Several things have come up lately that have made me reflect on my adolescence playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role playing games with friends. This is something I’ve written about before. Several years ago when I learned that a version of D&D was available online—trying to compete, I guess, with World of Warcraft and other online RPGs—I made the case that it was the face-to-face interactions that mattered. It was sitting at a table with each other and laughing about stupid stuff that sometimes wasn’t necessarily related to the game that mattered. And we were a group that came together through slow accretion. New people came in because somebody knew somebody. There’s a longstanding stereotype of geeks and nerds as socially isolated, but D&D was one way we found common ground. It was a way we got together.
And if an argument started we could all step back and take a breath. We could take a few minutes to cool off. This was especially true in the winter. Some of my favorite snow days were spent fighting orcs. Or dealing with other challenges. We didn’t limit ourselves to D&D. There were RPG modules built around everything from Prohibition era gangsters to Ghostbusters.
A recent Washington Post article takes a slightly tongue-in-cheek, not to mention illustrated, look at the rising popularity of D&D. An interesting feature of it is the growing number of women getting involved which is a great thing. I had a few friends who were girls who’d join in an RPG once in a while but none of them ever became regular players.
The article made me think about something I also thought about while watching Felicia Day’s web series The Guild, about a group of people brought together by an online RPG whose lives then coalesce in the “real world”.
The series is very funny but I think it also unintentionally highlights a problem with online RPGs. The players choose at the outset to be idealized versions of themselves. They could have chosen anything, really, at least within the game’s parameters.
And that’s the downside. There are fun things about online RPGs, although I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to call them “role playing” games. In the D&D and other games we played around a table there were literally no limits. Anything could happen and we could be anyone. Once in a marathon session I was Gilbert Gottfried for three straight hours. My throat was raw but it was worth it. No one made me impersonate Gottfried, or even asked me to, and by the end my friends found a way to make me stop, but that’s another story. It was a decision I made and I committed myself to it even when I started to think it was a really bad idea, which happened about fifteen minutes in.
Sometimes games would also start with the Dungeonmaster, or game leader, handing out character sheets. These were lists of attributes but also sometimes included personality descriptions that would go on for pages. We went to conventions where we’d play with strangers and would be judged by how well we played the character. I was a woman, a fat guy, an annoyingly hyperactive talking, walking tree. Did playing these roles give me any insight into what it would be like to be someone not me? Maybe not, but it certainly didn’t hurt that for a couple of hours I thought about what it was like to see the world through vastly different eyes.
It was good training for acting, especially improv, which one of my friends chose to pursue as a career. (One of these days I hope to visit Atlanta and catch a show at Dad’s Garage.)
It was also good training for life. The complete freedom of the games also meant we could explore philosophical, even ethical questions, subject ourselves to thought experiments and consider consequences. Some people at the time worried D&D was leading kids into drugs and Satanism. Actually the bigger danger is it was leading us to math and Shakespeare. And it wasn’t a way of escaping life. It was part of our lives.
To come back to the idea that we could be anything that is what makes it so great that more women are getting into D&D and RPGs. I know women didn’t always feel welcome at D&D gatherings. That’s changing, but slowly. In her memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) Felicia Day says at least one producer didn’t believe she wrote the script of The Guild because “girls don’t play video games”.
When I was very young a lot of adults told me I could be anything I wanted to be. And then I got older and got into RPGs where I literally could be anything. And that’s a possibility that should be open to everyone.