D&D “Nerdrage”

Slashdot recently posted a Q&A between its readers and the designers of the upcoming 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Several of the questions are irritable in tone, especially as many feel this comes hot on the heels of the last major D&D overhaul. (The post is tagged with: “rpg, nerds, complaining, nerdrage, greed.”)

The only question which didn’t get an answer, though, was the one that I found most interesting, especially given the talk I’m delivering next week on the relative acceptability/respectability of geeky interests:

Short intro, I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. Play a lot of computer games. Enjoy reading up on lore and the like. But I never got into D&D. I had friends that played it but I was never into it. I tried playing it a few times and had some fun experiences. But there’s always been a sort of negative stigma associated with it among … well, the general populace. What are you doing to break free of this? Or do you embrace it? What are your thoughts & opinions on this strange negative publicity that popular movies push onto D&D players? Do you ever try to break free of that?

(Note from Gamer_Zer0: Sorry Zonk, I tried my best to get this question answered for you, but apparently the Sci-Fi channel was having an original Battlestar Galactica marathon and the entire D&D team was no where to be found!)

… Is that a joke? Some sort of glib suggestion that geeky pursuits are cool enough to be mainstream now (though the original question certainly singled out D&D as especially stigmatized)? From a business standpoint, I guess I can understand why Wizards of the Coast might want its employees to dodge such a question, but I’d surely be interested in how the stigma of role-playing games figures into marketing (and perhaps even design) decisions.

9 thoughts on “D&D “Nerdrage”

  1. With the usual caveat that I’m really not much of a geek (in so far as I’m not usually participant in most geek cultures, even if I can do the right dances) but I can say exactly why I don’t play D&D any more, even though I did off and on well into my 20s. Yes, the fun of it has nothing to do with the fantasy bullshit that permeates everything born of gary gygax, and the people that made it fun for me have dispersed geographically, and it’s incredibly time consuming, but part of it is certainly that D&D seems to hold high everything that is unbearable about geek culture. Exclusionary, marketing as arbiter of culture, and needlessly expensive. See also, card trading games. It seems like the product design here is pushing a level of stigma to appeal to the still marginalized hard core, who will gladly fork over money for a 4th ed. handbook and a new set of d7s to role with. Bah.

  2. d7s? Nevermind.

    The WotC response was, I think, supposed to be a thinly veiled comment on ‘geek pursuits’ in popular culture. It’s not a complete answer, of course, but its the same one I’d give if I worked there.

    The practical reason that many of us former players stopped is that it’s difficult to find people willing to invest that kind of time in a game once you’re past about college age. For a ‘nerdy’ game, it’s a remarkably social one.

    I think the ‘dorky’ connotations of D&D come from its long association with geekdom, often used as a form of shorthand. This developed some time after the game’s debut. Even when “AD&D” showed up, it still wasn’t considered a particularly nerdy pastime (at least where I grew up.) Somewhere along the way it was relegated to the archetypical basement. I suspect that the LARPers helped that process along, but I have nothing to really cite for that.

  3. Jacob:
    I’m kind of fascinated by the suggestion that what’s geekiest about D&D/trading card games isn’t the “let’s play pretend” angle, but the expensiveness and marketing approach. Does that make indie RPGs, which are less of a cost investment and generally not backed by marketing efforts, seemingly less geeky than D&D in your (or others’) eyes?

    Despite what I may claim in mixed company, the reason you offer is precisely the reason I don’t play any RPGs anymore. (I also gave them up for a while because I didn’t want GMing to be my only creative outlet, fearing I wouldn’t put effort into efforts I considered more “productive” at the time.)

    I wonder, though: Why should D&D be more deeply associated with geekdom than, say, Star Wars action figures?

  4. Possibly, Jason, because fig collecting is fairly low-impact – cerebrally speaking – while tabletop gaming is solidly steeped in our geekish ability to absorb and process large volumes of information. Anyone can try and track down a variant action figure, but calculating a character’s encumbrance penalty and understanding how that’s going to negatively impact a skill check is for a very particular brand of dork.

    There are also matters of committing to memory personal (What’s your character’s patron deity?) and “cultural” (Will a half-orc be accepted in an upscale tavern in an all-human barony?) minutiae that certainly aren’t for the intellectually faint of heart.

    And getting back to the meat of your post, I too was disappointed that this question was dodged. Ignoring something like this leaves a worse taste in my mouth than flatly denying it. WotC could have easily drawn a parallel to the fact that games like WoW are becoming more socially acceptable and thusly implied that this de-nerdification may be extending to pen-and-paper games as well. They could’ve even laughed it off with a “Cheetos and Mountain Dew” riff. Instead they elected to duck it and ignore what is, for better or worse, the legacy of D&D.

    One final note: we really need to work up some sort of play-by-mail/-post thing for all of us wayward tabletoppers who’ve gotten separated from our respective parties. Just something to think about.

  5. Does that make indie RPGs, which are less of a cost investment and generally not backed by marketing efforts, seemingly less geeky than D&D in your (or others’) eyes?

    Yes. There’s a sort of validation through consumption; by buying into the system, geeks get to play inside a game that the market has prevalidated, which unfortunately usually gets traded for a lot of prebuilt content. In games like table-top RPGs where there’s room for so much personal creativity, this is a lot to give up. Making geeks pay for the privilege seems like they are getting taken advantage of, which further marginalizes them.

    Re: action figures v. rpgs, my best hand-wavy explanation for this might be that inside of a mainstream culture, action figures are at least comprehensible (if you didn’t have any dolls when you were a kid, one of your friends did) but RPGs are less commonly experienced. My explanation for why I’ve gamed is usually something like “it’s a fun mix of a game of chance and a long improvisational play”, which explains it as the mix of two known acceptable activities.

    Is there anybody that has sat down with an hoard of freshman university students and played a long series of “is this geekier than that” games with them? Would be interesting to have a giant pile of data to compare all this with.

  6. Z. The new D&D system has an online component to do precisely that.

    Jacob. It should be relatively easy to put together a geeky version of “Hot or Not.”

  7. Jacob:
    I thought it was interesting that D&D didn’t make it to that Onion AV club list (linked in a more recent post) of nerdy hobbies, but RPGs based on existing media franchises did (like the Buffy RPG). Guess that fits with the whole “buying into the system” idea.

    If the ethnography doesn’t work out, maybe I will build the geeky hot-or-not site to see what kind of data I can collect. (Or not.)

    Good point. And: I’d do play-by-internet as long as somebody else DMs/GMs. I haven’t been able to play in a campaign since before I could legally vote…

  8. Listen, I’m a D&D player and I really think that you should not judge a book by its cover! Just because someone plays RPGs doesn’t; mean that they are a nerd oor a geek! I mean, my step-dad played D&D for a bit but he said that he as never considered a nerd/geek by anyone… althouhg that might have to do with his size! But I think that its stupid that people are still calling RPGers nerds/geeks just because they play D&D, WoW, HALO online, etc. I mean, thoese people are just idiots!!!!!!

  9. Hi, Grif. I think there’s two things going on with gamers getting called geeks/nerds: One is that they are getting called that by people who are judging them, and the other is that a lot of them are calling themselves that and welcoming it (often with a sense of humor and humility). Given the second point, it’s a little harder to hold it against others for associating the term with the habits.

    I think we’d agree, though, that we shouldn’t have to be ashamed of our hobbies, or hide them for fear of being judged. The stereotypes associated with geeks/nerds are so pervasive that it’s not just idiots who believe in them. The question that follows, I suppose, is: How much are those stereotypes changing?

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