The Wide Angle: When nerd and life collide

I had to come to terms with something a number of years ago — I’m a nerd.

This was something I tried like mad to avoid in high school, in a vain attempt to appear cool for the ladies. For anybody who doesn’t know me, it was an abysmal failure on both accounts, the ladies being slightly more of a failure than hiding my nerdom.

It was an understandable mistake given the raging stud I was in athletic competition. So athletic-like in fact I was utilized to hold down the edge of the bench so as to make everybody on the opposite team not feel so inadequate and give them hope. Something my 5-8, 95-pound senior frame wouldn’t have allowed for.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

At any rate, through the years my nerd stylings (listen, I’m in journalism so I’m going to spin this sucker like I’m spinning yarn) became more and more noticeable. I wish it was like a superpower, but it was more like an effort to drive college women away when the time came. SUCCESS! Except for one, who for a couple years must have found me adorable. Either that or I missed my calling as a conman. She’s never really admitted which.

And so it came to be that I ultimately embraced playing video games, watching cartoons as an adult and reading graphic novels (yes, comic books). Ironically, these things grew to me actually trying to embrace science which at one point in my life was akin to mathematics or as I call it, the devil’s language.

It was the stars that would eventually lead me to this. Turning my eyes upward and letting my imagination carry me through star clusters, the Milky Way, nebulas and planets.

And so it was that video games, science and one interview came together recently in a weird kind of nexus.

First, let me fully admit to my nerdom and tell you about the “Mass Effect” series, three space-faring action role-playing games that allow you to assume the role of Commander Shepard in his epic crusade against the sentient machine race, the Reapers.

The scope of these masterpieces takes you from one side of the galaxy to another, first to examine the mystery of the Reapers, followed by a battle against The Collectors and finally all out war against the Reapers. You create followers, make friends and become amorous with any number of aliens that surprisingly all look human. Guess they didn’t want to get too weird. Just enough so you become uncomfortable watching the, ahem, love scenes.

And in the end you become the savior of the universe in an ending that brings the story together and irritates most every gamer on the planet causing teeth-gnashing rage over how it’s tied together in the end — because that’s gaming and it’s often irrational.

Believe me, this has a point and is just not a few paragraphs telling you how fun and cool it is.

But it is cool, just so we’re clear.

For the longest time I treated them for what they were — games portraying Space Jesus saving the galaxy, until I had the opportunity to talk to Deane Morrison, science writer and editor for the University of Minnesota for an Austin Living story. We talked primarily what the summer holds for skywatching.

As she went down the list of everything happening, I was pleasantly surprised how much I already knew. Locations of various sites, time of events so on and so forth. There was a smug sense of, “I’m not as scientifically dumb as I thought.”

Then I went nerd which isn’t nearly as impressive as saying “gone rogue.”

“And then there is Arcturus,” Morrison said at one point to which I blurted out, “Hey, I know where that is!” before my inner censor could shut things down. It was said with a little more excitement than a professional should display, even though I managed to choke down, “It was in ‘Mass Effect!’”

Looking back, it was hardly Earth-shattering, but I supposed it was a hold-over from the days in high school where you were trying to impress that one girl you found dreamy and instead of saying something movie-worthy you fired out, “I like tomatoes.”

Looking back though it strikes my how much more developers are putting into games. True, you’re not going to use your fourth run-through of “Mass Effect” to study for your next astronomy class, but it’s worth noting that games with historically or scientific principals intermingled can bring us closer to the world around us and may even invest us further into the universe around us.

It’s a noble idea that a game might generate an interest in the mysteries of nature around us and prompt us to ask questions, and quite frankly we could use more of it.

Any chance to learn is worth the effort, if it means you know something you didn’t know before regardless of the road you took to get there.

Now, if you will excuse me, Commander Johnson is heading back to Arcturus.

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