Those of us who populate the “fantasy” end of the pop-culture spectrum are used to being relegated to the fringe. We’re geeks, freaks, weirdos, possibly satanic nuts with a predilection for exploring sewers with plastic swords or spending far too much money and time on polyhedral dice or video game subscriptions. “Playing D&D” (Dungeons & Dragons for the uninitiated) is often the punchline of jokes concerning whether or not a person is a complete spaz or not. The stereotypical gamer/fantasy fan is a pimply adolescent male with a 0 in Charisma and a 20 in Intelligence. The stereotypical female fantasy fan is similar but also houses a huge collection of unicorns of all shapes and sizes. However, I have noticed a bit of a shift in the social strata that has allowed fantasy geekery to emerge to higher place on the pop-culture food chain.
Sure, geeks are still the butt of jokes from the cool Abercrombie & Fitch kids but they’ve also gotten some respect as well. MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online) attract millions of players (and dollars) from around the globe. Thousands participate in Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) events and clubs. Traditional table-top gaming is faltering, but still a multi-million dollar industry.
Part of me wants to believe that it is just the aging of my generation that has brought this to pass…all those kids who grew up during the fantasy “boom” of the early 1980s are now the adults running the show. On the other hand, Ethan Gilsdorf attributes much of this to the powerhouse Lord of the Rings movie trilogy brought to us by that puckish kiwi Peter Jackson. At any rate, it was this event that reawakened his inner nerd and got him asking some central questions about the phenomenon. What draws us to fantasy? What drives so many of us to seek out worlds that never existed? Is our desire for fantasy intrinsic and necessary or is it something that should inspire fear and constant vigilance? Regardless of what the “geek big bang” could be, Gilsdorf takes us on his journey into the heart of fantasy geekdom in his memoir/journalistic quest entitled Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.
Gilsdorf begins his journey with memories of his days as an avid D&D player as a teen in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Not only was it fun and tapped into his natural inclination to tell stories but it also provided an escape from the severe personality and physical changes a freak aneurysm wrought on his mother. Once young Ethan went to college he shucked off the trappings of his childhood (including D&D) to become a new Ethan–more adult and geek-free. Were it not for Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, Gilsdorf would still probably be playing the role of the closeted geek that he had perfected as a young man. The movies made such an impression that he dusted off the old blue cooler where his adolescent D&D notes had been kept for so many years. He began seeking out “the heart of dorkness” (my apologies to Joseph Conrad and John Kovalic) in order to better understand these yearnings in his own heart. Was his desire for fantasy merely abject escapism or was there something deeper, more meaningful, in these yearnings that clearly separated him from his peer groups (including his current girlfriend)?
The author begins his journey with Tolkien. He visits Oxford, explores the professor’s old haunts, and even visits his modest grave near his long-time home. In the course of his journey he participates in D&D games at his local gaming shop, attends Gary Con I, delves into the LARPing universe of Forest of Doors, attends the Society for Creative Anachronism‘s (SCA) Pennsic War, attends Dragon*Con, journeys to New Zealand for a glimpse of Middle Earth, and finally interviews various WoW participants to get a handle on their new, more virtual, roleplaying experiences. On his journey Gildorf meets some fascinating people and has some interesting experiences to relate. These stories shape the book into something far more human than a dry journalistic expose of a some hidden subculture.
Throughout the narrative, Gilsdorf attempts to answer the question of what drives the participants of these various fantastical hobbies. Are they escaping from inadequate “real” lives? Are they trapped in a perpetual adolescence? What is it that not only drives them to give up their time but much of their hard-earned money to keep their fantasies alive? The undercurrent of the journey is that Ethan desperately wants to answer these questions for himself.
After dozens of interviews and thousands of miles of travel, Gilsdorf finally comes to the conclusion that there are many reasons that people turn to the fantastic. For some it is pure escapism. For some, (especially the disabled), indulging in fantasy has saved their lives. It can teach virtues and real-world problem solving skills. It can bring people together for fellowship and a camaraderie that is often missing in the more mundane parts of their lives. On the other hand, like any focus of an addictive personality, it can lead to increasing isolation and “self-erasing” activities. But this isn’t unique to fantasy…ask any addict or rabid fan.
Ultimately, it is the socialization aspect of all these hobbies that lend them their strength. The various conventions, the tourist packages, the online guilds and communities, all give people a needed outlet to band together under a common love. This aspect is also important in hobbies where the catalysts are vintage cars or baseball. Humans are social creatures and these hobbies tap into our hard-wired need to connect. Even in the online world, connections are being made in new and different ways between people across the globe. Were it not for the social aspect, WoW would not be the juggernaut that it has become.
Gildorf’s explorations were enjoyable to read and his conclusions are astute and revelatory. However, when I put the book down, I still felt dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s because I’ve already discovered the conclusions he found on his journey and have applied them to my own mindset. Perhaps it’s because in all of the analysis of these various expressions of geekdom, he didn’t really address one central characteristic: these hobbies are just plain fun. As a result, I think that this would be a great book to introduce non-geeks to the wonders of fantastic pop-culture. For those already initiated into the freak club it highlights some interesting anecdotes and provides some validation to the geek lifestyle, but is overall less illuminating.