Hi and welcome back! A couple of days ago,the New York Times ran an opinion piece about Dungeons & Dragons. That’s the tabletop roleplaying game that started the whole industry. As it turns out, folks might be gravitating to this old-school pursuit for some remarkably unremarkable reasons. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the way games bring out the humanity in people.
(Lisu will be back hopefully next week with Part 2 of the movie review.)
Roleplaying Is Cool, Again.
NYT titled the opinion piece “Why the Cool Kids Are Playing Dungeons & Dragons.” Its writer, Annalee Newitz, relates how she’s recently taken up playing the game, nicknamed “D&D,” again after many years’ hiatus. She writes about how she thought,
“Yes, I’m going to get together with people face-to-face, without any hearting or retweeting, and we’re going to eat chips and fight those damn cultists who are trying to resurrect the evil, five-headed dragon queen Tiamat.”
To Ms. Newitz, the game represents not only a blast of familiarity from her own past, but also a potent grease for real-life social wheels. In contrast to social-media friendships, as she relates it, D&D helps players cultivate the skills necessary to build and maintain friendships and social circles in the real world.
Like me, she wonders if the game’s incredible tenacity–and its recent unprecedented surge in sales–might have to do with the way this game forges connections between people.
The Needs of the Many.
And those connections get forged online as well as offline. Unlike that writer, it seems, I’ve played tabletop games as well as very similar games with similar mechanics online in Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) (think World of Warcraft, but in text format). I saw much the same dynamic happening there. Instead of seeing other players as digital blips that come and go, a good roleplaying game brings the people behind those characters together as a group. So yes, absolutely, we can find that experience online.
Moreover, a gaming group not only seeks to achieve a goal (“kill the bad guy,” “loot the temple,” “retrieve the MacGuffin”), but also to retain cohesion within itself. Players see each other on an ongoing basis, and they know they must get along if the group is to survive. People make decisions ingame with that need in mind. Thus, cooperation and not competition becomes the driving force behind the group. From there, the group assembles to share and create and tell stories among themselves, just like humans have been doing since probably before we became humans.
Even in the world of gaming, people who want to play any game can find online groups if they can’t locate one in meatspace. Play-by-email, play-by-post, and roleplaying forums exist aplenty. LiveJournal and sites like it feature huge roleplaying groups for every system and fandom. Even on Facebook, people roleplay with accounts named after their characters. If text MUDs have caught your attention, here’s one of the bigger listing sites for those.
There’s a delightful mindfulness in how gaming groups come together and stay together over many years. Unless members pick up and move away, chances are good, if the group’s even halfway decent, that its members will stick together. People plan for these regular nights together. It’s like Date Night for couples, but on a friendship scale and not ending with everyone having sex.1
Youth Group vs. Gaming Group THROWDOWN.
I’m just thinking back to my adolescence, between those times in Christian youth groups (across all flavors I attended) versus gaming night.
Straightforward objectives. Obviously, gaming night wins here. Most of the time in youth group I had no idea what the administrators wanted. If I could sum up with one word the vast majority of my experiences across the entire breadth of Christianity’s youth ministries, it’d be “context-free.”
People I actively liked and wanted to be around. Again, gaming night wins here by a landslide. I barely even knew the kids in those youth groups. They didn’t exactly welcome newcomers with open arms. But my gaming group shared a huge number of similarities and had lots of things to do and talk about outside of gaming.
A sense of well-used time. I’m sure my parents might have felt differently at the time, but I looked back at game night after it’d ended and I felt that it’d been an evening well-spent. Even now, I feel that way. But church generally felt actively superfluous to my life. Nothing felt relevant. And I tried so hard to work myself into a lather over my religious devotions. I (erroneously) believed that the god of the entire universe desperately wanted a relationship with me, so those devotions were super-duper important. It just didn’t feel that way, that’s all.
That delicious thrill of learning really good stuff. Above all, gaming taught me stuff. I don’t mean magic spells and how to raise wyvern corpses from the dead to do my dark bidding.2 I mean teamwork and how to work with numbers and how to examine a situation and get the most from it. We’re talking about stuff like thinking outside the box and creative problem-solving. About all gaming night had in common with youth group on this count was the amount of memorization.
Rediscovering What’s Real.
Little wonder that adults look back to those experiences and want to enjoy them again. But it’s not just them. People who’ve never played D&D are also finding their way to gaming groups.
I’ve written before about the way I see a good gaming group as being part of the human experience. Gaming hardly represents the only way that people enjoy social performance and shared storytelling. Karaoke singers, community theater troupes, Mardi Gras krewes, and more know that thrill and pleasure. People find ways to satisfy those ancient needs. That’s how a down-to-earth past roommate of mine who didn’t have a single fantasy-loving bone in her body still loved group dancing.
Maybe that’s why I encounter liturgical dance more often than I used to in Christian news these days. Overall, though, it seems like Christians have totally forgotten all about their distant past in this regard. Long ago, even the most pious bishops allowed confraternities to put on religious plays and parades and to recreate Bible stories and saints’ biographies.
Even if we’re imagining ourselves as druid elves exploring an ancient shrine, we’re connecting in the realest way there is when we imagine together as a group.
No wonder hardline Catholics are trying so hard to bring back the Satanic Panic. The problem is, they can’t compete at all with something as real as roleplaying.
Looking for Group–Or Not.
Here, though, is what really makes me laugh about the news of D&D’s rising sales:
Just think about how Christian leaders must chew their own livers on the daily over that news.
Gaming groups aren’t exactly renowned for their single-minded recruitment tactics. Dungeon Masters (DMs) don’t squinch their eyebrows together every night, gaze sorrowfully at the ceiling, and beg for their magical invisible friends to send them new members.
Wizards of the Coast, for that matter, doesn’t semi-sponsor “Astral Plane Reach” recruitment drives. DMs don’t raise thousands of dollars to go on these short-term mission trips to laboriously, painstakingly argue with potential new players until they’re willing to mouth the
Twink’s Cheater’s Prayer:
“Tiamat, I know I am a munchkin and need forgiveness. I believe that Fistandantilus shed his precious blood and died trying to plunder the Temple of Elemental Evil. I hereby turn away from mocking gamers. Today, I invite the DM into my living room to eat of my Doritos and drink of my Mountain Dew. Thank you for saving me a seat. Minmaxing forever. Amen.”
Instead, DMs just put out a notice on social media or a note up on the “looking for group” board at the local gaming shop.
And yet D&D’s numbers have been rising steadily–while Christianity’s have continued to tumble. It seems that despite Christian leaders’ best and most frantic efforts, people still aren’t “looking for group” with them.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over what is real, what isn’t, and what we find in between.
NEXT UP: My goodness, where on earth does the time fly? This blog’s reaching for its sixth anniversary. In honor of that momentous birthday, I’ll show you the first of the two stories that sparked this entire shebang. Come join me for a “parable” that revealed a lot more about the Christian telling it than he should ever have wanted to show anyone. See you next time!
1 I mean, you do you. If your group’s game night typically ends with an orgy, you’re definitely doing something different, but as long as everybody consents then obviously I’m cool with it. (Back to the post!)
2 Those were just nice bonuses, though difficult to explain away at the staff meeting that one time at work. That damn wyvern ate ALL the red jelly doughnuts. (Back to the post!)
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.
Disclaimer: Obviously, the number of people involved in any pursuit says nothing whatsoever about how ultimately true the group’s ideology is or isn’t. Also, I totally forgot that “twink” has a whole other meaning outside of gaming. My apologies for the lapse.