Book Review: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks
I can't remember when I first saw this book but I believe it was at my hometown's library. I had checked it out but never got to reading it. With a title like Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, I'm surprised it's taken me so long to crack it open. I'm big on reading about my own geek culture, detached as I am from it at times, and this one sounded like a winner. A travelogue through the different worlds of geeks, I was pretty sure I would enjoy the tour.
And, for the most part, I did.
The book begins with the author, Ethan Gilsdorf, recounting his teenage years. Gilsdorf grew up in a rough situation; his mom had an aneurysm and that put her out of full commission for the rest of her life. She became something of monster in the house, one Gilsdorf and his siblings dubbed the Momster. Dealing with that and his lack of social life in school, the author is invited to a friend's Dungeons and Dragons game.
In the act of roleplaying, Gilsdorf finds escape from reality and becomes an almost charucature of a geek, his childhood resembling that of those on Freaks and Geeks. However, after a time, Gilsdorf leaves that world of Tolkien and d20s behind.
Almost twenty-five years later, The Lord of the Rings becomes a major trilogy and rekindles a side of the author that he thought he left behind. Now forty and confused, Gilsdorf sets out on a quest to explore the different facets of geekdom and looks to find the inner geek of his youth.
From there, each chapter is a different experience. Gilsdorf follows England to find the Tolkien trail, he plays D&D again, LARPs, travels to a renaissance festival, visits real life castles, joins World of Warcraft, attends Dragon*Con and tours Lord of the Rings road in New Zealand.
The author gives us descriptions of each adventure, his thoughts and feelings as he goes along and plenty of interviews and quotes. For those who have never been to a live action roleplaying event before, you'll feel like you get a decent understanding of what goes on.
In fact, one of the best things about this book is that you'll want to join right along in your own adventure. I've never done it before, but I have a desire to LARP now and to attend Dragon*Con. The roleplayer in me misses my Friday games and I almost thought about reopening my long dead WoW account. At times, Gilsdorf presents the world of geeks as the best place to be, full of adventure and and acceptance.
But he's also quick to point out that geekdom is built of escapism. Gilsdorf spends the majority of the book wondering if it's for him, if escapism is the best thing for a forty year old man contemplating marriage and adulthood. He tries to present both sides of the world equally.
Unfortunetaly, he fails more than succeeds. For one, his voice is completely wrong for this book. The entire time that he's wondering if he is a geek deep down, he's contridicting himself. He mentions that the activities are fun and easy to get lost in, but that they're not for him. Gilsdorf is constantly explaining to the reader that he doesn't fit in and his own commentary detracts from the journey.
Because of his own thoughts, Gilsdorf comes across as a wannabe geek, a faux nerd, who used to do geeky things but moved on. In a way, this adventure is just a story of guy trying to reconnect with his childhood, like a broken down athlete picking up a football again. Even at the beginning, you know he's never going to go back to his old ways. As a real geek, if I can be so bold to claim that title, Gilsdorf comes across as condescending and pandering. As if the geek culture needs an outsider's approval.
Still, despite his own voice getting in the way, this is the best tour of the geek world as some will get. The final chapter, where Gilsdorf summarized his thoughts on escapism, is worthless but I suppose he needed to write it if he wanted to publish his findings. Every other chapter is well worth a read, though. You can see why people would devote the time and energy into these events. It's also nice to see people enjoying escapism without being controlled by it, many leaving the fantasy behind when they return to the real world.
If you're a self-proclaimed geek or you've never given in to the thrill of rolling your own set of d20s, you should give this book a once-over. It's worth the insight and will probably get you own your own geek hunt for fun and adventure.