Busting the "Nerd" Stigma

When people hear others talk about their love for books and movies like Lord of the Rings or games like World of Warcraft or Dungeons & Dragons they often think of the stereotypical "nerd" with their pocket protectors, taped up glasses, sitting around in some dark basement living out fantasy lives that could never be part of their real lives. This has been the standard image for "nerds" for decades now and even somewhat popularized again recently with the depiction of the kids in Netflix's Stranger Things and former television show The Big Bang Theory.

The truth is this, nerds are not just socially shy kids with puny physical statures. Nerds can come in any shape and size. And while celebrity nerds like Henry Cavill and Vin Diesel might not have always been the musclebound men that we see today on the big screen, not all nerds come from such humble beginnings.

While I am certainly not a celebrity or some hunk with bulging muscles or a cutting cheek line, I have generally considered myself something of a nerd for many years. School came exceedingly easy to me. I was bored through most of my high school years and found college to be boring for the subjects I was most interested in, computers. I felt other classes were a waste of my time and I wanted to focus on classes that expanded my knowledge of the computer sciences but struggled to find a curriculum that stimulated me. I never had to study for anything and if I ever brought a book home my mother would nearly faint at its sight due to their uncommon appearance in our home. I put no effort into my education but was easily among the top of my class. To me, that screams nerd even though I never wore glasses, never owned a pocket protector, and never played games in someone's basement (mainly because basements in rural Texas don't exist but still...).

Then there was my sporting endeavors. From the age of five until I was about sixteen, I played sports. Being rural Texas in the 80's and 90's the sports were limited to baseball, basketball, football, track, and weightlifting but none of those sports are things often associated with nerds. Now, while I played one or more sports every year for the majority of my childhood, I was never hardcore about any of them. I loved football, still do, but I never maintained any kind of strict diet or regular workout schedule. I loved the sports but knew that my future was not in professional sports. I never held any misguided dreams or hopes of going pro and as a result of my pragmatic viewpoint, I was allowed to focus on other areas of interest as I got older, mainly dating.

Once I started dating I never really looked back. Like most young people, I bounced from person to person. Relationships might last from a few weeks to a few months before one of us would decide to move on. Nerds are often thought of as lonely souls that gather together because they lack other relationships, mostly a lack of a love life, but that was never an issue for me. Maybe it was just the benefit of being in a small town but I dated regularly, sometimes more regularly than some girlfriends liked, but the point is that as a nerd I did have an active social life.

But then again, I didn't achieve my full nerd-dom until later in my childhood. Sure, I had an affinity for computers, a desire to tell fantastic tales, was very book smart, and enjoyed playing games but I didn't fully unlock my nerd potential until the later years after high school. D&D was a game that I had heard of but nobody I knew growing up played it. It wasn't until I was 18-19 years old that I got my first taste of that fun and excitement. MMO's like Everquest and World of Warcraft wouldn't come out until the late 90's when I was in my 20's. Sure, by then I had discovered my love for RPGs but even that came late. Growing up I was always a console generation behind my friends because my parents wouldn't spend the money on them. When everyone else was playing Zelda on their NES I was still playing Pit Fall on the Atari. And fighting games like Mortal Kombat was all the rage in those days so when I did get the newer consoles I gravitated towards the games I knew from the arcades, not the unknown role-playing games that nobody had heard of outside of Japan. It wasn't until I got my first Sony Playstation in '97 that I acquired my first RPG, Final Fantasy VII, and it stole my heart from all other games.

So while Henry Cavill may have been a portly kid until he grew up and got muscles or Vin Diesel was much thinner and known more for his dancing than his biceps, my journey was much different. I wasn't a nerd who became a beefcake. I was a nerd without being a nerd. I was known as much for my sports as I was my brains. While I may be socially awkward these days, back then I was much more outgoing and eagerly mingled with the opposite sex. I never wore nerd clothes, though I did lack any sense of style. I enjoyed all the things that nerds enjoy without looking like or behaving like the nerds shown in movies and TV shows. And celebrities like Henry Cavill and Vin Deisel have helped to mainstream "nerd" pleasures to a wider audience. D&D isn't just for nerds, it is for anybody who enjoys using their imagination and having a good time with friends. MMOs like World of Warcraft are not just games for nerds but people who enjoy socializing with others. If you enjoy Facebook then you will probably like an MMO, it is just Facebook with animations and combat.

As a nerd, I played sports. As an athlete, I enjoyed doing nerd stuff. As a top-tier student, I enjoyed having an active social life. Not one of these things predicates that you can't have the other. It is the stigma that society places on others that prevents them from enjoying all aspects of life. If someone is labeled a "nerd" then others might shy away from them because entertainment suggests that nerds are strange people or are into things that "normal" people aren't but that simply isn't the case. As a species, humans fear that which they don't understand. When someone talks D&D to someone who doesn't understand it, they think the other person is odd or strange and label them as such to their social circles. This perpetuates the myth that nerds are strange and should be ostracized from other groups making them social pariahs which leave them only other nerds to socialize with which only serves to reinforce the original myth.

Nerds come in all forms. Odds are that many of you have nerds in your family, have dated a nerd, or are close friends with a nerd without realizing it. Nerds are reluctant to discuss their interests openly after decades of ridicule so many of us keep it a secret, like it is something to be ashamed of when it isn't. It took me years to let on to my wife that I was writing fantasy fiction books that I would later publish. Not because I didn't believe in my writing but because there was concern how she might react to that level of nerdiness from her husband. Thankfully, she was, as she has always been, very supportive of my writing and my other nerd qualities. Now if I could only get her to let me put some of my nerd collection around the house and not only in my office....

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