GEEKS ARE WELCOME AT THIS GATHERING PLACE AT HAVERFORD
By Stephanie Marrie
One rainy night, students from Bryn Mawr College cross the bridge to a small, two-story house next to a soccer field. It is 8 p.m. at the Yarnall House on Haverford College. Tonight’s events revolve around Pokemon, the popular kids show that captured the hearts of these college students when they were little.
Unsurprisingly, there is a huge and noisy crowd. The main hallway separates two rooms, a kitchen and a TV area, both of which are packed. In the kitchen, six young men are playing their 3DS systems simultaneously. There is a picture of Pikachu taped to the wall, with several different paper tails to pin on her. In the hallway, seven others sit on the carpet. They take turns on an old board game based on the show’s second season. In the TV room, the rest of the club members play various mini-games from “Pokémon Stadium 2,” a classic from the Nintendo 64.
After that, two of the four players, one boy and one girl, decide to hold a one-on-one match. Once word gets around that there will be a Pokémon battle, all four floral couches in the TV room quickly fill up with commentators. When the female player picks out her monster, Jynx, the audience is shocked.
“Jynx is the biggest drag-queen,” one onlooker quips. The girl is undeterred, even though her chosen character is beaten easily. She used to play this game with her younger brother, and simply wants relive her most competitive years.
This is the only place on campus where she and other closeted video game enthusiasts can come together to have such fun. It may not have been around for long, but according to those in charge, its history says much about the nature of a geeky community that is part of the Haverford and Bryn Mawr sub-culture.
Yarnell, one of Haverford’s residence halls, become their official place to hang together. It is known — officially and unofficially — as Nerd House.
It is the year before the birth of the Nerd House, and Yarnall’s atmosphere is more sports-oriented. Kamala Codrington has just been admitted into the school. By the next spring, she will become one of the first members to sign up for the Nerd House. At this point, she has only heard stories about the Yarnall House, but apparently only because Lacrosse players live there.
“They stand out because of their rowdiness,” Codrington says of the relationship between the sportsmen and the Department of Residential Life.
After the jocks move out, the place grows quiet. The TV room is empty, save for a few obscure DVDs lying against the plain white walls. One student, Tatiana Hammond, tries to take advantage of this new atmosphere by proposing a sanctuary here. She wants to hold Yoga lessons but, unfortunately, her plan is not accepted. Nothing else happens here for a long time except for the occasional superhero movie night, like Superman or Spiderman.
“Nobody goes to see them,” Hammond sighs. “It’s weird because they were pretty popular when they first came out.”
Jocks and movie buffs, however, are not the only major players on campus. Daniel Plesniak, founder of the Nerd House, is one of the few freshmen who likes to game as a hobby. Although he does not think Haverford College is unaccepting of people like him, he feels that sometimes its acceptance is not enthusiastic. So, he sought to create his own space.
“There are small groups of people on campus who like to play small games and such,” he says, “but they want a space where this can be done on a larger scale, so they’ve merged into one larger group and invited lots of people, including me.”
Plesniak’s colleagues harbor a healthy disdain of the typical college party, with its ear-splitting rap music and tobacco-filled entrance. There is also a sizable student population that dislikes drinking and the chaos it brings to social gatherings.
“We do not allow alcohol here at Yarnall. On a Saturday night, there aren’t any options for people who want an alternative to traditional partying. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with a traditional party,” Plesniak explains to students from other dorms, “but it’s not a geeky thing.”
At the drawing board, Plesniak can hardly keep from shaking. He has just submitted his proposal to turn the Yarnall House into a Nerd House. Before college, there were no spaces for him and other geeks to express their interests. High school social events were usually reserved for broader occasions, such as inaugurations and culture shocks. To his relief, his plan is accepted.
One week later, the first official meeting takes place. Plesniak and his neighbors are both excited and scared at the same time. After all, they have no idea whether or not people will come. Fortunately, a large crowd enters. It starts out as a brainstorming session and then quickly transforms into a heated debate. The exact logistics of what students want to do are involved.
“This is going way better than expected,” says Plesniak, “it’s nice to know people have a lot of ideas.”
By the end of the first meeting, there are many sketches on the walls. Close-ups of Batman and Korra adorn the left corner of the TV room. Popular characters like Finn and his dog Jake from the psychedelic cartoon “Adventure Time” grace the right side of the room next to the piano.
The first few meetings consist of generic open house events like board game specials and video game tournaments. The popular franchise Super Smash Bros becomes one of the club’s highlights. The second most popular game, though not nearly as popular as Super Smash Bros, at the house is Mario Kart Wii.
Subsequent meetings get more specific themes. One night, the leaders of the club receive an early copy of Monsters University. Unlike the superhero movies of old, this film is popular among students. For Plesniak, such reception is a blessing.
