Review – The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe

At a time when World of Warcraft has 10 million subscribers worldwide, Hollywood studios count on comic book adaptations to make a profit, and it’s no longer unusual for television shows to base episodes around characters playing Dungeons and Dragons, The Elfish Gene seems like a lost manuscript from the ’80s. Published only five years ago, Mark Barrowcliffe’s high school memoir takes the decidedly dated stance that role-playing games, and Dungeons and Dragons in particular, are, well, games “with no winners but lots of losers.”

To be fair, when Barrowcliffe was growing up in England in the late ’70s, the hobby was in its infancy and movies about hobbits weren’t yet Oscar contenders. But Barrowcliffe doesn’t differentiate between the shame he felt as an awkward teenager and his embarrassment over his boyhood hobby. The Elfish Gene recounts with clarity the friendships and conversations he had with his fellow gamers throughout his formative years, most of which ended in acrimony and ostracism. So, basically, he went to high school.

Instead of chalking his angst up to universal teenage experience, Barrowcliffe has carried it into adulthood, and he blames D&D. In his mind, his obsession with the game was time wasted when he should have been talking to girls. It doesn’t occur to him that just maybe everyone looks back on high school with regrets. I played role-playing games regularly from junior high through college, I talked to girls, and you know what? I still wish I had talked to more girls! I assume kids who spent all their time studying, playing in the school band, or at football practice feel the same way.

There are moments of levity in The Elfish Gene, and Barrowcliffe’s dry humor isn’t always laden with derision. At times, he’s very articulate about the appeal of the hobby and in awe of how games like D&D provide tools for unique, collaborative storytelling experiences:

“I think this is the soul of why role-playing games like D&D and [Empire of the Petal Throne] were so popular with young boys. They provided a trellis work for the imagination to climb upon and thrive. Unsupported, your day dreams can wither; backed up by rules, pictures, model figures and the input of others, there’s no end to the amount of brain space they can consume.”

But this being a coming of age memoir, these moments are overshadowed by severed relationships and the frank realization that he often allied himself with bullies instead of true friends. I can certainly relate. I can’t name one of my role-playing buddies from high school that I’m still in contact with, and it’s easy to ruminate on why those friendships ended and how much I’m at fault. But I think the common denominator here is being a teenager, not being a fantasy fanatic.

In high school, everyone’s a dork. Some of us were just more accepting of it than others. Unable to accept it even now, Barrowcliffe compares his brief D&D career to an addiction, “a way for damaged people to damage themselves more.” It’s a damning overstatement without any hint of self-deprecation, insensitive to anyone who’s ever dealt with real addiction and ignorant of how the audience for role-playing games has expanded since their inception.  In that sense, he hasn’t really grown up, but switched sides. He’s gone from the nerd he saw himself as to the stereotypical cool kid he wishes he had been.

It’s a shame. In his out of touch argument against the evils of Dungeons and Dragons, Mark Barrowcliffe makes only one thing clear. His problem isn’t how he spent his formative years. It’s that he remembers them too clearly and too often.

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