Every generation has its teen moral panic exploitation movie. In the 1930s it
was Reefer Madness. In the 50s it was Beat Girl (the evils of Soho coffee bars and
bongos). For my generation it was 1982’s Mazes and Monsters in which a very
young Tom Hanks goes mad and (spoiler alert) DIES after being sucked into the
evil world of fantasy role playing games at university. The film, falsely claiming
to be based on a true story, was unconvincing even at the time. But it captured
the adult world’s distrust of adolescent escape fantasies.
In modern Britain it’s been easy to sneer at more recent cases of American
school districts banning supposedly-Satanic Harry Potter. JK Rowling’s retro
wizard school world is big business, despite its frustratingly lazy inconsistencies.
(I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard earnest 20 year olds
explaining away the holes in her plotting and rules of magic). For those unable
to get to Universal Studios’ Harry Potter world in Florida, Warner Brothers has
openined up tours of the HP sets at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire at the end
of March. They provide an enthralling insight into the passion and talent of British craftspeople and artists.
But that mass market example aside, a purer form of fantasy gaming is on
view on almost every major high street in the land. Games Workshop (not to be
confused with the struggling computer games retailer Game) is a quiet British
success story. It makes things. In a factory. In Nottingham. And it sells them
for money. Lots of money. As latest half year profits, to the end of November,
were up 40% to £9.5 million on revenues up by 5 per cent to £62.7 million. 70
percent of their sales are abroad, mainly in North America (where they have
a manufacturing and distribution base in Memphis, Tennessee) and in Spain,
Germany, France and Japan.
On an anonymous industrial estate, close to the centre of Nottingham, a giant
model of a metalled up space marine is the only obvious sign of the world within
that has understood the passion and loyalty of its hobbyists. Its owners don’t
advertise. They don’t do media interviews. Hobbyists come to play weekend
tournaments in a massive gaming hall. Its low techness is its charm. The passion
is in the detail: beautiful artwork, and detailed imagined worlds. More practically
I noticed the way the shop staff can bring cripplingly shy young teenagers out of
their shell with the enthusiasm of a shared world.
The escape it provides is not new. In Billy Liar, the the eponymous hero lives in
a fantasy world of epic scale. In the film he and Julie Christie dream of building a
secret model version of it in their attic. It struck me rewatching the film recently
and watching my own son and his friends playing table top games, that it is the
sense of control and enriched imagining that appeals first to adolescents.
Taking it off the table into actual costumed role playing is a bigger step. Though
the delightfully foul-mouthed comedy film Role Models is worth checking out
for its celebration of the passion of geekdom.
If you’re lucky you get to grow up and make a living out of that imagination.
Researching Warhammer 40K I was struck by the number of 20, 30 and
40somethings for whom table top fantasy gaming was a crucial rite of passage. X-Men comic writer Kieron Gillen, science fiction novelist China Mieville and dating and sex columnist, Andy Jones (who shatters incidentally the most
common slur hurled at gaming geeks).
I can’t help thinking the Bronte sisters would have been great Warhammer
enthusiasts. As children, in the rigidly controlled confines of the Haworth
parsonage, they created the fantasy worlds of Angria and Gondal about which
they wrote detailed stories. They imagined characters and adventures for a set
of toy soldiers given to their brother Branwell. I like to imagine Anne playing the
Sisters of Battle (zealot warrior nuns with heavy weaponry).
At a time when young people are more than ever under pressure whether for
qualifications whose value is constantly tinkered with by politicians and profit
making exam boards, or for finding jobs and status in a time of shockingly high
youth unemployment, the temporary escape from a bleak reality seems more
valuable than ever.
Last year I watched the lame end of the Harry Potter saga in open mouthed
horror. Harry, Hermione and their chums, have lost countless friends and loved
ones in their battle against evil. But unlike the epic world of Warhammer 40K,
where planets and dynasties are at stake, the final proof of Harry’s “triumph”, is
turning up at Platform 9 3/4, a middle aged, middle class, home-owner with a
job, able to afford to have kids of his own. Now that really is a fantasy.
This column first appeared in The Big Issue in February 2012.