You know the drill: my words are in bold and the article is in italics. Turn back if you can’t handle this sort of thing, but pop some pop corn if you choose to stick around.
Okay, my friends don’t get why this article bugs me so much. They’re all hard core gamers that agree with me about a gazillion other things, but they don’t get this. So, this is a fisking that my audience here doesn’t really want to see. Eh, blame Leigh Alexander, Fred Hicks, and Steve Wieck. Blame the people that made false accusations against two D&D consultants and then never publicly apologized for it. I’m just not in the mood anymore.
I was like everyone else once. If anything turned up in the news even remotely about gaming I’d get all excited like the journalists had thrown me a bone or something. It’s like when a family member gets their photo in the local paper; you just get giddy about it. It’s not really fifteen minutes of fame, but… they’re acting like you’re somebody or something. It’s ingratiating.
Not anymore, though. Am I the only one remembers that the press has been working overtime the past few months to make sure that the first thing that comes into everyone’s mind when they hear the word “gamer” is “mouth-breathing misogynistic man-baby”? And that’s just the family friendly stuff they’re saying about us. But now I’m supposed to get all goofy just because they’re making nice with role-players?
These people do real damage. It’s not a joke. You know, I’ve had people awkwardly turn down game sessions because they really do believe that there’s something to D&D panic from back in the eighties. They actually do think there is honest to goodness witchcraft involved and a serious chance of violence or suicide. The game still gives this impression of the occult and demonic evil. I dunno, maybe I missed it. Did the newspapers and journalists ever do anything to fix the mess they made of that? Did they ever apologize? Retract? Debunk? Did they ever lift a finger to correct the ludicrous misconceptions they pushed? I really can’t think of anything.
Really, these people hate us. They don’t care about our hobby. They’re just using us for their own ends– and rather transparently, too. They aren’t even original, but parrot the same talking points that the last piece did and keep quoting the same factoids while carefully narrowing the focus to produce a carefully engineered impression.
Yes, there’s some sort of stupid list somewhere that coordinates this stuff. Look at any major blogger involved in role-playing and what’s the first thing you notice? They’re all crazy different from each other with their own style, influences, goals, and games. But we’re supposed to believe that all these media outlets just so happen to be running the exact same sorts of stories that follow the exact same templates? It’s ridiculous. It’s like there’s this smoke filled room somewhere where all the journalists are told to be sure to mention Junot Diaz every time the topic of D&D comes up. Seriously, who decides that stuff…?
As a teenager in the 1980s, Charles Starrett spent hours playing Dungeons & Dragons with his pals but stopped after high school. His interest was rekindled as a father when he introduced basic role-playing games to his two daughters when they were six years old, and he also persuaded his wife, Jung, to play.
“They just gobbled it up,” Jung Starrett says of her daughters’ interest in D&D.
Now the couple and their now 14-year-old daughters, Sophia and Julia, gather around their Brookline dining room table regularly on weekends to toss polyhedral dice, slay orcs and hobgoblins, and tell an unpredictable, unfolding fantasy story, together.
SUBTEXT: “Hey, did you hear about that moldy old game that used to be played by nerdy white guys that couldn’t get dates? Well… some of those guys actually went on to get married and have kids. I know, it’s crazy right…?”
As it turns 40 this year, the pioneering role-playing game (or “RPG”) appears to be enjoying something of a renaissance after a period of decline. Once the province primarily of white, suburban teen boys and young men, D&D is drawing a more diverse group of players, owing in part to the widespread popularity of fantasy books, films, and television shows. And a new update of the game is renewing interest among veteran players.
SUBTEXT: “We can’t talk about this without bringing up the utterly dreadful fact that the hobby was about as white bread as it gets. It’s downright bourgeoisie, even. [spit] Did we mention already that the guys that played this back in the day were losers? Yeah, it’s not like that anymore, though. It’s totally diverse and cosmopolitan and stuff, not like those mouth breathers that play Grand Theft Auto in their mother’s basements. This article is to let you know that you are to no longer smear D&D players with the mouth breather slur. That is reserved only for video gamers now. Journalists like us call these sorts of shots, so you can take our word for it. Role-players are moderately cooler than video-gamers now. Because if we can declare the later dead, then we can decide that the former have suddenly been resurrected.”
