The sounds of fingers clicking on keyboards filled the dim auditorium. On a stage, a dozen gamers sat in a row, their LAN party projected onto a screen behind them. Two emcees narrated the gamers’ battle maneuvers in real time. In the audience, students sat in clumps, fingers whizzing over computers. Toward the back of the room, a group of gamers lounged in a circle, laughing over Nintendo 3DS XLs. They had come to play competitive Pokémon, and though most of them had already been ousted from the group tournament, they stuck around to chat with friends and see who would win.
Last month, the University of Washington hosted its first-ever Geek Week, a four-day celebration of geek culture. Nerdy clubs from around campus worked together to transform the HUB (Husky Union Building) into a welcoming and energetic center of all things geek. UW Geek Week included a sci-fi and fantasy writing workshop, a cosplay competition, board games, open console gaming, a quiz night hosted by Ken Jennings, and more.
I knew immediately that this event would be a huge success—as a student at UW, I had been friends with more than enough geeks to know that the ASUW (Associated Students of UW) had struck gold with this idea. I was just disappointed it hadn’t happened when I was still an undergrad.
The LAN party event was organized in collaboration with Husky Gamer Nation, The Society of Pokémon Masters, and The Union of Purple Caster Minions—three gaming clubs on campus. Both Husky Gamer Nation and The Society of Pokémon Masters are a little over a year old.
Frances Tosti of SPM first began playing Pokémon competitively as a freshman. She continued to enjoy it after many of her friends stopped playing. After serving as an officer in numerous campus clubs, including Humans vs Zombies Tag and Friendship is Magic, she decided to start something that was her own. Thus, with help from friend Frank Dominick, the Society of Pokémon Masters was born. The group meets every week and hosts tournaments every other. They play Swiss-style, which gives everyone a chance to compete in multiple battles.
“It’s low stakes,” Dominick explained. “A big part of our club is helping people get better, and the best thing to help you get better is experience. With Swiss style, even if you’re not very good you get four or five matches every tournament.” Those who do the best go on to the champion round.
“It’s competitive, but also friendly,” Tosti added.
“We’ll all be in the room together and suddenly someone will cry out in frustration,” Dominick said, “and everyone will be like ‘What happened what happened?’ And they say ‘It missed!’ There’s that shared energy—we’ve all been there, we’ve all felt that moment. I haven’t seen anyone get truly frustrated or angry. When we lose, we know we were outplayed.”
Zoe Thomas of Husky Gamer Nation started paying games around age six with Pokémon Red for Game Boy. Like most handheld games of that generation, the technology was too primitive for spoken dialogue or voice commands, and instead relied heavily on text. For Thomas (and many other kids her age), these games became motivation to learn how to read.
After graduating from high school, Thomas created the Husky Gamer Nation Facebook group as a way to stay in touch with her friends. When the group picked up a hundred new fans overnight, she knew she was on to something. She decided to turn the group into a club. Today, Husky Gamer Nation has 278 members, though typical meetings usually bring in about 20 students.
“It’s been a really good experience for meeting people,” Thomas explained.
“Gaming culture tends to be reclusive,” HGN event coordinator Andrew Guy said, “but you definitely see groups of friends forming.”
Tosti and Dominick had similar experiences. “The [gamer] community as a whole tends to be very shy and introverted,” Tosti said. Being an orientation leader created an excellent opportunity for club recruitment. “I would mention my clubs to incoming students, especially to more unsocial kids, the ones who weren’t fitting in as well. They felt that their interests didn’t matter. They would perk up and go, ‘Oh my god that’s here? That’s at the school that I’m going to?’ That is fantastic.”
“We do have members who just sit by the wall and play,” Dominick said. “But we work with them and get them out. Once you’re in a tournament you have to talk to the person you’re fighting with.” And the use of themed tournaments has helped even more. SPM just wrapped up a quarter-long tournament themed after the animated TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Each participant was assigned to one of the four elemental nations from the show. “There’s strategizing within your nation, and everybody comes together. That helps bring some of our shyer members out.”
“One of the nice things about nerdy clubs is the stress relief, if you’re overworked in school or other responsibilities,” Tosti explained.
Not all colleges provide a safe space for gamers to be social doing something they love, but that’s changing all the time. Geek culture is becoming mainstream. “I remember being 12 with my Game Boy and being a nerd,” Dominick recollected, “but now everyone has Call of Duty.” Games are here to stay, and they’re getting more popular all the time. So if your kids are gamers, you can rest assured that they will probably be among like-minded folk wherever they choose to study.
If a gaming club doesn’t exist yet at your kid’s school, it might just be a matter of time. Or, kids can make their own. Forming clubs is easy, especially at the University of Washington.
“Just grab four friends and go to the HUB,” Dominick said.
As long as colleges like UW are making it easy for students to create clubs, students will keep on making awesome social groups. The result is a happy, energetic, and supportive place to earn a degree.
Are your kids part of a geeky club? Write about their experiences in the comments below.