Saturday, October 2, 2010

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks
By Ethan Gilsdorf
Copyright 2009

This book was given to me as a birthday gift by a friend who games (plays roll-playing games) and knows that I have an interest in it as well. I admit that I played some Dungeons and Dragons in my lifetime and I’ll admit to enjoying it. This book provided a great deal of perspective on where gaming has gone since those days of the late 1970s and 1980s when we rolled dice, ate junk food, and adventured through dungeons and slaughtered monsters.

Gilsdorf’s introduction is an autobiographical account of coming across all of his Dungeon and Dragons books, materials, and dice in an old tote stored at his father’s house. He reminisces about how he played D & D all through high school to escape an unhappy home life with his brain-damaged mother.

Gilsdorf was 42 at the time and finding these relics of his adolescence motivated him to explore gaming today in all its forms. He is uneasy because, as an adult, he’s not sure he wants to return to adolescence. He seems to fear the siren song of leaving his adult concerns behind to engage in what he deems to be childish pursuits of gaming. But being a writer, he also sees the opportunity to engage in self reflection on his adolescent geekdom as well as to chronicle the evolution of gaming and geekdom from its birth in the 1970s to the modern Internet gaming.

He starts with a pilgrimage to England to meet with the Tolkien Society – a group of scholars and hard core fans dedicated to the study of the founding father of geekdom – J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the legendary Lord of the Rings trilogy. He also goes to the Tolkien grave to pay his respects to the British linguist who would create a global cultural phenomena that has endured for more than 50 years.

He also returns to Dungeons and Dragons, gaming with guys his age to see if it brings the same pleasures and joys it brought to him as a teenager. He goes to a local gaming store in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the launch of Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition – an updated and revised version of the original that had become more and more laden in statistics through its two prior evolutions.

He found that many gamers from the 1980s fell into the online experiences such as World of Warcraft, Runequest, and others, but decided the solitary experience of the computer monitor did not compare to the face to face interaction of playing with other people across the table.

As he engages in gaming to see if he can still do it, if he still enjoys it, and if it has fundamentally changed since he played 20 years prior, he reflects on the label that has dogged those who enjoy fantasy gaming in all its forms: Geek. He recalls the labels that were placed on kids in adolescent culture, jock, geek, etc. Gilsdorf finds many professional men and women of his own age, now successful in life, engaged in fantasy role playing. Each says they are comfortable in their skin, but acknowledge they still must fight the geek label even today when their professional pursuits and accomplishments should speak to their embrace of traditional pursuits and lives.

Gilsdorf quit gaming about he same time I did in 1986. By that time he had moved on to college, found new diversions such as girls, and put his geekdom behind him. Gilsdorf’s purpose in playing Dungeons and Dragons was to escape an unpleasant home life. That was behind him now.

He was much deeper into the game than I ever was. For me, gaming was a changeup in my teenage weekends when I usually attended parties or just cruised the town with my friends, consuming beer and looking for something to do. I never designed worlds or adventures. I never owned the rule books, always relying on a friend to have a set. I owned a set of dice that I often shared with friends who did not play enough to invest in their own. We played store-bought modules (adventures). Our adventures were usually two evening affairs rather than months long campaigns run by one game master. We switched off as game master. Whomever had purchased a new adventure called a group together (and it was rarely the same group from game to game) and we played it.

Gilsdorf, by his recollection was heavily into the game and invested many hours in not only playing every weekend for years, but time invested in creating worlds, adventures, adventures, creatures, and lore. I lacked that amount of interest in the game and frankly, the ambition to undertake an extensive project like creating a world.

As teens, a few of the hard core players in our group had always talked about making the journey to GenCon, the annual fantasy gaming convention held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, birthplace of Dungeons and Dragons and home to TSR, the publishers of Dungeons and Dragons. We wanted to play with the masters of the game, to see the new products rolled out, and perhaps commune, just briefly, with the creator of Dungeons and Dragons, E. Gary Gygax. Perhaps a more dedicated teenager would have saved the cash necessary to make the trip. A more avid gamer would have made the seven hour drive to Wisconsin to attend. None of us had the time or inclination to actually go. It was all just talk for us.

