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September 23, 2010

Geek Nation: Interview with Ethan Gilsdorf

250-Ethan_Meg_knight-credit-Meg-Birnbaum For this week's paper, I interviewed two authors coming to the Burlington Book Festival who exemplify "Geek Chic." I promised to post a longer version of my interview with Ethan Gilsdorf (pictured at right, photo by Meg Birnbaum) here on Blurt. Here it is, with a quick explanation of why.

When I started reading Gilsdorf's book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, which is sort of half a memoir, I felt like I was revisiting my own past. Gilsdorf talks about using Dungeons and Dragons, back in the '80s, to escape from teen angst and the stress of living with a disabled mother. When he started dating, he gave up geeky pursuits, which were still considered pretty, well, freaky back then. But when he turned 40, Gilsdorf dug out the blue picnic cooler that held all his D&D maps, charts, character sheets and other paraphernalia and tried to figure out why they'd been a lifesaver in his teen years.

I have my own version of the blue cooler.

It's a battered red folder full of D&D modules (imaginary worlds) and character sheets I drew up for people I was trying to lure into the game, ranging from my sister's tween friends to my dad (his character was a Chaotic thief named Dodger Blodger). The only person I ever played with long-term was my best friend, a girl geek like myself. We took turns being Dungeon Master, er, Mistress, and our games were kind of girly, i.e., as much time was devoted to role-playing flirtations with male NPCs (that's non-player characters) as to fighting orcs and skeletons. Those male NPCs always looked and sounded like Han Solo. Hey, it was the '80s.

Eventually I moved too far from my best friend to play D&D anymore, so I gave up geeky pursuits in favor of reading the Brontës and F. Scott Fitzgerald and teaching myself Latin. (Totally not geeky, right?) I hung out with people who read Pynchon and Nabokov and turned up their noses at science fiction. But anyone who's read my movie reviews knows I remain an SF/fantasy geek at heart.

So, Ethan, thanks for the blast from the past. Here's our interview:

SEVEN DAYS: What kind of reactions have you had to the book? Who seems to read it?

ETHAN GILSDORF: By and large, the reaction has been very positive. I’ve gotten probably hundreds of emails from people who read the book and found kind of a kindred spirit, and it helped them articulate their own troubles, embrace their innner geek.

I’ve gotten people who’ve said, “There’s someone in my life who does this, and I read your book, and now I understand a little bit more.” There’s that category. Then there’s the category of people like me who have an ambivalent relationship to gaming and turned away from it at some point. For those people, it’s nostalgic.

For some people, they just need to hear that one other person out there has shared their experience and their struggle. There’s some people who reacted -- I don’t want to say angrily, but basically saying, “Get over it.” There are people who’ve assimilated this, and they have no problem prancing down Main Street in their wizard cap and robe. In a way, those are the best people; they’re totally comfortable in their skin.

SD: According to your press kit, you get interviewed as a “fantasy and escapism expert.” What kinds of questions do you answer?

EG: I think people forget these subcultures are invisible to many people. It’s becoming increasingly less so, because many young people are playing some kind of video game, but for people my age and older, it’s sort of frightening. My instinct is to deflate some of the common myths about video games and fantasy. You can only focus on negative stories. But I also wanted to focus on the positive ways in which gaming and fantasy can impact people’s life. I felt like it had a huge impact on my life, and it was very positive. The culture has all kinds of crazy and, in some ways, contradictory messages it sends to young people. It’s OK to be a rabid fan of sports, but it’s not OK to be a rabid fan of medieval reenactments. It’s an arbitrary distinction.

SD: Haven’t these geeky pursuits become more mainstream since your childhood?

EG: The environment is much more accepting now, but there’s still some stigma attached. People can understand computer games because so much of our lives is enmeshed with computers. People play those for hours and hours, but they would never go off and do some live-action role-playing scenario.

SD: You tried out all these geeky pursuits. Which ones stuck with you, if any?

EG: I haven’t done any of the sort of dress-up costuming or LARPing [since researching the book]. I have done some gaming since then. I’m sort of pursuing various groups in Boston. I definitely can see how some form of gaming could be more in my life than previously.

People who were interviewed for the book were very concerned about what my point of view was going to be. I had to pass a test for them. I had to demonstrate what my geek cred was -- because they have been ridiculed in the media. Then they kind of accepted me, and that was cool.

SD: Did your definition of “geek” change during the project?

EG: It’s even changed a bit since I’ve written the book. I started out with this very negative impression. Would I get sucked back in [to geekdom]? What I’ve come to realize is that, on a cultural level, I think our country is using the term “geek” as just a label that doesn’t have nearly as much pejorative meaning as it used to. It’s OK to be a geek, because you can make money doing that. Previously these were marginalized people; now it’s been adopted ... for anyone who has a passion for anything. People use it to mean specialized knowledge: “I’m a wine geek, I admit it.”

But is a wine geek as geeky as a gaming geek? These stereotypes do have a basis in reality.

The umbrella of acceptance is getting wider. Think of Harry Potter as a great example. Now we have a whole generation of kids who understand how to read a fantasy novel. They may go on to be interested in something else, but they have a baseline understanding of fantasy.

There are people who identify themselves as geeks, and that’s a huge part of their identity, and it’s in opposition [to the mainstream]. Suddenly, what it means to be a geek is less marginal, and for some people that’s a good thing, but not for others.

Ultimately, the best way to look at a geek -- it’s really someone who has passion for something, for getting the details right, and they will defend that in an argument: “No, no, Picard is better than Kirk.” And they will be interested and passionate about this thing before it is fashionable to do so.

A true geek keeps the torch burning and isn’t concerned about whether it’s cool.

SD: Is online culture turning everyone into a geek? Will it eventually?

EG: There’s a really strong argument to be made for that. The entry level to use the technology has become so easy. We’re all being to a certain extent seduced by this idea that technology and these various tools will make us better, more efficient.

Facebook is a good example of role-playing. There’s a certain element of role-playing in one’s online presence. People can have arguments over the Internet that they can never have face to face. You create a persona for yourself that seems more witty, more fascinating, more irreverent than you really are.

SD: You devote two chapters to the relatively new trend of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), such as World of Warcraft. How are they affecting society?

EG: In the past, the audience for role-playing games was mainly one that was already reading science fiction and fantasy. Now we have all these MMOs. There’s one where you’re a member of a band. There’s an MMO that’s about soccer in England. You get to role-play an athlete.

My suspicion is, [this kind of gaming] is going to be more widespread, but the scenarios won’t be limited to the ones we associate with these kinds of games. I would not be surprised to see a social networking site like Facebook that takes it a step further. You could have a little avatar on screen that interacts with people. Second Life has been used for business meetings, educational spaces, distance learning programs. They find the experience of interacting with an avatar is better than emailing back and forth.

The first time I spent a lot of time in Second Life was about a month ago. You have all kinds of interesting exchanges with people. For instance, there’s Islam Online, organized by a group looking to promote positive images of Islam. I’m not necessarily going to feel comfortable going into a mosque in Boston and chatting with the Imam. But in Second Life, you can do it.

That sort of role-playing, it comes from Dungeons and Dragons, really. You play another character, and through that character you get to exercise parts of your personality you wouldn’t normally exercise. In the best possible outcome, you become more courageous; you take risks you wouldn’t necessarily take in the real world.

It’s a different way of connecting, but people are still connecting.

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