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Monday, November 14, 2016

November 14, 2016: Stranger (Things) Studying: Dungeons & Dragons



[Like most of my fellow humans, I spent a good bit of the late summer obsessed with Netflix’s Stranger Things. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of topics linked to the Duffer Brothers’ nostalgic thriller, leading up to a Guest Post from an expert on supernatural cultural texts!]
On the stigmas and the benefits of D&D and other role-playing games.
As I’ll write a good bit more about in later posts this week, Stranger Things is chock full of references to 1980s culture, so much so that there is already a great deal of work dedicated to finding every such reference. Many of them, as I’ll argue in Friday’s post, are more about engaging with the audience’s expectations and emotions, and don’t necessarily contribute in any direct way to the show’s plot or themes. But the first episode’s opening scene (after a brief prologue as you can see) offers an ‘80s reference that is both more straightforward and far more crucial than most of those that follow it. The four middle school boys on whom much of Stranger Things will focus are taking part in what seems to their chief leisure time activity: a role-playing campaign in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. The monster who concludes their campaign offers one overt moment of foreshadowing for the show that this scene introduces. But I would argue that Dungeons & Dragons also helps us see two other sides to these young protagonists: their status as outcasts; and their imaginative power.
On the first note, I’m ashamed to admit that I (a former role-player myself, although I spent more time with Middle-earth Role Playing [MERP] than D&D) hesitated a bit in deciding to make role-playing one of this week’s focal points. The reason for my reluctance is the enduring social stigma that comes with the subject, and really with any reference to Dungeons & Dragons. You’d think that the widespread popularity of video games (including many, such as Skyrim and World of Warcraft, that owe quite a bit to D&D and its ilk), of fan conventions like Comic-Con, of fantasy literature, films, and television shows, and the like would have changed these narratives, but I don’t believe that it necessarily has: to my mind, and in my experience, cultural references to D&D almost always entail the same tired clichés of socially awkward nerds in their parents’ basements (which is, not coincidentally, where the Stranger Things kids are playing their campaign), creating fantasy worlds to escape the tragicomic circumstances of their realities. Moreover, the broader and even more damaging social narratives and fears, of D&D turning teenagers into suicidial or even homicidal outcasts, have likewise remained in play, at times virtually unchanged from the first such stories when D&D was new.
There are a variety of ways to push back on those stigmas and argue instead for social, communal, and individual benefits to role-playing games (including some exemplified by the pieces at those last two hyperlinks); here, I’ll just highlight two that are also illustrated nicely by Stranger Things (in specific ways that I won’t spoil if you haven’t had a chance to check out the show yet). For one thing, role-playing games require consistent leaps of imagination in a way that differentiates them from many other toys or games—on the part of the game-master, the person in charge of creating the world and scenarios and guiding the other players into and (to a degree) through it; but also from all those players, who have to both respond to what’s unfolding in front of them and yet create their own stories and futures. And for another, the specific experience of being the game-master—of creating that world and its different narratives, of conveying it to the players, and yet then of being required to adjust and shift it as the game plays out, and even to scrap any or all of it in favor of where the players are going and of producing the most fun and meaningful experience as a result—offers vital preparation for a number of adult roles and responsibilities, including both parenting and teaching.
Next StrangerStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other responses to the show?

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