Nerd Nation

The thin line between World of Warcraft and Fantasy Football.

I Am Martin EisenstadtFantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks:
An Epic Quest for Reality Among
Role Players, Online Gamers,
and Other Dwellers of
Imaginary Realms

by Ethan Gilsdorf
The Lyons Press, 336 pp.

When Ethan Gilsdorf was eleven years old, his mother suffered an aneurysm that left her with various cognitive and physical disabilities, along with a much-altered personality. She became the Momster and the Kitchen Dragon to Gilsdorf and his siblings, and to escape he turned to Dungeons and Dragons, a popular role-playing game in which players use oddly shaped dice, their imaginations, and an ever-growing, arcane set of rules to engage in an endless variety of fantasy adventures.

The hobby didnt last past high school. But a few years ago, just north of forty and wondering whether his unmarried, childless state pointed to arrested development of some sort, Gilsdorfa Boston-based teacher and journalistdecided to reimmerse himself in the fantasy world to figure out why it meant so much to so many, and why he had never been able to fully let it go. The result is Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, part travelogue, part self-conscious autobiographical character study, and part journalistic examination of the fantasy culture.

Since Gilsdorf hung up his dungeon masters cloak, that culture has changed dramatically, in ways his book both does and doesnt acknowledge. Role-playing computer franchises like Diablo and Ultima Online, which a decade ago were popular with a much smaller, nerdier subset of the population, have gone online and mainstream. World of Warcraft, set in a danger-fraught land called Azeroth, was launched in 2004 and now has more than 11 million monthly subscribers. Diehard fantasy enthusiasts have conventions like Dragon*Con and engage in live-action role playing, or LARPingthink of a bunch of people dressing up in the woods and going on Tolkienesque questsand there is, of course, the Harry Potter juggernaut. Billions of dollars trade hands every year on account of peoples desire to visit imaginary realms.

In an attempt to better understand all this, Gilsdorf hits the road. His travels take him across the United States, to France and Britain, and to New Zealand. He checks out the former haunts of J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford, tours some of the sites where the blockbuster Lord of the Rings film adaptation trilogy was filmed in New Zealand, and sees a castle being built using only medieval methods in France. Stateside, he hangs out with all manner of fantasy enthusiasts, from LARPers and D&D aficionados to online gamers and a Harry Potterthemed rock band.

Some of Gilsdorfs profiles of fantasy lovers are quite potent. The most heartbreaking of the lot is Nissa Ludwig, 39, an avid online gamer who suffers from a degenerative muscular condition, and who enjoys inhabiting worlds in which her character can fight otherworldly monsters, swim in crystal-clear rivers, and ascend craggy, treacherous peaks. I cant run through the grass barefoot anymore, Ludwig tells Gilsdorf. Its something I cannot do. But my avatar can.

Encounters like this underscore, sometimes emotionally, the escapist element of fantasyan idea on which Gilsdorf focuses intently, chewing it over in various iterations throughout the book. But while it may be emotionally affecting, it isnt a particularly new or original observation. We know humans are attracted to escapism, and its been plainly apparent since long before the first awkward teenager tossed the first twenty-sided die. But theres more at work herea mere desire for escapism cant explain, say, the extreme popularity of World of Warcraft.

The problem stems in part from the fact that Gilsdorf doesnt do a good job sorting out his nerds. He doesnt understand that there is often a big difference between, say, a hard-core LARPer and a casual-to-moderate online gamer; for the former, the activity represents something deeply important, while for the latter its simply a hobby, not particularly different from the regular diet of SportsCenter once a day and a few football or basketball games per week that many sports fans subsist on. Just as you cant fairly compare the casual NFL viewer with the full-blown armchair quarterback who devotes huge chunks of his life to QB ratings and yards-per-attempt calculations, so too is there a difference, and a very important one, between the millions of people who spend a few hours a week on WoW and those who are completely obsessed with it. Gilsdorf doesnt account for this difference; he tends instead to sweep fantasy enthusiasts with hugely varying degrees of fandom into the same category, treating them all as something radically new.

Perhaps he resists certain comparisons because he thinks fantasy is fundamentally different from other amusements. Fantasy entertainment, he writes, more so than other hobby areas (say, sports, cooking, or academia) attracts extreme participation. With no elaborate backstory or creation myth, baseball and football dont have the imaginative narrative possibilities that Harry Potter does. No, they dont; but they do have just as many obsessive adherents. The sprawling connective tendrils of the Internet have allowed all manner of hobbies to become addictions. Cooks blog when theyre not cooking; academics stay up until the wee hours arguing on online forums.

In short, obsessives come in every flavor, and Gilsdorf seems to never fully take this into account. Throughout his book he draws a thick black line between Fantasy Enthusiasts and Everyone Elsebut that line is fading rapidly in the age of the Internet.

Buy this book:
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms

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Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.