Art, Movies, Lit, Theater

Northwest Arkansas’ NerdVerse Meets

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By Terrah Baker

Photo by Terrah Baker: The DoubleTree Hotel in Bentonville was packed with GlitchCon attendees on Thursday. Costumes ranged from Ninjas to Victorian style “steam punk.”

Sci-fi, candy kid, goth, steam punk, nerdism, gamer, role player, anime, art. All of these genres and more are brought together in what founders of Northwest Arkansas’ GlitchCon 2012 called the “NerdVerse.”

Entering the convention, it’s hard to pinpoint what everyone is celebrating. Is it Victorian-style eyeglasses and clothing, video games or just a celebration of all things on the social fringe? Although GlitchCon has historically in the NerdVerse been more about the genre “steam punk” — Victorian style meets industrial-aged machines with a modern Tim Burton twist — it’s more about all forms of nerdism being able to come together in their like-minded community and share what they love.

“The way these conventions work is people plan their whole year around the conventions that provide the atmosphere they want,” founder of GlitchCon Bobby Scarbrough explained. “Where we can get together and share our interests and our art.”

It’s not just a variance in styles, but also ages and even home residences, although it’s hard to tell, as everyone strolls and converses openly on their common planet.

Photo by Terrah Baker: Cedric Whittaker shows off his steam punk costume.

NerdVerse hasn’t always been this open and accepted in Northwest Arkansas. In fact, Scarbrough remembers when he was young and afraid of repercussions from his peers for his game playing and love of sci-fi. The shift in society to accepting photos of Star Trek characters at desks and having a hit television show “Big Bang Theory” where nerdism becomes funny and cool, has only happened in the last several years, he theorizes.

One of his colleagues, and knower of all things gaming in NWA, said support fostered by worldwide connections on the web have led to the acceptance.

“I’ve been here 15 years. I’ve seen the gaming scene grow from something you do in your house and don’t talk about, to going to work and hanging up my Klingon paraphernalia,” Chris Colbath said. “Communication is better now. If I was to be persecuted heavily, I could tell people how I was being treated.”

The two men from NWA who range in their late 30s to early 40s said they know what it’s like to be persecuted for their interests — to have to hide in closets at school to play Dungeons and Dragons and never speak of games outside their nerd circle. But in society today, and especially at GlitchCon held in Bentonville at the Double Tree Inn last weekend, they’re free to be themselves.

Besides, Colbath, Scarbrough and many other nerds can see the resemblance between their culture and that of a group of men and women hitting up a football game or a bar on a Friday night.

“It’s no different than people dressing up and going to the football games. It’s just about sharing something you love so much with someone you realize is such a big fan, too,” Colbath said.

In fact, Colbath goes as far as to say football fans are geeks as well, although they would never admit it. “Everybody geeks on something,” Colbath explained.

For Colbath, being a nerd wasn’t something he sought out. It also wasn’t something that made him want to close himself off to the rest of the world. Games are what make him social.

He began playing games with his parents when he was about 8 years old, and liked it so much it followed him into his teen and adult years. But he didn’t keep playing the simple mathematical games his parents taught him. He began seeking out more and more complex games, to the point where now, he makes his own.

To him, gaming also is a form of therapy. It provides the opportunity to get outside of himself and explore other parts of his personality, and even that of others. Gaming with someone is the best way to get to know them, he said.

“If a person will cheat in a game, then imagine what they would do in real life.”

While Scarbrough said GlitchCon is not meant to have a focus on one nerd genre, Ark-Con host Glenn Whitman said his convention does — strictly gaming.

“They’re going to have gaming at their convention, and we’re going to have some steam punk in ours,” Glenn Whitman said of the Ark-Con, which takes place once a year in NWA. It all crosses over in NerdVerse.

For Whitman, gaming also was a way to explore himself — something normal life didn’t afford him the opportunity to do. Now, through his own creative expression, he can build scenarios that bring out different personalities in himself and others.

“As a game master, I enjoy creating a story. It’s similar to creative writing, except you don’t have direct control over all of the players in your story. Someone can step up to be the hero, and others will stand back,” Whitman said.

The hallways of GlitchCon were packed on the first day it opened, with the gaming room — that Scarbrough said will stay active into the night — was already in full swing, and vendors offered products specific to the interests of all things nerd. One attendee showed off his fake gun from the video game “Portal,” while another carried a miniature human doll and glared menacingly when asked to get her photo taken.

One vendor offered survival rope bracelets for the zombie apocalypse and another displayed T-shirts with quotes from Carl Sagan and Star Wars. Cedric Whittaker was a vendor with Airship Isabella and his intricate costume complete with top hat and chest armor stuck out amongst the crowd. He said they traveled from New Orleans to sell their steam punk products and support the growth of the fan base in NWA.

As the support system grows, so do the conventions. Scarbrough said last year he had more than 200 attendees at GlitchCon. It was about 400 attendees this year, and he wants to rent an even larger hotel for 2013.

Scarbrough and his colleagues do not make a profit off the convention, but make just enough to pay the hotel and convention bills and save some for next year’s start-up costs. It’s not about the money to Scarbrough or most other nerds.

It’s about making sure people like him, young and old, have an outlet. It’s about creating a NerdVerse right here in NWA — a place they can call their own and be themselves.

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