I can pinpoint the exact moment in my life where I irrevocably became a geek. Or rather, I can identify the three specific points that cemented geekdom forever into my soul.
They occurred when I was 4, when I was 7, and when I was 10.
My first exposure was in preschool. I attended the local university’s childcare facility for kids of students and faculty and I was lucky enough to do so when Star Wars hysteria was still going strong. Not only did I have the opportunity to pretend to be Luke Skywalker on the playground every single day, but the teachers were young, idealistic and constantly trying out new things with us.
One teacher, in particular, sticks in my mind. I will forever visualize Bruce Atkinson as an impossibly tall viking with long red hair, but when I met him again as an adult in a graduate child development class, his hair was conservative and white and he was shorter than me. In addition to activities like making pinhole cameras, Bruce’s great influence on me was to introduce me to Tolkien.
The Hobbit is the most accessible of Tolkien’s books, but it is still not something appropriate to read to a preschooler. Instead, Bruce retold the story as if it were a fairy tale, utilizing pictures from the Rankin-Bass animated movie as illustrations. Back in the day, vinyl records were still the preferred method of playing music, and children’s movies often released an abridged version of the audio on LP, with a dustjacket that sort of doubled as a storybook with images from the movie. Equipped with nothing more than his storytelling ability, rapport with children, and an LP dustjacket, Bruce completely immersed me in the world of hobbits, elves, dwarves and dragons.
I was completely enraptured. My parents, being prolific readers themselves, acquiesced to my demand that they read me the actual novel. I remember distinctly accompanying my parents on one of their many trips to the bookstore and browsing the fantasy and science fiction book covers, finding an edition of The Hobbit that featured Bilbo and his companions in the nest of a giant golden eagle
At some point, I owned a copy of the movie tie-in record as well. Strangely, I have much less memory of the movie itself. I know I saw it at some point when I was a kid, but the story was already so indelibly imprinted on me that it didn’t seem that essential. The version of the dwarves’ Misty Mountains song from the film sticks with me, but the animation not so much.
Upon finishing The Hobbit, which was absolutely the first chapter book I remember reading, I immediately demanded the Lord of the Rings, a great story ruined by too many adverbs. By that point, I was out of preschool and in Kindergarten (and beyond) and I was starting to be able to read them myself midway through the series. They were dense and hard to parse and way beyond my reading level. The time it took to read those books also probably contributes to why the narrative is not nearly as vivid for me: I wasn’t that into those books because the story hadn’t been instilled in me like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t had further geek touchstones I might have drifted off and lost interest in science-fiction/fantasy fandom.
The Contagion Spreads
The second pivotal event was playing D&D for the first time. I had a neighbor who was my age, and his older brother announced one day that we were going to play Dungeons & Dragons. I was the cleric. I remember being confused at first that there wasn’t a board, but I went with it and had a blast exploring a series of trapped caves with my friend, and fighting a monster of some sort.
A number of things sort of fell into place for me shortly thereafter. I acquired a copy of the Dungeon! board game, which scratched the itch for dungeon crawling a little bit, and I ended up with a copy of the AD&D Monster Manual from a box of donated books from my other neighbor. I had no idea what any of the numbers meant, but I loved reading about the various creatures and making up stories in my head about how one might encounter each sort of creature. I began to sketch out maps of endless dungeons (more like obstacle courses in their linear nature) and draw lots of pictures of warriors and dragons. So many dragons; my elementary school teacher must have been so bored with all the dragon pictures she got from me.
The funny thing in retrospect was that I was so invested in dungeon-crawling fantasy, but I had only played one session of Dungeons & Dragons. I had no conception of the rules, or really how roleplaying games were supposed to run, or anything beyond one single experience of pretending to be a cleric (whatever that was). I just sort of made it up, based on what I was interested in.
Somewhere in this time, my friends and I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s excellent young adult Green Sky series (starting with the gripping “Below The Root,” which I think every young nerd should read); we reconstructed the Ewok-esque tree-dwellings from the book with cardboard and duct-tape in actual trees, and made little people out of clothespins and pipecleaners to inhabit them. Actually, I remember on many occasions constructing tiny kingdoms and communities with my friends, using legos, metal figures, or clay.
