“A Kind of Vast Game”: An Interview with Ethan Gilsdorf (Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks)

My book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture begins with a critique of the stereotypical construction of the fan as someone who suffers from arrested development, has limited social life, is driven by consumption, and is incapable of separating fantasy from reality. This stereotype has had an unbearably long shelf life. It would have been recognizable to Cervantes when he wrote about Don Q., the man who confuses windmills for giants, and it still persists to the present day, despite two plus decades of fan studies research, significant shifts in the social visibility and economic centrality of fans, and of course, the emergence of what some have called “geek chic.” So, what are we going to do about these stereotypes?

The question comes to mind as I sit down this week with Ethan Gilsdorf, the author of a fascinating book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, which tackles some of popular assumptions about fans and gamers head on. Some have been troubled with the ways that the book reproduces common stereotypes and anxieties about those of us who engage with the materials of popular fantasy even as it also seeks to challenge them. The author is the first to note that he went into this project with a fair amount of emotional baggage and he tries to describe the process of working through those squicks through the book. The book itself does depict fans and gamers in a sympathetic light, exploring the complex cultural practices they have developed, explaining the ways that their fantasy lives become interconnected with their social lives and personal identity, and ultimately constructing a positive account of the value of “escapism” and popular entertainment. Glisdorf is an engaging and thoughtful writer.

That said, there were passages in the book which made me wince. So, I decided in this interview to confront him about some of those passages and draw him out further about what he now believes about the communities he studied. He responded with frankness and generosity. I am sharing this interview with an understanding that there are going to be differences of opinion among aca-fen about whether or not he dealt appropriately with these issues in the book and am hoping that this interview can start rather than close a dialogue around these issues of popular representations of fans and gamers.

It’s safe to say that you had a conflicted relationship with your subject matter. While you draw on your own youthful experiences with D&D and your ongoing interest in Tolkien, you also seemed to carry with you many preconceptions and stereotypes about what adult “fantasy” and gamer fans would be like. How did these stereotypes color what you experienced while researching the book?

Conflicted indeed! Twenty-five years had passed since I last read Tolkien and played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in high school, since I had been conversant in all things geek. As I discuss in my book, I was that shy, introverted, social awkward, bookish kid — and an obsessed D&Der clinging to an “alternative” identity and fantasy life. D&D also coincided with a tough personal time for me as a teenager: my mother had become severely disabled when I was 12, and gaming helped me escape and not “deal” with the real world. Instead, I focused on adventures and quests in imaginary worlds where I had some control and mastery. Because of my adolescence, fantasy had negative connotations for me. When I reached adulthood, I tried to leave that version of myself behind. I wanted to remake myself as cool and popular, not geeky and invisible.

Yet I also knew, even before embarking on my quest in Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, that fantasy fandom and gaming had changed. It had become mainstream and largely more acceptable: Harry Potter, console gaming, World of Warcraft and other MMOs, Lord of the Rings, etc. I figured that old image of the horned-rimmed glasses and slide-rule in the breast pocket nerd was no longer relevant. At the same time, I knew the crude stereotypes that we all think about when we imagine a typical “gamer,” “computer science nerd,” or “science fiction reader” probably still existed in some primordially form, and had not entirely disappeared.

I also suspected that geeks themselves had become more savvy, more self-aware, more able to poke fun at themselves. I had picked up on this from messages that filtered down from pop culture: Think the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons or the Steve Carrell character in The 40 Year Old Virgin. The geek community has largely embraced these negative stereotypes — the image of guys who are introverted and without girlfriends, obese, snooty, fast-talking, unaware of social cues, super-smart but a bit “off,” wear Tshirts with slogans, work in dead end jobs, and not particularly concerned with their physical appearance, etc. — as a way to reclaim the terms of their own persecution, just like other marginalized subcultures and groups have done.

All of these stereotypes colored what I experienced while researching the book. They gave me a worst-case scenario as a baseline. When I hit the road for my quest, I hoped that my clunky and psychologically-convenient stereotypes would be smashed to smithereens. At the same time, in the back of my mind, I still worried that modern gamers, geeks or fanboys/girls I’d encounter in my 21st century travels might still adhere to that image of myself in high school.

