I just finished reading The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe. My wife got me this book as a father’s day gift and I was touched because she would have had to put some thought into this gift, and instead of avoiding my annoying nerd hobby she choose to cater to it. The book follows the author’s life as a gamer from his first sweet hit of Dungeons and Dragons at the age of 11 and through the subsequent years of his full on addiction with RPGs, and ending with his recovery in his twenties. Overall, I found the book to be a really enjoyable read as it was like falling into a nostalgia pit. The author while reflecting on his youth conveys ambivalence towards his once all consuming immersion into the world of fantasy and gaming as he felt that it stunted other aspects of his social development. The areas where he felt were most adversely affected (and not surprisingly) was in talking to girls and the inability to fit in with the rest of the herd which can be quite painful in youth.
The author wasn’t just into fantasy; he wanted it to desperately to be real, from attempting to incorporate more Tolkienesque garb into his look (picture him wearing a homemade cape as a teenager) to pretending his bike was the famous steed Shadowfax, to relating and viewing all things in everyday life through a D&D lens (i.e. is that girl who seems interested a possible dryad trying to trap me). For those in the world who are not drawn to fantasy probably can’t understand this desire for it to be real. It is hard to explain how it just sings to you, whether through expressing and gratifying internal conflicts and dynamics or a defence against the boredom, grind, and powerlessness inherent to some degree in real life. The title of the book is apt as sometimes it does feel like your just hardwired differently.
The author’s nerd career and mine run some close parallels, despite his having six or seven years on me, which I think was what truly drew me into the book. He got his start in the biz with Lord of Rings and OD&D while mine was Lord of the Rings and Red Box D&D. We both branched out into Moorcock and Leiber and other RPG’s. His descriptions of his characters and their adventures reminded me how as children we would cheat/bend the rules to ensure that the idealized and projected versions of ourselves were truly powerful from ability stats to magic items. Like how my martial characters always seemed to have an 18 strength, and that somehow it seemed more believable in a self-rationalized way that it was an 18(94) instead of 18(00), or that most of my characters seemed to miraculously have psionic ability (a role of 00 on the old d100 every time). How did my paladin at early levels manage to acquire +5 plate mail, a +5 ring of protection, and of course a +5 Holy Avenger? Cut me a break I was only 11. In fairness, Aragorn (I know how original) slew a lot of monsters in our home games with me as the DM and he as the only PC, there was no way I was going to let him out in the adventuring world with others where he might face real dangers or a maniac DM (I was unaware of the amulet against chaotic DM that the author and his group used) as he was mostly for show and a looming threat that I could at any moment unleash.
My experience with fantasy and gaming, in terms social development, were different as I was good at sports and was able to mingle with girls a little more effectively and so was able to blend into the different clique worlds of the adolescent better, although I had enough internal angst to spare. My gaming group were also similar and not the motley crew of nerdley proportions that he seemed to inevitably roll with over the years. However, I have played and DM’d at the local game store and so have a good sense of what he is talking about. I highly recommend this book, particularly for old-school gamers, as it not only offers great nostalgia but a fairly sweet and humorous and sometimes painful look at the struggles that individuals face in forming an identity and negotiating relationships as they transition into adulthood.