Geeks unite at Prairie Lights

Originally published in The Daily Iowan 10/16/2009

Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, the Choose Your Own Adventure series, or simply sword fights in the backyard, role-playing games have been steadily changing since the ’70s.

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Author and Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast Ethan Gilsdorf explores this evolution of role playing in his first book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, from which he will read today at 7 p.m., at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

As with many of his fantasy-loving counterparts, Gilsdorf said he originally picked up the polyhedral dice (the Dungeons & Dragons weapon of choice ) to escape into a world without the problems of reality during his childhood.

“What makes the fantasy realm so compelling is that it’s backward looking and much more romantic,” he said. “You just had your sword, the village you lived in, and the creatures that endangered your little corner of the shire.”

The weekends he spent scouring dungeons for gold, fighting orcs, and rescuing princesses — all in the comfort of a friend’s basement — eventually gave way to new adventures. He said he felt he couldn’t pursue his desires to develop new friendships under the social stigma associated with the game.

“I forcefully had to say this was something I didn’t want to be a part of,” Gilsdorf said. “I wanted to get the girlfriend, go to parties, and drink beer.”

Many years and a marriage later, he said the success of The Lord of The Rings movies rekindled his interest in fantasy role playing even while he lived in Paris. “When those movies came out, it was very hard not to think of that time in my life,” the writer said.

After digging up his old Dungeons & Dragons gear, Gilsdorf embarked on a quest to discover the new forms gaming and fantasy life had taken on. A lot had become part of the mainstream.

Robin Johnson, a UI graduate student in media studies, said mainstream acceptance of role-playing societies could leave it in danger of losing its appeal among its ardent fans.

“When any kind of subcultural practice becomes mainstream, it becomes less intimate,” Johnson said. “The hard-core [fantasy players] will find their culture has been robbed because they have no control of what mainstream does with it.”

Gilsdorf said another big reason for fantasy’s mainstream success is the popularity of massive multiplayer online role playing games, such as World of Warcraft.

“Online gaming can be absorbing because it’s acceptable to spend so much time in front of your computer,” he said. “[But] I think it is largely good as long as it brings people together. It’s as healthy as playing cards on a Friday night or other social activities.”

Whatever the next step, Gilsdorf said role playing and cyberspace will continue to interweave, but neither are a replacement for the real thing.
“One of the reasons there is resurgence in live action [role playing games] is because of the more time people are in front of screen,” he said.

“There’s a tactile face-to-face element that is impossible to re-create.”

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