Also, the new game is not renewing interest among veteran players. A good chunk of veteran players would be playing regardless of a new edition. Heck, they’d even go so far as to make their own edition and sell it on Lulu or something. (Also note: if this exists, then basically there’s something in the scene for EVERY conceivable taste.) If you actually cared about real diversity rather than just gave lip service to it, you’d probably mention that. But you don’t. You can’t substantiate the claim about 5th edition renewing interest or else you would have done so in the next paragraph.
An estimated 20 million people have played the game and spent at least $1 billion on its products since D&D’s early days. But the game, which experienced strong growth throughout the 1970s and ’80s, began a slump in the 2000s. The game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, does not make sales figures available, but analysts say that RPG sales have been declining for years, partly supplanted by the surge in video games and Internet culture.
SUBTEXT: “Video games! [spit] Yeah, video gamers might be dropping cash on their horrid misogynistic games, but really… they’re totally irrelevant. We mean it! Role-players are a bunch a cream puffs in comparison, though. We’re gonna have those guys eating out of our hands, just watch! All we have to do is flatter them a little. We’ve already got our foot in the door!”
In response, Wizards, a Washington subsidiary of Providence toy-and-game giant Hasbro, launched a revamp of the game’s rules this year, informally known as “Fifth Edition,” that returns D&D to its story-based roots. The response has been positive.
“Nearly every player I’ve spoken to says they like the new rules,” says David Ewalt, author of “Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It.” When one of the core rule books, the D&D “Player’s Handbook,” was published in August, it climbed to the top of Amazon sales charts and hit number one on both Publisher’s Weekly and Wall Street Journal’s hardcover nonfiction lists.
Distributors and retailers say the new edition is selling better than expected, says Milton Griepp, founder and CEO of ICv2, a publication that covers geek culture. “And expectations were high.”
Nationally, and locally, retailers are saying the new edition is doing well and drawing players to game nights. John Beresford, books manager at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, reports that the store’s weekly in-store D&D events have grown by at least 25 percent. “Fifth edition is getting a lot of nostalgia gamers back in to take a look and is also drawing in a number of new gamers,” he says.
Okay, no kidding, y’all. The game is getting back to its “story-based roots.” You want to know what that means? It means that the players have to decide whether or not to kill the orc babies or to try to pick up a saucy wench when they get back to the tavern. Both of those propensities of the game inevitably emerge in any wide open free form session that depicts the standard violent and lawless milieu if the players have any degree of autonomy. This fact of the game cannot be mentioned in this article because it would completely ruin the narrative.
Also note that the game is not getting back to it’s sword & sorcery roots. That would be utterly inconceivable to the sort of people that write and publish this stuff.
Unlike the last edition, released in 2008, the new D&D focuses less on mimicking video game-like action and combat, and more on ease of play, role-playing, and narrative. Also making the game more accessible, the rules ask players to consider characters who do “not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior.” Your 12th level wizard might be gay.
SUBTEXT: “Surprise! See how we faked you out with the happy little family in the opening? This new game is not for pimple faced underweight (and overweight) teen-aged heterosexual boys that want to pretend to pick up elf women at a fantasy tavern. We couldn’t mention that at all because we didn’t want you to think that gameplay necessarily dissolved into the sophomoric and the misogynistic. Yeah, unlike those stinking video gamers, people that play this stuff are totally hip, trendy, and downright beat. They’re beat, man! And it’s counter-cultural in exactly the same way as everyone that’s going into debt graduating from college right now. Which is why it is even comprehensible to us.”
In addition to getting a boost from the game update, D&D and other RPGs are also finding fresh player bases.
