Jan 15 2010 2:22pm

“Geek” Is No Longer a Four-Letter Word

Here’s the truth: No matter how hard you try to suppress some jagged part of your past, it invariably comes screaming back. Especially when you label that subterranean aspect of your previous life “unfinished business” and sweep it under the rug.

Such was the case with my Dungeons and Dragons obsession. The last time I played was senior year in high school, 25 years ago. I thought I had put my gamer days behind me. But what I had simply done was quit playing. My desire to inhabit some fantasy world remained, haunted me throughout my adulthood, and kept beckoning me with its crooked, wiggling finger.

I had played D&D, that oft-maligned fantasy role-playing game, for six hours every Friday night (not to mention the hours I spent scheming and dreaming my next D&D adventure), from the summer before my eighth-grade year until my last year of high school. Week after week, for five years straight, I sat at a table of pimply-faced boys, surrounded by bags of cheese doodles, bottles of Mountain Dew, and mounds of polyhedral dice. In and around those mundane trappings of 20th-century rural New Hampshire life, my D&D gang and I conjured a more fantastic reality, one filled with magic swords, blistering fireballs, and heroic leaps from castle parapets onto the backs of giant rats, goblins, and umber hulks.

Yes, I was introverted and anxious. Many players were. Yes, I had a troubled childhood (briefly: my mother suffered a brain aneurysm when she 38 and I was 12; she survived, but was a massively changed woman). Not so with all of us players did. But D&D was always a great time, and sometimes I think it saved me.

I gave up D&D when I saw college as a chance to remake myself as social and beer-swilling. Fantasy was kids’ play, I said to myself, and my relationship to fantasy felt like a hindrance to becoming the “me” I fantasized about becoming. I forgot the game, and I thought it forgot me.

But then, just shy of my 40th birthday, that old friend returned. By “friend,” I mean “unexpected guest.” I mean, erstwhile “addiction.” By which I mean—and this is what I felt that day I discovered the musty box of D&D rulebooks in my parents’ basement—“Oh, old nemesis. You have come back into my life.”

I got sucked into “the hobby” in the late 1970s, back when D&D was merely a fad—misunderstood, marginalized, and (amusingly) a scourge to Satan-fearing evangelists. Nowadays, our relationship to fantasy has changed. The latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, ruled the box office all last summer (along with other science fiction, fantasy, and comic-book hero tales like District 9 and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies have made writers like Tolkien safe for the entire family. Adult men and women buy Xbox and PlayStation consoles, and not just for their children. Average office workers arrange Star Wars and Halo action figures on their computer monitors. Online worlds like Second Life have made role-playing second nature, and massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft (WoW) are now more or less OK worlds to fall into.

Wearing our +3 Eyeglasses of Exceptional Hindsight, we can see that D&D and other fantasy pop-culture phenoms begat a whole sub-industry of Tolkien-esque fantasy entertainments: book series, swords-and-sorcery movies, quarter-devouring video games, home computer online games, and fandom-driven fantasy conventions. Being a fantasy freak is acceptable. “Geek” is no longer a four-letter word.

And it seems to me, the past year of 2009 was particularly a big year for geekdom, both for me personally and for the culture. I graduated high school 25 years ago. D&D celebrated its 35th anniversary. The Warcraft universe and franchise was launched 15 years ago, and the game WoW appeared five years ago. And the second of the two D&D co-founders, Dave Arneson, died (E. Gary Gygax, the other, passed away in 2008).

Discovering that old box of D&D maps, dice, and notebooks sparked the quest that became my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. I had complex reasons why imaginary worlds had lured me, and why I still heard their siren song. I suspected the same of others. Hence, my world-girdling journey and the dozens of fantasy and gaming fans we meet in Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. I wanted to hear, in their own words, how they had integrated fantasy experiences into their adult lives. I wanted to find out how the worlds of fantasy in all their incarnations had morphed and expanded. And I wanted to find out how much I had morphed and expanded. I hoped I had.

On my quest, I learned the mind works in circuitous ways. Yes, I had put D&D aside, but it was not yet done with me. And, above all, this: the past may be stored in a box, but it does not forget us.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.

Marcus W
1. toryx
That's too bad that you quit D&D at such a young age. The games get a LOT better when you play with adults. :)
Matthew Schmeer
2. mwschmeer
It was your book and Mark Barrowcliffe's The Elfish Gene that brought me back to D&D last fall. You might be interested to know there is a resurgence of interest in 1970s/1980s era D&D, labeled the "Old School Renaissance." Two hubs for this return to story-based gaming (as opposed to the combat-focused gaming of 3.5e/4e D&D) are Dragonsfoot and Original D&D Discussion.
zac d
3. Asio
Sir, this is the second article of yours in as many days I have read, both excellent. The first was your piece in USA Today about Avatar, pretty much the same theme though. So true though, I recall when I was younger always keeping my books out of view while at school, after a humiliating experience involving me and a forgotten realms novel. I now work with young people, and all the stuff that I was ashamed of is no big deal, if not outright cool?! As a 5 year veteran of WoW, I get looks of awe from some of these kids when I tell them about ol' "vanilla WoW". The Wheel turns as a great man once said, still makes me chuckle though.
4. alreadymadwithfantasies
No doubt about it, fantasy gaming is more mainstream now than it was 25, 15 or even 10 years ago. You actually get cool points from youngsters these days when they realize you stuck with the game when nobody else did.
5. egilsdorf
thanks all for the kind comments, especially Asio... I'm glad this struck a chord... and yes, you're right, toryx, the games do get better with age. cheers! -- Ethan
Roland of Gilead
6. pKp
I have played RPGs as a 15-years-old and a 21-years-old, with people who were aged from 12 to 45. It definitely gets better with age, but the other key point is not to be afraid to stop playing with someone, because all it takes is one person you don't agree with on what the game should be and your session is basically ruined. That's not such a big deal when you're 15 and have nothing else to do, but when you're 20, have a steady girlfriend, a job and studies, travelling 25 miles and taking a weekend to play D&D becomes non-trivial.

That being said, I enjoy RPGs now more than I ever did, and I can't wait for my DM to pass his exams so we can start a new campaign (2 months left and counting).
Karen L
7. changisme
I also celebrate the fact that geeks are no longer marginalized these days. Part of it is because the first generation geeks (not strictly speaking) have grown up to become parents now. But I think more importantly, works like Harry Potter have took down the fences around dwarf and elf lands. I know most long time fantasy fans feel that Harry Potter is not "high lit", but it really serves its social purpose.

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