Aaron Trammell is an Assistant Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine. Aaron’s research is focused on revealing historical connections between games, play, and the United States military-industrial complex. He is interested in how political and social ideology is integrated in the practice of game design and how these perspectives are negotiated within the imaginations of players. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Analog Game Studies and the Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out!
Geekiness is getting a makeover! The geeks, weirdos, and nerds who once stood at the fringes of consumer culture now find themselves at the center. In a poignant inversion, Dungeons & Dragons—a game once renown for its supposedly dark and cultish fanbase—has become mythic. It gives all of us who have once loved it the feels along with warm nostalgic memories. As our consumer culture reorients to position games at its center, the center disciplines and norms the fraught geeky bodies which were once positioned at its margins. Tellingly, Old Spice has designed a character class for Dungeons & Dragons: “The Gentleman.” Through this class they articulate their vision of the ideal geek, a cosmopolitan Dungeons & Dragons player who not only role-plays a gentleman in the game, but also has taste in deodorant outside of it. Old Spice uses “The Gentleman” as a metaphor for the geek they seek to deodorize and transform, and prompts us to consider how deodorant is both metaphor and method for how consumer capitalism incorporates bodies and brands into the patriarchal logic of consumption.
Historically, the brand of Dungeons & Dragons is fundamentally tied to a stereotype of a feminized adolescent nerd. The nerd, contrasted to a hunk like Old Spice’s suave Isaiah Mustafa (“Man Your Man Could Smell Like”), is seen as an outsider more interested in games than sports, fantasy than reality, and computers than sex and sexuality. The management of body odor through perfumes, deodorants, and colognes is a key part of how gender is performed, and the nerd’s apparent comfort with an outsider status helps to reinforce the stereotype that nerds have poor grooming habits and are thus sexually isolated and inept.
Smell is central to the performance of gender. Gender scholar Judith Butler describes gender as a kind of doing opposed to being—a “corporeal style” or performative “act.” (Butler, 1996, p.464) We are not given a gender at birth, instead we acquire one through how others view the clothes we wear, our actions, our mannerisms, how we talk, and yes, how we smell. In her analysis of advertisements in the perfume industry, Magdelena McIntyre observes that cologne marketed to men situates him as the “powerful seducer,” as opposed to perfume that positions women—generally—as the seduced. (McIntyre, 2013, p.295) The connotation is obvious; smelling good is implicit in the performance of powerful masculinity. What to do then, with the geek? As a figure whose performance of masculinity relies more on their outsider status and aptitude with technology than their personal grooming habits, they are somewhat feminized. The geek compensates for their failure to master the normative rules of society by mastering nice rules, like those of Dungeons & Dragons, instead.
T.L. Taylor refers to this mindset as “geek masculinity.” (Taylor, 2012, pp.111-2) For Taylor, players reinforce and embrace an outsider status by mastering any number of nerdy, arcane topics. In Dungeons & Dragons, an endless and exhaustive series of rulebooks encourages players to become specialists on the rules governing their character archetypes as well as the lore of the game world. The game’s moderator, referred to as the “Dungeon Master” is doubly revered and rewarded for their specialized knowledge (Dashiell, 2017, paragraph 6). The economics of geek wisdom that are shared around Dungeons & Dragons reinforce the brand’s value as fans come to relate their time and investment with the game’s rules as part of their identity. The nerd can be contrasted with the stereotypical—yet “mainstream”—jock whose hypermasculine performance of identity is often depicted within the context of a locker room or shower where grooming habits and dating tips are often shared in the same breath. The stereotype of the feminized and unkept nerd is reinforced by the Dungeons & Dragons’ player’s deliberate attentiveness toward developing a niche and specialized community, language, and culture around the game itself—one that is both daunting and alien to the mainstream. These distinctions, as Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett remind us in their book Toxic Geek Masculinity in Media, are stereotypes and emerge as a result of engaged and active boundary policing amongst those who self-identify as geeks (Salter and Blodgett, 2017, p.11-12).
