else trapped behind a nerd-culture velvet rope of catchphrases and codes." The ultimate revenge for being ostracized is getting to ostracize someone else. This arguably describes Ernest Cline’s first novel Ready Player One, where ‘80s trivia is weaponized in a cutthroat worldwide competition. Its characters seem incapable of forming new ideas, constantly attempt to one-up each other with obscure knowledge, and are primarily interested in culture as a currency.
Armada is like Ernest Cline knocking on your door to share the good news about Gary Gygax
But it doesn’t quite capture the spirit of Armada. Armada is practically evangelical in its approach to nerd culture — Ernest Cline knocking on your door and asking if you’ve heard the good news about Gary Gygax. It’s arguably less compelling fiction because it tries so hard to be inclusive and explanatory. Almost every character is either a geek or a geek in training, and if geeks are united by the things they love, then every enemy is just one Star Wars reference away from being a friend. When the protagonist tells his Doctor Who-watching, Gandalf-quoting mother, "All those years I spent playing video games weren’t wasted after all," he’s talking to a woman who already suggested he make or test video games for a living. You can’t play out a revenge of the nerds when everybody is on the same side.
Even the over-the-top pop culture references can be redeemed. They’re so omnipresent that it’s almost like watching a new language develop. Intentionally or not, Cline hits on something fundamental: sci-fi and superheroes are becoming to us what the Bible or Greek myths were to past centuries. At a certain point, references stop being either special or exclusionary and turn into shorthand — like mentioning Icarus and Eve to invoke hubris and temptation. (This gets even more explicit when Cline’s characters start quoting the Bible alongside They Live.) Armada isn’t a coded message, it’s a phrasebook.
The problem with Pixels — a much more mainstream piece of culture — is that it demonstrates the opposite tendency. Its entire plot is a parade of ugly, nonsensical ego-stroking, based on the idea that ubiquitous trivia (like how to play Pac-Man) is actually rarefied and unique knowledge. Nerdiness isn’t a common language here, it’s the last status marker that underemployed middle-aged men can lay claim to.
Pixels would fall apart if it allowed even a hint of Cline’s universality. If Adam Sandler’s character weren’t best friends with the president, if aliens weren’t mimicking a very specific set of games in versions that only he knows, if a conspiracy-minded friend didn’t randomly discover their message in the first place, he’d have to develop some redeeming quality beyond just showing up. For a movie whose characters spend a lot of time decrying snobbishness, it manages to be elitist at almost every turn.
Pixels demonstrates why "gatekeeping" might not be the right word to describe people who consider geek culture their personal clubhouse. It implies that they’re trying to keep hold of something exclusive, instead of just pretending that their supposedly niche hobby isn’t already shared by almost everyone. As in Pixels, they’re forced to construct more and more arbitrarily restrictive rules: You make games, but they’re the wrong games. You write fantasy, but it’s pretentious fantasy. You learn every detail about a superhero, but it’s for cosplay, so it doesn’t count.
Pixels' nostalgia isn't a common language, it's the last status marker of underemployed middle-aged men
These rules are ultimately more regressive than the obsessive nostalgia of Armada. One of Hudson’s contentions about the book — that women don’t get much time in the spotlight — is technically accurate. But the book is still notably more progressive than any of the fiction it’s copying, from Ender’s Game to The Last Starfighter. Its love interest certainly falls into the "scrappy girl geek" trap, but it’s much easier to take when she’s one of multiple girl geeks. If the protagonist’s other female teammates are flat, they’re flat in almost the exact same way as the male ones. Armada’s references are so abstracted from their source material that they end up dropping a surprising amount of its nasty baggage. The broad paint-by-numbers writing of Pixels, by contrast, can’t support anybody stepping outside heavily gendered movie archetypes like "creepy manchild," "uptight professional woman," or "Adam Sandler."
Maybe the most telling difference between the two is what gaming itself symbolizes. Pixels repeats, over and over, that arcade success is about following patterns; Sandler’s character is totally confused when enemies spawn randomly in a modern zombie game. To Armada’s protagonist, patterns are suspect. Anything too conveniently predictable, too much like a movie or a video game, must have something bigger going on. In theory, at least, Armada’s characters learn about tropes to subvert them — not to repeat them. It’s the difference between worshipping a piece of media and dissecting it, the difference between ripping off a story and building on one.
It’s ironic that Armada can’t actually follow through with this premise, mostly settling for quotes and wish-fulfillment instead of ideas. And radical geek inclusivity has its own set of problems, particularly when it treats its culture as the only valid culture. But for something so backwards-looking, it at least gestures at a way forwards. If you have to pick, it’s better to think that everyone is like you than to base your identity on the idea that you stand alone.