Back to the Dungeon

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Every Friday night, from eighth grade, in 1979, through his senior year in high school, in 1984, Ethan Gilsdorf played Dungeons & Dragons. He stopped playing when he went off to college, but he rediscovered his hobby years later:

When I hit 40, I discovered my cache of D&D rule books and dice some two decades after I’d last laid eyes on it. Stirred by nostalgia, I wrote “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geek,” a travel memoir/pop culture investigation that records a year spent “re-geeking” myself and reintegrating D&D and its ilk back into my life. Thanks to the widespread acceptance of gaming and fantasy subcultures — from “Lord of the Rings” to “Harry Potter” to MMOs (online role-playing games) like “World of Warcraft” (aka WoW) — that re-geeking was easier than I expected. I emerged from my hobbit hole and saw a kinder, more tolerant world. A real world where it’s safe to make peace with one’s “inner geek” without risk of reprisal from the jocks. And I’m not the only one making piece with my 20-sided die. “Your story is my story,” countless men tell me.
“D&D is intrinsically nostalgic,” Tavis Allison told me in a recent e-mail. Allison, 40, is a fundraiser for a hospital in New York City and an avid D&Der who also moderated a panel discussion called “Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art” at a New York City gallery this fall. “The art in the oldest books is weird and crude and like a medieval manuscript; even when it was new it reeked of some strange past, and part of the appeal of fantasy in general is this longing for a past that never was. Can you be nostalgic for something you never had?”

Yes. Yes you can.

Pure and simple, for many, D&D represents a lost age: It was an individualized, user-driven, DIY, human-scaled creative space separate from the world of adults and the intrusion of corporate forces. As Allison rightly noted, D&D recalls that day “before orcs and wookiees were the intellectual property of vast transmedia corporations.” Back when you had lots more free time than money — before girlfriends, job, kids. Life.

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