“Whenever a party is this successful,” he says, “when it’s got a huge number of guests, it’s a big deal for us. It’s a sign that we’re on the right track.”
In the spring, the Nerd House announces its first murder mystery party. The event has a Victorian theme. The activities are based on the stories of Sherlock Holmes, which has just been remade into another HBO drama loved by fan-girls. Someone is dressed as Queen Victoria, whom she had recently written a report on. Like the Pixar movie night, this event is a hit.
With two successful events, Plesniak knows that the Nerd House has earned its place as a permanent landmark on campus. From here on out, things only get better. Every weekend, more and more students join in on the fun.
“When us new members apply,” Codrington says, “we mostly improve and build upon the ideas of the first generation of Nerd House, and to try to make it even better.”
It has been a year since the inception of the Nerd House, and it is more successful than ever. It has become a permanent socialization space as well as an unofficial counseling center. Thanks to its early time and laid-back atmosphere, students are generally happier and healthier.
Plesniak now works full-time as the manager, running geeky activities and providing a safe space for fellow geeks to interact. According to him, the House has had a “decently large impact” on students’ relationships and work ethic.
“This has gotten to the point where people can find acceptance and easily so,” he says, “We follow our college’s Quaker ideal very closely, with an emphasis on individual responsibility. Each person is given a chance to contribute to the house. It’s not that there are no leaders, but everyone expected to participate. We often reach a consensus on a variety of ideas.”
Members of the Yarnall House value each other’s entertainment. The official Nerd House policy is as follows: “As long as you want to stay, we will keep entertaining you and keep talking to you.” Sometimes students stay until one or two in the morning.
“I always like the times at the end of an event where the only people left are some sleepy regulars,” Codrington says, “and we all end up curled on the couch, watching something, talking, or playing a game. It’s always a very cozy feeling.”
It is often better for students to sleep here than in their own dorms. They have had disputes with neighbors who smoke pot or marijuana under the windows or take drugs in their rooms.
“Sometimes people who are intoxicated will not be the most polite about it,” Plesniak says, “The use of marijuana has been a big issue. It’s a common thing that pops up now and then whenever we talk to students about their issues.” He may not be a professional counselor, but he has made many new friends since the Nerd House flourished and has even acquired some great help.
“We have a few people from the Honor Council living here who pitch in,” he says, “when you got people from the council itself, you know there is a counseling function at Nerd House.”
The dormitory’s support network extends to students of every race and gender. Its healing effect is so great that Codrington cannot imagine her college life without the Nerd House. It is one of the rare shining spots in an otherwise stressful schedule.
“Here, it feels like there are so many more possibilities, so much more control of our activities, and that it’s easier for people to come hang out. I always lived far away from my friends, and knew few people who liked the things I like,” she says, “Now I’ve been able to wholeheartedly enjoy myself with people who have similar interests, without going extremely far out of my way, and with frequency. Having people who relate, and having those wonderful moments where someone likes the same show I do, is always amazing.”
Her high school used to have its own Japanese comic book club, but the Nerd House provided one thing that her high school did not: acceptance.
“Before I met everyone at Nerd House,” Codrington says, “I was afraid to talk about things I liked, and afraid to be seen as strange by those around me, primarily my Customs group. Now I can talk about the comics I read, the games I play, and the shows I watch without worrying about being judged. I can anticipate someone knowing about them too.”
A Bright Future
The Nerd House is doing better than ever. Sketches on the TV room’s white walls tally the number of guests. Each event is more successful than the last: Super Smash Bros night yields higher turnout than Quiz night, and Pokémon night yields more results than Super Smash Bros night, and so forth. Encouraging word of mouth spreads around the Bi-College community and mailings lists, and then the Blue Bus brings in new guests.
One of them, a Bryn Mawr College senior named Anastasia Kyraciou, does not usually go to parties because she finds them boring. Once she gets a taste of the Nerd House’s latest theme – Harry Potter night – via an old board game, however, she changes her tune.
“This has honestly been one of the most relaxed and fun times I have ever had at a party,” she says, “Now I have a group of friends that I can tell all of my Gilderoy Lockhart jokes to. I can’t wait to come again.”
From the looks of it, attendance will increase every week because of such positive response. Codrington is confident that this will keep the club afloat for at least another four years.
“It’s extremely unlikely that we’ll run out of people who want to be part of the community,” she says, “and there will always be a demand on campus for some kind of alternative to partying that doesn’t involve being all alone. People seem to have a lot of fun here, and it’s satisfying a need that no other group on campus fulfills.”
The Yule Ball
The Harry Potter Night ends with a mini Yule Ball. The majority of guests are still engrossed in their board game, but several students pair off in the main hallway. One boy and girl try to waltz, but the radio abruptly switches from Strauss’s The Blue Danube to an ill-fitting ditty sung in gibberish. Nevertheless they concentrate on their feet, and the paper Pikachu watches over them from a few feet away.