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

Throughout the book, you hint at a mainstreaming of geek culture, which is also evoked in the quotation above. How close are we to seeing this happen? What is gained or lost for the communities you studied if geek goes mainstream?

I think the mainstreaming has happened already. Once you see the term “geek” being co-opted and used by other subcultures — wine geek, film geek, fixed gear bicycle geek — you know the word, at least in its pejorative sense, has passed. And films like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Twilight, Spider-Man and Batman have made the previously cloistered worlds of comic books, superheroes, horror, fantasy, science fiction and fandom a palatable experience, at least in a superficial way. There’s an entire generation of kids — millions — who have now grown up either reading Harry Potter or having it read to them. Jocks and dweebs equally play Xbox and Playstation games. That guarantees (I think) that these kids aren’t going to be ostracized for having geekly hobbies.

To be “cool” is to like things because everyone else does. To be a “geek” is the opposite: to have a passion, to care about the details of a thing, to care about getting it right, to go deep into a subject matter — and not care what people think. Geeks are the keepers of that secret flame for something long before it’s cool, or long after the fad has passed, whether or not the thing they loved was ever in fashion or not. The downside of the mainstreaming of geek culture is that a lot of geeks have forged their identities as being counter to the mainstream — i.e. we are weird and therefore special, and you all are boring and mainstream. Now that traditional geek areas have gone mainstream, I suspect that those who want to remain “geeks” will need to find new areas to colonize. The fringe will have to move further to the edge.

In many ways, your book can be seen as an argument for the value — no, values — of escapism. How would you define escapism and to what degree is it a positive force in the lives of the people you interviewed?

I struggled with using the terms “escapism” and “escapist” because of the negative associations with them (both mine and the culture’s) and also because I wanted to discover how fantasy and gaming had real meaning, not just as mindless distraction. But aside from the “healthy” aspects of gaming and fantasy that I mention above (that these activities provide community, rites of passage, ethics and values, personality development through role-playing, etc), I do think that “escapism” — defined as a release, as mental downtime — is essential. In that regard, it doesn’t really matter what you escape into, as long as it isn’t taken to the extreme. America’s obsession with watching TV is a perfect, and totally acceptable way to escape. No one really thinks it’s weird to watch 4 hours of TV reality programming or basketball playoffs each day. But if you play 4 hours of WoW, then many think you’re anti-social.

Of course, anything can be taken too far. Sex, drugs, gambling, pornography, eating, shopping, the Internet — all of these activities, when taken to the extreme, can be dangerous. They can be used to blot out the self. No one, in their right mind, should use any one experience, like a movie or game or book, to find meaning and attribute so much meaning to it that it looms large to the exclusion of other influences, or is a substitute for intimate human relationships. We all need balanced lives.

What bothers me with the “escapist” label for fantasy in particular is that many who don’t get it accuse Tolkien, for example, of being frivolous. But Lord of the Rings is full of fully-realized characters who grapple with tough moral choices, endure great hardship, and make mistakes. Gollum is a great example of this: psychologically complex, twisted, haunted, damaged. Nothing “escapist” about that!

You end with this call: “so, my fellow freaks and geeks, if we must escape, let us escape for a reason.” What kinds of reasons did you discover amongst the people you spoke with?

Fantasy escapism can be a way to retreat from the world — not to avoid the world, but to take pause, and recharge our psychic batteries. In my book I went to New Zealand to play out my own obsessive Lord of the Rings movie location quest. When I was in Wellington, I interviewed Erica Challis, a blogger for the Tolkien movie fan site TheOneRing.net , which she co-founded as a way to report on news about the Rings movies shoot. She told me something about fantasy and escapism I had never considered: for people in oppressive societies who read Tolkien, the books gave them hope in hopeless times. “Fantasy is a genre people can read and retreat [to] and gather strength to face the real world,” she said. Likewise, I think we need downtime to escape, but also to work out problems and issues and roles. Imaginary worlds offer solutions to problems — they’re a testing ground for ideas, a place to imagine other possibilities, other futures, other ways to live, to govern, to be. Then, with our D&D manuals put away and our Xbox consoles turned off, we can return to real life, rejuvenated to kick ass.

As you note, the stereotype of fantasy fans and gamers is that they are socially isolated. How central are the social dimensions of the play experiences you describe? How strong were the communities and relationships you observed in your travels?

The social aspects of gaming can’t be underestimated. For many, like me, who never found their community in high school or college, gaming is huge. Same for the disabled, who can find a world of liberation in gaming that’s free from judgment. Specifically with online games, where one’s identity is masked, no one knows if you’re in a wheelchair; you’re judged based on how you play the game, not what you look like. Similarly, the social dynamics of gaming guilds can reinforce values; guilds are often founded on ethical codes and ideals the players share (even religious values – there are Christian groups who go on raids together in WoW!). Many gaming and live-action role-playing groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism are involved in public service and charity work. Conventions like DragonCon and Gen Con organize blood drives and donate to food banks. In a fantasy setting, the games end up creating shared values, which is something we all crave, and a re-entry point to connect with the real world.

The need to hang out and do things together, to participate in shared interests, I think is hardwired into our DNA. But we can’t all be on the football team. For me, a misfit boy, I needed things to do with my peers. I craved the camaraderie and fellowship that team sports denied me, minus the perils of a testosterone-charged locker room. Dungeons & Dragons was that collaborative refuge, outlet, and playing field. This desire is the same for many others. And I think the various geek communities we encounter in Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks are among the most welcoming of all subcultures. They are accepting, kind, generous, because they know what it’s like to sit alone at the cafeteria table, to not have friends. And I think we geeks carry that memory of loneliness through our lives, and reach out to those who need a safe haven of their own.

There’s a wonderful organization called The Game Loft in Belfast, Maine that I found out about (alas!) after I wrote my book. The Game Loft is run similar to a traditional youth development-oriented organization like the Boy or Girl Scouts, except that it uses role-playing and table-top strategy games to teach kids (in a sort of underground, indirect way) how to be social, make friendships, take risks, form bonds with mentors, become assertive, become leaders and become involved in their communities. They have a safe and supervised space for kids to interact and test out these “roles” so they can be functioning adults in society. It’s a wonderful example of turning the “gaming is anti-social” stereotype on its head.

One of the closing images of the book is of you burying your Lord of the Ring collectibles in the soil of New Zealand and walking away. Are you really ready to walk away from the fantasy and play you describe in the book? What aspects of this culture will you carry with you?

Spoiler alert! Just kidding. I think that moment in the book was impulsive, but also a kind of rite of passage for me. But rather than see that as leaving those plastic figurines behind, and fantasy behind, I see that moment as leaving a part of ME behind in New Zealand. I wanted to be part of that movie experience, but couldn’t. Leaving part of me there was the next best thing. It was my homage to my fandom. I still have all my old D&D gear, and I still have other trophies from my quest. I’m not willing to walk away. My quest put me in touch with so many people who felt no shame about their geekly passions. They embraced their inner geek. And they gave me courage to “out” myself as a geek. I’m back.

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