The Elfish Gene is the story of a sad, pathetic, socially maladjusted boy who suffered from borderline delusions in an effort to escape his sad, pathetic existence. He fell in with a group of assholes and chose to continue hanging out with that group of assholes even when it meant becoming an asshole himself and pissing over the people who were actually his friends. In the process, he grew up to be a sad, pathetic, socially maladjusted adult.
Between those two points on his lifeline, he played Dungeons & Dragons. Ergo, it’s only natural for him to conclude that D&D retroactively caused him to be a sad, pathetic, and socially maladjusted person.
He’d also like you to believe that he got over being an asshole. But even in the controlled narrative of his own book he can’t hide the fact that he spends a great deal of time considering himself “superior” to wide swaths of people. For example, consider his thesis that “fatties are failures”. Or the fact that he considers the moment that he became a responsible adult to be the moment in which he left an injured child in the middle of a park so that he could try to hook up with a cute girl.
And not just any injured child: A child he had actually injured himself.
(I wish I was making that up.)
To the book’s credit, most of Barrowcliffe’s anecdotes regarding a childhood spent playing D&D and other roleplaying games are charming, resonant, and well-written. His struggle to differentiate between delusion and reality is actually quit harrowing (and great material for a memoir). I can even sympathize that, for a man like Barrowcliffe who has difficulty differentiating fantasy from reality on an everyday basis, D&D might be a dangerous addiction that would feed into his inherent predilection for delusion.
The problem I have with Barrowcliffe, however, is that he claims his personal bad experiences to be universal and then uses that claim as a bludgeon to derogate gamers in general. (Which is, of course, nothing more than Barrowcliffe’s continued proclivity to be an asshole rearing its ugly head.) His entire book is written around the thesis that “D&D makes you a bad person and you should run away from it as fast as you can”. (Which he literally does at the book’s conclusion: “I could hear a noise I couldn’t place. Then I looked down and realized it was coming from my feet; I was running. Something in my subconscious was rushing me back to my wife, the dog, the TV, away from the lands of fantasy and towards reality, the place I can now call home.”)
It is perhaps unsurprising to discover that I would consider this thesis to be grotesquely repulsive and offensive. In no small part because there’s another story of D&D to be told: In my life, D&D was the social venue in which I learned how to interact with fellow human beings in a mature fashion. D&D encouraged my development in both verbal and mathematical skills. D&D is the foundation of the passions which now shape my professional careers. And there are a lot of people like me. People who didn’t suffer from delusional mental instability when they came to the game.
Barrowcliffe writes, “Gary Gygax once pointed out that to talk about a ‘winner’ in D&D is like talking about a winner in real life. If I had to sum D&D up that would be how I’d do it — a game with no winners but lots of losers.” It is perhaps notable that Barrowcliffe feels that real life is populated by losers (there’s his asshole tendency again), but I find it more notable that his summary is the exact inverse of mine. In my world, there are no losers in a roleplaying game. Only winners.
Mark Barrowcliffe is an alcoholic who wrote a book concluding that everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. He is no doubt baffled that wine connouisseurs aren’t amused with the broad brush he’s painted them with.
Publisher: Soho Press
Cover Price: $14.00