Ethan Gilsdorf

Geek Pride

A lifelong love of escape

Has my penchant for dreaming caused dissatisfaction with reality?

Posted Sep 19, 2010

Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons

Before I got into Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, I made Super 8mm animated shorts involving clay monsters that swallowed towns.

I was a charter member of the Star Wars Fan Club.

I shouted Bugs Bunny routines (“I will do it with my spear and magic helmet!”). 

I wanted to be a cartoonist for the Boston Globe and an animator for Disney. 

I also jumped to reading J. R. R. Tolkien, and found his swords-and-sorcery realm, Middle-earth, as rich as the setting for D&D. Middle-earth was Tolkien's elaborately mapped and populated setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and his various poems, legends, and lost tales. So I wrote novels on an old typewriter: drafts of my own Lord of the Rings rip-offs. (Actual sample text: “It was a time of despair in the land of Rothian. The townsfolk were uprising [sic] and the men from Orean were invading from the north, in the Forgetten Land . . . .”)

Already a storyteller, D&D was a logical imaginative leap.

I didn’t believe in God, or in heaven and hell. But Middle-earth’s lands, or a D&D labyrinth, or a science fiction universe like Star Wars—those were places I could believe in, and visit as often as I liked. D&D’s subterranean realms welcomed me; high school dances and locker rooms did not. Already the consummate dreamer, I was the perfect candidate for escape.

an original issue of "Bantha Tracks," the Star Wars fan club newsletter

Yet when I look back at evidence of my adolescence --- all my old D&D paraphernalia; my Star Wars fan club newsletters ("Bantha Tracks," it was called); drawings, poems and stories --- the feeling hits me bittersweet. I see a kid --- me, in the 1980s --- trying to prognosticate something better. A desperate kid trying to find a way out.

So naturally, today, I worry about the residual damage. How healthy was it to have devoted so much mental energy to worlds like D&D and Middle-earth that didn’t exist? Had we checked out of real life? What were the long-term effects? Did fantasy escapism explain why the person I’d become at forty now felt unsatisfying, and unsatisfied?

Perhaps my issue was, I couldn’t admit to myself, today as an adult, that I still needed the escapist crutch of a fantasy life to hobble through the real world. Or possibly, that as an adult I would allow role-playing games to consume my life again, intentionally or subconsciously in an unspoken act of self-sabotage, so that no time or energy or mental space would remain to solve my real-life problems. Or was it simply some nameless dread about being stuck in Geekland forever? LIke being Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons.

My other nagging worry has often been that my penchant for dreaming had set me up for a lifelong dissatisfaction with reality. I often dream up parallel lives for myself—fantasy girlfriend, fantasy job, fantasy Pulitzer Prize. My creative undertakings— tree forts to build, comic books to draw, novels to write, films to make, poems to compose—often let me down. When I tried to translate the creative spark into irrevocable form and substance, I’d mess it up. The made thing would become real, but inert, a vast compromise, and inexorably flawed. I came to prefer that other Middle-earth-like place, in my own head, where my cre- ations hang like untouched jewels, perfectly realized.

At time, fantasy as a cultural phenomenon feels vaguely unsettling to me. Has pervasive escapism infantilized an entire generation? Is fantasy in all its forms fundamentally good or evil? Are some subcultures more damaging than others? Deep thoughts.

Perhaps nobody else spends time pondering these matters. Or maybe I just want to reassure myself that I'm not any more of a freak than anyone else.

[adapted from Ethan Gilsdorf's Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms," now in paperback. More info:]

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