Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Elfish Gene

I would like to think it's somewhat eccentric to check into a four star hotel with an ocean view for the sole purpose of painting miniatures. The bellhop wheels his shiny golden cart through the lobby with your paint box and overnight bag as you explain that you're not here to paint the coastline, but instead a group of science fiction desert warriors. This is what I've done lately when the family is out of town, use my seemingly limitless font of frequent flyer miles to book a nice room and get away for the weekend.

This weekend was different however, mostly because my wife didn't book her trip to visit relatives with my son until the last minute, meaning I didn't book my getaway until a few days before the weekend. I ended up not with a four star hotel with an ocean view, but with the best room at a two star motel two blocks from the beach in Santa Cruz. Prostitutes walked the streets outside, traffic could be seen from my window, a noisy home renovation project started promptly at 9am, and suddenly I wasn't eccentric, I was deeply, unforgivably pathetic. Oh my god, I crossed that fine line and I was stuck for the weekend with the D&D 4 Dungeon Master's Guide and the H2 adventure, Thunderspire Labryinth.

Even as a gamer, this was too much to bear. There was no way I was going to hang out in that sad room for two days. Instead, I spent most of the weekend walking into Santa Cruz, enjoying the clean downtown along Pacific Avenue, eating at some great restaurants, like Chocolate, watching a movie (Burn After Reading, highly recommended), and perusing the bookstores. The weather was warm and sunny and even when it rained it was pleasant. Downtown Santa Cruz reminds me of Berkeley, minus the garbage, pervasive smell of piss and aggressive panhandlers. Plus the college girls are prettier. There, I said it.

When I returned to the room for the evening, after walking back from town along the river front, I skipped the D&D reading in favor of an excellent book I picked up. The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange is written by the British author Mark Borrowcliffe. It sounded like it might be interesting, although most books about D&D tend to disappoint. The Elfish Gene turned out to be a wonderful memoir of a man whose childhood was dominated by Dungeons & Dragons, much like myself and many of my friends.

I began reading expecting to wince at inaccuracies and mischaracterizations of the game and talk of devil worship and the religious right. Thankfully the author is from England, which was spared the American witch hunts of the eighties, although the children seemed significantly more vicious. He's about four years older than me, meaning his gaming experience is an ideal gamer study, as it's slightly pre-D&D. The perfect gamer age for the full experience is probably about 45. As a young war gamer he describes his first introduction to D&D and how it captured his imagination, divided the war gaming community, and forever changed his life and the lives of his friends. Friends is a relative term, as obsession with the game meant that friendship was fluid, your associates being more "gaming buddies" than true friends.

I can relate heavily with his experience. The game made you feel unique and special, with a deep sense of personal destiny. It encouraged an elitist view that you were superior to those not ensconced in the secret Gygaxian knowledge. You were destined for greatness, even though it was a time of relative prosperity where real opportunities were plentiful. A mundane life was not enough, even one of relative wealth and comfort. In exchange for being an elite (your perception, and nobody elses), there was an ongoing gamer crucible, an endless test of cleverness and wit. I can recall these painful and often cruel social interactions among boys: battles of wits, put downs, social ostracism and the resulting inability to cope with the outside world in a meaningful way. How much of that was childhood and how much was D&D related is hard to say. Thankfully, I don't recall my gaming groups being quite as cruel and heartless as the authors experiences, and I can still think of a handful of friendships I've maintained from back in the day, although none of them game anymore.

The Elfish Gene gets the details of the game down perfectly, which I'm sure caused lots of fact checking as some haven't been played in thirty years. The author captures the wonders of D&D and the promises of an infinite and endless world of possibilities. It's full of gaming details in all its glory, or tedium if you're not a gamer. What hardcore gamer hasn't made a character from their own personal stats? Who hasn't named their character after a real world idol? Or in my case, my name spelled backwards (Yrag Yar). What teenager didn't consider themselves smarter, wiser or more charismatic than they actually were?

