Book Review

Book Spotlight: Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt

Synopsis in under 100:
A brief history of gaming and how D&D developed into a world-wide phenomenon. We follow Gary Gygax’s poor business decisions and how the company changed many times, though D&D itself continued to stay relevant and in the psyche of our culture.

The author’s then got this sort of blind, accidental sexism undertone happening, and only perpetuates how nerd shit it for boys. But he’s “still a good guy,” so that shouldn’t mess you up too bad. Nerdy women are almost immune to this sort of crap by now.

Overall solid historical accounts and fun narrations of his gaming exploits.

Review:
I don’t know what I expected when I cracked open this book, but I didn’t expect a full-on historical account of how games started, evolved, and became what they are today. They’re part of undocumented history, literally ancient. Pulling from my Art History days, I remember a ceramic amphora depicting Ajax playing a board game while waiting for a battle to commence. It was the earliest example I’d seen of games.

When reflecting on the Ajax amphora in my high school days, the light bulb never switched on (we were never taught critical thinking in Metro Nashville public schools. It wasn’t until my college years that so, so many of the light switches started firing off). I didn’t reflect on how odd it was that in the 21st century I may be playing the latest generation of games once played by legendary figures such as Achilles. In my mind, games just always… were; simple as that. Of course, as a History nerd myself, I know better than to use “always” and “never” as they’re absolute untruths.

Of Dice and Men is punny, snarky, and full of “nerd shit,” as I describe it to my mother. Without going too deeply into the psychological drive to play games and tell fantasy stories, Ewalt presents an entertaining history of gaming, storytelling, and D&D.

The historical elements are infused with snippits of his group’s campaigns as well as pseudo-memoir entries of Ewalt traveling and researching for the book itself. It not only makes the non-fiction dynamic, it drives an overall narrative and Aesop-level take away: games are good for us all on a fundamental level.

The book focuses on the company of TSR, following Gary Gygax, the publications of D&D manuals, rewrites, company rivalries… all the actual important-history-in-order-to-understand-the-game-now stuff you’d expect to find. But there was a lot of the mystery element missing. As a child of the 90s, I was interested in learning about how “In the 1980s, D&D found itself at the center of a massive hysteria. The game was linked to murders, satanic rituals, and teen suicides. Schools banned it; churches demonized it; courts criminalized it. Law enforcement officials would report that a suspect ‘was known to play D&D’ the same way they might reveal he tortured animals or was a serious drug addict.” Sounds exciting, right? I mean, morbid, but that’s kinda my spin on life… how have you not noticed that by now?

Nothing. None of that’s included. A couple blurbs within a dedicated chapter, but frankly nothing worth writing about. On the other hand, it makes sense – I don’t feed into the negative elements of things I love or promote negativity by bringing attention to it. It’s the right PR move for Ewalt, protecting a hobby so dear to him.

…but I’m going to continue my own morbid research.

I will say the personal reflections struck a chord with me and my own lived experience through grade school. “Geeky kids learn to hide their passions and play their cards close to their chest, lest they surrender more fodder for mockery.” As the fat girl (notice the use of article – “the” not “a”), I kept an incredibly low profile on things that mattered to me, knowing it could give the other kids ammunition. I feel you, geek boy.

There was a point in the reading, however, that I lost quite a bit of respect for the author as a person.

Ewalt notes that within gaming culture, or really nerd culture in general there is a gender imbalance at conventions, hobby stores, etc. “Maybe men are more attracted to competitive games or more likely to obsess about their hobbies; either way, [men] always constitute a majority of attendees.”

He’s not wrong. Males are the largest population when I go to anime conventions, gaming conventions, Pokémon World Championships, comic book stores, public game nights, game shops, movies about nerd shit, podcasts about nerd shit, blogs about nerd shit, and even in building my own D&D crew. Ewalt is not wrong in the observation, but he fails to break past the surface and reflect on a why. He suggests two pitiful excuses for a why, while failing to recognize his own lived why or addressing the fact that women have always competed in sports/hobbies as often as men have??? WTF?

Namely, his wife is taking care of things while he’s off doing nerd shit. While Ewalt is traveling around, journaling his experiences, and going to conventions and playing games for the sake of field research for Of Dice and Men, his wife is back home taking care of the place. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say she probably takes care of their household disproportionately to Ewalt himself, as so many women worldwide are known to do. This unpaid labor (oh yes, Invisible Women is always swirling in the back of my mind) takes up the majority of free time women have, not to mention the financial discrepancies some women experience due to the unpaid labor with which they are burdened.

So yeah, there are real reasons why women don’t (or can’t) gather en masse for nerd shit conventions: they don’t always have the time, energy, or finances to do it. It’s not a simple matter of taste or want or level of interest.

Meanwhile, Ewalt whines about how his “desire to keep the hobby secret was burned deep into my psyche—a self-defense mechanism that came from years of teasing, bullying, and living on the fringes of schoolyard society.” And secretly worries if his wife is judging him for playing D&D on a weekly basis.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe she does secretly judge him. But you’re a grown ass man. Own your hobbies and the baggage they bring, stop being self-centered, and be thankful to have an understanding and accepting woman in your life that allows you the freedom to go off and enjoy your nerd shit!

FFS.

Yeah, Ewalt lost me as a sponsor. But the book is a semi-decent historical account.

Sidenote: the title is just a literary pun that has absolutely nothing to do with the contents or Ewalt’s interest in literature (at least, he never makes the connection known to the audience). I’m not convinced Ewalt even came up with on his own. I was duped by a witty title. Yes, I’m that guy.

Favorite Quotes:
“Appropriately, war gamers refer to themselves as “grognards”—a French term for “old soldiers.” The literal translation, “grumbler,” was first applied to Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guard, veterans so respected they could freely complain about orders and even groan to the emperor himself.”

“What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story?’ he asked. “A fairy tale begins ‘Once upon a time,’ and a war story begins ‘No shit, this really happened.’”

“…to many geeks, LARPs represent the obsessive, delusional side of fantasy role-playing—the actual freaks who make the rest of us look like freaks.” But why does this feel so true?

“I like to think of myself, at least in professional terms, as a cynical ink-stained wretch.”

BOOKSTORE BINGO UPDATE

it’s a new-to-me author, and probably won’t seek out anything from him in the future…

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