In the media, Dungeons & Dragons players are almost always portrayed as outsiders. Take Netflix’s recent Stranger Things (2016), where the plot focuses on a set of adolescent boys playing Dungeons & Dragons in a suburban basement. The viewer is instantly familiar with the character of these boys—some of the viewers have undoubtedly played (or still play) role-playing games in suburban basements and those who haven’t are at least familiar with the stale scents of a half-finished cellar. The trope of the player-loner recurs in Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), Mazes and Monsters (1982), and Community (2009-2015). These intuitive traces of what Dungeons & Dragons is, who the players are, and where the game is played work together to form a collective memory of the game that is primarily affective. Our cultural memory of Dungeons & Dragons has far more to do with how the players around the table perform masculinity, than it does with the rules of the game itself. The unwashed smell of teenage boys is as much a signifier of hesitant and unrefined geek masculinity as it is a signifier of the basements, back rooms, and comic shops where the game is played.
Old Spice’s character class, “The Gentleman” cannily seizes upon Dungeons & Dragons’ fraught relationship with geek masculinity and shows players how they can buy out of a nascent effeminate stereotype of geek masculinity by buying in to their deodorants. “The Gentleman” is a four-page PDF rolled out on Old Spice’s Twitter account on February 7, 2018. Old Spice wrote, “Download this new Old Spice Gentleman Class for the greatest role playing game of all time, which we cannot mention for legal reasons, to fulfill that fantasy dream you have always had since reading this post.” Here, Old Spice offers players the opportunity to transcend the nerd stereotype and remake themselves by role-playing and thus embodying the behaviors and grooming habits of the ideal man.
Old Spice is in the business of making smells go viral. With “The Gentleman,” they are working to engineer an ideal male consumer who played Dungeons & Dragons in their youth and now fashions themselves to be a bit more cosmopolitan. The rhetoric of smells has become quite intuitive to Old Spice’s marketing team. The creative behind this process, Iain Tait, has acknowledged a strategy of quantity over quality. He wants to get people talking and smelling:
I bet a whole load of [viewers] are going to go into the aisle and take the top off an Old Spice and smell it. People that may never have done it before. That peer recommendation and seeing that real people are actually talking about this, in a way that not only says they enjoy the entertainment, but that there are smart people in these networks making the connection between the content, the product and the experience of the product.
In this sense, every hit on an Old Spice video is a potential comment. And every comment underneath the video is a potential consumer breathing in the Old Spice musk in a Target, Walmart, or grocery store. In these spaces of consumption, the Old Spice bouquet floods the customer’s nostrils just as Old Spice videos flood a user’s feed on Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube. The goal is to produce an odor, despite the deeply gendered and heteronormative connotations that Old Spice advertisements play into.
The ideal man, although deodorized in Old Spice’s vision, is a stereotype made all the more viable by the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons which quantify and reduce bodies to numbers and categories. The underlying logic of quantification and reduction has a deep and problematic history of misogyny within the design of Dungeons & Dragons’ character classes. (Trammell, 2016; Garcia, 2017) Not only do the game’s mechanics encourage the reduction of the body into a set of numbers, these numbers often hold gendered assumptions (for instance women were said to be weaker, yet more dexterous than men in an early debate) (Trammell, 2018, forthcoming). These gendered mechanics were an early form of gatekeeping that encouraged play by men over women—thus populating game tables across the world with the distinct scent of geek masculinity. They were part of the reason that the game overhauled the rules around gender to better reflect its potential as a role-playing element and not a quantifiable game mechanic.
Old Spice’s ad campaign is a throwback to the explicit logic of these early editions of Dungeons & Dragons. It trains players through the language of geek masculinity—the complicated and arcane rules of the game—how to perform a more typical, hegemonic masculinity. The following description practically douses the class with the advertising prose of Old Spice: “To some travelers, the innermost secret caverns of the humanoid heart are the most intrepid non-jewel-encrusted caverns to explore,” the description begins. In a call-out to their viral marketing campaign, they continue, “Whether it be a charming smile, a clever quip, or a catchphrase that dangerously dips its toes into the clear, cool waters of annoying repetition, the Gentleman will always find a way to rise above any challenge…all in the name of selling more Old Spice deodorant than Old Spice is already selling.” “The Gentleman” smells like Old Spice: he is a walking advertisement for it.
