Nerd of the Week

Meet Tarah, a Gaming Nerd

Interview by Terra Olsen

What are you nerdy for?

I am a giant nerd for so many things. I would have to say that what they all have in common is games and puzzles.   I enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together again to understand them and to make them work better. This includes concepts as much as robots; I will take apart and piece together Proust’s ‘The Captive’, a cheesecake recipe, and a Dell monitor in the same day; I am puzzle-agnostic. [Make sure to use a bit of shortening around the inside rim of the pan to keep your cheesecake from sticking to the pan. Old monitors do contain vac tubes; don’t breathe any fumes from inside the box. Albertine is the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl.]

How did you discover your love for games/puzzles?

I have always loved systems and restructuring. Figuring out where breakdowns in a system occur is what I do. I instantly related to the Kobayashi Maru; I understand algorithms and their limitations. My dad started playing lots of different kinds of games with me as a child; I loved playing Pente, chinese checkers, stratego, hex, chess, and blackjack. My dad taught me poker at the age of three.

As seen in Seattle Met (Feb '13)

As seen in Seattle Met (Feb ’13)

What about gaming sparked the nerd in you?

I would say it’s the other way around. My love of complexity and games pushed me towards my more geeky preferences. When you’re a thirteen year old girl and your interests include chess, Martin Luther, astronomy, Koine Greek, and doorstop fantasy novels, you tend to hang with a certain crowd. That crowd pulled me into RPGs; I LARPed for the first time when I was sixteen.

How has gaming impacted your life? 

My life would be very different if I was not a gamer. I consider gaming not to be a hobby, but part of my identity. You see the world in a fascinating way when you incorporate games into your worldview. Strategy and information gathering is second nature. Plus, there are awesome costumes, shiny dice, and a solid excuse to squee over meeting Star Trek extras.

The ladies of LadyCoders

The ladies of LadyCoders (Tarah is a Co-Founder)

Where do you want to take gaming in the future?

I have always used my skills to advance my own understanding of the world, and I like sharing. I would love to invent a genre of literature that I am calling ‘experiential biography’ in my brain. I have several ideas for games in my brain, but my biggest goal in the next year is to build a portable distro that automates cracking WPA2 encryption and improve my Mandarin fluency.

Any advice for others interested in exploring gaming?
Start with a boardgame and see where it takes you. Watch Wil Wheaton’s excellent series “Tabletop” to see new kinds of games that you may never have tried. Play chess with a child, but handicap yourself several pieces rather than playing down to their level.

Favorite moment/memory involving gaming?

No joke, there I was, in a one-shot AD&D game with my oldest friends. I was playing an Elven Rogue/Cleric, and I encountered a cranky Barbarian (being played by my good friend) who insulted me and brandished a club. Offended, my elf appealed to the gods to make this idiot respect their power by disarming him. On a d100 roll, I rolled a 69, which is a special one-in-a-hundred result that always explodes. A giant black shadow erupted behind the barbarian and dis-armed him. Literally. It brought down the house. [It’s funny if you’re a giant nerd like me.]

tarah wheeler

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack is a fifth-generation Oregonian. She holds a BA in international relations, an MS in political science with a focus on cognitive behavioral theory, and will eventually complete her Ph.D. in complex systems and military strategy. She picked up her technical and programming skills while programming agent-based models at Portland State University and coding wargaming simulations at the University of Michigan. She was the web lead developer for Lips for Xbox 360, and also worked at Halo for Xbox 360. She holds two agile development certifications and a postgraduate certificate from University of Washington. She is the senior development manager at Red Queen Technologies, LLC and runs two stealth-mode startups. Please check out her personal websites here and Cowgirl Coder. Also check out the LadyCoders (Tarah is a co-founder)! And of course, follow her on Twitter!

Do you know a self-proclaimed nerd we should interview? If so, please contact Terra at and tell us about them.


  1. Sally April 7, 2013

    She never worked as a web development lead at XBox, a most bold claim, and she never did any code at all, never mind being “the lead web developer.” She was a project admin on contract for some weeks only working Excel spreadsheets. On her web site, she has an entry on how to fake being a nerd. That’s about right. Just say you do stuff. Count on no one from those teams ever calling you on it.

  2. rascalking May 8, 2013

    Likewise for Halo, she was fired after a few months, and was completely inept as a developer.

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