Blogs > Cliopatria > Thirty Years of Dungeons&Dragons

Oct 17, 2004 8:19 am


Thirty Years of Dungeons&Dragons



The prototype, the ur-game, the original Dungeons&Dragonstm is thirty years old [via my father]. That wonderful mishmash of Tolkien, high medievalism, Beowulf, Homer, and dice poker is three decades embedded into American culture and now World civilization is feeling the effects. The original creators of the game now work in the computer game design industry.... yes, what was a bizarre little hobby once is an industry now. There are all kinds of imitators, and the game itself has gone through two major overhauls that I know of (and innumerable little tweakings at the hands of hundreds of players) to make it more interesting, realistic, accessible and challenging all at once.

I got my starter set in 1980, plus or minus a year. My whole family played together, which made things interesting at times: my father was a fantastic Dungeon Master, drawing on decades of fantasy and science fiction reading and a talent for puzzles and storytelling to create real adventures. My favorite characters were a fighting monk and a nameless assassin-inventor (with a penchant for modifying crossbows and mounting them on interesting things). I also played, a bit, a science fiction offshoot, in which you could design not just characters and adventures, but ships, worlds, interstellar governments..... And I still have the books, the characters, the dungeons, the now-illegal lead figurines...

I haven't had the time or energy for role-playing much the last few years, but I understand the impulses: companionship, safe adventure, storytelling, identity games, competition with low stakes but subtly high psychological consequences. What's interesting, though, is the way in which this model of play has become ubiquitous, aided in large part by advancing technologies of communication and computation. Also very interesting is the way in which the concept of 'subculture' -- once a sort of mystery cult in which adherents together ate, drank and worshipped a god of life and death -- has blossomed to the point where all hobbyists have a culture (some of them several subcultures) and all hobbies are industries and nobody has to be quite the same person in all contexts.

A few years ago we did a free evening course in origami at MIT, and learned something very important. The course started with basic shapes, moved through some fascinating modular designs, and ended with high-end animal models. There was a presentation from the engineer who folded a quarter-millimeter sheet of metal foil into a crane, and from a man who made a living teaching origami and custom-making origami models of carp, often from photographs of people's favorite fish. What we learned, after spending half-a-dozen evenings with people who built third-order fractals from business cards, and who thought nothing of folding a frog for over an hour, then unfolding it so they could reverse some folds, then folding it back up again just to get the toes right is that no matter what you do, there is someone more obsessed with it than you, someone for whom it is their defining activity, and there's also some way to make a living at it if you are willing to be that person.

Interestingly, with the rise of D&D and other gaming milieux, that obsession is not just hobbying, but actual identity shifting. And that obsession has become more and more popular, more and more common, to the point that entering into any new activity is fraught with a certain sense that you're not putting enough into it, that you're not really serious about it, and that it is a character flaw to seek balance, diversion, a level of comfort. As much as I enjoyed gaming, I wonder how much it contributed to this pseudo-professionalization of leisure, or perhaps, more likely, it was just a symptom of our shift to services and entertainment (a subsector of the service industry that actually is a sector unto itself) as core economic activities.


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Jonathan Dresner - 10/18/2004

Good to hear from you again.

I, on the other hand, have no fear whatsoever of half-measures....

Part of the puzzle on alternate identity gaming (did I just make up a term?) has to be the combination of later marriage and increased leisure time in contemporary society. I just got finished reading Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow and when I have a free half-hour or three I want to blog on it, but the emotional ease with which people lived their own lives in remarkably hard circumstances is very striking.


Anne Zook - 10/18/2004

I've spent a lot of time thinking about similar topics over the last couple of years. I was never a gamer but it does strike me that D&D tapped into some need in people that the internet has tapped into on a much larger scale. There are entire swaths of the internet inhabited primarily by those who have created alternate personalities for themselves.

I could never decide if it was a desire for adventure, excitement, danger, or just escape from the banality of everyday life, though.

I have vague theories but I lack the appropriate vocabulary to explain them. They're all about "civilization" in humans, the group versus the individucal, etc. About whether or not the type of..."mentality" (for lack of a better word) that can sustain the drive toward "civilization" is the same one that can comfortably be contained within civilization.

"...entering into any new activity is fraught with a certain sense that you're not putting enough into it, that you're not really serious about it, and that it is a character flaw to seek balance, diversion, a level of comfort."

Heh. Heh. That's why I gave up my blog. No matter how hard I "worked" at that hobby, I felt uneducated and half-informed. It finally became a choice between the blog and the entire rest of my life. I am...not good at half measures.

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