I'll admit that I was initially skeptical of this book, which is subtitled "An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms." Past experience with books and articles in which the author reminisces about his youthful adventures as a roleplayer are typically suffused with shame and self-loathing and imply, if not outright state, that escapism is unhealthy and unbefitting "normal" people, among whom the author, of course, numbers himself. Gilsdorf does nothing of the kind. Indeed, despite its provocative title, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is anything but an exposé about the dangers of roleplaying and related hobbies but rather a surprisingly affecting memoir, travel journal, and cultural analysis of the imaginary realms in which so many of us dwell.
Gilsdorf begins with a prolog in which he takes the reader back to 1979, when he was initiated into the world of roleplaying games. What's interesting is how similar Gilsdorf's entry into the hobby is to my own. He was a little older -- 12 as opposed to 10 -- and started a few months before me -- summer rather than winter -- but he learned from the same rulebook as I (the Holmes "Blue Book"). He even played with a guy named J.P., just as I did. Reading all this immediately warmed me to Gilsdorf; he was clearly "one of us." Unlike a lot of writers who reflect back on their "D&D days," Gilsdorf either actually remembered lots of little details, such as the fact that a wight deals 1-4 points of damage with a successful hit, or at least bothered to check his facts beforehand. That may seem a small thing, but I assure you it's not and it speaks volumes about the seriousness of the author.
While the surface details of Gilsdorf's early experiences with gaming are similar to my own, the deeper reality he lays bare in the prolog is not. A year before he discovered roleplaying, Gilsdorf's mother suffered a brain aneurysm that turned her into "the Kitchen Dragon," who endured "crippling left-side paralysis, massive changes in behavior and personality, and dangerous bouts of epilepsy." Previously a "free-spirited" and vibrant woman, Sara Gilsdorf, whom the author calls "the center of my world," was now "shifty, sickly, needy, deformed, antisocial, frustrated, volatile, closed to the world." The appearance of "the Momster," as the author also called her, forever changed his childhood and created a need for escape -- an escape that roleplaying games provided.
Like many people who played RPGs back in the 70s and 80s, Gilsdorf eventually moved on, however, despite the solace the hobby had offered during his difficult teen years:
Dungeons & Dragons began to die for me when, during my senior year in high school, 1983, I had my first kiss. My then-girlfriend's highly realistic look and feel banished those fantasy leather-clad busty she-warriors for good. That first love was serious. With something else to do on Friday nights, and a female creature to do it with, I played D&D less and less often. High school led to other kingdoms, such as college, sex, beer, cars, jobs, travel, and heartbreak. The D&D gang dispersed from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania, New York, Chicago, and Alaska. I left those dreamy medieval worlds behind and mostly forgot about my role-playing years. They dissipated and the netherworld released its grip, like a wizard dispelling a curse. I let my D&D obsession fade -- not because my longing to role-play had ceased, but because, perhaps, I sensed I was through with childish things. I had gone on one adventure too many. If D&D was a rite of passage, then I had passed through the dungeon to become a young man.The release of The Lord of the Rings movies starting in 2002 reignited Gilsdorf's mad love of fantasy. Then, one Christmas, he visited his father's home, looking to collect some of his possessions, and he discovers a twenty-five pound camping cooler, inside of which was "a stack of mold-ridden game boxes, notebooks, and books" -- his D&D paraphernalia. Comparing it to the One Ring, Gilsdorf suggests that his old gaming gear "want[ed] to be found" and, while he resisted delving too deeply into his old stuff for a while, he eventually acquiesced. Now 40 years old -- older than his mother was when she was struck by the aneurysm -- midlife was starting him in the face and it frightened him.
I had the sense that the D&D gear would somehow solve the riddle of who I was, where I had come from, and why I still needed imaginary realms. And maybe help me understand what I still had left to accomplish.This is the beginning of Gilsdorf's "epic quest," as he investigates "21st century geekdom," from Tolkien fanatics to MMO players to medieval re-enactors and more. The author travels across North America (to Wisconsin for GenCon and Georgia for a LARP), Europe (to France where a castle is being built according to medieval techniques), and New Zealand (where he met Peter Jackson), and places in-between, as he explores the breadth and depth of contemporary fantasy and science fiction fandom. Along the way, he meets and interviews many people, each of whom offers him more food for thought on his own personal quest to discover who he is and why fantasy has proved such an important aspect of his own life.
The contents of the blue cooler had saved me once. Could they save me again?
Breezily written but moving at times, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is a memoir that avoids being either self-indulgent or preachy, both of which are very real dangers in books of this sort. Gilsdorf offers no definitive answers to many of the questions he raises, but he does offer plenty to think about, particularly if, like him, you'd "devoted so much mental energy to a world that didn't exist ..." If the book has a flaw, it's that it can be meandering at times, feeling more like a random collection of thoughts and impressions than anything genuinely coherent, but, as I just stated, that's the nature of the beast. Gilsdorf isn't trying to advance a philosophy or a cause with this book, except perhaps that, as Tolkien reminded us, escapism can be a powerful good in one's life. It certainly was in Gilsdorf's and I can say the same of mine.
That may seem to be a fairly jejune point, but, given the popular portrayal of fantasy fans, it's nevertheless a needed one. Interestingly, it's a point that Dr. J. Eric Holmes made in his earlier Fantasy Role Playing Games, where he answers the question, "Are They Crazy?" in reference to roleplayers. Far from being injurious to one's mental health, Holmes argues, fantasy probably contributes to it positively, a truth I doubt anyone reading this blog would dispute. Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks drives this point home with plenty of examples, as Gilsdorf speaks not to "freaks" or "geeks" but to real people with real lives that are enriched through their indulgence in fantasies of one type of another. I enjoyed this book immensely and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others for whom fantasy is a lifelong love.