Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Ethan Gilsdorf. The Lyons Press, 2009. 336 pp. $14.95 (softcover). ISBN 1599219948.
Reviewed by Harley J. Sims
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:7 (#348) in July 2011.]
Like recent titles, The Elfish Gene, Confessions of a Part-time Sorceress, In the Land of Invented Languages, and—to an extent—Wil Wheaton’s Just a Geek, Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks represents a documentary-style genre of first-person narrative intended to provide a frank and in-depth look at fantasy-driven pursuits and mindsets. Ranging from role-playing games through fantasy-literature fanaticism to the pitched battles of the Society for Creative Anachronism and tours of New Zealand’s Lord of the Rings filming locations, Gilsdorf roves across a whole landscape of imaginative communities. It is a travelogue framed by the author’s soliloquies and impelled by his desire for therapeutic self-discovery. The book’s commodification of geekdom is nothing new, but the specific manner in which its author situates himself vis-à-vis his subjects will provoke readers in memorable ways.
Described as a “nonlinear, noncontiguous odyssey of self-reflection, cultural analysis, and free mead” (22), Gilsdorf’s pilgrimage includes stops at the gravesite of J.R.R and Edith Mary Tolkien in Oxford, the birthplace of Dungeons & Dragons in Wisconsin, a castle construction site in Guédelon, France, and a number of conventions and role-playing events in the eastern United States. Gilsdorf relates the importance of each to his own understanding of fantasy and escapism, and introduces a number of personalities everywhere he goes. Just a few of the latter are a Harry Potter tribute band, a ‘recovered addict’ of computer role-playing games, and a forty-seven-year-old French Canadian whose life was transformed after watching the LOTR films and attending subsequent fantasy conventions. Along the way, Gilsdorf plays a well-endowed female elf in World of Warcraft, dons a tie-dyed bedsheet for a mock medieval battle, and spies on special-effects master Richard Taylor through the window of Weta Workshops in Wellington, New Zealand. He also tries LARPing (live-action role-playing)—likely the most extreme of the fantasy activities he samples. One of the most informative aspects of the book involves the terminology of its subject matter, including filk (“A musical genre that encompasses songs about novels and characters, computers, technology, pop culture and the culture of fandom itself” ) and grognard (“Slang for wargamer. Typically an experienced gamer who prefers the older version of a game or rules ). Besides this, there are some well-selected epigraphs, good photos, and a very thorough index.
Gilsdorf’s perspective on fantasy as an escape from the hardships of the real world is established in the prologue, entitled “The Momster.” It is a pun referring to the author’s single mother, who, when he was twelve years old, suffered a freak aneurysm which left her with brain damage and a distorted personality. In the same year, 1979, he was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, and the effect was instantaneous: “My crappy house faded around me. The peeling wallpaper, the mounds of dishes, the cigarette smoke, my mother’s limp. All of it disappeared” (xv).” So for six years—six hours every Friday—Gilsdorf would retreat into a make-believe world of swords and sorcery, forgetting for a time the tragic circumstances of his youth and reveling in the control fantasy role-playing afforded him. This passion for the world’s best-selling tabletop RPG served to introduce Gilsdorf to works in other fantasy media, including the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. It may sound stodgy to point out that this is historically the reverse of things, especially when far more young people have likely played role-playing games inspired by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than have read the books themselves. Nevertheless, it is important to keep this precedence in mind as one reads Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, as it is central to the author’s perspective on the fantasy genre.
There is a great deal one might say about this book, part of which is that the author’s self-presentation is in many ways more interesting than his product. In my review of Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages in Mythlore 111/112 (read review), I wrote of Okrent as holding a conflicted vantage on her subject matter; as a linguist, but someone who neither invents languages nor admires Fantasy and Science Fiction, she tries to assert dual citizenship—that is, being both an insider and an outsider—as she steps into the domain of her subject. The result is something that often seems unconsciously mean-spirited and exploitative, suggesting that perhaps the author was a little too close to the topic to be a documentarist, but too detached to serve as an actual authority on it. Gilsdorf, though far more self-deprecating than Okrent, is in much the same boat. Despite Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks’s cover photograph (showing a young Gilsdorf holding a computer-generated battle axe) and many (movie) quotes and asseverations within, the author is not the best ambassador for his subject. He even introduces himself to a rather indifferent Sean Astin at the 2008 Dragon*Con as a “reformed geek” (230). The prologue and most of the first chapter make a strong case for the author as a fantasy guy (more on the term ‘freak’ below), but it is clear that, after giving up Dungeons & Dragons in 1983 or so, Gilsdorf had next to nothing to do with the genre until Peter Jackson’s LOTR films emerged between 2001 and 2003. It was at that time, as for tens of millions of other viewers, that Gilsdorf’s dormant interest in dragons, elves, and wizards was ratified by the $280-million trilogy, and he began to feel a sort of legitimized (and opportune) nostalgia for his dice-rolling days. Besides the gap of nearly twenty years, Gilsdorf states that he dropped his interest in fantasy due to some pretty mainstream competition (“college, sex, beer, cars, job, travel, and heartbreak” ), not only implying such things to be antithetical to his previous interests, but also referring to those interests as a “rite of passage” to relative adulthood.
To point this out is not to disqualify Gilsdorf from his own involvement with fantasy, but rather to suggest that a more objective mode of inquiry were adopted; most of the fantasy-types he talks to are themselves unapologetic and unselfconscious lifers, and my suspicion is that more fantasy-oriented people are likely to pick this book up than any other sort of reader. To both groups, the author will likely come across as a dilettante at best, at worst as a sort of troll or back-stabber. There are several places where Gilsdorf reports private disdain for the people he is trying to fit in with, and many more places where he disdains himself for having comparable interests. To follow the author’s encounters with Tolkien experts, medievalist re-enactors, and grown women who play MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online RPGs) for dozens of hours a week, one feels that one should not have to wade through the author’s constant musings and denials about his obvious midlife crisis, as well as about the potential ‘geekiness’ of what he and others are doing. With its excessive self-indulgence, embarrassing amount of self-disclosure, and apparent disregard for any specific audience, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is a good specimen of what might be called postmodern nonfiction.
The book is not recommended for those who use fantasy as means of recovering and enriching their appreciation for the real world. What Gilsdorf provides is provocative insight into one man’s mixed relationship with fantasy and fantasy gaming, in particular the attitude he cultivates towards those who share his interests and pursue them freely. The book’s title is a perfect indicator of this attitude, and should serve to caution those imaginary-world aficionados who seem to think the word ‘geek’ worthy of appropriation; ‘freak’, on the same token, is by no usage positive, and it is telling that, by applying them to himself, the author presumes to condone these tags on behalf of all those he encounters.