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From Tolkienites to Warcraft warriors: an interview with Ethan Gilsdorf

Posted on Monday, August 31st, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Author: Sarah Jaffe

Gamers and fantasy fans are often maligned as freaks and geeks, but they also foster close-knit communities that support each other and are wary of outsiders. Writer Ethan Gilsdorf left the gaming community years ago, but returned to it as an adult, exploring the connections between Tolkien fans, World of Warcraft addicts, old-fashioned Dungeons & Dragons players and others in his new book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. Gilsdorf traveled the world, from gaming conventions to the building site of a castle in France and the filming locations for “The Lord of the Rings,” interviewing people in various subcultures and exploring his own connection to the gamer culture along the way.

He took some time to talk to Sarah Jaffe about the book and what he learned, both about our culture and himself, from the process of writing it.

Sarah Jaffe: You tell the story from a personal angle rather than a detached journalistic one. Other writers would’ve looked at gamers as strange outsiders, or been too involved. This is kind of a hybrid memoir and journalism and yet it gets inside the material the way many others wouldn’t have.

Ethan Gilsdorf: I think I’m fortunate that this idea came to me when I was reevaluating these things in my own life. People are really wondering what online gaming is about—is it gonna suck my child’s soul dry? Yet the stuff is infinitely more acceptable now than when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons back in the Reagan administration.

I do a lot of travel writing. One of my favorite models for that is to go try something new that I’ve never done before, like go hiking in the French Pyrenees. There are some good opportunities for humor and self-reflection when reporting in the first person, though in travel writing it can be abused. If I was going to do a book I wanted to do it as an outgrowth of my work as a journalist.

S: I think this story really works better with a personal guide into the subcultures you explore.

EG: That was definitely something—one of the things that I very soon learned was one of the things I needed to get clear with anyone I was going to speak with, they had questions for me: what was my geek cred? Was I going to make fun of them? Particularly people who role-play in costume–they get made fun of the most. I would be like, “Look, I’m one of you, I have a soft spot for this in my heart, I am trying to figure out what to do with it in my mind, the desire to visit this imaginary place. How do I deal with that in my adult life?”

Once people accepted that, that I was one of them, for the most part almost everybody really accepted me and I dove into it.

S: The subcultures that get made fun of a lot have to police their own boundaries.

EG: I definitely felt like people didn’t understand me when I was in high school. Anyone who’s been burned enough times is going to be suspicious of each other’s motives.

It’s a bias that our culture has, that we let people do certain things. Like sports fandom, whether it’s fantasy football or just being an obsessive fan and painting your face purple and orange, that’s acceptable. But if you want to wear a purple robe and paint your face blue because you’re a Fairy from the Land of Nod or whatever, look out.

S: You spoke to a lot of women for the book, which made me happy since the gamer world is so often stereotyped as male.

EG: I did make a point of seeking out women in greater proportions than the men because I wanted to see if the stereotype existed. When I played D&D there were women that played but it seemed they played because they were interested in us as boys, not really die-hard gamers.

Certain activities and subcultures are definitely more popular with men. GenCon is still a pretty male-dominated event. Strategy games are still a man’s world, whereas when you go to a live-action RPG [role-playing game] where people are dressing up, or SCA [Society for Creative Anachronism], or readers of fantasy it’s split right down the middle. In many ways it’s possibly easier for them—women are expected to make costumes and that’s sort of OK. It’s OK for women to dress up.

But the gamers that I met, they’re all adults, and they’ve reached a point in their lives where they’ve decided that this is who they are and if you don’t like it, screw you. They’ve moved past their adolescent neuroses about it, where in a way I hadn’t.

S: In the SCA and classical fantasy the gender roles are very strict—do you see any connection between that and the appeal of the game in a world where gender roles are much more fluid?

EG: Women can become knights in the SCA—not knights, but they can still advance and fight. As they talk about it, it’s the middle ages without the bad stuff. They don’t have to just do the hospitality stuff.

