How it became cool to be a geek

Eric Smith, author of "The Geek's Guide to Dating," at Brave New World comics. ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )
Eric Smith, author of "The Geek's Guide to Dating," at Brave New World comics. ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )
Posted: March 27, 2014

Around town, Eric Smith is known as the patron geek of Philadelphia.

Besides his blog Geekadelphia, about all things techie and geeky (which could be redundant), and the Philadelphia Geek Awards, an Oscar-esque evening he helped create to celebrate the city's geek culture, and his debut book, The Geek's Guide to Dating, with plenty of arcane video-game references among the tips for geeky singles, Smith recently took two vacation days from his job as Quirk Books marketing manager to play, more or less nonstop, the new role-playing game South Park: The Stick of Truth.

"It's embarrassing," Smith, 31, allows of this last adventure. And then adds with no apologies, "But it's who I am."

Smith, who lives in the Rittenhouse area, is a geek, through and through. "A geek is someone who is very passionate about specific little geeky things," he says by way of definition and experience. "It's part of their lifestyle."

But don't cry for him, Philadelphia. The geek - a term used in the 1800s to describe a circus freak - has become quite the force in popular culture. In fact, geek culture has gone mainstream. The very term can be a sign of cool.

"Historically, geek was a pejorative term, a mocking term, someone who lacked social graces," says Bob Rehak, an associate professor of film and media studies at Swarthmore College and chair of the department who teaches "Theory and History of Video Games" and "Fan Culture."

"That's really dropped away," he says. "It's a proud thing to say you're a geek or nerd." (For the record, Rehak says he grew up a nerd and found a career that "legitimized my passions.")

Geeks have various theories about why geek culture is now more celebrated - and whether all this acceptance is really welcome or not.

The ubiquitous Internet has helped. The like-minded can find one another, no matter how narrow their interest. "You're not the other," says Christopher Wink, cofounder and editor for Technically Philly, a technology news website. "You're not so strange."

The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have helped boost the status of geeks everywhere, says sociologist Murray Milner Jr., a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

"There are so many heroes of adult geekdom that it's no longer the weird engineer with the plastic pencil holder in his pocket," says Milner, who is updating his 2004 book Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids to reflect the changing status of geeks. "That image has been replaced by the multimillionaires that made it in Facebook or Google or whatever."

San Diego's Comic-Con International, started in 1970 by a group of comic-book, movie, and sci-fi geeks, has grown to astronomical proportions and is the spot for anyone hoping to launch a blockbuster. The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about awkward physicists and engineers, may have started out as a way to poke fun at the geek-impaired but has done so in a way that has endeared those geeky characters to TV viewers everywhere - and won a few Emmys along the way.

The list goes on. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Star Wars franchise, The Avengers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sherlock Holmes in his many incarnations of late. Cultural high priest Malcolm Gladwell, he of the big hair and Blink, Outliers, etc., is a perennial on the New York Times best-seller list. Even Doctor Who, that time-traveling alien, landed on the cover of TV Guide as the winner of the 2012 fan favorites contest - a notion that would have been absurd a generation ago, says Stephen H. Segal, editor and coauthor of the book Geek Wisdom and editor in chief of Philadelphia Weekly. "Now, it's just life in the 21st century," he says, "something that literally the girl next door is talking about with her friends on a Saturday."

But all this love of things geeky can have its limits. "It's still not as popular to say I play Dungeons & Dragons," argues Adam Teterus, the point man for Indy Hall. The coworking space is located on North Third Street, better known as Nerd Street. "There are still plenty of thresholds."

Which, he and his fellow geeks say, is a good thing. "We want to hold on to something sacred," Teterus says. "We still want to have a uniqueness."

Smith remembers growing up in Elizabeth, N.J., a social pariah, reading GamePro magazine in the back of the bus with his best friend. Now, his quirkiness is something to celebrate.

"Yeah, we're just taking over," says Smith, who favors plaid shirts and vests along with Jules Verne tattoos. "It's great. We're the Game of Thrones."

In the mid-2000s, while working on a master's in English at Arcadia University (chosen, he says, for its Hogwarts-like castle on campus), he landed his first job at VisitPhiladelphia, a tourism group, and began blogging on the side about his geeky interests.

He also was dating a fellow geek and was ready to pop the question. When it didn't quite work out, he sold the engagement ring on eBay and spent the proceeds on a custom-made suit of armor, in the style of Master Chief from the video game Halo - and then famously wrote about his heartbreak and uniquely geeky response in a 2011 essay for the Bygone Bureau blog titled "Master Grief" that went viral.

Fast forward to 2012. On OkCupid, he met a social worker and fashionista. Now, Nena Boling, 30, is his fiancee. She is not a geek, he says, but she's learning to appreciate his passions, which, besides video games, include obsessing over comic books, fantasy lit, and bad sci-fi movies.

He also chatted up a storm on social media about a geek dating a non-geek, and the publisher at Quirk Books, where he started working in 2010, noticed and suggested it would make a good book. The Geek's Guide to Dating went to press in December last year.

"I was hoping to make a lot of people smile at the nostalgic references to video games," he says. (Lots of World of Warcraft winks.)

But it also has its share of useful tips. Smith advises geeks not to hide all the quirky, odd things about themselves. On his OkCupid profile, he took his own advice and noted how he's always on the lookout for the best hiding places for future zombie games. OK, perhaps a little odd, but Boling didn't seem to mind. "I think it's a great thing that geek culture is becoming mainstream, or just being yourself," Boling says.

Smith also points out that geeks are pros at minutia - and while your date might not care that you can quote from Futurama as if you wrote it, she might appreciate that you remember what she was wearing on that first date.

The sweet irony that he, a geek, is dispensing dating advice is not lost on Smith. "I get to go back to my hometown and show the people who thought I wasn't cool that I'm cool now," he says. "It's not just my mom saying that anymore."


lkadaba@gmail.com

@exinkygal

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