CHAIN GANG: Über-nerd Ethan Gilsdorf has authored a new book in which he gets in touch with his inner geek.
Be they beer geeks, comic-book geeks, or music geeks, nowadays people flout their geekdom proudly, even wearing it like a badge. “We’re definitely stretching the boundaries of what a geek is,” says Somerville’s Ethan Gilsdorf, author of the new Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms (the Lyons Press). “Now people like to say they’re geeks.”
But it wasn’t long ago that being a “geek” meant being, well, a geek. It was not cool. At all. As recently as the late ’70s, say, when Gilsdorf, now 43, was growing up a gawky outcast in small-town New Hampshire and got hooked on Dungeons & Dragons.
It started for Gilsdorf around 1979, when his mother suffered a severe and debilitating aneurysm. Suddenly, “the old Sara Gilsdorf — beautiful, vivacious, and fun — was gone,” writes Gilsdorf. In her place was a difficult woman the 12-year-old Ethan called the “Momster” — prone to throwing dinner rolls at the TV, suffering from seizures, immobility, and slurred speech. “Shifty, sickly, needy, deformed, antisocial, frustrated, volatile, closed to the world.”
At school, life wasn’t much happier. “I was not going to be an athlete,” he says. “I was a shy, introverted kid. The locker room was a dungeon for me.” When a friend clued him into Dungeons & Dragons, he found his escape hatch into a musty, moss-walled castle keep. After all, he writes: “In the adult world, fate was chaotic and uncertain. . . . In the world of D&D, at least there was a rule book.”
Roles, and the dice
These days, role-playing is everywhere. One can pretend to be George Harrison via The Beatles: Rock Band or Dustin Pedroia in MLB 09: The Show. Or one can lose oneself for hours — even days — racking up experience points as a paladin or a rogue in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and Ultima Online.
Nerd, it seems, is the new normal. “You used to see kids in school,” recalls Gilsdorf, “and their parents always wanted them to be successful academically, but not so much that they couldn’t get a date to the prom or be popular. But now we’re seeing that you don’t have to be a jock to be successful.”
Hell, even the jocks are geeks. Witness former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who immediately upon retirement hired a fantasy writer (R.A. Salvatore) and a cartoonist (Todd McFarlane) and decamped to Maynard to develop his own MMORPG.
Nebbishes Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are globe-bestriding gazillionaires. Erstwhile “shy introverts” like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are world creators, “revered as kind of gods,” says Gilsdorf. Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel speak freely of their Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) fandom.
As the Phoenix noted last year, right after America elected its first Trekkie president, the geek is ascendant. We’ve entered uncharted waters. Here there be dragons — but nothing a lucky roll of an icosahedral die can’t handle.