“There’s been a real expansion of the audience in recent years,” says Ewalt. When Ewalt went to his first game convention 20 years ago, the attendees were largely white, male, ages 15 to 40. When he attended the massive role-playing game and tabletop game convention called GenCon this summer in Indianapolis, “there were men and women, kids and adults, and people of all races and cultures.’’
Liz Schuh, head of publishing and licensing for Dungeons & Dragons, agrees. “We are seeing a broad mix of ages playing D&D today,’’ she says. “The game spans generations, as parents introduce their kids to the game that inspired them as kids.’’
SUBTEXT: “Role-players will, if they work really, really hard at it, someday be about half as diverse as the videogamers that we journalists are routinely smearing across media outlets for being incredibly un-diverse. We are cheer-leading the former while denying the latter, but no, don’t call us out on that. We’re flattering you right now and you’re supposed to play along.”
One reason new audiences are embracing D&D is that so many of its key concepts are already familiar to a generation steeped in video games. D&D spawned a legion of game designers and programmers, and the industry borrowed heavily from D&D tropes such as outfitting characters, leveling up, cooperative game play, representing character traits as statistics, fantasy battles, dungeon environments, and controlling avatars.
D&D also benefits from the popularity of fantasy entertainment such as the “Lord of the Rings,” “Hobbit” and “Harry Potter’’ books and movies, and hit TV shows like “Game of Thrones.” As in the case of video games, the appetite for consuming fantasy worlds is one that D&D actually had a role in nurturing.
A whole generation of screenwriters, novelists, directors, musicians, and actors who once played D&D — including Stephen Colbert, the late Robin Williams, Matt Groening, Vin Diesel, and George R. R. Martin — have proudly embraced their basement-dwelling days as a nerdy badge of honor.
SUBTEXT: “While we endorse diversity in every conceivable medium and in every conceivable manner, we could not come up with anyone famous that played D&D back in the day that wasn’t both white and male. However, we assure you that these stars all have appropriate opinions and would even come out against video gamers in a pinch if they really really needed the attention. (Robin Williams excluded, of course.) In any case, if you think we messed this up in some way… blame the role-players and not us. They are the white bread bourgeois types, not us.”
“All those kids who were obsessed with the game in the early 1980s have grown up, and many of them entered creative pursuits because D&D got them excited about telling stories and creating adventures,” says Ewalt.
The game’s imaginative reach extends beyond popular entertainment. “Gaming certainly provided me with an imaginative praxis that helped prepare me for the imaginative praxis of being a writer,” says Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and MIT professor whose group played D&D in the 1980s. “The game was an important source of solace, inspiration, learning excitement and play for us.”
ADDENDUM: As important as D&D was to Mr. Diaz’s artistic development he makes it clear that he dropped it as soon as he had other options. “Once girls entered the equation in a serious way,” he said, “gaming went right out the window.”
Chris Robichaud, author of “Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy” and a D&D veteran since age 10, is bringing RPGs into the classroom as a learning tool. At the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he is a lecturer in ethics and public policy, Robichaud has been teaching D&D-like simulation called Patient Zero. “I wanted to give policymakers the creative, outside-the-box thinking opportunities that only a tabletop design with a gamemaster at the helm could really create,” says Robichaud, who believes his game “has the distinction” of being Harvard’s first “zombie pandemic tabletop simulation.”
The potential educational benefits are not lost on younger players. Back at the Starrett home, Julia and Sophia say they play primarily because it’s fun, but the game has also imparted valuable life skills.
“I have the reputation as a walking dictionary, which I got from playing D&D,” says Sophia, who has been blogging about “the benefits of playing D&D.” Beyond building your vocabulary, the two sisters reel off myriad other boons. The game improves critical thinking, decision-making, spatial intelligence, and team-building.
This is the same sort of thing people said about arcade games back in the eighties. Remember when people would defensively point out how video games improved hand eye coordination? Good grief, it was basically just a waste of time and quarters. Honestly, it had no redeeming value beyond the fact that it was fun. What kind of sick Puritanical society do we exist in where people can’t admit that they like to do something that’s fun every now and then?