The Geekdom Becomes Terminal
A few years later, I was in an extracurricular science fiction class. Ostensibly, it was supposed to be a book club of sorts, with an instructor who guided us through age-appropriate literature. Some of the kids, slightly older than me, were D&D players, and talked the instructor in the class into playing a short scenario. This was the final touchstone of geekness; my tangential interest in fantasy, in cartography, in storytelling, in fiction, and in the creative construction of imaginary communities all came together in one glorious epiphany. I wanted to play this game. I wanted to play it a lot. And I wanted to be the one creating the stories and worlds that the players explored.
I immediately bought a copy of the “Red Box” basic D&D and ran the game for whatever captive audience I could rope into it (I remember my grandmother and my dad being patient-if-confused participants to my early attempts). The pathological mapping and fictional-kingdom creation were reinvigorated, even if I didn’t have a group to play with and had only the barest concept of the rules.
The Basic Set didn’t hold my interest for long: it felt limiting somehow, and I was bothered by the fact that “elf,” “dwarf” and “halfling” were character classes rather than racial options. Coincidentally, an older friend of one of my friends had a collection of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books they had no further interest in, so I inherited a small gaming library in one swoop. Even though the AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide weren’t nearly as well-organized and user-friendly, I knew I wanted to play that instead. After all, it was ADVANCED.
My best friend’s older brother (a different friend and a different older brother than the one who initially introduced me to D&D) had a sizeable collection of back issues of Dragon magazine, and I began to read them voraciously. They were only a couple of years old, at that time, but it felt like archaeology, digging up the glorious early days of gaming. I quickly got a contemporary subscription to Dragon myself, and began recruiting my closest friends into my first regular roleplaying group. I was still in elementary school.
Dragon magazine, which was essentially a “house organ” for TSR and D&D at the time, was ironically responsible for me branching out into other games. Once that Pandora’s Box was opened, there was no going back. D&D became less and less interesting as other options presented themselves, and I admit that I became a bit of a gaming snob, preferring newer games to ones that were beginning to show their age like AD&D. By the time 2nd edition came out, I had already moved on to games by Palladium Books and FASA, and even further afield.
I entered Jr. High (they switched to a Middle School model the year I began High School) a full-fledged gaming nerd. It wasn’t hard for me to find the other gaming geeks, or to recruit fantasy/sci-fi fans into playing. 7th through 9th grade was a golden age of gaming for me, with plenty of players (all male, incidentally) from two different schools, and new games being published all the time for me to read and play. A friend and I even started a gaming ‘zine (which we charged a dollar for).
It was much later, in High School, that my friends and I played on a regular basis, or that our gaming group expanded to include girls (that was due, in a large part, to the broad appeal of Vampire: The Masquerade, by the way). But the point was, I was completely hooked by the time I enrolled in Jr. High.
The three pivotal moments in my geek life have made “genre” and roleplaying games so deeply ingrained in who I am that while most of my friends from adolescence have drifted off and found other interests to one degree or another, I honestly can’t imagine my life without them.
The Next Generation
I married another gamer, and we have played many board games, video games, and yes, roleplaying games together. “Geek culture” is our mutual background, and is part of our shared language as a couple. We are worried that our kids will be disinterested or, at worst, actively embarrassed by our geeky passions. It’s not that we don’t want them to have interests of their own, it’s that “geek stuff” has brought us so much collective joy in our lives that we want to share it with our offspring, especially because it will give us a “common tongue” with which to communicate with them.
All this deep reflection on the events that shaped my nerdiness aren’t part of a scheme to replicate my childhood to create a reflection of myself in my kids, but they are events that stuck with me as some of the most cherished memories I have. I want to provide my children with opportunities to form their own life-changing events separate from me (as, I assure you, my geeky interests are distant from my own parents), but at the same time, I feel it can’t hurt to offer up my interests in a child-friendly way to my kids.
So how am I to accomplish that? It starts with storytelling. My wife and I read to our daughter regularly, to the point that “book” was her first word. After the lights are off, my daughter has taken to asking me to tell her stories not from a book (she calls it “reading a book with your mouth”), and she has her favorites: my abbreviated retelling of the original Star Wars trilogy has gone over quite well despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she has never seen the movies. Someday, I hope to tell her the story of the Hobbit, perhaps with pictures to accompany it, but she hasn’t shown any interest for it, even though I tell her it has a dragon in it (her favorite thing at the moment).
For me, anyway, that’s how it started. So maybe it will be the beginning of another life-long love affair with science fiction and fantasy for her as well. Or maybe not. But either way, it never hurts to make it available. Kids love stories, after all.