As far as I’m aware, there are precisely two biographical books that focus on D&D culture during it’s inception: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf, and The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe. Both were written by men now in their 40’s who were adolescents in the 70’s when introduced to D&D. Gilsdorf’s is almost in the form of a travelogue as the book flips between the adult author investigating current geek culture and trying to find his own place in it, and retrospective on his youth. He also covers a much wider range of fantasy elements, his own most powerful obsession being Lord of the Rings, not D&D itself, though D&D obviously plays a large part. Barrowcliffe’s work is more of a direct biography of his youth and obsession with D&D at that time, and though he does touch on a few other tangential fantasy sub-cultures, D&D dominates the content of the book. Of the two, I’d say I enjoyed Barrowcliffe’s book more, simply because it’s those personal experiences in the early days of the hobby I find most interesting. Perhaps this is because I’m somewhat younger, and never really got to enjoy the fad period of D&D. By the time I wanted to play, finding others to play with was already becoming difficult. I’m going to try and avoid these personal introspections of my own experience though and focus on evaluating the books.
I can sum both of them up very quickly: fascinating and disappointing. I really enjoyed reading both books, and burned through them very quickly. They’re both well written and enjoyable to read. Unfortunately, both of them come to similar conclusions that I find absolutely infuriating: that D&D is a childish pursuit that may have helped the authors through difficult times but is best left in the past. It seems to me like both authors feel such strong correlations between the awkwardness and difficulties of their youths and the main activity of the time (playing D&D), that they cannot divorce the two.
The closest analogy to this attitude I can come up with is playing the recorder. When I was in the fourth grade I learned to play the recorder, I bet that’s a pretty common experience to anyone reading this. It’s a fairly easy instrument for a child to handle and is thus usually our first experience with musical instruments. Thus we all seem to assume that the recorder is child’s toy, an instrument any serious musician should avoid. Never mind that there are actually some very accomplished recorder virtuosos out there, and that most people listening to a skilled musician playing one are amazed to learn the recorder can be played in such a way. (Doubters should give a listen to The Renaissonics — I recommend Alta Vittoria, third down on the list.) It appears to us a childish thing for no reason other than we experienced it in childhood and not adulthood.
Ultimately, the experience of D&D is the experience of intimately socializing with a specific group of people. The experience is extremely variable depending on whom you choose (or are forced) to play with. While I’ve had my fair share of puerile moments at the gaming table, I can clearly realize this was because I was playing with puerile individuals. Over time I have learned to become discerning about who I play with. I hope this does not come across sounding elitist, but it’s the simple truth. People I do not enjoy gaming with simply don’t get the invitation to come back, and through time and natural selection I now have a fairly sizable group of people I can share my genuinely fun and entertaining hobby with.
In his final chapter, Barrowcliffe mentions playing once more as an adult as part of research for his book:
They were all there — the sneaks, the silents, the megalomaniacs and the plain weird. This may have had something to do with the fact that I had to seek out an adult gaming group because, well, how would you feel about a forty-year-old pitching up out of the blue to play with your adolescent son? If you’re still playing into your twenties and beyond then you’re an addict. Maybe there’s a whole load of normal adult gamers out there, but I just have bad luck.
There are a whole load of us out there Mark, maybe you do just have bad luck. If that’s the case then I feel genuinely bad for you. It’s a shame that simple bad luck would taint an enjoyable hobby to such a degree that you feel the need to attack it. On the other hand, maybe your derisive attitude or other personality flaws make it such that you can’t find us or our games because, well, we don’t want you to.