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.
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.