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.