Last November, I linked to a Wired review of Mark Barrowcliffe’s The Elfish Gene, and offered some thoughts on the review, as well as the reported content of the book. I also promised to both read the book, and write a review. Mission accomplished!
Let me start off by stating what a talented writer Mr. Barrowcliffe is. He has written several other books, all of which appear to be fiction. In this case, what Mr. Barrowcliffe has written is an extremely engaging memoir of his childhood, chronicling the imagined adventures and reality-based misadventures of a socially awkward teen in 1970s Britain. The more specific focus is on how the adolescent Barrowcliffe, due to his social awkwardness, retreated into the world of role-playing games, which were just coming into their own during this period. Based, on this book, I definitely would like to try his fiction.
The book is an immensely enjoyable read, though Mr. Barrowcliffe writes so honestly that the discomfort and pain (whether apparent to Mr. Barrowcliffe as a child or not) often makes you squirm. He poignantly describes his adolescent difficulties with fitting in, in all of its relevant aspects: which group to fit in with; how to go about fitting in with said group; a lack of tact and boundary awareness; and the passive-aggressive verbal attacks and sarcasm that often spring from those who feel the sting of rejection, either real or imagined. Mr. Barrowcliffe lays it all out for the reader, each uncomfortable situation at a time. While you are rooting for him every step of the way, almost as if he were a fictional character who’s future is in doubt, you will oftentimes find the rooting to be difficult, given his actions. Other times, you just want to reach back in time, shake him by the shoulders, and scream, “What were you thinking?” Of course, part of the appeal of the book is that we can all relate; who wouldn’t want to go back in time and shake their own younger selves, at least during those moments when we were at our worst?
Contrary to the review I linked to, I don’t see Barrowcliffe’s book “blaming” role-playing, Dungeons and Dragons, etc. for his difficulties; rather, I see him recognizing that by choosing to retreat into this “hobby” (more like an addiction, in terms of his significant over-indulgence), he prolonged his maturational development. In short, much like others who avoid difficult issues, and thus do not learn the important and necessary lessons from having engaged them (whether successfully or not), he continued to manifest his interpersonal issues (particularly passive-aggressiveness) well into college. Sure, he made progress; but he freely acknowledges the absurdity of his world-view in a section of the book where he is in college, and a woman he has considered asking out on a date passes by him in a park, just as he has injured a younger kid during a “real life role play.” Luckily for him, he at least had the insight to understand there was no reasonable way to inform a woman in her 20s that he inadvertently injured the boy while pretending to be a warrior, slaying the would-be “goblin” (at least not if you ever want a date with her). That insight apparently manifested itself further, given Mr. Barrowcliffe’s ability to write, not just well, but also so openly (while often cathartic, this level of self-disclosure also requires a significant degree of self-assuredness).
Overall, I don’t see Barrowcliffe’s difficulties growing up as different in kind from those problems that kids experience in general. I think he just experienced more of it (the farther end of the continuum), and yes, in part because he more thoroughly retreated into an activity that his social development was delayed. One of the simple keys to life is “moderation.” Contrary to Mr. Barrowcliffe’s tongue-in-cheek assertion, I do believe that role-playing can be engaged in on a moderate level; I do agree with him, though, that there will come a time where a teen will usually have to make a choice re: role-playing, simply due to the potential stigma associated with it, as well as the association necessary with those individuals who, like the young Mr. Barrowcliffe, are waaaaay into it. It’s not a likely scenario to be both a well–adjusted (for a teen), socially active adolescent with a girlfriend and a spot on one of the sports teams, and also be an extreme role-player. Nowadays, kids can get away with it far easier through video games; back then (and Barrowcliffe is just a bit older than me), you tended to pick one or the other. As you get older and develop a reasonable, balanced sense of self, you can pull it off more easily; in high school, though, so much hinges on who you associate with, and why. This is in no way a judgment call as to whether it’s right or wrong, and frankly I don’t know if things have changed since I was a kid. But back then, if you wanted to run in certain circles, and date in a regular way, you cut way back on the game.
I think Barrowcliffe’s book does a wonderful job of detailing all of this, the successful (and less successful) navigation of the social nuances of adolesence. In fact, I should also mention Mr. Barrowcliffe commented on the Wired review in my earlier post, and noted he appreciated the review overall. He did note, however, that he (like myself) wasn't "blaming" Dungeons and Dragons. He commented, rather, on embracing the idea of kids wasting time engaged in play. I couldn't agree more! However, I also believe there is a progression of types, forms, and amounts of play that suggest a healthy maturational process, and other patterns that suggest something's not quite right. I guess I'm just a big believer in the concept of "too much of a good thing."
Should parents be afraid of D and D, or role-playing? Of course not. There is nothing inherently in the game that will negatively impact a child. On the contrary, I think it provides an excellent avenue for using one’s imagination, developing story-telling skills, thinking strategically, and (if done correctly), providing for the development of social skills: Mark’s friendship with several people in the book suggest he did gain something from his role-playing associations. He even states this in his comments on the earlier thread. However, past a certain point, games (or anything else, for that matter) begin to encroach into other areas of life, and opportunities are then missed. Adolescents, in particular, learn so much about life from experience: if you are at home every Friday and Saturday night playing games (role-playing or otherwise), what are you not out doing, and learning from? Parents, be on the look out for obsessive thinking, avoidance behavior, and social difficulties - those are the issues needing intervention. I'd say the same thing about a video game; nothing wrong with them, unless the kid is playing them six hours a day - that's a problem.
I’ll probably write another post at some point, based in part on this book, about the issues related to passive-aggressive communication, snarkiness, and sarcasm, especially among adolescents. There is more than enough of that stuff described in The Elfish Gene. Self-disclosure alert!: I freely admit that Barrowcliffe's descriptions of snark circa. 1976 whisked my back in time, when I often stabbed friends and family alike with pointed verbal barbs - yep, reflection can be funny and painful at the same time!For now, though, I highly recommend The Elfish Gene as a great read, an interesting one as well, both humorous and thoughtful.