E. Gary Gygax

Posted on March 10th, 2008 — permalink

I know I’m late to the tribute game, but this blog has never been about breaking news.

Gary Gygax, who together with Dave Arneson created the original Dungeons & Dragons back in the early 1970’s, died on March 4 at the age of 69. On a gaming mailing list I belong to, we had a brief discussion as to just how big a stamp Gary Gygax left on the world. The fact is that role playing gaming remains a very fringe hobby… but its secondary effects can be seen everywhere. There are direct derivatives, such as the enormously popular World of Warcraft. (Having had the mentality that “geek culture” is a fringe thing that the mainstream only acknowledges with scorn, and almost never watching TV, I found myself surprised to see WoW adds during the Superbowl… but there you have it.) But there are secondary derivatives everywhere. Assuredly D&D had a major influence in vaulting fantasy as a major mainstream genre. Would we have had the big-budget Lord of the Rings movies if it weren’t for the number of people who at one time in their lives had their imaginations fired by pretending to be heroes in a land of magic and monsters? I don’t know, but I suspect not.

On this mailing list, we compared Gygax to Neil Gaiman. The fact is that the individual works of Gaiman— his Sandman comic series, his Nebula and Hugo award winning novels, the novels that have been made into movies (including the delightful Stardust)— are, at least today, better regarded and better remembered than the spottily edited works of Gygax. But, I asserted on this mailing list, the world would be more different today if Gygax had not written what he had written than it would be if Gaiman had not written what he had written.

My first brush with D&D was in fifth grade, and I quickly fell in love with the notion of roleplaying games— and that love remains today. Yes, there was a time in high school when I wanted to give it up, because the geek stigma was just so awful. And, I have most of my life remained in the closet about this major hobby of mine. Too often I have heard people talking with casual derision about the geeks and losers who play those games, about how weird they are. And, to be honest, there is what some have called the “creepy subcluture”— the (let’s be honest) losers and nerds who appear unable to relate to other people in a normal way, the people who don’t understand that basic hygiene is necessary for normal human relations, the unkempt nerds whom you want to avoid. They’re out there. They’re the stereotype. But they’re hardly the majority of active roleplayers. Yet, the stigma associated with being a nerd in the hobby is something I’ve been painfully aware of since high school. I think I hid it from even my high school girlfriend that I still played the game. I wanted to give it up because it felt kind of wrong somehow to be leading this “secret life” with some of my friends that I had to hide because it was so nerdy and disgusting.

I even continued to remain in the closet about it throughout my adult life, even as geekery became more socially acceptable. (But the yukky nerds remain with us, as do the stereotypes.) I have gone to and even talked at science fiction and gaming conventions, while studiously avoiding any mention of that to the people I worked with, or to any of my “non-gaming” friends. Now, though, I throw caution to the wind. No longer am I an aspiring stuffy academic amongst a group of folks who feel the need to take themselves too seriously while pretending that we spend no effort or creativity on anything outside of our oh-so-important discipline. No, in fact, now I work for a company who produces a sort of fantasy world that, while not a game, is at least in some small part inspired by the cultural memes foisted upon the world by D&D. So, caution to the wind. I will openly admit even on my blog, fully recognizing that many people will roll their eyes and figure “typical loser nerd” as they read it, that I’m still a D&D player. (Well, sort of; technically, I don’t play very much D&D, more often playing other roleplaying games, but they all can to a greater or lesser degree trace their lineage back to the work of Gygax and Arneson.)

It is apparent to anybody who pays attention that listening to and telling stories is fundamental to what it means to be human. Witness the veneration with which we view many of the tales that have been passed down through the ages, the tales and myths our forebearers that remain powerful to us today. The tales of the Greek and Norse gods, the antics of Coyote, the works of Homer, Genesis, the stories of Gilgamesh. On a more personal level, look at what many (most? all?) of us sometimes did when we were children: imagination games, where we pretended to be people in our favorite stories. Cops & robbers, playing “house”, playing with dolls (or “action figures”). (I remember back around the turn of the century when I lived in El Cerrito, hearing the two kids next door running up and down their yard singing something that I quickly realized was a rendition of the John Williams music that was the backdrop for the lightsabre duel from The Phantom Menace.) Not only were we avid consumers of the stories we loved, but we wanted to tell them ourselves, to participate in them. Alas, too many of us “grow up” and think those things childish pursuits. Some go into professional storytelling— writing novels, or contributing to the production of movies. Many of us, though, settle for just reading the stories, perhaps very occasionally going to a “mystery dinner party” or some such that allows us to more deeply immerse ourselves Walter Mitty-like into a fictional world.

Role playing games are the best sort of hobby. They allow us to continue living in and telling stories, in a relatively low-impact way that allows us to get together with friends and do it all for fun. You don’t have to produce High Art or even something publishable, you just have to have a good time. You can pretend to be somebody in an exciting fictional world for a little while, without having to commit to a frustrating life of poverty as an aspiring writer, actor, or artist. It’s primal, it’s basic, it’s human, and it’s too bad that so much of the world views people who do it as weirdo nerds. It will never be a mainstream hobby; the effort involved does remain a lot more than watching a movie, or reading a novel, and the latter provides sufficient catharsis and escapism for most.

It’s also an intellectual hobby. (No, I don’t believe that gamers are “smarter” than non-gamers, even though that’s a popular meme amongst gamers. (I suspect every subgroup of society— knitters, crossword puzzle addicts, baseball stat freaks— has a similar belief.)) Sure, the vast, vast majority of gaming out there is not deep at all, doesn’t require deep and meaningful thought that would make your English teacher proud. But that’s not the point; the point is fun and escapism. The fact remains, though, that in order to do it, you must engage your brain to a greater or lesser degree in a way that you need not for many other forms of entertainment. Yes, some angsty self-important types think their stories are oh-so-meaningful and are kidding themselves, and others play roleplaying games as little more than enhanced wargames (and there’s nothing wrong with that). But the fact remains that you are pretending and creating when you play these games. There have been stories about parents not wanting to see their kids getting sucked into these games… but they should be excited, happy, to see their kids doing something so creative and thoughtful. (I know when I was a younger kid, my parents always said that their favorite kinds of toys for my sister and I were the ones where we created our own stories… be they just blocks or leggos, out of which we could build our own creations, or even Star Wars and Star Trek action figures which we’d used to create our own stories.)

So, in his passing, I raise my glasses on high (Tom Leherer style) to Gary Gygax, to thank him for, along with Dave Arenson, creating the hobby from which myself and many others have passed many an entertaining hour over the past three decades.

One Response to “E. Gary Gygax”

  1. Moondragon007 Says:

    Well, I’m not ashamed to admit to being a gamer. The only things keeping me from gaming even now at age 42 is a) lack of time, b) lack of funds (to buy gaming materials) and c) lack of a suitable group. B) is mitigatable to some extent by shopping for older books on EBay, but a) and c) I haven’t worked out a solution for yet.

    My current system of choice is GURPS.