Dungeons and Dragons as Pedagogy and Sociology

I may be the last person this week to blog about Gary Gygax’s death. This spares me of having to come up with a variant form of the “he failed his saving roll” jokes, at least.

A lot of the commentary on Gygax’s career quite properly has noted how much he and Dave Arneson’s particular fusion of table-top wargaming and Tolkienesque high fantasy has influenced a great deal of American popular culture, most obviously the digital games industry, but also just in incubating the rise of geek culture.

There are other themes in the cultural history of Dungeons and Dragons worth mentioning at this point that sometimes get overlooked. In different ways, Sherry Turkle and Gary Alan Fine, among others, have underlined the psychological and social dimensions of role-playing and gaming. Once upon a time, this was at least one of the things about D&D that provoked mainstream panic: an anxiety about people pretending to be another person for the purposes of a game. I put aside some draft essays I was working on five years ago or so about histories of impersonation, but I’m thinking of dusting them off and reworking them over the next year. At least one of those commentaries would be about the weird subcultural history connecting Erving Goffman, Method acting, drag culture and Dungeons & Dragons, and how mainstream American culture came to be relatively at ease with performative concepts of selfhood.

Performativity was one of the things I got out of playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school, though I have to say that my own characters were not flamboyantly different than my everyday personality. I tended to play fairly straight-arrow good guys (though not paladins, who were obviously meant to be prigs).

I was much more drawn to being a game master, though, to subcreation, to playing out all the personalities and stories that inhabited a world of my invention. If I had to give an account of where I learned some of my pedagogical skills, to be honest, being a game master in Dungeons & Dragons and Gamma World was way more important to my development as a teacher than my doctoral work. I’d forgotten it until this week, but the first class I ever taught (and paycheck I earned teaching) was in the summer during high school, in a local enrichment program for intermediate school kids–it was a class on role-playing games.

Another thing that Dungeons & Dragons did for me, at least, was that as a teenager, it allowed me to be in the company of adults who weren’t my parents’ friends, weren’t my teachers, weren’t authorities. In this, D&D was like a number of other hobbies. The surfers I knew in high school had a different subculture that had a similar dimension to it. Yes, they were geeks, the young adults I played with. I probably wouldn’t be friends with them today, if I ran into them. One was a veteran who had a lot of anger issues just underneath the surface, another was a very fragile-seeming young mother, another a quiet 20-something guy that I really never got a clear sense of outside of the game. That was what was so good about D&D for me: I saw a different range of adulthoods than I saw through my family, and saw how people can make a subculture together around a common interest even when they were otherwise very different in background and character. It was an important thing for me to be able to get on a bus, meet one of my closest friends in high school and then sit down in the company of a group of adults and teenagers to guide my level 12 ranger through an adventure.

As in the case of any subculture, playing D&D also taught you how fundamentally untrustworthy mainstream opinion could be. Yes, we were geeks and misfits in various ways. Yes, there were people who took it all way too seriously. But I still remember being wildly frustrated by the way that role-playing games were depicted at that time, in the language of moral panic or sneering disdain. That wasn’t just an abstract frustration, either: every dumb news report, bad novel or TV-movie-of-the-week usually meant one more well-meaning, worried question from my mother.

Though I have to admit that I worked hard to keep the cover of Eldritch Wizardry carefully concealed from Mom.

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5 Responses to Dungeons and Dragons as Pedagogy and Sociology

  1. cgbrooke says:

    Count yourself the second-to-last, since I haven’t yet blogged it, either. Like you, I wasn’t really satisfied with the jokey stuff I’ve seen around the interwebs. My own reflections about the role that D&D played in my early adulthood also center around performativity, but there’s also a strong tie connecting it to my academic career. It’s always been hard for me not to see academia as its own kind of RPG. The 2nd-to-last paragraph above could almost be transposed word-for-word to academia, minus (perhaps) the same kind of moral panic.

    More directly, though, I think it’s doubtful that I’d have gotten to where I am academically without some of the friends and habits I met/learned through RPGs. I’m not sure I want to work through that connection publicly just yet, but it’s there…


  2. I was hoping you’d comment on Gygax eventually, Tim; thanks for doing so. This is a fine and thoughtful reminiscence. Much of what you describe I can relate to: in particular, the way in which being a DM (I was always the DM) is linked with my development of teaching and public speaking and general communications skills–my ability to think on my feet, build scenarios, draw others in through employing story-telling and dramatic types, while all the while keeping my mind on some set of data or rules that I have to impart. I would be a very different sort of teacher/speaker/performer if it hadn’t been for all those years playing the game.

    Some of what you experienced is beyond me: I never associated with adult gamers, never saw it as an entrance to or an outlook upon a grown-up world (maybe if I’d gone to more than one or two conventions, I might have, but in the end, D&D for me was always about family, about my brothers and I having fun). But hey, thanks for the shout-out to Gamma World! That was the only time I ever played a character, as opposed to running the game, and genuinely had a good time.

  3. Sisyphus says:

    Method acting??? Huh. I would like to hear more about that connection. I would have pushed more in the direction of Society of the Creative Anachronism and those various historical re-enactment societies.

    My biggest D&D memory is of my brother inviting all his high school friends over secretly every night he was supposed to be baby-sitting me. I’d sit under the table and draw on the graph paper while they would play and drink a few illicit beers.

  4. tozier says:

    I’ve long opined that at least one demographic among D&D (and Basic D&D</i and AD&D, and most of Mark Rein-splotch-Hagen’s Vampire games, but not so many GURPS) players are best-suited for team management positions in innovative firms and mentoring roles in any domain (including pedagogy).

    One of the questions I always ask when interviewing prospective hires and subcontractors is, “How much face-to-face RPG playing have you done?” Not because “we” do a lot these days, but because I can usually glean valuable information about how socialized, how collaborative, how spontaneously innovative the person is from how they answer.

    Because of course the next affable and innocuous-sounding question is always something like, “Did you use Modules, or ad lib?” or “Were the dice hidden behind the GM shield, or sitting around looking at each other’s faces?” or even the offhand-sounding, “Remember all those rules tables?”

    You can get an awful lot of insight about somebody’s Tribe from their nostalgic memories….

  5. Fats Durston says:

    I knew there’d be a post here on this. Just knew it.

    I had two quite similar experiences. When I learned that one of my best students GM’d a MUSH (or whatever they call MUDS these days), I revealed to him that teaching (especially the first half of Western Civ, donchaknow) was an awful lot like being a DM: as Russell describes above, as well as constructing class sessions (“modules”) of narrative and activities, taking on the roles of all of history’s “NPCs,” and of course, describing the creative ways humans kill each other. Wonder how many people on the GM’s side of the shield went into teaching…

    One of the few times I got to participate as a player (same-age friends were too lazy for DM’s work or simply not obsessed with the elements of the game as I was*) was when I played with an adult gaming group who happened to hold their sessions next door to my house. The husband was an electrician whose entire body bore scars from a horrific accident, who taught me the rough idea of trigonometry in seventh grade, and who owned two actual swords. A god-damn adult who owned a god-damn sword.

    And yeah, Paladins sucked.

    *I blame my current addiction to MMORPGs as a chance of finally getting a chance to act out all my player-ing that I missed.

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