The level of excitement surrounding the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a reminder of the way in which Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds have been embraced by mainstream pop culture. We think nothing of orcs, dwarves and elves on our screens these days, whether those screens are IMAX-big or — in the case of HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones — television-small. While the fantasy genre hasn’t quite achieved the pop culture saturation level of superheroes or zombies just yet, there’s one mainstay of fantasy that remains curiously unloved by the world at large, staying the butt of jokes and the property of a level of geekery that somehow hasn’t risen above parents’ basements — which raises the question: Why is Dungeons & Dragons still considered a fringe subculture after all these years?
Admittedly, it’s a big subculture. In the 38 years since its creation, it’s been played by upwards of 20 million people and made more than $1,000,000,000 in revenue for its owners (Originally TSR Inc., although it was purchased by Wizards of The Coast in 1997); it’s been the subject of three movies and a fondly remembered, if short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series (which, by the way, really didn’t have a mythical “final episode” that was never broadcast). And yet, despite all of that, there’s always been a cliché of those who play D&D that has somehow never managed to disappear. “Let’s not beat around the bush here,” complained fantasy site Shades of Sentience earlier this year, “people who play Dungeons & Dragons are popularly conceived as the epitome of nerd, geeks, social rejects and eternal virgins.” In a world where The Hobbit‘s biggest competition for being the most successful movie of the year is Marvel’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, that seems almost unbelievable. What is Dungeons & Dragons doing wrong to remain such a clichéd niche in spite of its own success?
Well, there’s always the fact that it’s Satan’s Tool. Or, at least, that’s what some would have you believe. Almost since its creation, D&D has been accused of promoting Satanism and the occult with everyone from grieving parents to an overly excitable media blaming the game for moral decline and societal collapse. “Dungeons & Dragons was unique in that it was the only game associated with its subculture for at least a decade, and it got popular at the same time as the Satanic Mass Hysteria in the USA,” said screenwriter and gamer John Rogers. (In addition to co-creating and showrunning TNT’s Leverage, Rogers also spent a year and a half writing a monthly Dungeons & Dragons comic book for IDW Publishing.) “So when opportunistic hucksters wanted to beat the Devil, they’d point to Dungeons & Dragons. Not ‘roleplaying games’ but ‘Dungeons & Dragons‘. Remember when video games were going to destroy our kids? Imagine if there’d only been one video game.”
The accusations were, of course, baseless and the result of panic-mongering. Perhaps more importantly, however, studies have suggested that they also tended to be counter-productive and reinforce the sense of community for those playing the games, as the mainstream’s “othering” of gamers resulted in their seeking solace and comfort from each other.
(MORE: How D&D Changed the Culture)
These days, the mainstream media may not be declaring Dungeons & Dragons’ satanic intent, but there remains a feeling of cultural isolation about the game. As io9.com’s Meredith Woerner pointed out when she wrote a Community episode based around D&D, “The only thing that irked me with this episode was the depiction of current D&D players. Two fat kids. Not all D&D players are fat and lonely.” Even in the Freaks & Geeks scene that TIME’s own James Poniewozik called “the best depiction of Dungeons & Dragons on TV,” the game is still an example of über-geeky. Dungeons & Dragons is continually used as a punchline to drive home how unlike “us” characters are.
That said, it’s not as if the very nature of Dungeons & Dragons the game doesn’t act against its own self-interest. The appeal of Dungeons & Dragons is its interactivity; its potential is limited only by those playing it: “The world [of D&D] is bigger than what you can fit in your Xbox or Playstation,” explained Satine Phoenix, who hosts DnDMelt, a monthly D&D gaming venue in Los Angeles. “Anything you can think of, your character can do with an infinite number of possibilities and maneuverable physics depending on where the game takes place.” That same freedom, however, means that there are no recognizable, recurring characters for newbies to grab hold of, nor any consistent narrative for them to follow. The video games that followed the rise of D&D found mass success by consistently basing games around recognizable characters who would go on to become recognizable pop culture icons in and of themselves and constructing ever-more-elaborate storylines around which the games take place. D&D isn’t like sports or gaming either. “You can watch a football game. Everyone’s had at least a passing experience with sports thanks to physical education in school,” Rogers said. “You can’t watch Dungeons & Dragons. There’s no score, there’s no beginning and end. What’s the first question you get when you explain Dungeons & Dragons to non-gamers? ‘How do you win?’”