This is not the stuff you tell people to get them interested in the game. This is the stuff you tell people that are giving you a hard time about your hobby in order to get them to leave you alone. It’s a waste of band width at best and disingenuous at worse. Why would hobbyists want to kowtow to people like that anyway? Asinine.
“In D&D, if you’re going to succeed,” says Julia, “you have to be part of a group of very diverse individuals all going for the same goal.”
Indeed, the role-playing game is a perfect tool for forging communities and connections “which can further knit our society together,” says dad Charles. “We can even explore living a life as someone who believes quite differently from how we actually believe, which increases understanding and empathy towards those who differ from ourselves.”
This is what they care about. They don’t care about games, game design, or gamers. They really don’t. What they are ticked off about is that no one that is a gamer actually cares if the avatar in a game is “like them” in any of a dozen demographical points. But these journalists (and the academics that feed them their talking points) think that because someone might play a gay wizard in a D&D game, that they might suddenly start singing kumbayah with all kinds of people that they just wouldn’t otherwise. That might be a laudable goal in and of itself if you go in for that sort of thing, but this has no basis in reality.
Look, D&D is fantasy. Politically correct science fiction and fantasy didn’t create politically correct people in any significant numbers. It drove people away from the medium… to movies and video games and tabletop games where they wouldn’t have to put up with the constant hectoring! All of the game mechanics and design concepts that video games use were pioneered in tabletop games like D&D. You have more freedom to adapt to things on the fly and you aren’t restricted by the limitations of computers, but the stuff that tabletop gamers do isn’t substantially different than what happens at the console. At any rate, the gameplay experience is not going to produce a state of religious ecstasy that transforms bigoted redneck misogynists into broadminded metrosexuals. It just isn’t.
You think I’m exaggerating. If an article like this came out at the height of the eighties’ D&D scare, it would have focused entirely on how satanists, pagans, and atheists all came to a more positive view of Christianity and its role in Western Civilization because their player characters gained experience points by donating to a chapel, cleaned out the Temple of Elemental Evil, got Cure Disease cast on them, and used a Helm of Alignment Change to convert to Lawful Good. That’s how absurd this article is.
Like a warrior after an epic battle, D&D has survived to fight again — and its players hope it will keep on rolling for another 40 years.
But why should we care? No, really… why?! Because some teen-aged girl can play a gay wizard in her dad’s dungeon adventure if she wants to? (That’s always been the case, guy.) Because the game provided Junot Diaz with an imaginative praxis? Because it provides the same sort of bonding experience that a ropes course can give to a team of coworkers that otherwise dislike each other…? Because it builds vocabulary…?
You do realize that this is a game about going into dungeons, killing things, and taking their stuff. Thirty years ago D&D was so dangerous it could make people commit suicide. Now all of a sudden it’s going to be the key to world peace, spiritual healing, and mass enlightenment. I don’t know which is stupider.
Do you have any idea what you sound like? You, Ethan Gilsdorf, sound like you have never experienced anything significant in a role-playing game session, that you barely have the faintest idea what it entails, and that you have grilled a few people and gone to the same officially sanctioned media mouthpieces that everyone else goes to in order to peddle a weird little narrative that has nothing to do with reality. I don’t know whether you really are as credulous as you sound or if you just think everyone that will read your piece is as ignorant as you are. Or maybe you do know what you’re talking about, but this is what you have to do in order to get a piece on gaming past your editors? Is that it?
Your article is a perfect example of why journalism has so little prestige or credibility. You don’t cover stories… you concoct them. You collect enough quotes until you can flesh out your little carbon copy Mad Libs structures so that people that have no interest in what you’re writing about can have the impression of having read something. You make the written equivalent of Styrofoam. Writing and research is not the end product; the readers are. You sell them to advertisers and that’s all you care about. You do absolutely nothing to inform people. You actually spend the bulk of your efforts doing the opposite.
Fortunately, your kind is obsolete. But do keep trying. Our mothers occasionally need something to clip out from the paper that vaguely reminds them of us for when Big Bang Theory isn’t on.