Gilsdorf makes that journey, as he had dreamed of doing as a child. His goal, to meet The Creator, to commune with and perhaps game with the man who started it all. Gygax faithfully attended these events and by all accounts, was accessible to all. He ran games for players who wanted to play. He showed them new ideas that they took back to their own games. For a Dungeons and Dragons player, playing with Gygax is like a fan of chess sitting across the table from Bobby Fisher. You know you are in the presence of a master.

Alas, Gilsdorf’s opportunity to kiss the ring (of Protection?) of the creator eluded him as Gygax died just three months prior to the convention. Like Gilsdorf’s mother, Gygax succumbed to an aneurysm.

At GenCon, Gilsdorf finds several other people our age who have come for a weekend of fantasy gaming. Most of them are, in the lexicon of the modern gamer, Grognards. In French, this means “old warrior.” In gaming parlance, it means a person who eschews the updated and modernized versions of games for the old school games of their youth. Graying ponytails abound at the resurrection of Chain Mail, the combat game that Gygax and David Arenson invented as a forerunner of Dungeons and Dragons. Male pattern baldness prevailed at the gaming tables where the 1970s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (known to some as Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition). Gilsdorf was by no means the only middle aged warrior on the convention floor. It would seem that young people were few and far between.

Gilsdorf talks to a convention attendee who laments that kids today have eschewed all tabletop games in favor of digital interaction. He took it a step further and lamented that kids were no longer running around outside playing cops, knights, Star Trek characters (a favorite backyard game of my childhood). The imagination, developed by this creative role playing with the uninhibited creativity of childhood, seems absent in children of today. The action need no longer be imagined. It unfolds digitally before their eyes.

Gilsdorf moves beyond tabletop gaming in his exploration of freaks and geeks and delves into LARPS (Live Action Role Playing). There are various levels of LARPS and Gilsdorf explores them in order.

First, there are those who simply act out battles as opposing armies. Props are homemade. Costumes are consignment store rejects. Swords are firm foam. A battle might take an afternoon, then everybody goes home tired and happy – like a pick up game of football, except instead of gridiron warriors, the game is played by fantasy geeks.

The next level resembles Dungeons and Dragons in that each person plays a character in an adventure. A game master establishes the characters and the stories. The players proceed to act them out, not breaking character for any reason. For some, this is a day trip diverson. But many make weekends or entire vacations out of LARPS.

Then there are the existing camps that run year round to entertain LARPers who demand total immersion. Here, you live just as they lived in the early part of the millennium. No technology intrudes.

As Gilsdorf travels through the LARP culture, he interviews people of diverse backgrounds who enjoy the hobby. For most, it is a diversion and hobby. For others, it is a way of life. Most of these people carry on normal lives on the surface, holding down jobs and maintaining households. But behind closed doors, they are the people that exist in that alternative existence that is the LARP setting.

The trek through the Geekdom of the world progresses through England, the eastern United States, and then to New Zealand where Gilsdorf takes in the lands that were Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. This is a trip many “ringers” can only dream of. Most of the movie set has been disassembled and carried away. However, many relics still exist and the Shire is very much intact for fans to tour. At one point, Gilsdorf approaches the spot on the trail when Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry flee from the road to avoid being spotted by the Ring Wraiths. He decides to act out the scene and flies over the hillside. Later, he buries Lord of the Rings miniatures in a ritual. If there was a point to the ritual, I missed it.

Gilsdorf brings his chronicle of geekdom to modern times as he explores the video and online gaming worlds. World of Warcraft, Runescape, Second Life, and many others provide fantasy diversion for millions across the world and provides a global interaction network. For others, however, it can become an addiction.