And then there are the practicalities of participating. I admit, as the non-playing heathen that I am, that the prospect of playing Dungeons & Dragons evokes as much fear as it does curiosity: 20-Sided Die! Endless streams of books filled with classifications and measurements! The rules of D&D, to the uninitiated, can appear to be in a foreign language that mixes math in with all of the other words that you don’t understand, and that’s even before you get to the part where you actually have to play the game. As Rogers puts it, to successfully play D&D, “you have to be emotionally open enough to pretend in front of other people without the shield of the stage,” a concept that may give the more reticent of us the willies. You have to do math and perform? Why would anyone want to play this game?
Surprisingly, Phoenix actually had an answer: “Since I started playing regularly, my imagination and problem-solving skills are far more toned than they were before. I drive better and have better interactions with people because I am now thinking and existing more awarely in every situation.” D&D as stealth self-improvement? It does make some sense, I suppose. Playing encourages social as well as problem-solving skills, as others have said before. We’re back to the transformative element shown in the Freaks & Geeks clip above — the notion that pretending to be someone else can make you into a more versatile you. (There’s also the secondary answer: Chances are, it’s probably fun.)
It’s no surprise that Phoenix, whose constant promotion of the game has earned her the title of “The Queen of D&D” from those at DnDMelt, is a firm believer in the mass appeal of Dungeons & Dragons. For her, the question isn’t whether the game can become mainstream, but how best to make it happen. “When people think of Dungeons & Dragons, they think of a bunch of dudes in their mom’s basement. That’s such an ’80s way of thinking. A ton of people actually still play that way, which is fine, but not everyone. Once a year or so I run a Celebrity Charity Dungeons & Dragons game where various actors and other celebrities [including Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch and artist Coop] who play D&D game and raise money for Reach Out and Read Los Angeles. We livestream it, and their fans — who have no idea they were into this — suddenly get interested in D&D. Sometimes people just need things explained to them.”
For Rogers, however, the game’s crossover appeal depends on more than a simple introduction. “It’s not so odd [that] big fantasy movies don’t send people off to play D&D,” he says. “Big science fiction movies don’t send people off to pretend to be astronauts, and big crime movies don’t send people off to become con men. It does drive them to become more interested in similar passive — movies are, after all, passive — entertainment in the same genre. My Dad loved Lord of The Rings (which are, at their heart, ass-kicking war movies). Didn’t mean he wanted to play D&D. But he did start picking up some fantasy novels from Amazon, and it made him open to watching Game of Thrones.”
At some point in thinking about Dungeons & Dragons‘ “failure” to be more embraced by the mainstream, it occurred to me that I might have been looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope. In wondering why the game and the culture wasn’t more successful, I was ignoring the fact that it’s a 40-year-old game that has created its own (thriving) community and scores of similar text-based role-playing games. It has penetrated popular culture to such a degree that Community could spend an entire episode based around it without having to first explain was D&D actually is. Instead of being a fantasy mainstay that Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit could bring to greater prominence, Dungeons & Dragons was the entry point for many into fantasy in the first place, and re-introduced the various races and tropes of Tolkien’s high fantasy to popular culture and prepared us for Peter Jackson’s movies in the process.
Perhaps the game itself will never achieve mass popularity, but what (non-video-)games have done in recent memory? Dungeons & Dragons may remain a sub-culture with limited appeal for some time — perhaps forever — but nonetheless, its presence has touched and changed popular culture. If only all cults could be that limited.