This is all pre-Internet, of course, so it was nostalgic to recall how he would send away for things from ads in the backs of magazines, how there was nearly a contest to see who could obtain game information and products first. This was before game stores. I bought most of my D&D books from a local cooking store, and the unique coffee like smell of those stores still reminds me of D&D. There's the inevitable alienation with parents, yet, like in my childhood, parents accepted that we were at least with other children and not barricaded in our rooms being "anti-social." They generally left us to our own devices, provided we acted somewhat reasonable, even though they had no idea what we were doing. Demons never appeared and nobody got hurt or naked, so it couldn't be all bad. Being anti-social was the taboo of my childhood. It was far better to be out making mischief in the neighborhood with other boys than sitting in your room reading a book. In the old days, kids went outside, by themselves, without any particular purpose in mind. Imagine that.

Beyond D&D, the author talks about the various blind alleys that D&D led him to, the brief dabbling with meaningless occult books and rituals, fencing and martial arts, and what finally led him out of his D&D world and into adulthood, rock music. These were dead ends of my own as a kid, especially the martial arts, even the ninja stuff he talked about and the desire to wear clothing that was unobtainable. While he searched in vain for breeks, I was laughed at by my school mates for mail ordering Chuck Norris Action Jeans from Century Martial Arts, where I also bought throwing stars and nunchuks (later resulting in my felony juvenile record when I got in trouble at school). While rock and roll was his break out from D&D, I ended up using martial arts to lead me to Eastern religion, or more accurately, the realization that martial arts was a futile spiritual vehicle.

From his interest in music, the author found the real catalyst for change: girls. It's what lead to his maturing, leaving behind his oafish behavior developed from years of one upping and cruel pedantic gaming dorkness. Myself and all of my friends left D&D sooner or later, but the timing for us was always about girls. We were deeply envious and at the same time quite angry when we lost yet another player to the female persuasion. I recall it deeply shaking my world view when one of the faithful left the flock. I think the authors level of geekiness and social incompetence was well beyond what I experienced growing up with D&D, but only in its magnitude, not its form. Girls were unobtainable and mystifying, outsiders couldn't possibly understand your world view, and you couldn't be yourself when your identity was associated more with a fantasy world than your community. Looking at his gaming friends years later, most tread their own path, some more effectively than others.

After college, the author ended up quitting his 9 to 5 soul crushing job and following his passion, becoming a writer. Other D&D friends became famous lawyers or computer programmers, but some of the brightest lost their way. Would they have lost their way without a childhood of Dungeons & Dragons? Would the successful ones that found their unique path have been as creative without the limitless possibilities promised by their childhood game? Many of us wonder what would have happened if we had studied more in school rather than memorizing tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide. It's hard to say, but few of us have regrets about our time in the dungeon killing monsters, taking their stuff and indulging our imaginations.


  1. Another great gamer memoir (also from England) is "Achtung Schweinehund!" by Harry Pearson (subtitled "A Boy's Own Story of Imaginary Combat").

    Pearson follows his love of miniature games from his days with Airfix soldiers and watching b&w movies of WW2 to his adult life going to gaming conventions. There is a lot of self-critique of gamer culture, including gamer snobbery and the way groups within the subculture viciously attack each other (as Pearson attacks GW gamers at every opportunity).

    I have to agree with your assessment of Santa Cruz v. Berkeley. I actually enjoy hanging out in Santa Cruz, and would love to live there.

  2. 'Demons never appeared and nobody got hurt or naked'

    I think our group were pioneers then...

  3. Mark was interviewed by Radio Scotland after Gary Gygax passed away. It was broadcast in the same show that had the recording of the D&D session I did.
    Haven't read the book but it's on my "To Read" list so happy to hear you enjoyed it.
    I've heard good things about the Ennie Award nominated book "Game Night" by Jonny Nexus -



  4. Glad you enjoyed it so much Gary.
    There's a site with my blog on it at, if you're interested.
    I haven't read Achtung Schweinehund yet, but it's on my 'to read' list soon
    Mark Barrowcliffe

  5. Thanks Mark. Good luck with the fantasy novel!