I don’t know the exact date that the word nerd stopped being an insult. There’s no landmark court case like Plessy v. Ferguson that tells us when it was reclaimed from the jocks. It was something that just happened over time. When science and technology weaved its way into the universal mindscape, and math jokes and comic books became as ubiquitous as pop music, the word nerd came along for the ride.
The word otaku probably underwent a similar arc. The first time I heard the term, it was being explained to me by a Japanese college student, and it was definitely not in a flattering sense. Now words like otaku, NEET, and hikkikomori are almost romanticized by oddball dramas and nerdcore hip-hop. The otaku is not just a protagonist, but an iconoclast, a hero. He has no need for this three-dimensional prison when the world in his hard drive is infinite. He has renounced the very sun itself, that fiery ball of vitamin D, for what amounts to a bamboo dart of warmth. Yet as unnatural as it may seem, every morning it’s there to greet him, with a chirping of the soundcard and a custom wallpaper on a high resolution screen.
He even has a theme song:
If we’re playing semantics though, true believers will tell you that none of this stuff is nerdy. They will tell you that when we talk of games and #trends and anime, we are squarely in the realm of the geek. The nerd, he busies himself in a fortress of data, and has no concern for the calculus of culture. The geek studies gadgets, the nerd studies neuroscience. The geek plays chiptune, the nerd plays cello. The geek dabbles in irony, the nerd is an intellectual.
Thus when it comes to nerds in Skyrim, I don’t think of mages. Mages wield cool staffs and conjure zombies and shoot fireballs out of their hands. Mages are geeks. Alchemists, now those are some fucking nerds.
For the most part, I found the vanilla alchemists to be too at ease with themselves, but this is likely because they’re shopkeepers, and the provenance of social awkwardness has always been isolation. Not in the geek/otaku sense, where a computer connects you to thousands of other humans every day, but in the O.G. Revenge of the Nerds cut-off-from-humanity-so-I-can-be-alone-with-my-plants sperglord sense of the word.
Kianna, similarly, is a research alchemist. Her contact with the outside world is minimal, and it shows in her speech. In fact, she’s played brilliantly by Kelly Parrish, whose nasal, staccato rhythm is perfectly off beat. Kianna’s not entirely self-aware, meaning her charm isn’t intended, but rather a product of her lack of nuance (and repetition of alchemy jokes she herself considers awful).
Nevertheless, given her intelligence and location – a laboratory as opposed to a say, a party full of brutes or nobles – when she does speak to the player, she’s perfectly comfortable. In her realm, all that matters is the chemistry in the beaker, not the chemistry of the room. When she speaks to the player, she does so from a position of strength.
In the land of jocks that is Skyrim, that’s all a nerd could ever ask for.