A game designer that I spoke to, who did Gamma World, he said that the boys always wanted to kill the dragon and the girls always wanted to make friends with the dragon, make a nest with the dragon.

World of Warcraft is currently the most popular MMORPG in the world

World of Warcraft is currently the most popular MMORPG in the world

S: With online gaming, it’s different—you’re not restricted to your body.

EG:For a while I did play a female character, and it’s kind of interesting—in World of Warcraft, you’re looking at something all the time and to be looking at something that’s a representation of yourself that’s a woman—online, there are no repercussions. There’s a lot of behaviors that are permissible on the online world—people feel more at ease because they know they aren’t going to be ridiculed.

S: Which can be problematic.

EG: I think most people playing, they’re behaving well, but there’s definitely a lot of antisocial behavior online. But I remember playing these games when you’re a kid and doing things that were sort of antisocial. We would take out our frustrations by backstabbing each other when we were supposed to be cooperating.

S: You note something about the black-and-white worldview in general—do you think fantasy and roleplaying are more popular during troubled times?

EG:Film theorists have said in certain times in the culture, things are being expressed in the culture in funny ways. Monster movies in the 50s and 60s came out of the Cold War and nuclear Armageddon–it got expressed in a sense of paranoia.

The stories we’re telling each other now are a return to when things aren’t so murky. The Lord of the Rings—it’s not perfectly black and white, but you have easily identifiable foes. I think that there’s an appeal to knowing who your enemy is. You could argue that Vietnam was the last war where people’s opinions of fighting the good fight started to deteriorate. In Iraq, people want the troops to come home safely but it’s not nearly as black and white.

The other appeal is that we have become very detached from our sense of control and direct action in our lives. If you have a dispute with someone there’s a filter—if I’m pissed off at my boss I can’t challenge him to a duel. You have to go through all this bureaucratic stuff, which is very frustrating. There is something, I think, hard-wired in the human nervous system that does want to do things directly.

We’ve lost touch with rites of passage: when I’m a man or a woman, this will happen, I’ll go through it and I’ll be a fully formed adult. Even if you’re imagining doing it, there’s something satisfying about saying that here’s my sword and we’re going to do battle. That stuff is very cathartic.

S: That relates to the chapter in your book about Guédelon, the castle in France being built with medieval tools.

EG: The irony with that project in France is that they don’t know how they built those castles, very few records exist. They’re learning techniques as they go; it’s learning by doing.

I found that place incredibly enchanting and fascinating, and there’s nothing fantasy about it. It’s not a magical, mythical past that they’re trying to recreate, it’s almost like historical reenactment. It was hard not to imagine the Orcs and the dragons and whatnot, though.

S: While we’re on that topic, I think it’s interesting that fantasy and sci-fi get lumped together when one is concerned with the past and the other the future.

EG: I definitely borrowed some of my ideas from writer David Brin, who wrote essays around the times of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings and what those movies were appealing to. His idea, which I agree with, is that science fiction is paranoid, it’s fear of the future. The computer will get too smart, too big, the machines are going to take over, and then it ends with some apocalyptic thing where men and women get back to the original state of things.

Fantasy goes back to a simpler time—in a way there was no choice, which made life easier. There was some comfort in that. It sucked if you were a peasant, but if you were lucky enough to be born a king, there’s a real sense that the individual person can really make a difference. It’s sort of like an Eden—the world has yet to fail, though there’s always impending doom.

You could argue that something about the SCA [is] appealing to some people [because] it provides order. What’s interesting about that society is that no one is a peasant, everyone’s royalty. There’s no disease, there’s no religious persecution, women aren’t being kept down, but you know what the social order is. If you want to be a knight there’s certain things you have to do to fit into the order of chivalry. These are things we’ve forgotten in the 21st century, what it’s like to be loyal, to sacrifice yourself.

