Saturday, September 9, 2017

Geek Like Me

'Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks' by Ethan Gilsdorf (2012)

On a recommendation from the Save or Die podcast I recently read through Ethan Gilsdorf's Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, an autobiographical journey by the author, a journalist, who revisits an Eighties childhood of roleplaying games through literally revisiting and immersing himself in many of the elements past and present of a fantasy geek lifestyle. Along the way he meets other gamers, lifestylers and geeks, some of whom also tell their story through Gilsdorf.

Gilsdorf is around my age, but got into gaming earlier, and seemed to stick with it larger, and yet his experiences of leaving the game seem pretty familiar to anyone who has left home, entered adult institutions and fumbled their way through the sought treasures and pitfalls of adult relationships. In fact, the author's late childhood of nursing a severely disabled mother while entering his teens weighs heavily on the narrative, as does his confessed difficulty with committing to his longtime girlfriend. In a way, the premise of the book as quest oriented helps tell his story - the work of the journalist being one of discovery, detective, conflict and intuition, much like that of an RPG character; however, it's a piecemeal journey, with interruptions, revisions and deviations. There's also an returning element in Gildorf's writing that admits to a form of arrested maturity in the writer - something he explains in part to his unenviably difficult teens, but nevertheless it intrudes into the narrative. In short, there are times when the quest seems to be aimed at more than just awakening and examining the geek in Gilsdorf's head, but also pursuing a warrior queen of his very own, and to me it sat uncomfortably.

Nevertheless, there's plenty here to absorb if, like Gilsdorf, you've been somewhat divorced from the world of roleplaying games and are interested in how its various worlds - tabletop gaming, LARPing, historical reenactment, online MORPGs and fan culture, have evolved. As anyone who has followed the fortunes of games like Dungeons and Dragons can attest, the fortunes of the game and its community have waned and waxed over the years and fought their share of demons - from Eighties Satanic Panic to the collapse of many of its gaming studios, to the emergence of new media and the digital age. I found a lot of interest in Gilsdorf's visit to the spiritual antecedents of RPGs, in particular Guedelon in France, where a castle is being constructed strictly according to mediaeval methods including manpower, and the modern re-enactors, whose lives I do not envy, but dedication and philosophy intrigues me.

Perhaps the book rather extends its stay, though. The coda, a visit to New Zealand, seemed tacked on to complete Gilsdorf's mission of visiting a fantasy world up close and offer the best chance to immerse himself in one post-Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. But anyone who has tried to accomplish this will probably tell a similar story of the variable fortunes of attempting to meet screen with reality. It's a rather flat ending, and somewhat unsatisfying. I recommend Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks with some hesitation, but will say that its coverage for the time is pretty generous, and while told from a US perspective, doesn't seem to be especially parochial. Gilsdorf himself comes across as a pretty intense individual - sometimes apologetically so, and as noted above, this personality drives a lot of his book: your mileage may vary. Fr my pafrt I finished the book a little less patient with its writer, but happy to have been on some of his journey at least.

Here, recently posted on YouTube is Gilsdorf's original films of his teenage gaming group in jittery, blurry Super 8, with the soundtrack 'Kids' from Stranger Things. As an artefact of its time it's damned near perfect.

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