Book Review: "The Elfish Gene"

Happenstance is a funny thing. The building where my office was until last month is in the process of being torn down. All the other graduate students and professors were emptying out their offices of unwanted books so that they didn’t have to carry them in the move to a new building. As such, tables lining the hallways were piled high with books like miniature paper fortresses. While walking through this dense forest of books, a book with a clever little title caught my eye. The Elfish Gene.” When I looked closer, the subtitle was “Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing up Strange.” “Huh,” thought I. “This looks fun. And the price is right.” As I walked home I opened it up the first page and began reading. I had, literally, no idea what to expect. It turned out it was a sort of memoir by a British author named Mark Barrowcliffe of his D&D addicted youth. By the time I had reached my apartment, I had read the first three chapters. While walking. Now, having finished the book, I can say this was a nice little bit of happenstance. Who knows if I ever would have found this book had some unknown professor not propped it in the free book piles? And boy am I glad I did. This book is fan-fucking-tastic. To me, what this book really did is define nerdom better than any book I’ve ever read. At one point, Barrowcliffe is talking about how when he got into metal (predominantly because it made sense with his fantasy obsession) he went way overboard with the clothes. He then relates a story about how he recently went into a gaming store with his wife and found himself attempting to one-up the clerk with his old-school gaming knowledge. He concludes these stories by saying that it’s never been enough for him to be obsessed with something. Everyone he encounters must KNOW he’s obsessed. Nerd. Defined. This story is really a fairly classic coming-of-age memoir, minus all the sex and drugs and rock-n-roll that usually fill those books. Instead of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, it’s dungeons, dragons, and more dungeons. Barrowcliffe talks about D&D like junkies talk about heroin. He mainlined it, non-stop, right into his veins his entire adolescence. The narrative really revolves around his relationships with hi friends, however, in particular two young boys named Billy and Andy. Barrowcliffe looked up to both of these boys, despite their night and day differences and vast discrepancies in the way they treated him. Billy was a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, literate and sensitive, who treated Barrowcliffe with genuine friendship. Andy is a manipulative, snide, fascist who treats Barrowcliffe with a combination of ambivalence and disdain. Their relationships unfold in ways which are funny, heartbreaking, and infuriating, always striking true to life. In fact, I challenge anyone, D&D nerd or not, to read this book and not see something of their own relationships, their own life story, their own insecurities or obsessions in the narrative. I found the book calling up long-lost memories from my high school years like a wizard summons animal familiars to her side. (Clever, eh? I thought so.) So what about the role-playing? It seems to me, someone who came up in the late 80s and 90s, that I was learning a little something about the early days of gaming. Barrowcliffe portrays the gamers as a group of reactionary, math-obsessed, hyper-macho, rules-lawyers living out their adolescent power-fantasies via the games they played. In other words, it sounded like a Munchkin fest. Barowcliffe seems to blame this in equal measure on both the gamers and the games, which he seems to suggest simultaneously encourage superiority and inferiority complexes. This leads me to my main problem with the book. At times, Barrowcliffe writes in a semi-accusatory style, in which he seems to be blaming D&D for any and all problems in his young life. D&D wasn’t his problem. His problem was that he appears to have been a giant asshole when he was younger who spent all his time hanging out with other giant assholes, all of whom were completely socially inept. Barrowcliffe does own up to this several times in the book, especially towards the end, when he actually makes some very interesting points about friendship, adolescence, gender, and relationships. Having said that, several chapters end with Barrowcliffe making overblown statement like (paraphrasing) “as I walked home that day, I had yet to realize just how dark my life was about to become as I spiraled further and further into my D&D addiction.” You can practically instantly download Microsoft Office 2013 Professional Plus Academic hear the “Dun-Dun-DUUUUHHHN!!!!” as he drops these over-dramatic cliffhangers. In fact, early in the book, as I began noticing these little asides, I worried it was going to turn into some weird cautionary, Christian tale about how awful and sinful and addictive D&D is. Despite its too dramatic treatment of D&D as an addiction and its too frequent portrayal of the rouges gallery of dickheads at its center as blameless addicts, The Elfish Gene spends most of its time relating hilarious stories about hurt feelings over games, awkward encounters with girls, and the inability to flip off the nerd switch. My girlfriend got sick of me reading paragraphs out loud to her as I snickered and giggled at passages which were simultaneously gamer in-jokes and universalistic stories of adolescent insecurities. I truly can’t recommend this book enough to anyone who enjoys gaming, or, for that matter, to anyone who enjoys reading. Although the tendency towards treating D&D as causal in any problems in his youth rubbed me the wrong way, Barrowcliffe has more than enough brisk wit and genuine insight into growing up jammed into The Elfish Gene to keep you turning pages.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: "The Elfish Gene"

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Book Review: “The Elfish Gene” · The Jank Cast -- Topsy.com

  2. I’m glad to see this book seems to be a more realistic portrayal of a gamer’s life from his perspective, showing both the good and the bad, instead of something written by someone with very little gaming experience or worse, a book full of religious attacks as you mentioned. I remember how some in the 80’s were making bogus claims about D&D leading to devil worship or teenage suicide. Fortunately down in southern Illinois at the time, if you didn’t like to hunt or fish you were already considered to be out of the mainstream, and no one paid much attention to what my friends and I did anyway.

    Is it an “addiction”? I would define that as an obsession over a substance or activity taken to the point where your life becomes dysfunctional. For instance, one of my old roommates was so into Ultima Online that he would play until the wee hours of the night, and we would find him passed out on the floor near his computer the next morning. However, he never had problems making it to class and graduated in good standing, so I would say that though he was a bit obsessed, it was not an addiction.

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