Ultimately, the stereotypes made me more aware of the tough job I was facing. They kept me on my guard, and helped me question my assumptions, but also I felt compelled to be more sympathetic, more generous. I wanted to be fair, but being a once-and-future geek, I didn’t want to make fun of anyone. I wanted to tell positive stories —not the negative ones about gamers and geeks. Most of the folks I encountered understood their oddballness, and celebrated it. The men and women I interviewed who represented the various subcultures that I explore in Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks didn’t apologize or hide their geekly hobbies. That was liberating for me.

I now see, in retrospect, that over those intervening years, that those not terribly positive images of gamers and fantasy fans I carried around in my head were superficial and unfair. These ideas and stereotypes were somewhat extreme, antiquated and largely (and ironically) imaginary. But I think, the negative stereotyping was understandable — they functioned as a distancing device, as a way to keep me away from what I knew, in my heart, I loved — fantasy and gaming. My desire to turn away from fantasy and gaming gave birth to those harsher stereotypes in my mind. But it took me 25 years to figure that out, to come back into the fold.

Besides, “revenge of the nerds” type scenarios always play well.

You note that J.R.R. Tolkien, himself, had some conflicted feelings about the place of fantasy in contemporary culture. To what degree did his ambivalence help you to understand the sources of your own misgivings?

I think the ambivalence he expressed about his fantasy novels and the world he created, Middle-earth, helped me enormously. For him to admit that his novels were some “vast game” that in had gotten out of control — the full quote, which I cite early in the book, is “I am not now at all sure that the tendency to treat the whole thing as a kind of vast game is really good, cert. not for me, who find that kind of thing only too fatally attractive” — was a relief for me to read. Here was a guy, a well-respected “serious” scholar and philologist and Anglo-Saxon expert ribbed by his colleagues at Oxford; “How is your hobbit?” they’d tease him. Here was a high-brow academic “wasting his time” writing children’s literature, fairy stories. Here was a man saw the dangers of falling down the his own self-made rabbit hole. He even had misgivings about the info-craving, geeky fandom he had unwittingly created, what he regrettably once called “my deplorable cultus.” To see that a man like Tolkien had endured ridicule and himself questioned that he’d spent most of his life in a fantasy world was invaluable in me understanding and accepting my own misgivings.

I think all this put him on the defense — and the offense. In a way, his essay “On Fairy-Stories” was his retort, his argument for the need for fantasy and fairy and heroic myth in the modern world. And in a way, Tolkien was the original obsessive fantasy geek, spending decades building his world, inventing languages, drawing maps, devising “rules” for his imaginary realm. And he did it all way, way before any of this was remotely cool. I think once his books really took off in the 1960s, people (and publishing, Hollywood, etc) began to see the genre as a lucrative one with a potential for a huge fan base. Tolkien truly helped legitimize and revitalize entire genre. Of course, Tolkien did not invent fantasy and swords and sorcery. But, in reviving its rules, he tapped into a hidden need in the culture. No one could have predicted how well his heroic, romantic, high fantasy would catch on.

Many of the people who read my blogs are fans and gamers of the kind you discuss throughout the book. What will they learn about themselves and their practices by looking at this world through your eyes?

I hope that they will come to reflect on the reasons that they are drawn to fantasy and games. During my dozens of interviews, I’d ask folks, “So why do you love Harry Potter?” or “Why do you spend so much time playing World of Warcraft?” The immediate answer was often “Because it’s fun” or “because I like doing things with my friends.” But I would probe deeper. And the answers were surprising: some told me that role-playing games and fantasy let them try out other selves, as a way to explore others suppressed sides of themselves. Others said that gaming let them behave bravely and boldly, and later import that into their real lives. Still others enjoyed play-acting a dastardly and malicious character, but in a safe setting, to work out negative and unresolved feelings. Some craved the combat, the competition and the physicality of it, as if a test, a rite of passage. Others found in gaming a way to defeat crushing isolation, to find fellowship, belonging, and their tribe. For those who role-played or wrote fanfic, they were drawn to fantasy because it gave permission to tell stories, to participate in a world where they are the heroes (rather than passively absorbing a narrative about someone else, as in the experience of reading a book or watching a movie). Moreover, fantasy inspired them. In those worlds, heroes do things we can’t do in real life. They fight the good fight, and slay the evil orcs and evil dragons. They remind us again, as the cliché goes, “what is worth fighting for.” Perhaps in reading my book, your readers might think, “Hey, that guy is a lot like me.” I hope they’ll recognize familiar stories and see themselves in my book. Or see new selves.