One of the guys in the book said “This is my core belief system, if I have a decision to make I think about what Sir Gareth, my character, would do.” It was very hopeful. They’re very charity-oriented, they do volunteer work and fund-raising. They really try integrate it.

S: Like your character is the best part of yourself.

EG:The argument can be made that some of these games have taught these kids—who might have been awkward, geeky kids—how to be brave in some small way, how to be articulate. If you can apply it in some small way to your life, to someone who’s a villain in your life–to be brave and face that villain down. It’s not just about gore and bloodshed.

There’s a guy that I mention in the chapter about LARPing [live-action roleplaying] who transformed himself into this gallant knight. I never would’ve thought in a thousand years that they were the same person. If he keeps playing that role long enough, maybe he’ll start to import that into other parts of his real life.

S: One of my favorite things from the book was where you noted that “we all engage in some form of minor dress-up and role-playing.” It’s true; we all do it all the time, and yet to formalize it seems weird to many people.

EG: For some people, it feels more like a mask, it seems more of a stretch than others. I think some people move in and out of these worlds very easily, and others think that if this feels like I’m putting on a role then maybe I shouldn’t be in this job.

I did an article a little while back where I asked my friends what role they played when they went home for Christmas. I wrote it a long time ago, but I think that helped inform this idea.

The other thing I think is happening with online culture, whether it’s online dating or Facebook or whatever, you’re putting this alternate version of yourself out there. There’s a fine line between putting your best foot forward and stretching the truth a little too much. I found some of these profiles seemed a little deceptive.

I worry about technology, that people are going to lose sense of what is real and what isn’t. If people are satisfied with virtual travel or virtual landscapes, and they feel like they’re getting out in nature because their little dwarf warrior is out in the woods, maybe the value of those real experiences will be diminished. There’s a sense of like a ten or twenty or fifty or 100 year outlook, what on earth is our life going to be like?

DragonCon or Dragon*Con is one of the most popular annual multigenre conventions.

DragonCon or Dragon*Con is one of the most popular annual multigenre conventions.

S: You also wrote a lot about your relationship and how you wanted to meet a girl who would understand your geekier side. Can you tell me more about that?

EG: I remember interviewing someone at DragonCon, and I think he was just explaining, “I went on this date with my wife when we didn’t know each other and finally one of us got up the courage to tell the other.” And it turned out that they both had this huge collection of Lord of the Rings books. But the guy was terrified at first that she would reject him.

My relationship was with someone who was very skeptical–who is this guy who is kind of a kid at heart? These were huge questions for myself, whether I would want to have kids and so forth. All these game related things and fantasy related things, in my mind, speak to a larger question: does this mean that I’m not ever going to grow up? I was looking to get some answers.

It doesn’t feel good to feel that you’re being judged in some way. I think there’s some education you can probably do, and I’m hoping that that will be a good use of this book, if someone does have someone in their life who does play these games and they don’t understand why it’s important. I hope this book will kind of help the uninitiated or the confused get it.

S: Well, I think the approach you took, walking the line between your own questions and insecurities and interviewing others about the book, gives a lot of varied perspectives.

EG: One of the things that my agent and my editor said was, “You are a character in your book, even though it’s memoir. You are the eyes through which people see this stuff. You can’t turn them off, you can’t lose their trust.” It was a lightbulb moment for me, the way any writer can introduce any person to any subject if the frame is the right one. I hope that people will go along with the ride with me, but I didn’t want it to be just my story.

As someone who teaches writing, I’ve always told my students that the difficult place to resolve, whatever that dark troubling area is that you’re afraid of, you have to put it out there. Interesting connections happen with the reader when the writer is really putting themselves out there.

How much of my own deep dark thoughts did I want to put into this book? I just chose to try to be as honest about it as I could and evoke it in the best possible way and that the darkness of it gets people engaged in a way that hopefully doesn’t feel gratuitous.

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