Tuned In

How D&D Changed the Culture

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Dungeons and Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax has died. At first blush, this seems more like a Nerd World topic, and Lev Grossman doffs his +2 Cloak of Protection to Gygax over there. But I couldn’t let the news go unnoted here, because far from being a hermetic obsession of antisocial geeks, D&D had a wide influence on pop culture, even, or especially, if you never hefted a dodecahedron.

The best depiction of Dungeons and Dragons on TV came in these scenes from the finale episode of Freaks and Geeks, which among other things provided the handle for regular Tuned Inlander Carlos the Dwarf. This is 1981, remember, when D&D was relatively new and even more stigmatized than the mildly dorky associations it carries today.

In Michigan (where Freaks and Geeks is set and where I grew up), there was still the fresh memory of the James Dallas Egbert case in 1979, in which the disappearance of a troubled Michigan State University student was blamed on live re-enactments of D&D in the steam tunnels underneath the campus. The theory turned out to be false, but the story had legs, and it became the font of an entire chain of urban legends about similar incidents. (And the basis for a crappy TV movie with Tom Hanks.)

So in Freaks and Geeks’ early-’80s Michigan, D&D was not just a nerdy pastime, it was a precursor of every cultural bugbear we’ve seen emerge over the past quarter century: an addictive, possibly Satanic, antisocial activity that would probably drive you crazy.

I was an avid D&D player–of course–around the same time that Sam, Neal and Bill were, and while my parents’ and my friends’ probably worried that the game would drive us to ritual human sacrifice in the sewers, as well as a lifetime of bachelorhood, we knew that the game was nothing like that. As the F&G scene shows, it was an escape, but a creative, involving and deeply social one. It involved acting, co-operation and constant invention and wit.

And as Freaks and Geeks beautifully showed, it offered something not just to the Nerd Patrol, but to a range of kids like Daniel (James Franco), a bright lower-class kid with a screwed-up family and limited options, who had gotten a raw deal when Fate rolled his character attributes. This scene is gorgeous on any number of levels–how it shows Freak Daniel and the Geeks bonding on the level of simple, childlike escape–but the underlying poignance is seeing Daniel get gets an establishing roll he doesn’t like (“I don’t want to be a dwarf!”) and find that he can make the most of it. Like so many episodes of F&G, this scene captures the subculture of the game with astonishing realism–right down to the dungeonmaster (guru-geek Harris), who except for the long hair is almost an exact clone of my childhood dungeonmaster Matt, down to the sarcasm: “Oh, I’m sorry. Perhaps I should let you encounter kittens and grandmas, so as not to upset you.” (One nitpick: I’m pretty sure you didn’t roll to determine the “race”–e.g., dwarf, elf, human–of your character. Am I wrong? In any case, you can see why the dramatic liberty makes sense here.)

So OK, the scene also shows that the game was pretty male—down to the hubba-hubba drawings of the goddesses in the Deities and Demigods manual–and that was my experience too, although I did know a few girl D&Ders. But the game’s cultural influence has extended far beyond gaming itself, for men and women. D&D was an early example of the appeal, to Gen X and later generations, of immersive, open-ended entertainments. It wasn’t a precursor to the Internet or videogames exactly–people were playing text-based role-playing games at the same time–but it was a precursor to the Web and the kind of cultural experiences that it made possible. You adapted personae, you played on a “field” that was theoretically limitless, and as on the Web, the narrative was nonlinear: going down digressive rabbit holes was not only possible, but encouraged, and sometimes the greatest pleasure of the game.

Most important, by taking the mythology of The Lord of the Rings and translating it to game form, D&D was a precursor to the kinds of sweeping, obsessive entertainments we’ve become accustomed to since: videogames from Myst through World of Warcraft, TV shows from The X-Files through Buffy through Lost. A show like Lost might well have existed without D&D, but the game definitely helped pave the way: Lost, after all, is to straight, linear TV mysteries like The Fugitive as D&D was to Monopoly.

What D&D has in common with Lost–and with today’s videogames, and with social networking, and with any entertainment today that’s enhanced by fan interactions and online analysis–is that it established a model where entertainment and story wasn’t simply something that was handed down to you with a predetermined outcome and a rigid set of rules. It was something that you helped to create, that in fact would not exist without the enthusiasm and imagination that you brought to it.

D&D helped give that to pop culture, and in the process, as that lovely Freaks and Geeks scene showed, it gave something to the players as well: the confidence that through imagination, they could become anyone. To Freaks like Daniel and Geeks like Sam, the message of D&D was no small thing. In the words of Daniel’s Carlos the Dwarf, it told them, “The dragon has been slain, and you are free to rule the kingdom.”

Thank you for that, Gary Gygax.