The Cones of Dunshire and Normalizing Geek


What is the main­stream per­cep­tion of geeks and nerds these days? Has it shift­ed at all from the stereo­typ­i­cal “liv­ing in your mom’s base­ment” image? I sup­pose that depends on who you ask, but per­haps one telling sign is how geeks and nerds are por­trayed in tele­vi­sion, books, and movies.

Some TV shows present a shift in their por­tray­al of geeks/nerds. They’re not just obses­sive peo­ple holed up in their homes who have no life out­side of their fan­doms or games or what­ev­er it is they’re into. Orphan Black, for exam­ple, has a brief scene where Cosima Niehaus bests her col­leagues at Runewars while tak­ing a break from doing Important Science Work™. If you’ve seen Orphan Black, you know that Cosima has much more going on in her life than board games.

Parks and Recreation, a pop­u­lar American com­e­dy series, does a bit more than Orphan Black to present table­top games as a nor­mal part of life. In a week off between jobs, Ben Wyatt invents The Cones of Dunshire, a com­plex table­top game that only makes sense to him. The joke is that the rules are con­fus­ing and the whole geeky effort shows that he has way too much time on his hands. His dis­missal of it at the end of the scene along with men­tion­ing that he’s start­ing his new job tomor­row sug­gests that there isn’t a place for this level of nerdi­ness in his “seri­ous” pro­fes­sion­al life.

However, Parks and Recreation brings two worlds togeth­er for Ben. Unbeknownst to him, The Cones of Dunshire amass­es a cultish online fol­low­ing, which is how his game ends up in the hands of a few key employ­ees at Gryzzl, a tech com­pa­ny that Ben wants to hire to provide free wi-fi to his home­town of Pawnee, Indiana. At first, the bare­foot­ed hip­sters cool­ly reject him with a non­cha­lant “nah, bro,” but Ben is deter­mined to cut a deal with them. Seeing them play his game in their con­fer­ence room not only gives Ben the oppor­tu­ni­ty to prove that he is, in fact, the esteemed Architect of the game, but also to nego­ti­ate a busi­ness deal. In this com­i­cal, over­ly dra­mat­ic show­down, the fruits of Ben’s nerdi­ness (or cones, as the case may be) have a direct, pos­i­tive impact on a busi­ness goal. In other words, his hobby meets his career and geek­i­ness is inte­grat­ed with more ven­er­at­ed parts of life.

So, geek is nor­mal­ized. It coex­ists with hav­ing a life, so to speak. Ben works in local gov­ern­ment and con­tin­u­ous­ly earns high­ly respect­ed roles through­out the series. He even­tu­al­ly gets mar­ried and starts a fam­i­ly. He also buys a Batman suit on “Treat Yo Self” day.

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But is Ben real­ly much dif­fer­ent than any­one else in the show? All of the main char­ac­ters have some qual­i­ty that makes them weird and com­pared to Pawnee’s obses­sion with a minia­ture horse, Ben’s love for Star Wars and Game of Thrones doesn’t seem so out of place. After all, Leslie cre­ates thick binders of detailed pro­pos­als with just as much fanati­cism as Ben cre­ates The Cones of Dunshire.

I think the dif­fer­ence is that Ben’s brand of weird comes with a rep­u­ta­tion: neg­a­tive stig­mas like ‘geeks have no life or friends because they’re too obsessed with what­ev­er fran­chise grabs their atten­tion for hours’. Ben isn’t the only char­ac­ter whose weird­ness has a rep­u­ta­tion. April, arguably, has that emo/goth shtick going on and Tom has a bit of a douchebag vibe. Yet all of the char­ac­ters in the show are given a chance to be more than the stereo­types they’re based on.

Yes, The Cones of Dunshire does show that Ben is a com­plete nerd, but the fact that he cre­ates a board game rather than a videogame sub­tly breaks one stereo­type about nerds: that they’re aso­cial. Board games require face-to-face inter­ac­tion with other peo­ple — sure, you can sit with a bunch of friends and play a video game togeth­er, but it’s not the same expe­ri­ence as sit­ting across the table from some­one and hav­ing to inter­act with a char­ac­ter they’ve cre­at­ed from scratch.

Perhaps this is why Ben’s geeky cre­ation ulti­mate­ly helps him in that busi­ness deal with Gryzzl. The game is con­vo­lut­ed, but still social. Ben and his oppo­nents must read each other’s facial expres­sions, hear the inflec­tions in each other’s voic­es, and ana­lyze each other to antic­i­pate their next moves. The Cones of Dunshire help show that being a geek is not always a soli­tary expe­ri­ence.

These pop cul­ture shifts pre­sent­ing a dynam­ic geek­i­ness help influ­ence our own per­cep­tions of it. When peo­ple think of “geek,” they might now pic­ture some­one like Ben rather than an out­dat­ed stereo­type.


About Taylor Ramage

Taylor Ramage is a fiction writer and blogger whose interests include anime, theology, intersectionality, and pop culture. She also enjoys memes and bad (read great) puns.