Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. Ethan Gilsdorf

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. Ethan Gilsdorf. (The Lyons Press Guilford, Conn. 2009) $24.95

Somerville writer Steve Almond submerged himself in the arcane world of candy fetishists in his book “Candyfreaks…,” and now we have yet another Somerville writer Ethan Gilsdorf who chooses to go into that enigmatic subculture of gamers and fantasy geeks. Gilsdorf who unapologetically recounts his own younger years as a geek and fantasy cultist, revisits the world he left behind for more adult concerns in this quirky survey of the marginal. He becomes a scholar of these mostly men (but some women), who choose to use their allotted time on this stage to play games like Dungeon and Dragons and other escapist fantasies of that ilk. Gilsdorf, a man in his 40’s, goes back to the roots of the term “geek.”

“ Geek used to stand for “ General Electrical Engineering Knowledge,” a leftover scrap of U.S. military lingo. A geek was also a circus performer who ate the heads off animals. Hence the science-math-freakazoid association. In its common usage, nerd is synonymous with computers and poor social skills. You know—the smart kid who lacks confidence, is physically awkward, and unaware of appropriate cues like eye contact and the normal give-and-take of conversation. But the term geek has recently come to mean anyone who pursues a skill or exhibits devotion to a subject matter that seems a bit extreme….”

Gilsdorf had a hardscrabble childhood, with a mother who became severely disabled, an embarrassment to the self-conscious adolescent. Gilsdorf was not particularly athletic or popular, and didn’t kiss his first girl until he was a senior in high school. He had a profound desire to escape the cage of his own skin. Later girls, college, and career, pulled him away…or at least he thought so. However he still pined for the fantasy world, the balm this society of “misfits” provided for Gilsdorf. He writes about his release from the “Cages of Identity:”

“ Geeks are tolerant people. They take in ‘the other’ the misfit toys, and not simply because no one else would sit with them at the cafeteria table. They have felt the sting of not being included. They know what it is like to not feel cool…Populated with cross-breed elves and dwarfs, fantasy realms make people feel not so freakish, releasing them from their cages of identity.”

Gilsdorf has always had a strong case of wanderlust, and he recounts his travel from his home in Somerville, Mass. to the bowels of the Pandemonium bookstore in Cambridge; a home of the geek, a refuge for the freak, as well as to Oxford England, and the hinterlands far and wide to see what makes these folks tick. Overall the adult freaks, gamers and geeks have turned out OK according to the author:

“So what if some were a little overweight, or liked labyrinth rules. D&D had turned them into problem solvers and creative thinkers, because the rules required them to figure things out as they went along. To use their minds to imagine a different world.”

The book will be of interest to the geek, the freak, the sociologist, and many of us readers who will wind up looking in the mirror at our oh-so studied hip faces, and remember at one time we were denizens of other places.

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