[In honor of the upcoming birthday of an old friend, this week’s series has focused on histories and stories from the Tarheel State where he lives. This special post pays tribute to that friend and one of the many ways he’s present in my life and identity!]
On the stigmas and the scholarly benefits of D&D and other role-playing games.
Monday’s the 38th 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 AmericanStudier 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 this post’s focal point, 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 clichés 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.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Happy birthday, buddy!
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