Author Ethan Gilsdorf, Globe Pequot Press and Froobi.com have teamed up to offer a special opportunity to win one of 10 free autographed copies of Gilsdorf’s critically-acclaimed book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.
As reviewed here on GeekDad, the book is an exploration and celebration of fantasy and gaming subcultures. While cleaning out his parents’ house, Ethan stumbles upon the Dungeons & Dragons paraphernalia of his youth (should sound familiar to anyone reading Ken’s Top 10 D&D Modules I Found in Storage posts). This starts him on a journey into all manner of escapist hobbies: live action role-playing, castle-building, MMORPGs, and Lord of the Rings fandom.
I had the chance to meet Ethan at last year’s DragonCon and we caught up a few weeks back for an email interview.
Check it out, as well as details on how to win a free copy of the book, after the jump.
GeekDad: You first started playing D&D when your mother suffered her brain aneurysm. What was it specifically about the game that drew you to it?
Ethan Gilsdorf: I think for me, on the surface, D&D offered escape–quite literally into another world, one not poisoned by the troubles of my home life and my disabled mother. But I think the appeal was also about more than that. I think to my geeky and introverted adolescent self, not being part of the “in” crowd (and few of us were), I felt about as powerful as a three-foot hobbit on a basketball team. The locker room was scarier than any dungeon. So I and my misfit, brainy friends needed something to do together that mimicked the camaraderie and fellowship that team sports denied me. D&D fulfilled that.
There was also another key reason: the adult world seemed arbitrary and at times scary. Topsy-turvy. So D&D helped give shape and order to a chaotic adolescence. I had learned that in the adult world, fate was chaotic and uncertain. Guidelines for success were arbitrary. Mothers could disappear and I was powerless to stop it or rescue her or heal her. In D&D, there were healing spells. And while I could not slay my mother (not that, consciously, I wanted to, but in many ways she was my foe), I could slay orcs and goblins and dragons and other evil forces–the ones with red glowing eyes and horned heads. Perhaps the game world reminded me that some conflicts could be black and white. D&D lets players be the hero, the paladin and the assassin and the healer. We get to try out other aspects of our personalities that, in “real life,” are denied to us. And I wanted to be tested and scared and go on adventures and take risks, but in a safe place. With D&D, at least there was a rule book and we knew what we needed to roll to hit and kill and escape death again and again.
The last reason? Because it felt good to do things I could not do in real life. To be a hero. To kill the dragon, or ride the purple worm. To shoot fireballs from my fingertips. Take that, jocks! Take that, prom queen! Ha!
GD: Was there ever any attempts by your mother or other powers-that-be to prevent you from playing the game (ridiculous and untrue associations with the occult, etc.)?
EG: Nope, remarkably, no one in my family ever questioned or challenged my D&D obsession. I think because I was so introverted and shy, the various parental figures in my life were simply pleased that I’d found a group of guys to hang with and stay out of trouble. Compared to getting girls pregnant or driving while drunk, D&D was harmless. My folks may not have understood the game, but they never worried we were summoning demons from the 7th plane of hell. After I came home after my weekly D&D night, they’d often ask, “So, how was the game? Who won?” I’d have to remind them, there was no winner or loser. There was just the endless story that would be continued next week.
GD: When you decided you had grown out of D&D, did you replace it with other “fringe” hobbies, or did you make a specific effort to avoid geekier pastimes?
EG: I had other hobbies for sure, but they weren’t really on the fringe. I was a filmmaker, and radio DJ, and a poet and writer, so I went to movies, collected records, and amassed a collection of books (mostly poetry). Is poetry on the fringe? I suppose so. Is collecting LPs an entry to a world of specialized knowledge and trivia, like D&D? I think so. We all want to be masters of some field or be experts at something. But yes, I certainly made a point of embracing less socially “risky” activities when I went off to college. I remember wanting cool friends and to learn to drink beer and get laid and just be normal. But my geeky, fantasy-driven past was inside me, and kept haunting me.
GD: Was it because you were ashamed of your past?
EG: I was to a certain extent ashamed of my D&D and Tolkien obsession. I remember being at college and the local Society for Creative Anachronism group came to campus to recruit college kids and give sword-fighting demos. I tried it out once or twice, but I remember not feeling like I fit in anymore. I was an odd realization because in a way, the SCA was my people. But I shunned them and said to myself I was too cool to dress in medieval garb and spar in the quad. I wanted to sit on a ratty couch and drink beer and wear my vintage football jacket, and do so ironically. I was too into being ironic by then to embrace the SCA or any other serious, geeky “escapist” pursuit.
GD: What about now? Do you feel that you no longer need escapism, or do you think you’ve just replaced your passion for D&D with something else?
EG: I do think that the place I go when I “escape” has changed, but like all of us, I do need escape. I’m not sure my need for escape is any less. It’s just been transmogrified into something else. I think I’ve always believed that the 20th and, recently, the 21st centuries were not for me. I am afflicted by “medieval moments.” I will be walking in the woods and the modern world will fall away, and I will forget my Gore-Tex and my cell phone and I will be in some other era. Sometimes another place. I will pretend or actually see elves, orcs, beasts. It’s that out-of-time-and-space sensation that I’m seeking, like a woman in my book, Elyse, who sought that fleeting “magic moment” when, at an SCA event, she felt like she had shaken off the weight of the present day to travel to another era in history. The medieval castle project called Guédelon that I visit in another chapter, where workers are dressed in period tunics and are building a castle using only medieval tools and technology, offers another kind of very tempting escape–to leave the modern world of cubicles and white collar work and immerse oneself in hard, physical labor borne of another era. I really wanted to spend a few weeks there chiseling rocks and mixing mortar.
