Book Review: Fantasy Freaks And Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf

Here it is, I’ll come out and say it.  I used to play pencil and paper role playing games.  I played games like Dungeons And Dragons, Palladium and Call Of Cthulhu for most of the 80’s. I was blessed with a great friend (and he is still my friend to this day) named Brandon who was an amazing Game Master and story teller.    Brandon  made RPGs really interesting and hard to pass-up, and playing them became my obsession for many late nights in high school and even into college. I did not play every weekend, and I took long breaks, sometimes for years, but I still played. I pretty much gave them up when girls started showing interest in me, but there was a point at which both intertwined (and sometimes not harmoniously).

Some of the adventures we played through, especially  the swashbuckling sci-fi horror of Call Of Cthulhu, have stuck with me over the years just like the best books I’ve read or movies I have seen.   While I never stopped playing computer RPGs, those mostly solitary games are a completely different breed from the very social and imagination fueled games we used to play.  There is no substitute for a group of us sitting around Brandon’s coffee table, consuming pounds of sunflower seeds and gallons of cheap, sugary iced tea, rolling dice and talking about using Elephant guns to take-down  Nyarlathotep. I still get the urge to play now and then, but with a young family, the time commitment is too great.  Brandon and I have talked about getting a game together, but for now, pencil and paper RPGs are a memory gathering dust in the attic of my mind, waiting for their time, if it ever comes, to shake off the cobwebs and return to the forefront of my disposable time and income.

A recent book (2009) explores a similar fascination with youthful role playing games in the middle-age in a very thorough and thoughtful way.  Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks And Gaming Geeks explores the author’s attempt to understand, explore and come to gripes with, the role playing games he played and loved as a kid.  Like many other kids in the 70’s and 80’s, Gilsdorf first dove into the fantasy horrors of role playing games as an escape from the very real horrors of his everyday life.   Much like myself, he gave them up just about the time he could legally buy alcohol, but as the years turned into decades he realized the urge to play still burned within him .  Around his 40th birthday, he set out on an adventure to find meaning from fantasy, and to come to grips with his past and present.

Gilsdorf’s fascination with the fantasy exploits of his past becomes a hero’s journey (of sorts) in the present. What starts as a trip to the basement of a comic book store,  turns into a quest to walk in the footsteps of Gary Gygax and J.R.R. Tolkein both real, and imaginary.  Gilsdorf travels the world, interviewing people who play table-top games, live action role-playing games (LARP), computer MMORPGs and much more.  He observes the proceedings, and also takes part, exploring his feelings about what the activities mean, both in light of his past and his present.  Some people might be turned off by just how personal Gilsdorf’s travels become, but I really appreciated them.  To me, dry facts and figures about the affect and influence of fantasy games are boring without a good helping of personal narrative to help wash it down.

Gilsdorf touches on the fact that other more “acceptable” activities (e.g. fantasy sports) have many of the same qualities as role playing games and offer the same kind of benefits (socialization, competition) and drawbacks (addiction, unhealthy escape), but are not derided in the same way in the popular press  as fantasy games and activities.  He struggles from both internal and external pressure with the idea that he should “grow out” of the youthful kid stuff of role playing games, but at the same time embrace “adult” activities that are pretty much the same thing dressed up another way.  I would have liked a bit more exploration and comparison of “fantasy” vs. “accepted” activities but what is here, at the very least, sparks the fire for future conversation.

Even though you can pretty much guess the results of Gilsdorf’s quest from the outset, the journey is what matters here, and it is quite a fascinating ride.   The author gives the reader a warts and all look into his mind, offering a kind of naked analysis of himself  that goes a bit further than I expected on the outset.   The book is recommended for anyone who either thinks or once thought they have “grown out” of pencil and paper games. It just might inspire you to pick it all up once again…or run screaming for the door.  Either way, you’ll be better for the experience.

-Steve Fulton

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