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Freaks & Geeks
Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard
by Shelly Mazzanoble

Breaking news! Man admits love of fantasy and lives to tell about it!

It’s true. His name is Ethan Gilsdorf, and if you don’t be believe me you can read all about it in his brand-new book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. I met him when he came through Seattle on his book tour. Naturally he jumped at the chance to visit Wizards and meet some R&D staffers. And naturally he was a bit disappointed that our offices are a well-lit warren of cubicles and copy machines as opposed to a dank, damp labyrinth with moats and draw bridges. Too bad we didn’t show him the second floor.

Ethan’s book, as you can surmise, speaks about his past life as a gamer. He grew up playing D&D, and like many, has fond memories of that time. But also like so many, "real life" -- college, girls, a quest for popularity -- stepped in, and Ethan didn’t want to be a "geek" anymore. That’s when he gave up gaming.

Years later Ethan found himself watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy and to no one’s surprise, he loved it. In fact, he loved it so much that he started thinking about his past life as a fantasy freak and why he gave it up in the first place.

Partially an attempt to answer that question, and partially to discover what being a fantasy freak and gaming geek means to others all over the world, is what inspired Ethan to write his book. I won’t give away his discoveries, but I will tell you that it inspired my own quest to discover the root of "geekiness" and who decides what qualifies as geeky. Who says one hobby is geekier than another? And most importantly, who decided being a "geek" is bad?

A "geek" is defined as:

1: a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake.

Umm … I’ve seen a lot of strange things around the office but I’ve never seen that.

2: A person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked.

Disliked for being smart? Maybe in fifth grade.

3: An enthusiast or expert, especially in a technological field or activity, or tabletop roleplaying game aficionado.

OK, maybe I added that last bit, but I think it’s pretty safe to take some liberties here and expand the definition to include D&D. If being knowledgeable and passionate about something makes you a geek, just think about how many geeks you know. Gardening geeks, cat geeks, celebrity gossip geeks -- I know someone who is such a cooking geek that she actually created an Excel spreadsheet that tracks every menu she’s ever planned. So when someone says, "I loved those parmesan cheese things you served at Jodi’s baby shower," she can tell you exactly what they were, where the recipe came from, and even print you a shopping list if you feel compelled to make them yourself. OK, I admit -- that’s me. And I’ll take your geek moniker gladly and caramelize it and smother it with the perfect béchamel sauce.

Now let’s talk about hobbies. By definition a hobby is "a pursuit outside one's regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation." We’ve all got them, whether it’s baking, baseball, or baccarat. It’s interesting how some hobbies are perceived as acceptable while others are better left alone like that oddly intense cousin we -- never mind.

My friend James is a casual poker player who is reluctant to admit poker is a hobby because, as he puts it, "poker isn’t geeky."

"Well at least we don’t spend the day pretending to be somebody else, trying to solve riddles and collect treasure," he went on to explain.

"Actually," I said, "that’s exactly what you do."

So in the interest of giving D&D some company at the geek table, I’m calling out the following pastimes, passions, and penchants with the geek tag they deserve. That’s right, Mr. Pez dispenser collector. I’m coming after you.

Commissioner of Nerdom

I overhear lots of strange conversations around our office -- everything from debates about what kind of character Batman would be if he played D&D to which of the companions from The Lord of the Rings would be the sole survivor if a curse by a mind flayer caused them to turn into cannibals. Probably similar to the conversations in your office, right?

And yet, there was one conversation I overheard recently that I find the most odd. It went something like this:

"Dude, I’ll never play Michael Vick! I only took him so I could keep him off the field the whole season."

"No loss, man. Even with the Wildcat, his production won’t make him worth even a spot start."

"Doesn’t matter. I’m doing a service to society by keeping him benched, so no one is tempted if McNabb goes down."

"But man, good call playing Brett Favre against the Packers! He’s got something to prove against his old team. Remember how many TD passes he threw when his father died?"

Say what? Since when did we start tracking points in D&D? And who the heck would name their character Michael Vick?

