Book Review: The Elfish Gene

NOTE: The author of this book posted a comment here that provides some interesting context to my review and some counterpoints. It’s definitely worth noting, so click on the “comments” link below.

In The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange, author Mark Barrowcliffe presents his memoir of what it was like to grow up during the 70s in Coventry, England and being utterly obsessed with the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. As someone who was himself once obsessed with D&D to the point of being able to recite entire blocks of text from the Monster Manual or tell you how many level 3 spells an 8th level Magic-User could cast, this was a good enough hook for me. I’d been there, albeit about a decade later and on the other side of the Atlantic, and I wanted to compare notes.

The problem is that I’m not sure who the audience for The Elfish Gene is supposed to be. Barrowfliffe certainly details his obsession with the game, and I think that any past or current D&D player would be hard pressed NOT to identify with something from the book. Maybe it would be the way the author would show up at schoolmates’ houses awkwardly hoping for a game, or maybe how he delighted in his discovery of the area where D&D and heavy metal overlapped in a Venn diagram. Or maybe how his parents would –as only a loving if confused parent can– feign interest in his nattering about hit dice, kobolds, and +5 vorpal swords.

Likewise, Barrofcliffe does have some genuine insights about how kids see social class, what drives teenage boys to be sardonic bastards, the nature of counter-cultures, hero worship among the self-loathing, and like. It’s all very introspective and again it’s interesting to compare experiences from my own adolescence.

There are also a few really funny bits to the book, as Barrowcliffe is not without the ability to occasionally turn an amusing phrase or describe a situation so absurd that it can only be a true tale born of childhood logic. There is, for example, the time he plans to ignite a balloon full of lighter fluid in order to recreate a fireball spell, but sets his friend’s bathroom on ablaze during a test run. Or the time that he decides to evaluate his ninja abilities by jumping, practically naked, from his bed into his dirty clothes hamper, only to miscalculate things and end up knocking himself out and leaving his befuddled parents to conclude that it must have been some bizarre masturbation ritual. Because, frankly, that’s more believable than the ninja thing.

On the other hand, Barrowcliffe isn’t describing all this in the context of nostalgia. Not even the wry, “can you believe what we used to think was cool” brand of nostalgia. From the opening pages, it’s clear that he thinks that getting into D&D was a huge mistake and that if he had only chosen a different path –one populated by girls and carburetors and maybe cricket– he’d have actually been happy, well adjusted, and better off in life. In fact, he’s downright disdainful of the game and those who play it, right up to the epilogue where he makes a half-hearted attempt to join a modern day game and ends up deriding the players and literally running away from them.

According to Barrowcliffe, everyone who plays role-playing games does so because he’s a socially inept, hopelessly nerdy git. This is mostly because Barrowcliffe is (well, was) himself a socially inept, hopelessly nerdy git and he doesn’t bother to see past his own experiences. While D&D certainly attracts its share of nerds, there are many positive things the author could have said about D&D if you weren’t so bent on blaming it for his own shortcomings. It encourages reading, it develops logical reasoning, it fires the imagination, and it’s an inherently social game, just to name a few.

But there’s none of that; the treatment of the game is entirely lopsided. A more complete book would have delved more into the history of the game and how it and the author evolved over time. There would have also been more examination of the gaming subculture on a wider scale, as well as its many offshoots into other forms of entertainment. Of course, you can say that this is a memoir, and since Barrofcliffe gave up D&D for life and developed other interests, he can’t very well talk about all that, can he? And that’s fair enough. But it remains that Barrowfcliffe doesn’t understand about role-playing games or the attendant culture. He understands about being a socially retarded teenager seeking escape from life. And yes, there’s a difference.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Elfish Gene

  1. Nick, I keep hearing that one come up, but I’ve seen mixed reviews about it. It’s somewhere on my “potential books to read” list.

  2. Jim.
    Thanks for the review and I’m glad you enjoyed at least part of the book.
    The only thing I would argue with is that I don’t show anything at all about D&D as a positive force. In fact, there are long sections about just that – I describe it as an almost unique cultural form that carries all the charge of not just reading ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit’ for the first time but of actually writing it.
    I also say that it wasn’t, in the end, D&D that messed up my youth but masculinity. D&D just gave me a reason to sit in a room with 8 other dysfunctional boys for my entire adolesence. And, hey, it was a good preparation for someone whose spent his life writing comedy.
    The Elfish Gene is more about the dangers of obsession than of D&D. That said, I admit that the first chapter and the last are rough on RPGers. If the book ever goes to a second edition I’ll change those. If you chop the first and last chapters off you have a very fond reminisence of D&D. The first chapter was the last thing I wrote and after the awful experience I had going back to gaming – as detailed in the last.
    As part of the research for the book I did attend a few games and encountered some unpleasant or weird people. In fact, one in particular reminded me so much of my old nemesis Chigger that I had to leave. I couldn’t stand to be there a second more. Since, I’ve realised I was unlucky and have met many very nice and, I have to say, forgiving gamers. I went to Dragonmeet earlier this year and was received very warmly.
    I didn’t go into the history of the game because the book is a memoir and so only concerned with my time gaming and nothing outside it.
    I have, actually got back into fantasy. After I finished The Elfish Gene a fantasy novel popped out of me. It’s called Wolfsangel and details are on my blog above. It’s under the pen name M D Lachlan. So far – it’s only in advanced review copy stage – it has received rave reviews, so perhaps my time gaming wasn’t as big a waste as I thought.
    Anyway, again, thanks for the review!

  3. Mark,
    Thanks for the reply! It’s always nice to hear back directly from an author. I did enjoy reading the book overall and several parts of it in particular.
    It’s interesting to hear that the first chapter was written last and after your experience with contemporary gamers. I thought that the tone of that chapter was a lot different than most of the rest of the book in that it was more unsympathetic and almost derisive. It’s unfortunate that the first part of the book is (to state the obvious) first, because it kind of sets the tone for the rest and people tend to remember the first and last bits of something when forming judgments about it. I think that if you reframed those sections then more people walk away with a different impression and focus on some of the things you mention above.
    Glad to hear about your next book, too. Good luck with it!

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