A Nerd by Any Other Name

“You’re not a geek, mom,” said my teen son in the same tone a snooty maître d’ would use to dismiss a commoner. I had made the cardinal mistake of using “geek” and “nerd” interchangeably. “Well, then I’m a nerd,” I countered, ready to flash my Vulcan sign and attest that I had attended a Start Trek convention featuring Gene Roddenberry in the mid-70s. And don’t make me break out my version of the “I walked 20 miles in the snow to school” story:  I belonged to the Math League and my friend and I were the only two kids who ever carried books on our high school bus. We often feared for our lives among the pot and cigarette smokers, which included the bus driver.

My son gazed back at me, unimpressed. It’s bad enough that I struggle to keep up with technology, have to eat better and exercise more just to keep my middle age body the same, but now I couldn’t even keep up with being a nerd? What the hell was happening to the world? And more importantly, how could I lose my nerd status now that it was cool? Back in my day, you just had to dress up like a Star Trek character for Halloween and be smart, and bam, you were a nerd. Granted most people tried to avoid that label, but for those of us who couldn’t, we tried our best to embrace it. Now, according to my son, there are different rules and distinctions to being a nerd vs. a geek. He went on to patiently explain them, but it was my turn to glaze over. At some point there was a whole subsection about his group, being a hard core gamer. Since he was eight or nine he has loved video games—playing them, reading about them, watching videos about them, and following the industry news about the companies that make them. But by then I just nodded my head and smiled: a nerd by any other name is still a dorky cool person outside of the mainstream.

Which brings us to dorky cool nirvana, aka PAX East, the annual gaming convention that was in Boston this past weekend. We started going when he was 13 and it’s his third year. When I told friends and coworkers how I would be spending my weekend, I got looks running the gamut from sympathetic, to puzzled, to a blank stare: “What’s PAX East?” Indeed, what it is? It’s short for Penny Arcade Expo, and is an explosion of sight, sound, and happiness all focused on video games and whirling around 80,000 people. “It’s THREE days?” is usually the next question. “What on earth do you do?” Mostly, I just follow my son around and enjoy how happy he is. I don’t play video games myself—when I was a teen, only the rich kids could afford gaming consoles, and I was not one of those, nor did I especially want one. Occasionally I would mess around with Ms. Pac Man, but I was more into reading books and watching Star Trek. Yeah, that’s how old school nerd is done.

Sadly there were no Star Trek characters at PAX this year, but some people dressed up elaborately as video game characters. Other than people watching, there is a main floor of all the gaming companies, big and small, where you can try out new games and buy games and game-related merchandise. The rest of the convention center is filled with all kinds of events and panel discussions—yes, you heard me—panel discussions. About gaming. Some are about the state of the gaming industry. Others focus on specific games. One cool one we saw was on how to curb hatred in the gaming community—the anonymity of online gaming allows people to say some pretty nasty things. The panel talked about how positive gamers need to step up and set a better example. That panel and others feature well-known You Tubers, that is people who actually make a living by making funny and serious videos about video games on You Tube. I’ll wait a moment while you digest that. Ok, ready to go on? You Tubers are stopped in the hall and asked for photos and autographs. They are politely swarmed by fans after the panel discussions to chat and sign. And everyone is soooo patient. They will wait an hour for a signature, two hours to play the hottest new game. And no one gets mad, no one makes a scene. They are happy to be there, they are happy to get deeply involved in a conversation about a video game with the person waiting in line next to them. They are just happy.

Which is why I like to be there. Sure, it’s loud, overstimulating, I don’t get the inside gaming jokes, and lord knows I can’t play anything, but being a writer, I do get the creativity—serious gamers care deeply about the story of a game, the quality of the characters, and the originality of the game play. And I recognize that while they are a group of people who are gaining acceptance, they are still outside of the mainstream. As one You Tuber commented, “My family still doesn’t understand what I do for a living.” Many artists and writers and other creatives can relate to that. Ultimately I go to support my son, because that’s what parenting means to me. For a few years when he was younger, I hung out on soccer fields and little league bleachers to cheer him on. In the cold spring weekday evenings. The chilly fall Saturday mornings. In the rain. In the wind. During playoffs that always seemed to happen during a scheduled vacation. I definitely prefer supporting the out-of-the-mainstream activities, especially if they are indoors. If that isn’t proof of my nerdiness, then I’ll meet you at the Boston Star Trek convention in June. I know my Spock ears are around here somewhere.


  1. Whoa, still trying to figure out if I’m a geek or a nerd. Does having the original Star Trek theme as my primary ring tone count for anything;-) Great read to start the week! Mr. Sulu, set a course heading for the Ursa Nebula. Kirk out.

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