Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

by Ethan Gilsdorf

336 Pages

Published by the Lyons Press, September 2009

When I saw this book in my library, I immediately picked it up, and proceeded to blast through it in about two days. Though the book is not primarily about “gaming geeks” in a way that I was originally hoping for, it still offers an interesting trip through many avenues of fantasy fandom.

Gilsdorf begins the book recounting his own experiences as a D&D player in middle and high school, and the subsequent abandoning of the hobby in college. What the book is, in essence, is a travelogue through fantasy as the author tries to understand why it still has such a grip on him.

Though it starts at Dungeons and Dragons, the book quickly moves through LARP, onto Society for Creative Anachronism, and into a Lord of the Rings tour of New Zealand, stopping along the way at the Tolkien society in England, a few World of Warcraft servers, and a gaming con. Along the way, Gilsdorf profiles many people involved in each of these different scenes. Of course, the most detailed and engaging “character” of the story is Gilsdorf himself, whose stories from his role playing days were heavily intertwined with the retelling of experiences of living with his mother, who had suffered from a brain injury during his childhood.

Needless to say, I found the book engaging, given that I finished it so quickly. It is a very entertaining travelogue through many different pastimes that fall under the category of “fantasy”, and from the perspective of someone not involved with these, is at certain points quite eye-opening. However, it’s not really aimed at insiders, and anyone who is actually involved in one of these hobbies will find the book erring on the side of summary. Reading the sections where Gilsdorf plays D&D were in my opinion some of the least interesting sections, not because of the writing, but rather because reading about the goings-on of a game table is distinctly redundant for anyone who actually spends time at a game table every weekend.

The only issue I take with the book is the conclusion that the author seems to drive at. In the end, the idea of “fantasy as escapism” seems to be promoted above all else, and this is usually a simplification. From within the role playing community, I can say that I do not play role playing games to identify with my characters. I’m certain that SCA participants devote their time and energy for more reasons than simply pretending to be a medieval knight for a weekend. Gilsdorf doesn’t make the direct claim that these activities are escapism exclusively, but the idea is brought front and center throughout the book.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. Though I was clearly already familiar with D&D as Gilsdorf described it, I was entertained and felt like I learned something about the other areas I wasn’t so familiar with; the chapters on LARP and Society for Creative Anachronism in particular stand out in my mind. I would recommend the book, though urge any gamers to remember that reading about people playing a role playing game is not as interesting as actually playing a roleplaying game. For someone less familiar with fantasy subcultures, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

[tags]review, literature, role playing games[/tags]

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