D&D, Pretend, and Geek Culture

The passing of Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax seems to have sent aftershocks through the internet and news media, and then back out into the world beyond. Every day, I happen upon more stories and examples of people reflecting on the impact that his creation has had on the development of gaming, technology, and geek identity. Of particular interest to me are those who have started musing on where gaming and geeks fit in our world, and how a game based around pretend came to inspire so much.

Some claims seem pretty modest, while still quite relevant for gamers, like one point I read noting that every game featuring some kind of “hit points” is indebted to D&D. Some seem much more bold, such as those suggesting that D&D helped teach geeks to abstract social interaction into rule sets (and thus venture into the outside world), and that D&D helped ensure the creation of the internet, even if indirectly, and by introducing the concept of the virtual avatar. You may be surprised to learn that these latter claims come not from some zealous fanboy in a forum thread but from The New York Times. The article is accompanied by a humorous diagram, linked from the pic here, situating D&D at the heart of geekdom.

It’s funny to me that many of us attribute so much to Gary Gygax, to D&D, to the role of imagination in geek culture, and yet the avowedly non-geeky seem so generally unaware of that side of geekdom. Jordan, a frequent commenter here and good friend of mine, recently wrote his own post on a conversation that grew out of discussion of Gary Gygax and D&D, turning into an impromptu Q&A about Second Life. I’ve been in that same Q&A myself, occupying the same position as Jordan. Neither of us is any expert on the game (he’s played briefly and I’ve not played at all), but we become to de-facto experts in some groups of all things that seem vaguely strange and technological.

I’ve seen others in that position too, at the heart of the Second Life Q&A, such as when I was sitting in on an undergraduate class and someone gave a presentation on Second Life and was bombarded with questions about how “real” it is, how it works, and so on. So many people are ignorant of the concept of pretend as acceptably adult, of the basic workings (or even existence) of imaginary spaces, and will only admit some slight interest when computers are involved—the medium that the outside world wants to associate with geeks because it seems safe, familiar, not condescending.

At a panel at South by Southwest Interactive last year, video game designer Warren Spector wanted to offer an example of something, but decided to quickly poll the audience to make sure we’d follow. “How many people here have played Dungeons & Dragons?” he asked, and nearly every hand in the room went up. “Great, we’re all geeks here!” he said happily. I started to realize just how central that game has been in the development not just of geek culture, but in geeky ways of thinking.

2 thoughts on “D&D, Pretend, and Geek Culture

  1. Yeah, the chart requires some imagination…

    Conversation in my office about the flowchart when I showed it to my officemate:

    Him: I followed it and it took me directly to “Girls”…

    Me: Yeah, if you go the other way it’s more… complicated…

Comments are closed.