Your book concludes, “It seems as a culture, we have two options: We can be terrified of fantasy games, books, and movies and continue to marginalize them and their players. Or we can understand them, and see that fantasy in all its stripes has a proper place alongside other amusements.” Where does the “terror” come from? What do people find threatening about the kinds of cultural identities and experiences you describe in your book?

I think the terror is this sense that a game world (WoW) or novel (Harry Potter) or movie (Avatar) is going to have a greater cultural influence on us than traditional institutions like parenting, school, religion, government. What if some other force is able to shape public opinion or show the public some potentially radical and mind-altering way of life? That threatens to usurp the power of traditional institutions which have the job of making meaning and creating structure in our society. Not surprisingly, when Avatar became such a big hit, and drew repeat viewers to theaters to its immersive 3D world, media stories popped up about “Avatar addicts” — the fear being that a single experience like a movie can warp a mind into thinking “real life” is hardly worth our effort.

These fears naturally are coinciding at a time when traditional institutions are failing and losing their cultural relevance. These institutions feel threatened, and rightly so. But haven’t we seen this fear expressed every generation? Think of how the establishment thought comic books, rock and roll, rap music, heavy metal music, etc (you name it) were the end of civilization as we know it. Concerns in the 1980s that D&D was going to corrupt the minds of teenagers or turn them into Satan worshippers (remember Jack Chick and Dark Dungeons? … Mazes and Monsters</em>? — it all now seem quaint today. But tomorrow, it’s going to be the next thing. There’s always the demon of the new.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the travel memoir-pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.

After playing Dungeons & Dragons religiously in the 1970s and 1980s, Ethan Gilsdorf went on to become a poet, teacher, and journalist. In the U.S. and in Paris, he’s worked as a freelance correspondent, guidebook writer, and film, book and restaurant reviewer. Now based in Somerville, Massachusetts, he publishes travel, arts, and pop culture stories regularly in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Christian Science Monitor, and has been published in other magazines and newspapers including National Geographic Traveler, Psychology Today, and the Washington Post. His blog “Geek Pride” is seen regularly on PsychologyToday.com, and he also blogs for Boston.com’s Globetrotting, Tor.com and TheOneRing.net. Gilsdorf has also been a guest as a fantasy and escapism expert on radio programs such as Air America’s Inside Story and NPR’s “Around And About.” Follow Ethan’s adventures.

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    It is interesting to note how many books in recent years have cited Dungeons and Dragons as a major influence on the writer. Steven Johnson also attributes value to the game as part of Everything Bad is Good for You, as well as several blog writers and keynote speakers participating as part of Web 2.0 or Digital Media conferences that I have attended since c.2005.

    For me, D&D was Web 2.0 before Web 2.0 even existed with the opportunities for collaborative storytelling. However, I think it offered the opportunity to be far more than simple ‘escapism.’ For the game to be engaging, the collaboration between the GM & player characters has to suspend disbelief. As a teenager in the 80s/90s this led me to conduct research on a range of topics, which enabled me to then incorporate this back within the framework of the game itself. For instance, historical, geographical and cultural details had to be correct if the game was to construct verisimilitude capable of being believable. The generic conventions of the genre and narrative devices employed all contributed to the enthusiastic post-mortem discussion, which was characteristic of the gaming experience and subsequently helped improve future gaming experiences.

    In inevitably breaking free of the pre-packaged material produced by TSR/Wizards of the Coast etc, the storytellers then have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Tolkien, constructing a world from the base upwards dealing with the myth of creation, cultures, languages, historical timelines and key themes. For my group, this process has thus far taken 8 years and is a likely to be a lifelong endeavour and is quite possibly the most challenging creative task I have ever undertaken.

    Finally, as a teacher I have attempted to offer opportunities and also tap into the rich vein of gaming experience represented by the students in my classes. Whilst working with a group of thirteen year olds two years ago, I was not surprised to find that the unit, which interested the class most, was the D&D one. Constructing a wiki was the perfect vehicle for creative collaboration with sophisticated cross-curricular discussions taking place both inside and outside the classroom (via social networking sites) about historical influences for the class world, references to fantasy literature and conventions students wanted to include or challenge, participatory contributions on a range of activities including short stories, maps made on CC3, Fractal Terrain geographical features, gatekeepers of information on myths etc. The possibilities are endless…

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