These guys were clearly talking fantasy. Fantasy football, that is. The funny thing was the way they were talking. Like fantasy had nothing to do with it. I absolutely believe that guy I overheard thinks he’s controlling Michael Vick’s fate.

You know these guys too. Week after week they obsess over their line-ups. They’re constantly checking their stats and debating their draft strategies or weekly pick-ups. Maybe you’re that guy or girl. Hey, it’s cool. No judgments here. In fact, that’s my point. Fantasy football is practically mainstream these days and yet … it’s fantasy.

I know plenty of fantasy sports aficionados. In fact, I grew up with one. My brother gave me my own fantasy hockey team one year for my birthday and then proceeded to use me as his team’s farm team by hacking into my account and issuing illegal trades between us.

I asked him if he’d ever consider playing a game like D&D.

"Hell no," he answered. "I don’t like fantasy." His fantasy hockey team has a logo, a mascot, and a theme song.

"Really?" I asked. "Because last time I checked, you managed a chain of floor covering stores in Upstate New York, not a six-time Stanley Cup championship hockey team who happen to have the highest merchandising sales in your fake league. It’s fantasy. Like D&D."

"It’s nothing like Dungeons & Dragons," he argued. "We’re not pretending to kill trolls or dress up in costumes." By the way, I’m willing to bet my favorite pair of shoes that he was wearing a New York Islanders jersey when he said this.

"Besides, liking sports doesn’t make you a geek," my brother went on.

"Says who?" I asked. He’s like the national historian for the New York Islanders.

"What was Billy Smith’s highest save percentage?" I asked.

"91.1%," he answered without missing a beat. "1974-75 season. Why?"

Geek Scale Rating 4 out of 5

Calling All Wizard Wannabes

This will come as a shock to some of you, but fantasy walks among us. In public. In broad daylight! It’s no longer resigned to basements and knights and kelly green dragons with loopy grins. In fact, it’s so embedded in mainstream culture people don’t even know they’re interacting with it.

I have several friends who are gaga for the new Battlestar Galactica or Orlando Bloom’s elf ears or debunking Lost’s conspiracy theories but claim they have no interest in fantasy. A fine example of this is my good friend Roxy. She’s married to a hardcore gamer and yet still manages to remain relatively blasé about his hobby.

"I’m not into swords and goblins and all that," she said. "Besides, if I’m going to spend that much time in front of a computer screen, it better culminate with UPS bringing lots of boxes to my door."

She is, however, into Harry Potter. I know, right? Like really into Harry Potter. Not only has she seen all the movies multiple times and finishes the books 36 hours after they’re released, but she goes to those midnight release parties … and not just to get the book. She stays for the craft session where she fashions a construction paper wizard hat and wand, then wears it to work the next day, unabashedly leaving a trail of blue and white glitter from the copier to the mailroom back to her desk.

"So you know," I said to her one day over coffee, "if you played D&D, you could actually be a wizard. Like Harry."

"Oh, I could never play D&D," she said, waving me off. "I’m not into fantasy."

"Really?" I asked her. "You know Harry Potter isn’t a memoir, right?"

Geek Scale Rating: 3 out of 5

Armchair Rock Stars

OK, this one I’ve never understood. I have never met a Rock Band aficionado who is shy about waving his or her freak flag. In fact, if they’re within 70 feet of their consoles, it’s game on. Grab a fake bass and join them on their quest for a Grammy.

Sure Rock Band is fun. I’ve even been known to sing while playing before, and that hasn’t happened since I was a melodic blue bird in my second grade play. But come on! I’m talking about grown ups who don fake mini-instruments and rock out in their PJs whenever Law & Order goes to commercial. That’s not geeky?

And it’s not just Rock Band geeks. It’s any uber video and computer game geeks. We probably all have that friend who can hijack a dinner by telling everyone about his latest heroic deed in front of the console. (If you don’t have that friend, that means you are this person and maybe you should wait until after dessert to start dishing.)

