Let’s face it: Even when you’re breaking up with a Dungeon Master who used to call you his “Faerie Dragon,” you still know you’re breaking up.
Like Ethan Gilsdorf, I was a teenaged gaming geek. I played a character named Shawna Stargazer in the futuristic role-playing game Shadowrun, then a half-elf thief in Dungeons and Dragons. Also, like Gilsdorf, I eventually left gaming behind, believing it had no place in the life of a fully actualized adult. Or maybe I just got too busy. Or perhaps it was the break-up with the guy who was our Dungeon Master (DM) that did it. At any rate, I moved on.
So did Gilsdorf. In his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, Gilsdorf writes: “Dungeons & Dragons began to die for me when, during my senior year in high school, in 1983, I had my first kiss. My then-girlfriend’s highly realistic look and feel banished those fantasy leather-clad, busty she-warriors for good.”
Gilsdorf had more to escape than your average teen. In a prologue titled, “The Momster” he describes the “Kitchen Dragon”: “She hobbles around like an extra in a horror movie: old hag, hunchback, trickster.” This is Sara Gilsdorf, the author’s mother. Once a “free-spirited divorced mother who invited younger men home [and] read The Joy of Sex,” she suffered an aneurysm at thirty-eight which left her partially paralyzed and prone to epileptic seizures. Gilsdorf was twelve at the time.
Although the memory of Sara Gilsdorf haunts this book—which chronicles the author’s travels in the United States and abroad, hunting down various breeds of freak and geek—it is another woman who provides the impetus for his journey. At forty, Gilsdorf finds himself in possession of a blue cooler full of his old D&D gear and a “new love that was veering into the serious.” It’s this new love, and the pressure he feels from her to prove that he’s “ready for commitment, cohabitation and fatherhood,” that makes him decide to go on one last quest: to understand once and for all his obsession with role-playing games.
Ah-ha! You’re thinking—Fantasy Freaks is one of those books, the old I-travel-the-world-therefore-I-find-myself (on Oprah) trope. An “Eat, Love, Role-play” for the dweeb set. But one sentence later, Gilsdorf reveals a second ambition: “I had already become curious to know if any hot single gamers lurked out there, in the shadows, waiting for me.” So much for commitment.
Still, Gilsdorf’s guided tour through the gaming underworld is fascinating. If you’ve been out of it for a few years, like me, you might be surprised to learn many of its participants are also fully engaged in the real world, with mundane lives that include, of all things, child rearing. Gilsdorf introduces us to people like Elyse Boucher, a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) who met her husband, Mike Scott, at a Renaissance Fair in 1992. They bonded over Mike’s lithographs of “actual Dragon magazine covers and Spelljammer game art” and Elyse’s Monty Python jokes. Ah, geek love. It’s refreshing to read about folks like Nissa Ludwig, a disabled gamer who finds acceptance in “an alternate world where no one saw her crutches or wheelchair.” Naturally this leads Gilsdorf to muse on what it could have been like for his mother if she’d lived to see the great advances in video game technology: “The prospect of Mom playing again was an intriguing fantasy. Mom remaking herself. Choosing a new body. Becoming whole.”
When Gilsdorf interviews gamers or observes various forms of role-play, his prose is unadorned, even journalistic. We get factoids like the following: “A whopping 65 percent of American households, and 97 percent of children ages twelve to seventeen, now play some kind of video game.” But when the narrative concerns Gilsdorf himself—his struggle to overcome his self-consciousness and join in the games, or his attempt to figure out what’s going on with his unnamed paramour—he often lapses into generalizations and metaphor. “A big something happened about mid-way through my quest,” he tells us at one point. “A tic in my personal life became a twitch, and then became a series of oscillations and tremors that shook my world. On love’s Richter scale, the seismic event hit a 7.8.” Four paragraphs later we finally learn, in plain language, that he and his girlfriend have split. But without seeing or hearing this woman on the page, it’s impossible to understand why. At this point, Gilsdorf’s quest doesn’t seem to have anything to do with growing up and settling down, but with the pursuit of “hot single gamers.”
Near the end of the book, updating us on this relationship, he writes: “We each wore an invisible ring, or the Ring of Power, when it suited us…” At this point, I wanted to break up with the author. Give me the straight story, I wanted to yell. What’s really going on with you two?
As someone who once spent a fair amount of time around lovelorn gamers (myself among them) I recognize the evasion all too well. When reality becomes painful, it’s easier to communicate in a fantasy world where the rules are all written down. Still, let’s face it: Even when you’re breaking up with the DM who used to call you his Faerie Dragon, you know you’re breaking up. And when you tell your girlfriends about it later, drunk on cheap beer and woozy from too many Denny’s French fries, you don’t say that he hit you with a “spell of separation,”, you say that the fucking asshole cheated on you with a woman twice his age. One who had both fake boobs and a Harley. But I digress.
At long last, we get a snippet of dialogue between Gilsdorf and his lover/girlfriend/ex, as the two go for a walk in the woods: “Among many things she said that afternoon was how she’d always appreciated that I was a kid at heart. “Your Peter Pan qualities. That’s why I love you.” It’s hard to reconcile this with the notion, fostered throughout Fantasy Freaks, that this woman was always on the verge of breaking up with Gilsdorf because of said childlike qualities.
Regardless, what Fantasy Freaks does illustrate is that fantasy, in all its myriad incarnations, is always available to us, even if we only want to go as far as our comfortable armchairs. Gilsdorf does a fine job of reporting from the front lines. Despite his evasions, I found myself rooting for him by the end, even as he straps on his plus-two broadsword and heads off into the suburbs of Boston, hunting women and elves.