Nerd Alert: Pop Culture Fans Say It’s Cool to Be a Geek

Ray and Amy VanSyoc look over the comic selection at New Dimension Comics. (Photos by Dylan McKenzie)

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Most people have their own interests, hobbies, and activities to occupy their spare time. For some people, this takes the form of sports, a favorite TV show, or sitting down to read.

Others might have interests that veer away slightly from what is considered mainstream.

Today, there is much less social stigma attached to being a “nerd,” with superheroes and trading card games more popular than almost ever before. Residents of the Ohio Valley are no exception to these habits, as many enjoy games, comics and more in their everyday lives.

At Ohio University Eastern, John Prather, a professor of mathematics, said about eight years ago students in his calculus class started talking about various interests they had, including board games, comics and shows they enjoyed. Prather said one thing soon led to another, and he became the faculty advisor for the Nerd Club. He said the club has become one of the more popular and enduring student organizations at the college — one he believes provides a valuable service to its members.

“Sometimes nerds can be a tad socially awkward,” Prather said. “I think having a place where people who have similar interests can come together is really valuable. It gives people a chance to make friends. As the semester goes on, then people don’t have to show up to Nerd Club to find people with ‘weird’ interests.”

About six students gathered at the club’s regular meeting on a Tuesday afternoon.

Prather and co-advisor Mary Lenczewski brought cards, as well as the game Liar’s Dice and got a few games started with the gathered members. Lenczewski said in the past, they have played a wide variety of card, dice and board games, screened anime films in the club room, and played video games. Lenczewski believes the club also benefits students by allowing them to meet teachers who join the club activities outside of class, as professors can be intimidating to students.

“It just gives those who are considered different a place to find people they have connections with,” said Michael Pyatt, a junior at OUE.

Across the Ohio River in Wheeling, another teacher also is embracing nerd culture with his class, and using it to help teach students.

Zachary Klemm is a science teacher at Wheeling Middle School. When the final bell rings at the end of the day, Klemm and a handful of students in the school don’t head for the buses to go home. Instead, they head to the media center, where the group sets up maps, pulls out rulebooks and dice and prepares for a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Created by Gary Gygax in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons — otherwise known as “D&D,” has become one of the world’s most popular tabletop role-playing games.

The system allows players to enter a fantasy world and battle evil monsters, solve puzzles and undertake daring quests. Klemm said he started the club about a year ago, and the idea caught on quickly with his students.

“I’ve always been into gaming and fantasy literature. A really good friend of mine had shared a love of Dungeons and Dragons with me,” Klemm said. “One day I saw a student reading a Dungeons and Dragons book. This student was always the type who preferred to work by himself and wasn’t always super talkative. So I thought maybe I could get together some students for a weekly game. I figured it would be a fantastic opportunity for kids who may not be super into sports (to have) a creative space. I thought I’d only have a few students interested but there were over 15 interested.”

Klemm said more than 16 students regularly attend the club, where they break into several groups to enjoy their ongoing adventures. In addition to being enjoyable, Klemm views the game as a teaching tool. He said it reinforces math skills with students rolling dice and having to add numbers to it during the game to figure out damage and other factors in the game.

Students also need to read the lengthy player’s handbook to understand the rules and play the game, reinforcing reading comprehension skills. They also collaborate to solve problems throughout the adventures, helping teach group cooperation and socialization. Klemm said he aims to create a safe space where students can embrace their interests and enjoy time with friends.

“In this club I want students to know it is OK to be the ‘nerd’ or to be a little ‘weird’ because life is too short to worry about being ‘normal,'” he said.

He noted he adds an attendance incentive to the club. If students attend five days of club in a row, they are entered in a drawing for a set of dice or figure to be used in the game.

“I always wanted to play D&D but never had the time to play,” said seventh-grader Travis Henry, a regular attendee of Gaming Club. “I like it. It’s always fun to see the dumbest things people will do in a game.”

And residents looking for a variety of nerdy needs for gaming clubs or other hobbies need look no further than New Dimension Comics at the Ohio Valley Mall. The store has been open for more than two years, and provides a wide variety of products for shoppers of all ages and interests, including comics, games, action figures and more.

Store manager Nikol Kelly said they have done good business since they first opened their doors. The Christmas shopping season also was a busy time for the store.

“It’s been pretty steady,” Kelly said. “It went down a little since K-Mart and Elder Beerman closed, but Marshall’s opening helped.”

Kelly said in addition to the many products sold there, the store also holds official events regularly for Dungeons and Dragons, fellow role-playing game Pathfinder, and popular card game Magic: The Gathering. Players are always welcome to sit down and enjoy their own games, as well, according to Kelly, who said the store has several tables for free play.

She believes the store definitely fills a niche in the area, helping people find obscure comics and buy gaming supplies, and providing a space to hang out and enjoy themselves.

“Just stop in and ask if you need help,” Kelly said. “If we aren’t knowledgeable about something, we’ll get you in touch with someone who does know.”