Monday, August 9, 2010

Fantasy, gaming: Not just for geeks anymore

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Oct. 16, 2009

Fantasy, gaming: Not just for geeks anymore

By Jeff Charis-Carlson

Iowa Cityscapes

In the 1970s and 1980s, author Ethan Gilsdorf used to play Dungeons & Dragons and read J.R.R. Tolkien. But when he went off to college, he put aside those childish things because he didn't want to be a geek anymore.

In the past few decades, however, "geek" has ceased to be a four-letter word. After the commercial success of the "Lord of the Rings" films and the Harry Potter industry -- as well as the huge popularity of World of Warcraft (nearly 12 million online subscribers and climbing) -- Gilsdorf started feeling confident enough to get out his old D&D gear and started getting hooked all over again.

But Gilsdorf saw a big difference between the face-to-face gaming he used to do in his friends' basements as a teenager and the virtual gaming that allows millions of people to interact through a variety of worlds in cyberspace. The experience lead the poet and writer to explore whether it was healthy for adults to devote so much time and energy to a fantasy world. The 40-something-year-old also wanted to see the long-term effects of game-playing on his pre-Internet compatriots.

So he decided to explore how the fantasy landscape has changed in the 21st century.

"I started with some prejudices," Gilsdorf said in a phone interview Thursday. "I couldn't imagine that online gaming could stretch your imagination like good old-fashioned, paper-and-pencil D&D."

Gilsdorf traveled the country and the world -- perhaps occasionally slipping into other worlds here and there -- trying out new gaming experiences. He also started interviewing people who build hobbit holes or who have spent years learning to speak and write in Elvish.

The result of all this exploration is Gilsdorf's newest book, "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms." In it, Gilsdorf manages to blend the best of cultural criticism, travel writing and memoir -- with some insightful Tolkien scholarship thrown in -- to provide some fascinating answers to his fantasy-driven questions.

"I've always hoped that the book would help debunk some stereotypes about the people who are into fantasy," Gilsdorf said. "(At a reading) just over the weekend, I had one girl who came up and said, 'I want to buy this book and show it to my parents so they can understand why I love this.'"

Anyone wanting to learn more about fantasy and geek culture -- both in this world and in multiple others -- can ask Gilsdorf about it face-to-face at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Bookstore.

Contact Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson at 319-887-5435 or

Caption(s): Jeff Charis-Carlson

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