East Sider

Geeking Out

Writer Ethan Gilsdorf explores fantastic realms, one dice roll and article at a time

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Ethan Gilsdorf is an author, journalist, teacher, and retro culture aficionado who chronicled his foray into revisiting “geeky” childhood pastimes in his 2010 memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. The book follows Gilsdorf as far as New Zealand (setting for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations) interviewing fans of all shapes, sizes, and subcultures while he reflects back on his Dungeons & Dragons-loving teen years. Now, he lives with his wife and their Catahoula hound mix, Frannie, in a cozy house they purchased a few years ago off of Hope Street.

Gilsdorf grew up in rural New Hampshire, was an undergrad at Hampshire College, and earned his MFA in Poetry from Louisiana State University in 1992. In 2004, he moved to Somerville and sought out Boston’s GrubStreet creative writing center, where he started teaching classes and eventually joined the board. In summer 2015, he moved to Providence to escape Boston’s increasing costs and to be closer to his wife’s aging parents in Attleboro. It was “a bit of a leap of faith” moving here without knowing anyone, but the couple has befriended many of their neighbors and loves stopping at spots like the Hope Street farmers market, Providence Bagel, the Cheeky Hound, and Books on the Square.
Gilsdorf still teaches GrubStreet classes in Boston and in Providence at School One on University Avenue. He also teaches memoir writing at the Westerly YMCA. Gilsdorf’s articles about the arts, media, travel, technology, pop culture, and book reviews have been published in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Wired, and Salon — just to name a few.

Gilsdorf’s love of writing, storytelling, and fantasy have their roots in old-school roleplaying games, so when Netflix’s Stranger Things burst onto screens across the world, its scenes depicting basement D&D sessions provoked nostalgia and reinforced what Gilsdorf already knew: that “Dungeons & Dragons is Good for You (In Real Life),” which is the title his 2016 TEDx talk. He was the same age as the children portrayed during the time period of Stranger Things, and “it wasn’t exactly my experience, but there were so many things that were very familiar,” he says. He felt the show did a great job “both recapturing that nostalgic experience, but also I thought it was a terrific homage to the films of that era that were such a huge part of my childhood” – films by cinema masters like Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter.

In October 2017, Gilsdorf staged a Stranger Things reenactment day in his meticulously curated 1980s-era, memorabilia-filled basement “cave” and chronicled it in The Boston Globe. He vouches that playing D&D helped him to become more “connected, creative, and compassionate,” and enjoys introducing others to the game. In April, he ran a class at the Rochambeau Library for middle and high school-aged first time D&D-ers, and also hosts campaigns on a for-hire basis. Gilsdorf is passionate about promoting the ability to “sit around a table without your devices distracting you and just participate in this fun, imaginative storytelling experience.”