Jokes abound about those addicted to online gaming. The term “World of Warcraft Widows” has been introduced into our cultural lexicon as these addicts have foregone friends, families and jobs to play the game.

I suspect that, while there are a few extreme examples, most of these stories are urban myths very similar to the myths about Dungeons and Dragons players killing each other in storm sewers.

Still, Gilsdorf manages to find computer game players who do see that alternative world as the place where their psyche exists. Most maintain jobs and lives, but their mind constantly returns to that world where they aren’t data entry clerks, executive vice presidents, or assembly workers. Their minds journey to a world where they are minstrels, fighters, thieves, wizards, lords, and damsels.

I used to enjoy video games a great deal. We Gen Xers were the first to have home video game systems. I owned Pong, but my friends had Ataris, Colecovisions, and APF gaming systems. When the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) hit big in 1987, I decided to buy one and check out the new games. I was hooked – particularly on The Legend of Zelda.

For the next 20 years, I played video games as a diversion when I was too tired to read. I enjoyed such games as Duke Nukem, Madden Football, Grand Theft Auto, and countless others.

I don’t play anymore. I gave it up sometime around 2007. My son owns a Playstation 3 and the only thing I ever use it for is a BluRay player. Perhaps it’s the slow deterioration of my reflexes and my eyesight that has made me give up gaming. I never delved into online play on Playstation 3. It is one of my son’s favorite activities.

Nor have I played any of the online games like World of Warcraft. I’ve read about them and they sound intriguing. But they also seem to require great investments of time and I have other pursuits that interest me more.

Having made two Tolkien pilgrimages – one to Oxford to commune with the Tolkien Society and one to New Zealand to see a physical replica of Middle Earth, Gilsdorf embarks on the ultimate Tolkien experience – one available to very few people even though it is not far from our own backyard.

Marquette University is the repository of many Tolkien papers, including parts of the original manuscript of Lord of the Rings and many conceptual drawings in Tolkien’s own hand. First, Gilsdorf was able to view holograph renderings of Tolkien’s edits to his first draft of Fellowship as well as several of his drawings. He was then offered the ultimate treat: viewing actual pages of the manuscript.

This is a privilege offered to few. Marquette receives thousands of requests to see these unique artifacts of literature. Most are from fans of Tolkiens work. Only serious researchers are allowed access to these valuable papers. Gilsdorf’s geek credentials paid dividends!

Donning white gloves, Gilsdorf leafed through text set down in Tolkien’s own hand, drafted with a fountain pen and edited in pencil. He views sketches of the Book of Marzabul (the tome in Moria that describes the demise of the dwarves. Gilsdorf described the experience as feeling like “the kid who’d sweet-talked his way into Willy Wonka’s chocolate mother ship.”

With the journey at an end, Gilsdorf falls back into his autobiographical voice to describe what he’d learned from it all. The blue tote full of gaming materials had set him on the journey and he returned from that journey to confront it and delve deeply into his own past.

He discusses his mother, one he loved but lamented could not love him the way he wanted to be loved with her aneurysm addled brain and the decade long struggle after her death to make peace with his relationship with her. He made his peace with fantasy gaming as well. He found he did not want to return to gaming again, at least on a regular basis. It filled a need in him at a particular time that was no longer there.

Gilsdorf and I had dissimilar experiences with gaming. I was fortunate to have a perfectly functional mother. There was nothing in my life that I had to escape from through fantasy. While most of Gilsdorf ‘s gaming buddies were prototypical square pegs of the 1980s, most of my friends were close to normal. They had girlfriends. We were all involved in some school activities. None of us were outcasts.

I enjoyed this book primarily because it is written by someone my own age, who grew up in my time. I frequently complain about Baby Boomers still dominating our culture even as they approach retirement age. Reading works – especially autobiographical works – by people my age is a rare treat and I found this book engaging. I thank my friend Jeffery for buying it for me because I’d not heard of it before it was given to me.

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