Sunday, March 09, 2008

OK, this Gygax tribute goes too far

As happy as I am to see a Gygax appreciation in the New York Times, I think this piece by Adam Rogers attributes too much influence to Mr. Gygax's work:

GARY GYGAX died last week and the universe did not collapse. This surprises me a little bit, because he built it.

I’m not talking about the cosmological, Big Bang part. Everyone who reads blogs knows that a flying spaghetti monster made all that. But Mr. Gygax co-created the game Dungeons & Dragons, and on that foundation of role-playing and polyhedral dice he constructed the social and intellectual structure of our world.

(Emphasis added.) Um...I don't think so. I'm a pretty devoted fan of Dungeons & Dragons, but I think the "social and intellectual structure of our world" are more influenced by large technological, economic, biological, cultural, and political forces. Dungeons & Dragons is a part of those forces, but hardly rates comparison with the invention of the printing press, microchip, the birth control pill, or political fallout of WWII, the rise of Christianity, or the development of the scientific method or the effect of dopamine on the brain.

I do agree that Dungeons & Dragons promulgated the idea of the creation of virtual selves that interact with other virtual selves for the purposes of fantasy fulfillment, social interaction, and amusement. Certainly, the huge phenomenon of computer role playing games (including MMORPGS like World of Warcraft) owes a direct and immediate debt to Dungeons & Dragons. And I do look at many things through a gaming metaphor. One example is this blog: I like climbing ranks in the TLB ecosystem (see right sidebar; I'm currently a "slimy mollusc"), and I view my GoogleSense ad revenue sort of like an experience point total.

But the "life is a game" metaphor pre-dates Dungeons & Dragons. People have been talking about "playing to win" and "getting ahead" and "losers" for a long time. What D&D gave us was an example of what the rules for the game of life might be. Of course, D&D rules apply to a swords & sorcery fantasy world, but the same idea has been applied to science fiction settings, modern thrillers, superheroes, gothic horror, anime, or just about any other fantasy setting you could come up with. One way to understand the massively successful The Sims franchise is that its Dungeons & Dragons, except that it's about everyday modern life instead of slaying dragons and plundering hoards.

When people ask me what D&D is, sometimes I tell them it's "formalized make-believe": When kids play cops and robbers, they often get into arguments about who shot who first, and whether you missed, or how many bullets your gun had, etc. At its heart, a role playing game is a system for arbitrating such arguments. I think Gygax's fundamental contribution was providing a framework through which child-like fantasy could be a more shared, participatory, sustained, grown-up, and exciting experience. Almost as important, he and Arneson proved that such a system could be written down, packaged, and sold as a successful commercial product. Without the success of the industry it spawned, Dungeons & Dragons would just be a curio rather than a phenomenon.

I also agree with the NYT opinion piece that Dungeons & Dragons was profoundly influential to a specific group of people who have had an enormous influence on Western society in the past 25 years or so: the geeks. I think the rise of the geek and the mainstreaming of geekdom is one of the major social upheavals of recent history. And I think Dungeons & Dragons was an enormous gateway through which geeks discovered each other and through which the world discovered geeks in days before the Internet ubiquity.

But I don't think Gygax created our world or is responsible for Google or that his way of thinking governs the way husbands and wives interact. He was just a guy, it's just a game, and it's sad he's gone. In many ways, the industry has moved on from the way Gygax did things: He liked random tables for determining what monsters you faced, what treasures you found, etc. Now such randomness is discouraged, as it creates nonsensical situations and interferes with the unfolding of the story. He loved "dungeon crawls" where players had to find secret doors and circumvent deadly traps; no one really cared to ask why the dungeon was there or why all those treasures would be just sitting there. Now the game emphasizes heroic story arcs that take place against rich political backdrops and involve characters with fleshed-out personalities.

And despite the fact that the modern computer game industry owes him an enormous debt, Gygax himself wasn't that into video games. From his NYT obituary:
To [Gygax], all of the graphics of a computer dulled what he considered one of the major human faculties: the imagination.

“There is no intimacy; it’s not live,” he said of online games. “It’s being translated through a computer, and your imagination is not there the same way it is when you’re actually together with a group of people. It reminds me of one time where I saw some children talking about whether they liked radio or television, and I asked one little boy why he preferred radio, and he said, ‘Because the pictures are so much better.’ ”

So yes, let's honor Mr. Gygax . But let's not get carried away.

By the way, the diagram that accompanies the NYT opinion piece I've been talking about is pretty lame. Yes, it throws out a lot of geeky buzzwords, but the flowchart connections between them seem arbitrary and unenlightening. One of the fundamental attributes of geekdom is that the technical details matter. I do applaud diagram for including a box labeled "doubting the technical accuracy of this diagram".

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