Book Review: The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons And Growing Up Strange

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons And Growing Up StrangeThe Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons And Growing Up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons And Growing Up Strange”

  1. Hey, thanks for the review. No, I do genuinely regret the tone of the first chapter, and the last. The last is an accurate blow-by-blow account of what happened but I think I was just unlucky in the group of gamers I went to. I should have done more research on the game as it is now before writing that chapter but unfortunately, my wife became quite ill at that time and I just finished the book without looking at the modern the D&D world. It’s older, more mixed gender and generally a lot more mature than when I played.
    I do say that I don’t blame D&D for anything that happened to me and make exactly the point you do – it was just a hook on which to hang my neuroses and simply a means by which a bunch of fairly dysfunctional kids spent their whole childhoods bullying each other in small suburban bedrooms. Perhaps we’d have found another way to do that if D&D hadn’t existed. I’m sure we would.
    I would point out that I’m not hard on everyone in the book. Billy, for instance, is and remains one of the most important and amazing people in my life.
    Also, American readers have struggled more with the negative aspects of the book than UK readers. Here we have a peculiar sort of self-deprecation that doesn’t really exist in the USA – in that if I say ‘I was a complete fool’ and then tell a funny story about it, I’m not really being that down on myself or others. It’s taken as read there is a certain pride in the very fact you’re drawing attention to your own idiocy.
    Also, we are much more forgiving, or even celebratory, of negative attitudes. Happy equals stupid for much of the UK. We wonder why people are happy. Are they not paying attention? We do have a negative culture which can look very harsh to people from abroad. You are supposed to see yourself as slightly ridiculous and be your own harshest critic. You certainly never say anything positive about yourself, unless it’s forced out of you by the US-inspired management coach at work. The response to the question ‘how are you?’ in our culture is usually ‘shit, what do you expect?’ or, at best ‘middling’. Anyone saying ‘really, really well,’ would be seen as either lying, deluded or boasting.
    It’s difficult to explain. The best example I can give – though I’m in no way comparing myself to the brilliance of Ricky Gervais’s creation – is The Office. The US version makes the lead character much, much more likeable than David Brent from the UK version. However, we in the UK still love Brent no matter how cringeworthy and awful he is. We don’t need to think that underneath it all he has a heart of gold. He hasn’t.
    Also I do defend the game against accusations of Satanism. Again, in the UK, this is a non issue – an interest in the occult is seen as less dangerous than horse riding and something that at least keeps you off the streets – but it’s something that really seemed to obsess some Americans.
    Anyway, I’m really glad you enjoyed the book. It’s the best one I’ve written, even if I did hit a few notes a little too hard. I don’t regret my youth playing D&D. I regret the obsessional way I went about it and how I became dependent for my self respect on a bunch of older boys who basically didn’t like me!
    Writing The Elfish Gene did reawaken my interest in fantasy, by the way, and I’ve written several fantasy novels under a pen name. If you’re interested, I’ll tell you what it is but I didn’t want to spam you up. Please feel free to delete this paragraph if you think I’ve stealth spammed you!
    What do I think of WoW? I’ve only ever played Everquest. Weirdly I disliked the communal aspect of it, which is one thing I like about D&D. That could be that I feel slightly self-conscious as a middle aged man making contact with a lot of teenagers I don’t know. Also, and this probably exemplifies my dillweed personality, I couldn’t stand the bad spelling and grammar.

    1. Mark!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s great to meet you.

      Before responding to your thoughtful reply, I should clarify that like all of my reviews, I composed it immediately after closing the book. I don’t review every book I read, only the ones that provoke an emotional response. I probably could have spent a bit more time with it.

      Your book took me back to a somewhat similar coming-of-age via gaming and whatnot. I didn’t have many friends in my peer group. I grew up in Central Detroit, which was as gritty then as it is now, but more people actually had jobs. Gaming my creative outlet, and I spent much of my time at the Detroit Gaming Center, which struck me as not much different as the gaming clubs you described in your book. I mostly gamed with folks 10-15 years older than me, and they were rather kind and always encouraging.

      As you described the magic of EPT, those first D&D books, the modules…I fell backwards in time to a place that was, in my personal experience, a very safe place. It made me quite nostalgic. Up until now, I could only evoke those feelings by cruising the Noble Knight Games website. I owned most, if not all, of the canonical games and their related books. I lost my extensive collection when a tornado tore my house in half.

      The elements that made your book most difficult for me were the beginning and end. If I could pull those away, I would probably give your book as a gift to all my aging veteran gamer friends. For the American reader (and I have no argument with your reference to the differences in culture and the greater social subtleties found in the UK – I was one of those bonehead US kids that though Judge Dredd was cool because he was so unforgiving. It wasn’t until much later that I would understand the subtext of Mega City One and pretty much everything in 2000 AD) it comes off as a bit brutal. Your clear love for gaming is apparent, but it’s difficult to ignore the opening thesis and your flight from the group at the end. I know a few that would be put off from this. Perhaps you could pull a Burgess and amend the book for clarification. I’d be a bit tired of readers not understanding the POV.

      That being said, if they were playing 4th Edition rules, you were right to flee. Those rules are terrible.

      Your depiction of the young Billy was captivating. I was in awe of him and I know that the younger version of me would have placed him on a pedestal. I didn’t mention him in my review, as I couldn’t quite tell what you were really saying about how he turned out. It didn’t read as a flattering picture of contemporary Billy. However, if Billy doesn’t feel that way, then it doesn’t matter what any reader thinks about your depiction of your reunion. Not one bit.

      The occult “non-connection” was always good for a laugh with my fellow gamers. As I lived in Michigan, we were able to watch the highly misguided coverage of a few University of Michigan students who were LARPing in the steam tunnels underneath campus. You may have seen the delightfully lousy film (it was a book first, but I have never read it) Mazes and Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks. Your experiences in the cemetery felt more Metal than D&D as you described the scene.

      I played WoW for a few years, solo at first and as a gaming obsession likes to do, ended up a main Raid tank, devoting 15-20 hours a week leading the charge. My group was a range of ages from 22-55. No kids. That was critical for me.

      Although I have heard of those who use it to RPG, I never encountered anyone who did. Now, it’s Pandas and Pokemon and I am nowhere near it.

      Please send me your links via the Contact tab on the top of the page. I’d like to see what you have been working on. Talk soon. Tom

  2. I was an “honor student” in elementary school and invited to play D&D as an experimental process of fourth grade. My parents freaked because of the Devil’s role in the dice (we live in Utah) and forbid it, withdrawing me from the only cool, smart kids.

    Now I play a game called Wizard101 with my kids. It isn’t violent, yet it lets us old ladies get our game on and look young while doing it. The plus side is I’m a little smarter than the younger generations playing and end up kicking some serious ass. Do I feel bad? Naw.

    Plus, the spelling and grammar are nice as well as the variations in locations. Anyway, I guess you can take the girl out of D&D, but you can’t easily drain the imagination out of the girl. You can NEVER outgrow imagination.

    1. I refuse to outgrow my imagination! Being an adult is so boring…although I can eat a bag of cookies for dinner and no one can yell at me.

      The game is called Wizard101. Your younger players should expect to be schooled, so never let up, LOL.

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