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Geek wisdom goes mainstream

Hard-core nerds impart teachings of 'Star Wars' and Tolkien.

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"I've come to realize that those shows helped me learn more about my own beliefs and philosophies about life than any public school curriculum I ever went through," Ms. Bartlett says. "I can think of so many episodes ... that addressed questions like, What constitutes a 'life'? Why is life valuable? Who are we to decide if one life or culture is more valuable than another? Is it ever ethical to 'play God'?"

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Speaking of play, Chris Hardwick's book "The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life)," published last month, shows how the mechanics of role-playing games (RPGs) can be harnessed for self-help. The chapter "RPG Your Life" uses gaming concepts that nerd personality-types understand – such as character attributes (the six classic ones: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma), weapon inventories, and experience points – to combat anxiety, lethargy, and rejection.

"I like how gaming reminds me of my own moral compass," says Monique Bouchard, a graphic designer from Bangor, Maine.

"I'm just not the 'set fire to the orphanage' kind of girl, and I can't seem to play them in game either," she says. "My geekery has shown me that I really desire to be a hero, do the right thing, sacrifice for the weak, conquer the odds, save the helpless."

Of course, D&D – or "Star Wars" or Tolkien – isn't a religion (for most of us, anyway). The game provides a venue for empathy and magical thinking, but it doesn't take on big questions about the nature of the universe.

"It's certainly rich with religious themes and resonance," says James Wyatt, a former pastor in the United Methodist Church who works for game publisher Wizards of the Coasts. "If D&D happens to offer some good insights about how we ought to live in the world – never split the party, everyone contributes their unique strengths to the common cause of overcoming obstacles and vanquishing evil – then yeah, it has something in common with religion."

None of this is to suggest that traditional moral education needs to be fixed.

"Brainy nerds tend to throw out religion's baby with its admittedly filthy bath water," says Mr. Segal. That's why, he adds, his book "Geek Wisdom" "doesn't just look for the wisdom in geek culture, it also looks for the wisdom about the perils of geekdom that we need to be wary of romanticizing: arrogance, isolation, condescension."

It's another way of saying that no matter how fantastical, geek culture ultimately mirrors life. The worlds of Tolkien, "Star Wars," and comics involve loss and sacrifice. In cooperative games like D&D, no one wins. Encountering strange new worlds and creatures means not violating the Prime Directive.

Live-action role-players may have the right idea, one geeky friend suggests. "Slow down, get to know the werewolf sitting next to you, and have actual conversations."

If all else fails, do as another friend instructs her children. When they are frustrated, instead of cursing, she tells them to channel Capt. James T. Kirk, and yell, at the top of their lungs, "KHAAAAAAAN!"

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