California Literary Review

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf

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September 17th, 2009 at 10:11 am

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Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms
by Ethan Gilsdorf
The Lyons Press, 336 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

An Empathetic Look at the World of Fantasy Role Players

This book is the magical doorway into the ultimate geek universe for all of us who know Gandalf, Harry Potter, and Conan. For some, it’s a curiously compelling freak show. For the rest of us, it’s a dreamscape full of wonder, delight, escape, and adventure. Regardless of where you rank on the Geek-o-Meter, there’s a lot to be learned in this insightful book, even if you already know something about +5 vorpal swords, Halo, Hogwarts, and Gary Gygax.

Twelve things you probably didn’t know about the fantasy freak world:

  1. There really is a rock band called “Harry and the Potters.” (This is as opposed to the bands Draco and the Malfoys or Ginny and the Heartbreakers, both real “wizard rock” bands.)
  2. LARPing is when people dress up in costumes and role-play in the flesh versus the old pencil and paper method like Dungeons & Dragons. Some actually attack with padded or foam weapons (boffing), and some settle fights by rock/paper/scissors.
  3. The Otherkin Resource Center (ORC) exists for people who don’t believe they are human. Elves, vampires, and unicorns are among the most popular non-human races that they claim to be.
  4. In Burgundy, France, a lot of really dedicated people spend their weekends building a medieval-style castle. . . with medieval tools. They broke ground in 1997 and at their current rate, they might finish by, say, 2026.
  5. A group of people from the UK recreated a 12-ton Roman war machine, a ballista, and put the $180,000 weapon up for sale on eBay.
  6. There actually are such academic papers as “Orc Bodies, Orc Selves: Medieval and Modern Monstrosity in Middle-Earth” and “Knights, Dykes, Damsels, and Fags.”
  7. One of the most famous examples of filk—a musical genre that’s a reaction to “novels and characters, computers, technology, and the culture of fandom itself”—was Led Zeppelin with Tolkien-inspired works like “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “The Battle of Evermore.” (“Ramble On” is, apparently, a new take on the Gollum story where he’s after a hippie chick versus the One Ring. Who knew?)
  8. There’s a whole subgenre of fan fiction called “slash fiction,” which imagines sexual relationships between same-sex characters such as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Sam and Frodo, or even Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley.
  9. In the wake of The Lord of the Ring movies, New Zealand has more than twenty tour companies specializing in various levels of Tolkien lore. One “all-out-geek tour” costs $1,500 a day but lets you play with weapons, costumes, and other “top secret” items from the movie in addition to shuttling you to many of the key filming locations.
  10. The World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, The Wrath of the Lich King, broke all sales records with a scorching 2.8 million copies in the first twenty-four hours.
  11. There’s an annual event in Delaware called “Punkin Chunkin,” where people build machines and compete to see which will throw pumpkins that farthest. (In 2008, Young Glory III heaved a pumpkin 4,483.51 feet!)
  12. Ethan Gilsdorf has a very active Twitter account about this book and its promotion entitled “Ethan Freak.”

While this book seems a vast repertoire of gamer geek stories, Gilsdorf’s own personal tale begins with his mother’s tragic aftereffects of a devastating brain aneurysm that left this vivacious, proud divorcee and mother of three a “Momster,” or a “Kitchen Dragon” who was only interested in cigarettes, booze, and her own bizarre behavior. It’s a frightening depiction that helps lay the context for Gilsdorf’s need for escape into a safer, structured world. Enter D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) thanks to a group of his outcast peers. As with most who find their true home in the world of fantasy, a ton of exploits and adventures follow.

Gilsdorf has a smooth writing style that likely comes from his background as a poet, critic, and journalist whose work has appeared in USA Today, Washington Post, and The New York Times. While the more socially outward-looking parts of this book remind me of Malcolm Gladwell, the rest has a chatty “I’m game for whatever!” kind of tone that’s ultimately disarming and inviting. Too many books about gaming become soapbox diatribes condemning the worlds of fantasy and make-believe. While Gilsdorf isn’t quite ready by the story’s end to sign up for the next LARP battle or buy his own pair of latex elf ears, he does take time to carefully examine the benefits these alternate worlds provide. For some disabled people, playing a MMOG where a beautiful night elf can dance in a forest glade is a small miracle. For others, the games are escape, adventure, nostalgia, and a safe way to express wishes, needs, and fears. Plus there’s the impulse to be heroic and survive situations of betrayal, revenge, and great adversity.

It’s also just a lot of clean, safe fun, one might finally decide. Even if it’s packaged in odd shapes and sizes (and costumes).

Part memoir, part pop culture investigation, and part travel narrative, this cross-genre book is quite satisfying and thorough in its consideration of fantasy worlds and the creatures (and people) who inhabit them. Not just anyone could serve as our guide through this story—it takes someone like former D&D junkie, Ethan Gilsdorf, now age forty, to know how best to get at what matters for this culture.

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