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Friday, June 15, 2012

June 15, 2012: Playing with America, Part 5

[The fifth and final planned post in a series on toys, games, and American Studies. If you want to contribute some thoughts toward the weekend’s open post, please feel very free to do so in comments!]
On the stigmas and the scholarly benefits of D&D and other role-playing games.
Today’s the 35th birthday of my oldest and still best friend, Steve Peterson. I mention that partly because it’s past time Steve made an appearance in this space—despite not being a scholarly American Studier per se, Steve has taught me much of what I know about a range of important questions, from friendship and family to taking chances and following life’s unexpected opportunities—but also because it was with Steve that I got into one of my most enduring childhood pursuits: tabletop role-playing games. We didn’t play the best-known such game, Dungeons & Dragons; but most of our gaming was with a system, Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP), that was deeply indebted to D&D (although created by an amazing local Charlottesville company, Iron Crown Enterprises; whether you have ever role-played or not, if you’re a Tolkien fan I can’t recommend strongly enough trying to get your hands on one of ICE’s beautiful and fun companion books about the world of Middle-earth).
I’m ashamed to admit that I hesitated a bit in deciding to make role-playing one of this week’s focal points, and the reason is clear enough: the substantial 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, 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 clich├ęs of socially awkward nerds in their parents’ basements, 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 pushback 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 links); here, I’ll just highlight two that connect to this blog’s focus on scholarly questions. 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—was, to my mind, about the best training for teaching I could have ever gotten. Just another reason to thank Steve, who, along with MERP, prepared me pretty well for this crucial part of my career and life.
Open post this weekend, so please contribute any ideas or thoughts in comments!
PS. What do you think? And for the weekend’s post, you know what to do!
6/15 Memory Day nominee: Josiah Henson, the escaped slave turned abolitionist, preacher, and activist whose inspiring life and compelling autobiography served as one of Stowe’s influences and remain unique and vital American texts (in every sense).

1 comment:

  1. You will never find this response as I can't believe I followed the string this deep, but at a dyed-in-the-wool lover of RPGs I had to speak up.
    First - Maybe because I'm a moderately good looking woman I was spared most of the stigma and teasing associated with being a D&D player. I remember fondly Thursday nights at my friend Scott's house playing hours of D&D, then making in-jokes with the rest of the group in school the next day. No one snickered, no one said "freaks", there was the word "geek" passed around but that was a title we proudly owned. I mean, we were all also in the marching band for gods' sakes!
    So yeah, reality shows that tried to show the "geek experience" like Nergasm and Lords of Cosplay only helped to fuel the stereotype that geeks are ugly losers and chicks only dress up in Cosplay for attention, but that's because reality shows only exist to perpetuate ugly stereotypes. So they don't count as cultural commentary, that's like saying twitter is the discourse of meta-life... no, it's just twitter.
    But as a lover of MMORPGs I had to stop you right at Skyrim! Skryim, and games like it, are the reason that being a geek has reached a beautiful renaissance. It's why my high school has a MTG (Magic the Gathering to you nubesauces) and why geek has it's own vocab (nubesauces?). I have five members of the football team in my English classes and they tell me about their vast tracts of land, quests and character development. They even geek out on one another yelling that a "spell-slinger" is cheating. (To which I take offense as I throw a Mirkwood necro-deck in MTG.) Also the gamers these days don't gather IRL but URL, so the advent of D&D TTing is just outdated, not due to geekdom but why leave the house when my friends all live in PSIII?
    Finally geek culture has really hit a high with online shows like The Guild starring my favourite human, Felicia Day, TableTop starring Will Wheaton in a role where we don't all prey for his death. Check out Geek and Sundry, excellent channel, and really something that reminds me of this blog in the use of community to bring together and foster a dialogue on what it means to be a member of that community.
    Okay, rant over, you'll excuse me, but I have some chocobos to raise!