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Gamer Fantastic by Martin H. Greenberg and Kerry Hughes

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Play seems to be a fundamental of intelligence. We find it in a wide variety of animals, from monkeys to cats to magpies. But the playing of games with formal rules and objectives is a uniquely human activity. Combine it with the equally human tendency to narrative and you get the modern phenomenon of role-playing games.

Gaming has given a socially acceptable outlet for the urge to imaginative play in those who are considered too old for the make-believe games of childhood. The formalized systems of character stats, probability-based encounter rolls and the like give legitimacy to our urge to pretend we are doughty warriors or cunning thieves or subtle wizards. So widespread has the gaming phenomenon become that one of the largest conventions in the world is almost entirely devoted to gaming. In her introductory essay "Roll On," Margaret Weis tells the story of how she became involved in the gaming industry and what it's meant for her career as a writer.

But what if there really were magic in those games? What if some of them could open a window, or even a door, to vistas beyond the fields we know?

The players of imaginative games, like readers of imaginative literature, are often accused of "running away," that they find the experiences of daily life so boring as to be distasteful and flee that ordinariness to fanciful adventures where they can be heroes instead of ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. In "Escapism" Chris Pierson turns that trope on its head, confounding our expectations as to what is the characters' game world and which is in fact their daily life. And at the end he gives us yet another surprising twist in the tradition of the cyberpunks and transhumanists.

Donald J Bingle's "Gaming Circle" gives us a series of nesting scenarios in which each successive character is playing yet another character in an infinite regression. Who is the actual player, and who is the character being played?

Ed Greenwood's "Rescuing the Elf Princess Again" seems at first to be a typical story of geeky gamers playing storylines of the style that Marion Zimmer Bradley derisively called, "another day, another dragon." But as we read further, we start seeing hints that the elves might just be more than an act, that here is in fact real magic here, carefully hidden from the humans.

In "Roles We Play," Jody Lynn Nye gives us a steampunkesque version of the invention of modern gaming, in which it begins not as a pastime, but as an early psychologist's method of working people through their difficulties via guided imaginative play. However, his colleagues do not see any redeeming scientific value in something so undignified as play and mock him until he's driven from their circles. But he's certain he'll find a more positive reception somewhere out there.

We're often told that the pen is mightier than the sword. In his contribution to this anthology, Jim C. Hines gives us a world in which it's literally true. Our protagonist is a member of an elite force of guardians who can reach into a book and manifest things from its world. There's only one problem -- the ability can appear in someone without any warning, and doing it untrained can put its unwitting user in grave danger. Like a writer of fat fantasies at a gaming convention the protagonist happens to be attending. A man who knows his own worlds all too well, such that his affection for them puts him in particular danger.

One of the common tropes of science fiction is the free park where people can leave everyday reality behind and act out their game play. Of course if it's going to be the focus of the story, something is going to happen such that the outside world has to intrude and be dealt with. In "Griefer Madness" Richard Lee Byers gives us a man who needs to find a gamer whose family needs him to take care of some important business. Except he hasn't exactly made it easy to locate him, so our protagonist has to enlist the assistance of several other gamers, an experience that forces him to rethink his views of gamers and gaming.

Bill Fawcett's "Mission from Hel" starts like so many rousing stories of adventure in worlds of heroes and magic. But as it continues, we get hints that all is not as it seems. Who is this Mission Control with their technological equipment, and what is their relationship to our doughty heroes? As all is revealed at last, we see a situation in which full-sensory-immersion gaming is not an unhealthy escape, but a means to maintain one's mental health in a situation completely antithetical to millions of years of human evolution and enable astronauts to go where no one has gone before.

In "The Gods of Every Other Wednesday Night" S. L. Farrell gives us a world in which the fantasy world of role-playing games has its own reality. However, there's a nasty twist -- the games are not their lives, but represents a disruptive intrusion of mysterious alien wills upon them. It's said that the elves are able to keep their memories of those periods, so our protagonist wants to find a way to enjoy this power as well -- but sometimes one should be careful what one wishes for.

Just to make things interesting, there's a strong metafictional element in this story, as the author tells us how he wrote this story and comments upon his artistic choices as he makes the. Or is he just a narrative voice, as much of a literary character as the inhabitants of his magical world and the gamers who disrupt their happy lives by using them a playthings?

In "You Forgot Whose Realm This Really Is!" Brian M. Thomsen gives us a look at an aspect of the gaming industry a lot of gamers never see. The companies that produce those games are often populated by some pretty big egos. What if some of them had access to real magic?

When we think of gaming, there's a strong tendency to think primarily in terms of fantasy games, particularly Dungeons and Dragons and its various imitators. Jean Rabe's "The War on Two Fronts" reminds us that before there was fantasy gaming, there was wargaming. Players modeled historical or hypotherical battles, often using models to represent units on the battlefield. But what if such a game could become a gateway for the spirits of long-dead knights of the skies who long to fly and fight once again?

In "Aggro Radius" David D. Levine gives us a story of the modern war on terror. In the not-too-distant future, a team of three thugs in stolen power armor invade the offices of a wealthy online-gaming company to take hostages in order to extort money from the company's president. However, these knuckleheads haven't made the connection between the sensory suites of their walking tanks and the technology used to create immersive gaming experiences -- a lesson the tech support people are quite happy to teach them in the process of getting the clerical and executive staff safely away. And it's all made possible by a grizzled old disabled veteran who doesn't take any guff from anybody. And who's ready and willing to pay the price to get his people safely out.

Steven E. Schend's "Being Played" takes yet another look at the trope of the game that turns out to be more than a game. In this case we have stolen properties that need to be recovered, and that have been hidden inside the game system. But as it turns out, one of these things has real magical powers, and if it's not found and put back under control, the consequences could be disastrous for everyone.

The final story, "Game Testing" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is a heartwarming tale of what it means to belong. The protagonist has been wandering the country for ages, moving from town to town, always careful to avoid getting close to anyone. Then her car breaks down in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and she finds a job in a store like no other. For starters, it has a secret room in the back that appears and disappears according to rules known only to iself. And when she rolls a game character, they see it as somehow mystically connected to hr character as a human being.

When she tries to explore an old mansion that's supposed to belong to her family, she quickly gets in over her head. But she discovers that the people at the gaming store know more than she'd expected about this place, and that for the first time in her life she has friends willing to stick their necks out for her.

The anthology is closed out with Ed Greenwood's tribute to Gary Gygax, as well as contributor and editor biographies.

Table of Contents

  • "Roll On" by Margaret Weis
  • Introduction by Kerrie Hughes
  • "Escapism" by Chris Pierson
  • "Gaming Circle" by Donald J. Bingle
  • "Rescuing the Elf Princess Again" by Ed Greenwood
  • "Roles We Play" by Jody Lynn Nye
  • "Mightier than the Sword" by Jim C. Hines
  • "Griefer Madness" by Richard Lee Byers
  • "Mission from Hel" by Bill Fawcett
  • "The Gods od Every Other Wednesday Night" by S. L. Farrell
  • "You Forgot Whose Realm This Really Is!" by Brian M Thomsen
  • “The War on Two Fronts" by Jean Rabe
  • "Aggro Radius" by David D. Levine
  • "Being Played" by Steven E. Schend
  • "Game Testing" by Kristrine Kathryn Rusch
  • "Ernest Gary Gygax" by Ed Greenwood
  • About the Authors
  • About the Editors

Review posted July 21, 2011

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