I’ve made it a rule to never meet at my friend Mario’s place before a dinner reservation or a movie or anything with a time restriction for fear I’ll be roped into a two-hour live demonstration of just how cool the graphics are on his game of choice. And yet when I interject a D&D anecdote ("Last night in D&D, while Tabitha was already suffering ongoing necrotic damage, she got caught in the line of fire when a troglodyte pinned her to the ground with a javelin through her boot! Can you imagine? Right through her boot!") I’m usually met with blank stares or the usual "Oh that’s right. You work there."

When I asked my friend and avid computer gamer, Andy, why his genre of choice didn’t get as much geek flack as D&D, he said it was because, "D&D is geeky."

"At least with D&D we’re talking to people in the same room with us," I said. "And without a stupid headset attached to your face."

Andy is for sure a geek. Not sure if he’s the pot or the kettle.

Geek Scale Rating: 5 out of 5.

Inspector Gadget

Mario, the video gamer, is also a huge gadget geek. If it has a battery, a plug, or a solar panel, he owns one. He’s our own personal version of consumer reports, giving his friends a full review of all the newest toys and letting us know which ones are worth saving your pennies for. He’s also what I would label a "fashion geek." So while he’s taking apart his iPhone and putting it back together just for fun, he’s doing so in Prada shoes and a John Varvatos tie. And for that, society will grant him a geek pardon.

I was at a friend’s house for dinner recently where five out six of the guests had iPhones. All it takes is one person mentioning the latest cool app they downloaded for everyone else to run for their coats and purses and download said very cool app to their phones immediately. I am no exception.

While our labor-intensive kseksu bidawi got cold on our plates, we embarked on an hour-long tour of the latest iPhone apps, which of course led to favorite YouTube videos, which inevitably leads to home movies of our pets. The one guy without an iPhone (who sadly was the one who labored over the kseksu bidawi) left the table (presumably to find some real friends who would appreciate his cooking) calling us all a bunch of tech geeks and few other choice words.

Geek Scale Rating: 3 out of 5.

Fair Play

When I was seven, I had the most bitchin’ sticker collection. I kept them in a battered photo album, broken out into categories such as puffy, scratch and sniff, animals (other), and animals (dogs).

I wasn’t kidding about the Pez dispenser collectors. Or the David Cassidy photo collector, or the belly button lint collector (no joke -- I Googled it.) Look at your neighbors a little closer, will you? You never know what they have buried in the burrows of their garages.

I saw some of these collections live when I went to the Western Washington Fair this year for the first time. I got a ShamWow after watching the live demonstration. (I’m also an "infomercial geek." Or maybe that would be "sucker?") Anyway, I was surprised and delighted by the different collections people were willing to display. The Star Wars paraphernalia, the Tony the Tiger memorabilia, and yes, the Pez dispensers all encased in a glass display for my viewing pleasure. Everything was ranked in this place. It was more critical than a Joan Rivers hosted red carpet event, which leads me to believe "judging" is also a popular hobby.

And the collectors have nothing on the canning exhibitors. You haven’t lived until you see the Yellow Brick Road or the Wild West recreated with nothing but dried beans and pickled beets. It’s pretty amazing but obviously time consuming. Remember that the next time you have to decline an invitation because you’ve got your weekly D&D game. Imagine having to explain you’re too busy growing a gourd that resembles Judy Garland’s profile.

Geek Scale Rating: 5 out of 5. The list goes on, but I can’t because I’m on a deadline. Who’s to say one hobby is geekier than another? By definition we’re all a bunch of geeks. Cooking geeks, wine geeks, romance novel geeks -- you might not think any of the above hobbies are geeky just like someone probably doesn’t think what you do is. And if someone should mock your D&D game, tell them you can’t hear them because you just cast cone of silence.

Then again, maybe you should just laugh it off.


About the Author

Shelly Mazzanoble highly recommends Barefoot Contessa’s parmesan black pepper crackers from the episode "Bed & Breakfast," which originally aired March 3, 2007, on Food Network.