Videogames are everywhere; they have reached the mainstream. Once a fringe activity, thanks to the Wii, World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare 2, it is now possible that everyone from your grandmother to your gardener is more of a gamer than you are. While not necessarily “cool,” playing videogames is at least a generally acceptable activity for people of any age. Beyond that, people have been getting together to play games for centuries, be it chess, Pictionary or Texas Hold ’em. Why, then, is it still not socially acceptable to sit around a table with some friends and play a tabletop role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons?
Some may argue that the role-playing hobby is gaining steam and that D&D 4th Edition is reaching new audiences. Unfortunately, most of those people are either deluded or employees of the Wizards of the Coast marketing team.
In the early 80s, D&D and tabletop role-playing was extremely popular. There were TV commercials and a Saturday Morning cartoon show. Teachers organized after-school programs and there were summer camps devoted to playing D&D. It generally attracted the more intelligent or “gifted” kids. Our culture was recently introduced to the viability of fantasy and science fiction with the popularity of Star Wars and role-playing encouraged such flights of fancy. How did the hobby go from being featured in the opening scenes of one of the most popular movies ever (E.T.) to it being a mark of shame to admit to your adult friends in 2010?
To illustrate just how universally derided and ridiculed the hobby still is by most of our society, allow me to tell you a little story.
When I was 10 or so, I found my brother’s old copy of the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. The artwork (especially the cover of the DMG depicting rogues prying out the jewelled eyes of a monstrous statue) reminded me of the fantasy novels that I was reading at the time: The Hobbit, Dragonlance, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. I wanted to be those heroic characters, and here was a game that provided the framework to make that dream possible.
But it wasn’t possible, at least for me. In the late 80s, there was still a lot of backlash against Dungeons & Dragons due to the satanic craze recently chronicled by Allen Varney. Basically, a mentally disturbed kid attempted suicide at the University of Michigan. He was known to play D&D and the media linked these two details with the ridiculous idea that he was lost in the steam tunnels thinking that he was “inside the game.” There were news stories, novelizations and the awful made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters starring a young Tom Hanks.
The problem was that my mother was especially impressionable by people at her church, and, once she found me poring over books that depicted evil statues on the cover and line drawings of monsters and bare-breasted demons, she quickly confiscated them lest I start my own cult. My friends at the time weren’t interested in pretending to be fantasy heroes, so there was little point in sneaking around to play D&D.
Years later, I moved to New York City and got married. I was still into fantasy and read a lot of novels with dragons or swords on the cover, which my friends affectionately called “Dork Books.” Surrounded by millions of people and living hundreds of miles from my mother, I realized that there was nothing keeping me from playing the game that fascinated me as a kid. I grabbed the 3.5 Player’s Handbook and a bag of dice and started playing D&D every week in the Upper West Side.
When I mentioned my plans to play Dungeons & Dragons to anyone else, including my wife, I was confronted with the same reaction: “What the fuck are you doing that for?” I was an “adult” and playing D&D was for “socially retarded losers.” My wife was especially incensed that I chose to spend a night away from home in order to pretend to be an elf in front of strangers. But she was an actress, was her chosen profession that much different than my hobby? My circle of friends and acquaintances was generally liberal (this was NYC after all) and many of them played videogames, even RPGs, but, somehow, the idea of sitting around a table and playing something similar was abhorrent to them.
I think that the media backlash is the easiest culprit. In 1980, D&D was a fringe hobby not unlike model trains or stamp-collecting. These hobbies, however, were never associated with a crazy guy who lived in the steam tunnels under the University of Michigan on the 10 o’clock news and on shows like 20/20, which shaped much of our public opinions back then. The scandal occurred at a time where the RPG industry was the most vulnerable. There was no internet to give voice to the tens of thousands of gamers who were demonstrably not crazy. TSR did nothing to combat the growing smear campaign, hoping that, by ignoring it, the hysteria would simply go away. As a result, in a very short time, the only feeling that most non-gamers felt about D&D was negative. “Dungeons & Dragons? That’s bad.”
In the 90s, the hobby was pushed further into the fringe. The only people who risked being known as tabletop gamers were likely social pariahs already. Unlike the 80s, there was little crossover from the somewhat more popular gifted kids to the socially stunted kids who played D&D. I knew them in high school. I would play Magic with them sometimes during lunch, but, unfortunately, they reinforced some of the gamer stereotypes that still exist today. They didn’t shower often; they didn’t go to the prom, let alone kiss a girl.
But that’s all ancient history. It’s 2010, the year we make contact for chrissakes. We have celebrities from all walks of life who proclaim that they play D&D, from Robin Williams to future basketball hall of famer Tim Duncan to Rivers Cuomo of Weezer (if In The Garage is any indication). Why, then, does the stigma still exist?
I think one big reason is that the game spreads as slowly as a Black Pudding because there is one huge bottleneck: the Dungeon Master. There may be many people out there who would be content to try something new as a player, but DMing is something wholly different. Even though it can be very rewarding, it’s hard to ask someone new to the hobby to run a game for a group of new players who may or may not be interested. Therefore, if you do start playing, you are most likely playing with someone who proudly calls himself a gamer.
But perhaps that’s the problem. The amount of gamer pride has increased in recent years but that may not be 100 percent healthy for the hobby. To say that tabletop gaming has created an insular culture is an understatement. It almost seems that in order to be called a gamer means that you must wear tee-shirts depicting d20s, speak only in terms that other gamers will understand and be fully invested in “gamer culture.” By wearing our hobby literally on our sleeves, we might actually be perpetuating the gamer stereotype and preventing someone else from participating in the game. “Well, I can’t play D&D because I don’t know the lingo, I don’t get the jokes in Knights of the Dinner Table and I’m not wearing a tee-shirt that decries the virtues of a well-placed fireball.” Damn straight! You’re not a gamer if you don’t own that moniker. I played D&D before it was cool. You? You’re just somebody who’s moderately interested in my hobby. Screw you!
Role-playing has two problems. For whatever reason, we possess a negative image in the public spotlight. But, also, if someone is interested enough to try to play roleplaying games, there is a huge barrier of entry that prevents them from fully engaging. The first problem we can do little about, but the second is certainly under our control.
It might create a more inclusive environment if we didn’t identify ourselves with a hobby so strongly. Perhaps there would be more people who enjoyed tabletop roleplaying if doing so didn’t mean that they had to buy in so heavily to the culture. Maybe we’d be able to kill the stigma that surrounds D&D if we didn’t immediately ostracize people who don’t play by erecting a wall around what is our hobby.
Even though we may call ourselves gamers, roleplaying games are just one facet of our lives. It may be a big part of who we are, but it doesn’t have to define us as individuals in order for us to enjoy playing games. Or as The Lone Amigo at Rocket-Propelled Game put it, “Roleplaying is not a way of life, it’s just a way of having fun.”
Greg Tito is totally rethinking his tee-shirt choice this morning.