What Fort Worth Geek Culture Looks Like

The city of cowboys and culture is geekier than you think.

“Nerds” in Fort Worth don’t look like 30-somethings hiding in their mother’s basement playing video games. They’re entrepreneurs, college professors and business managers – enjoying the things they love and boldly going where no Fort Worthian has gone before. (Yes, we just crossed fandoms. It’s okay.)

William Gibbons | Musicology professor at TCU Fan of: Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Journey, Bioshock

So how nerdy is Fort Worth? “Fort Worth is interesting because it doesn’t really wear its nerdiness on the outside. You sort of have to get to it and find where it is.”

Playing video games was once a way for William Gibbons to take a break from his studies in French opera culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’d come home to play games like “Final Fantasy” and “The Elder Scrolls.” Then he noticed something.

“I realized over the course of time that a lot of the same things I was reading about and writing about in opera, and other forms of what we call ‘classical music,’ were happening in games,” he says.

Gibbons realized that techniques like leitmotifs – or melodies that play when a certain character appears, or when a scene takes place in a certain setting – were found in both video games and opera (a concept of which opera composer Richard Wagner was as a pioneer).

Gibbons took this connection and ran with it. Now a musicology professor at TCU, video game music makes up a good chunk of his work, teaching classes and conducting research on the subject. His latest book, Replay Value: The Art of Classical Music in Video Games, is expected to release in early 2018.

“It’s almost work now,” Gibbons says. “I never thought I would think this when I was 12. I go home sometimes and I’m like, I just want to go to bed, but I have to play video games for an hour to keep up with research.”

Nick Bontrager | New media art professor at TCU Fan of: Virginia, Minecraft, The Elder Scrolls, Dr. Mario

So how nerdy is Fort Worth? “Fort Worth is, maybe, a 6.5 out of 10 in terms of nerdiness.”

When Nick Bontrager isn’t playing old-school arcade classics like pinball and “Dr. Mario,” he’s playing games with virtual worlds he can explore (think “Minecraft” and “The Elder Scrolls”). It’s a passion that translates to his professional work at TCU, where he teaches students ways to incorporate technology with art.

One of his classes, 3D Modeling & 3D Printing, has students use a video game-building platform called Unity to recreate a virtual space from their memory, whether it be a bedroom or a backyard they used to play in. Students control elements like whether a door can be opened or a button can be pushed. At the end, students can play each other’s games.

“Through sound, imagery and interaction, our students can create a really fantastic personal experience using the same kind of tools that are used to develop games like ‘Halo’ and ‘Call of Duty,’ ” Bontrager says. “It’s just a different way of using those tools.”

Peter Pena | Manager of Y2Komics Fan of: Marvel, The Walking Dead, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Image Comics

So how nerdy is Fort Worth? “Very … There’s a stronger sense of community, so people tend to get very inclusive. I see a lot of people that connected with each other through extended social networks, and that makes it easier to host larger, ‘nerdy’ if you want to say it, community events and expect a good turnout.”

Peter Pena liked his job as a case manager for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. The problem was, he was living in Fort Worth but working in Gainesville, and driving about two hours to work eventually began to wear him down. Then a full-time opportunity arose at a place where he once worked in between classes during college – Y2Komics, one of the oldest comic book shops in Fort Worth.

In 2013, he made the switch from case manager to comic book shop manager.

“I was enjoying my career in the criminal justice field. I was a little sorry to leave it, but I think that it was the best decision I ever made,” says Pena, who runs the shop alongside owner Craig Clements. “It eased my stress. It let me be part of something I love.”

Y2Komics got its name from the day it opened – Jan. 1, 2000, the day of the Y2K scare. After 17 years, the approximately 2,500-square-foot store is still running strong with regular tournaments for games like Magic: The Gathering, a comprehensive selection of board games and – of course – shelves lined with comics. Marvel. DC. Image Comics. “The Walking Dead.” “Puss in Boots.” Imagine it, and it’s probably there.

So exactly how many comic books does Y2Komics have? Pena says, “It’s a number I cannot even begin to guess.”

Daniel Robb | Guest relations director for ConDFW Fan of: The Legend of Zelda, Elric of Melniboné, Resident Evil

So how nerdy is Fort Worth? “It’s more subtle and quiet. Dallas might be big and noisy, but Fort Worth has a deeper geek culture.”

About 35 miles west of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, where the largest fan convention in Texas, FAN EXPO Dallas, takes place, is a smaller event called ConDFW, set in a Radisson Hotel near Meacham International Airport. The convention attracts less than 1,000 people each year, compared to the tens of thousands that flock to Dallas, but ConDFW guest relations director Daniel Robb says his team of volunteers likes to keep it that way.

“We like to keep a lot of things intimate,” he says. “Unless an author just really wants to be left alone, almost all the time, guests of honor are out in the hotel restaurant or the lobby, they’re just having direct conversations with people – that’s something you’re not going to find at many of these other conventions.”

ConDFW held its 16th event in 2017, hosting both local and regional authors, gamers and vendors. The event’s origins date back to Robb’s college years at Texas A&M, where he and a group of friends ran a student-led Aggie Con. After they graduated, many moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and found themselves experiencing convention-running withdrawals.

So they regrouped, pitched in $20 each, and held the first ConDFW in 2002. Now looking to 2018, Robb and his team have secured guests like author Charlaine Harris, whose work inspired HBO’s “True Blood” and NBC’s upcoming series “Midnight Texas.” 

Jackie Leaf | Owner of Whispering Leaf Fan of: Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, MacGyver, Firefly

So how nerdy is Fort Worth? “It seems to come in clumps, for lack of better words. I have lots of friends that I meet. They’re part of a group I’m in. Some of us play ‘World of Warcraft’ and the Star Wars video games.”

Jackie Leaf has been crocheting for more than 30 years, but it wasn’t until she made the iconic orange and yellow hat worn by Jayne in the TV series “Firefly” for her son’s birthday that she realized she could turn her hobby into a business.

It was a logical career choice, she says, as Leaf has Type 2 diabetes, which makes it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time. Now Leaf makes a living by selling her work at local conventions like FAN EXPO Dallas and ConDFW in Fort Worth. Her beanie hat portfolio has expanded to include characters like the “Despicable Me” minions, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, BB-8 and R2-D2 from Star Wars, and the Daleks from “Doctor Who.”

And yes, she still makes Jayne hats too.