GD: It was when you discovered a trunk full of your old role-playing gear that you began to reevaluate the nature of fantasy and gaming. This discovery essentially spurred you on your “quest” to write the book. What was in that box? How did you feel when you opened it up?
EG: That box was filled with all my old D&D gear–just as I (and my childhood friend JP, who taught me the game) had left it 20 years before. My old brown shopping bag-covered Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, a gray felt bag of dice, and 3-ring binders of rules and character sheets, unused pads of graph and hex paper, and lots and lots of maps of dungeons and worlds. There were also other RPGs like Gamma World and Boot Hill.
How did I feel? Excited. Thrilled. Eager to play again. Then, a wave of warning: fear, apprehension, concern I’d get sucked back in. D&D had always occupied an ambivalent place in my life. I loved the game but it was a reminder of the geeky stammering shy boy I had tried to shed.
GD: One guy plays World of Warcraft religiously. Another plays fantasy football and watches sports on TV. Are these two guys more similar than they think? How does one’s choice of escapism, whether acceptable by societal norms, affect its nature? Is one more “healthy” than another one just because it’s more mainstream?
EG: This is an issue I write about this in my book. I think both fantasy football and fantasy games are very similar. Whether on the level of hobby or interest or obsession, they are comparable. Both involve stats and numbers, mastery of tactics and strategy, and a willingness to slog through lower levels/”the regular season” to reach level 80/the “championship.” And let’s face it: football is a war game.
Personally, I think they are both equally healthy, and both equally susceptible to addiction or “taking the game too far.” The difference is in the double standard that society places on these two activities. WoW is seen as a pointless “fantasy” world, full of frivolity, or conversely, brutal violence. Football (whether real or imaginary) is part of the cultural thread of our country. Playing football, like the army, teaches brotherhood and toughness and teamwork and hard work and discipline. I think online communities can create the same social networks, but because WoW and its ilk are “games” and not “sports,” the culture applies a double standard.
It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s gradually changing–it’s changed a lot since I was a kid in the 1980s. Generations who game now are bringing widespread acceptability to gaming, and I think the fact that there are sports games for the home console means that playing a video game, in general, will be increasingly seen as a legitimate way to waste one’s leisure time.
Oops. Did I say, “waste”? I meant, “spend” 😉
GD: Is the popularity of the fantasy genre a result of any particular aspect of western culture? Is it because we haven’t been shipped off to war like our fathers, or because it’s hard to feel heroic while sitting in a cubicle?
EG: That’s an interesting idea–that fantasy heroics exist because we haven’t ourselves experienced war. Although Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both fought in World War I and lost many of their comrades, they turned to fantasy I think as a way to explore good and evil and other great themes (loyalty, love, sacrifice, fellowship, fighting the good fight, etc). The other problem with that idea is that a lot of war veterans and those currently serving in Iraq play a lot of fantasy games–from D&D to WoW.
I think a few other reasons explain the rise of fantasy. The world has become a more complicated place. Imaginary worlds offer tempting other possibilities where we might feel more welcome, or be more proficient or successful. We also lack rites of passage or other ways for people to feel heroic, to do great deeds and to fulfill their desires to pick up a sword or axe and solve problems in a primal way. Games, fantasy, science fiction, comic books allow folks to experience this, if only vicariously.
Grand troubles we want to unravel–like good versus evil–seem only solvable in our imaginations. Outside the movie theater, the real terrorists slip through our fingers, but in our imaginations, and on the movie screens, we can take revenge and win and kill the evil forces. Vanquishing the “bad guys” seems do-able in a fantasy world because all the villains raspy voices, glowing red eyes, and blood-stained helmets. We all know reality offers no such sharp divisions. But these hero stories played out in games, books, movies, and even kids’ schoolyard antics involve villains, heroes, and monsters for good reason: so we can face and overcome our fears in a good-guy, bad-guy, clear-cut world. Delving into these black-and-white worlds can also make our own conflicts, personal or political, seem more manageable. Fantasy’s apocalyptic, end-of-civilization scenarios, by comparison, make our troubles seem simpler.
GD: Have you returned the the fold, as it were? Do you consider yourself a geek today? If so, what character would you play in a D&D campaign?
EG: I consider myself a geek for sure. But while I used to be a hardcore Dungeons & Dragons player (maybe addict?), nowadays I seem more attracted to fantasy movies and books than gaming. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have the time to immerse myself in role-playing games, or I just haven’t connected with a group of friends who also like to game. I’d say in general, I tend towards “escaping” into a fantasy realm like Tolkien’s Middle-earth more so than playing Xbox or World of Warcraft. Besides, I never had all that good hand-eye coordination.
At the moment, I’d say my nerdly ways are being fulfilled vicariously by interacting with others. One of the joys of being on tour and traveling across the US, is meeting so many other fantasy freaks and gaming geeks. I’ve spoken to so many folks who are dying to share their stories of how they got into gaming or what role fantasy plays in their lives.
As for my dream character, I think it would have be a brooding, half-elf ranger. Or a battle-scarred dwarf fighter. I’ve always been drawn to the characters who lurk in the shadows, and are connected to nature and the earth, or prefer the darkness of the underground. I always found those lawful good paladin types too straight-laced and Boy Scout-like. Probably too much like me.
Thanks again to Ethan Gilsdorf, for his excellent travel memoir and for taking the time to talk geeky with me.
If you want to read his book, hit up Froobi.com to enter to win a free signed copy. The contest is open until 1/13/2010.