Self-improvement is the science of norming oneself to the expectations of consumer culture. “The Gentleman” has a statistic table that explains how geek masculinity can be seen as a form of self-improvement. Learning to behave with courtesy and to groom oneself pervades the table as perks earned as one levels up in skill. Presumably, “The Gentleman” is a comically ever-evolving vision of the different behaviors that can be adjusted—just as one’s odor can be deodorized—through self-identification as an Old Spice consumer. Consumption knows no gender and the table even suggests that the “Gentleman” class can also accommodate “Old Spice Gentle-ladies”. The game mechanics call into question the degree to which these “Gentle-ladies” can be free of the odor of geek masculinity. For instance, as characters grow and gain levels, they gain abilities of increasing machismo:“biceps” grows their physique, “strong convictions” aids their masculine persona, and “wolfdog” allows them to transform into the most masculine of beasts—the wolfdog (who can ace any “business situation”). The Gentleman even possesses an ability called “Wardrobe Change” which allows him to change into a towel “to cover his, you know, stuff.” These abilities are all intended to evoke the smell of Old Spice icon Isaiah Mustafa through the mechanics of the game. There is even a funny ability called “Advertisement” designed to remind players that they are reading (or smelling) through an Old Spice commercial. It reads, “You should buy one of Old Spice’s finely scented body products. Timbre is a nice choice.” Although Old Spice claims that Gentle-ladies are encouraged to play along, it is made obvious through the subtle comments listed above that femininity and feminine attributes are seen as inferior to the active and able masculine attributes available to those playing a Gentleman. One wouldn’t want to be caught performing the effeminate geek masculinity, after all.
It is a happy and contrived coincidence that Old Spice’s “Gentleman” class—and greater advertising ecosystem—fit so squarely within the auspices of Dungeons & Dragons. “The Gentleman” showcases the extent to which geek masculinity’s makeover dovetails with a similar overhaul of Dungeons & Dragons. The contemporary efforts of Wizards of the Coast to clean up the brand and make it more inclusive reinforce this point. But where does inclusivity end and hegemonic masculinity begin? Old Spice’s interest in making the nerds sexy means adjusting the nerd to the well manicured forms of masculinity one finds in the media. They use Dungeons & Dragons to train geeks in the performance of normative masculinity through the games idiosyncratic rules. The geek, who for so long had resisted this normative performance, is now swept up within it and now held at the center of today’s consumer capitalism.
“The Gentleman” emerges as blockbuster Marvel films such as Black Panther (2018) and Infinity War (2018) hit their apex. It casts the geek, Dungeons & Dragons, gamer culture, and all of us who have grown up believing we truly were outsiders in spotlight. Although this reorientation from the shadows to the center can feel empowering, I remain concerned that the transformation from geek to chic masculinity remains fraught. As the geek comes to locate their identity not in the dank corners of a hobby or comic shop but instead in the sterile and interchangeable aisles of Target and Walmart, something is lost. The deodorized geek identity comes to more closely reflect the interchangeable, commodifiable, and archetypical nature of Dungeons & Dragons character sheets—not characters played. When we reduce the complexity of our selves, our bodies, and our livelihoods to a set of numbers, we reflect the bored, tired, and highly sexist stereotypes of our culture.
Could Old Spice deodorize geek masculinity if it wasn’t positioned at the center of consumer capitalism? While Old Spice trains geeks how to be sexy, I’m stuck wondering why geeks weren’t sexy in the first place—and how much of geek masculinity and its odor wasn’t already produced by a media industry intent on norming consumers to its center.
Thanks to Emma Leigh Waldron and Alex Chalk for careful reading and feedback on early drafts of this essay. Also thanks to Jenny Stoever and Sean Gouglas for putting “The Gentleman” on my radar hours after its release.
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