The original fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons hits middle age this year.
In 1974, Dungeons & Dragons — or, as insiders call it, D&D — first appeared on the market. It was — and still is — a revolutionary game that went on to cause shock waves in the worlds of pop culture, gaming and play, and influenced how we spend our leisure time and socialize in profound ways. It's a topic I've been writing and thinking about all week as the game's official 40th anniversary was celebrated in January.
D&D was a far cry from Parcheesi, chess, Clue, and Monopoly. Never before had a game asked players to assume roles of individual characters and jointly imagine the world where those adventures would take place.
Today, if you want to play an idealized version of yourself who wields incredible power, acquires cool stuff, kills stuff, and gets to go to fantastical places, you can take your pick of video games and universes (fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalypic, wild west, steampunk, etc). But when D&D was invented in 1974, it was the only experience that offered these pleasures.
Yet, we like to think about how electronic games are so sophisticated and immersive today. To my mind, D&D beats digital gaming hands down. As amazing as their imagery and action can be, video games are ultimately limited to what the programmers can program. In D&D, the virtual game board and the place where is all takes place is the players' collective imaginations.
D&D has always appealed to contradictory minds. On the one hand, the "left-brained" folk — those logical, number-crunching, outcomes and probability-obsessed — love D&D's charts and dice. But the "right-brained" creative types love the game's open-ended dreaminess and escapism. The game really hit the sweet spot between these two styles of nerdery.
So many of the concepts (and cliches) we accept as normal parts of immersive board and video games were first developed in D&D: creating and outfitting a character with equipment, weapons, spells, etc; the motley, multi-racial, multi-class party working together for common purpose; the "dungeon crawl" scenario of running through an environment killing monsters, zombie, or aliens; leveling up; some sort of life meter (hit points), and so forth.
Because the game relies on improvisational dialogue and rapid-dire plotting, it's always appealed to would-be actors and is a perfect training ground for writers. D&D fosters interest in history, geography, meteorology, anatomy, sociology, political science, psychology, anthropology, art and architecture and more. It makes you social. It forces you to make your own entertainment out of a bag of dice, handful of pens and pencils, and some sheets of paper. It connects us to our ballad-singing, story-telling pasts.
And D&D was a boon to creative types. Actors Mike Meyers, Vin Diesel, Ewan McGreggor, and Wil Wheaton have played; same with filmmakers Jon Favreau, Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon. Writers who cut their literary teeth on the game include Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, and Sharyn McCrumb; same with musicians Ben Kweller and Ed Robertson (of Barenaked Ladies). Among many, many others.
In a funny way, because D&D is a simulation of life (albeit a highly fantastical, adventurous one), the game has invited comparisons between reality and fantasy. But the game also teaches you skills you need. Anyone who has mastered the Dungeon Master's Guide can easily master a driver's manual or owner's manual. Being a teacher or a cop or a football coach or middle manager can be a lot like being a wizard, or a cleric (healer/holy man), or a thief. How does a courtroom drama or a dinnertime squabble resemble an epic battle? Role-playing is required in job interviews, dating, and dealing with your family.
D&D teaches you the skills that your fighter or barbarian or elvish archer needs to survive in an imaginary world. Along the way, it teaches you, the player, how to survive, a little, in your real world.
In short, Dungeons & Dragons is great preparation for life. Happy 40th birthday, D&D!
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Gilsdorf's articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, film, books, gaming, geek culture and travel regularly appear in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, BoingBoing.net, PsychologyToday.com, GeekDad, Washington Post and wired.com and dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. As an expert on geek culture, Gilsdorf frequently speaks in public, and appears on TV, radio, Internet media and in documentary films. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.