Before I left England I was reading this book, The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe, which I was given by my flatmate, but for some time I couldn’t get very far into it because it was so nasty. The book is essentially the biography of a man who grew up as a role-playing nerd during the first wave of fantasy gaming in England in the mid- 70s. He begins the book buy explaining why he’s writing it, which essentially leads into a long rant about how Dungeons and Dragons ruined his social development and turned him into a wanker. There follows a couple of hundred pages of description, in excruciating detail, of how this happened.
Initially I put the book aside, but after my computer was shipped off to Japan and I was snowed in with 5 days of nothing to do, I set to work on it. The book is interesting for two reasons: it describes faithfully the tedious and horrible nature of life in the lower classes in England in the 70s, and it shows some of the commonest ways in which young nerdy boys interact. Both aspects of the book seemed painfully accurate to me – particularly the descriptions of working class england, and school in the 70s, were painfully familiar to me – getting caned for running in the halls, being subjected to ludicrous rules by parents, living in really daggy and rundown homes and having nothing, nothing at all, to do. It’s a really interesting description of the time.
Where the book goes wrong, though, is its attempt to pin a lot of the main characters social problems on his obsession with D&D. Given the massive social barriers he was already facing – raised in an ignorant environment, going to an all-boys school where students were caned for running in the playground, with only brothers at home, and peers who admired the nazis – is it any surprise that he didn’t know how to deal with girls? This isn’t D&Ds fault. It’s not D&Ds fault that when he was 15 he carried a spanner in his pocket to impress the girls with when he went on dates. That’s just grade A stupid kid. It’s also easy to tell from his descriptions of the role-playing he and his friends did that there was a lot of juvenile, nasty behaviour going on in his friendship circle which had nothing to do with D&Ds influence. He himself says at the beginning that the school system and society of lower working class 1970s England is a wanker factory – I think perhaps he has underestimated the power of that wanker factory, and overestimated the negative influence of the hobby which, really, he was turning to in order to escape the pressures of that society and its wankerisms.
Unfortunately I don’t know how all this is resolved because I didn’t finish the book before I was due at the airport, and I had to leave it behind for my flatmate. I think it’s worth reading just to remind oneself of how completely awful 70s England was, and how lucky we all were to be role-playing then rather than doing something truly horrible like hanging around in the mall. It’s also interesting to read about peoples’ first experiences of the original game, and how much nerd culture can be the same over long years. The book may be a little overstrong in its willingness to blame D&D for the social consequences of being British in the 70s, but it provides a really interesting historical document about the time and the early development of the hobby. I strongly recommend it.
fn1: The Daily Mail will have you believe that this is a consequence of the “‘elf and safety” people gone mad. But here it is, written in the book, that Mark Barrowcliffe was subjected to caning if he ran in the playground, during the reign of Thatcher…
fn2: I was actually wandering malls unsupervised in that era, and some frankly very dubious things happened to me. If only I’d been inside wargaming…