What attracted me about Mark’s book was the the subtitle: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange. That and the local library had placed it prominently on a table marked “Nerds.” I attempted to dodge the demographic tractor beam, but I failed the roll.
In the late 70s, I discovered two wonderful universes: Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons. I was solidly hooked by both. I spent my childhood through teen years gaming — first fantasy, then sci-fi, superheroes, horror, humor…there was no genre I wasn’t willing to explore. I cherish those years — gaming carried me through a respectably angst-filled youth and more importantly, fostered my love for STORY.
Eventually time, responsibility, and relationships pulled me away from exploring dank dungeons and far-flung alien worlds, but I regret not a minute of it.
Barrowcliffe doesn’t feel the same way. At least that’s how the first and last chapters read. The middle has many moments where he shows that regardless of how he may feel about his gaming days, there’s still a love/obsession there.
I will give him credit, he comes out in the first chapter and clearly states that all the time he spent gaming was a waste of time. He takes us through his experience of growing up in Coventry as a highly annoying and strange boy with poor self-identity and a penchant for expressing himself in a ridiculous manner at all times. He was socially awkward, easily influenced, and searched for something to put his energy into. That turned out to be D&D.
There’s a love/hate thing going on throughout the book — his love and hate for gaming and himself. Neither conflict feels truly resolved, and by the end of the book, I had the distinct feeling that he still doesn’t know his place in the universe. BAD CLERIC. Make a savings throw vs. existential crisis.
He’s not that much kinder to anyone else in the book either. Most of his fellow gamers are portrayed as bullies and beasts. There’s one friend who is clearly a cut above the rest, but in an exercise in poor decision making, he lets him go. As he shares his experiences with his “friends” it becomes painfully clear that his developing adolescent personality caused all around him to suffer. Then again, they just might have been jerks in their own right. Youth is cruelty. He damages his friendships through a subtle blend of immaturity and people pleasing.
Conflicted, he seems to blame gaming for putting him on the path of weirdness, but if it wasn’t gaming it would have been something else. It’s not a love letter to gaming, which was actually why I picked up the book.
That being said, I couldn’t put the book down. I tore through it in two days. He has a fantastic skill for bringing his memories to life and highlighting the drama of the mundane. As he threw more and more dirt on his D&D past, I enjoyed reading all the more. Curious and powerful storytelling talent, Mark has. The book took me back to my gaming years and I spent several days after reading the book considering my own search for identity and escape and how gaming gave much of that to me.
I’ve also wondered if it is a book that I would gift to my fellow aging or retired gaming. I think many would be put off by the opening chapter and the “wash my hands of all this” feeling you get at the end. My original review of this book referred to the author as a dillweed and a jerk, because I felt somewhat betrayed by his summation the role of gaming in his life. My guess is that upon reading the book. others would feel the same way. After thinking about it for a bit, I have turned the knobs slightly on how I feel about the book. It gave me pause, and a week of post-reading reflection. Not many things do that to me these days.
And in the spirit of due diligence, I did find a comment of Barrowcliffe’s on his YouTube page:
“I agree I was overly harsh in the first chapter of the book. It was written much after the rest of the book as a sort of ‘why should I read this?’ for the general reader. In retrospect the tone of that first chapter was much more down on D&D than I’d intended.”
I’m not sure if he’s just trying to CYA with that comment. Hard to tell. I wonder what he thinks about World of Warcraft? There’s some true damn fools in that game. I played for two years and experienced the full range of generosity, kindness, pettiness and expert level jackassedness.
Four stars because I couldn’t put the book down. Normally, that would make it a five star for me, but minus one star for the conflicted message.