The Death of Imagination; The Funeral of Dungeons and Dragons

The popularity of roleplaying games, typified by Dungeons and Dragons, has declined since the heydays of the 1980s, when the brand was selling 750,000 copies per year — approximately $7.5 million dollars in revenue. Set upon from one side by ever-evolving computer gaming, and with an increase in the popularity of boardgames amongst real-world game aficionados, have we lost a unique and profound tool that built the current generation of creative thinkers?

I played a lot of roleplaying games from my preteen years well into my thirties. It all started with Dungeons and Dragons at my friend Brooke Fishback’s house in primary school. I don’t know how the Fishback boys — there were three of them, Chris, Brooke, and Neale, in descending order of age — got into D&D, but they had a selection of books, and we used them all.

There’s a popular perception of kids who play Dungeons and Dragons being awkward: dorks, geeks, socially-uncomfortable. That would certainly apply to me, but the Fishbacks were pretty popular. So it wasn’t just a harbour for those who didn’t fit in, it was transformational: Dungeons and Dragons allowed us to transcend poverty, escape the fishbowl of school, travel to places we couldn’t even pronounce the names of, and aspire to defeat evil. It wasn’t just playing make-believe, it was playing make-life-better-believe. With (imaginary) swords. The stories we created together were bigger than our real world lives.

It was more than playing make-believe, though. Roleplaying supplemented, and replaced at times, our formal education. It built key skills in creativity, comprehension, mathematics, logic, and group dynamics. To say that Dungeons and Dragons is directly responsible for any academic success I managed is probably not far from the truth. And I’m not the only one who feels that way.

The list of creative people who credit roleplaying games with helping them achieve success is quite broad: Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel, Jon Favraeu, James Franco, Matt Groening, Dan Harmon, Marilyn Manson, Moby, Mike Myers, Patton Oswalt, Wil Wheaton, and Robin Williams sit alongside more mainstream figures like Tim Duncan, Michael Gove, and Elon Musk — all of whom publicly laud roleplaying, and typically Dungeons and Dragons.

‘A whole new kind of game. No board — just dice, just probabilities. It allowed me to enter the world of the books I was reading. I put more effort into that game than I ever did into my schoolwork.

‘We were all complete outcasts in school — beyond the fringe, beyond nerds. We were our own sub-dimensional bubble of the school. I’m not even sure we were on the rolls of any of the classes; that’s how outcast we were.’
— Stephen Colbert

Those in the creative industries have the most to say about the impact of roleplaying on their careers:

‘[Dungeons and Dragons] gave me a really strong background in imagination, storytelling, understanding how to create tone and a sense of balance. You’re creating this modular, mythic environment where people can play in it.’
— Jon Favreau

But it’s not all upside for Favreau. Like many of us (by choice or circumstance), he is a recovering gamer. It’s maybe not what we want to hear, but there’s some truth to it:

‘When I was young, it was exciting, but as I got older it felt like it was keeping me from progressing. You’re social in your small circle, but it’s asocial to the wider world.’
— Jon Favreau

The cross-over between the collaborative storytelling of Dungeons and Dragons and creative roles is understandable, but the enthusiasm — bordering on obsession, perhaps — that the game inculcates lends itself to all sorts of mathematical, problem-solving, and logic skills as well. Estimating a die roll is inherently teaching the mathematics behind the probability, without the explicit ‘learning outcomes’ that educational institutions are so fond of these days. Michael Gove, a Cabinet Minister in the UK government — and ironically the former Secretary of State for Education — loves the maths of gaming:

‘Michael likes calculating the probabilities of the polyhedral dice – the probability that your character will come across a monster or break down a door.’
— Ian Livingstone, Founder of Games Workshop

The focus on collaboration, not only in the game, but amongst the players — people who meet to play in real life — is perhaps the most important and least lauded skill roleplaying can teach. If you have ever had to manage a group of school-age gamers through something as simple as what kind of pizza to order, you have a head start on most leadership MBA candidates. And if you think technical project management is in your future, the archetypes are all there amongst roleplaying aficionados.

As (at least one of) the father(s) of Dungeons and Dragons says:

‘The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience.’
— Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons

Roleplaying games, with Dungeons and Dragons as the prime example, came out of a wargaming background. And wargaming is a type of boardgame, when you get down to it. It’s important to recognise, however, that boardgames are not the same as roleplaying games. Boardgames have closed rulesets, with prescriptive outcomes, and clear winners and losers. They lack the open-ended aspect of roleplaying, and because of that they are often ‘easier’. But that also means that they do not nurture the same skill-set, particularly for creative thought and group dynamics.

‘There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in, whether it’s a fantasy game, the Wild West, secret agents or whatever else. You get to sort of vicariously experience those things.’
— Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons

If you compare the proposed outcome, an experience versus a clear winner, you have just glimpsed the difference between a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and one of Warhammer 40,000 — probably the most popular wargame in the world, which is often nicknamed ‘Arguehammer 40,000’.

The very nature of computer programming lends itself to rulesets similar to boardgames. There is no way, currently, to ask a computer to use its imagination. It is also considerably easier to switch on a computer and lose yourself in an immersive scripted environment. Very few, if any, players on World of Warcraft — the most popular online massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) spend time talking to the shopkeeper while buying a latern; in Dungeons and Dragons that interaction could take hours and become a key part of the narrative, as the Dungeon Master reacts to the players’ actions.

Perhaps this is why a rise of board and computer gaming amongst the geek community is worrying. Anecdotally, many former roleplaying aficionados have, like Jon Favreau, stopped playing altogether, or have shifted their focus towards board and/or computer games. And while those games still exercise our logical faculties, they do not train our brains to imagine. We can consume, at voracious speed, but we do not create.

‘Pen-and-paper role-playing is live theater and computer games are television. People want the convenience and instant gratification of turning on the TV rather than getting dressed up and going out to see a live play. In the same way, the computer is a more immediately accessible way to play games.’
— Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons

This is not to say that boardgames and computer games aren’t fun. They certainly are, or the industry wouldn’t have leaned in that direction. However, the loss of roleplaying is a loss of skills and opportunities, across the board.

Are we approaching a post-literate, post-storytelling age? When the newest written entertainment is Facebook, it might be worth wondering. Especially when Dungeons and Dragons had broad appeal, and an impact which was felt throughout society, not just on the creative industries.

Gary Gygax died in 2008. His creative partner, Dave Arneson, died in 2009. While there is some controversy over who did what and the credit that came from Dungeons and Dragons, there is no question that those two men created a cultural phenomenon that touched people throughout society.

‘It really meant a lot to him to hear from people from over the years about how he helped them become a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, what he gave them… he really enjoyed that.’
— Gail Gygax, Gary Gygax’s widow

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