March 9, 2008
By ADAM ROGERS
GARY GYGAX died last week and the universe did not collapse. This surprises me a little bit, because he built it.
I’m not talking about the cosmological, Big Bang part. Everyone who reads blogs knows that a flying spaghetti monster made all that. But Mr. Gygax co-created the game Dungeons & Dragons, and on that foundation of role-playing and polyhedral dice he constructed the social and intellectual structure of our world.
Dungeons & Dragons was a brilliant pastiche, mashing together tabletop war games, the Conan-the-Barbarian tales of Robert E. Howard and a magic trick from the fantasy writer Jack Vance with a dash of Bulfinch’s mythology, a bit of the Bible and a heaping helping of J. R. R. Tolkien.
Mr. Gygax’s genius was to give players a way to inhabit the characters inside their games, rather than to merely command faceless hordes, as you did in, say, the board game Risk. Roll the dice and you generated a character who was quantified by personal attributes like strength or intelligence.
You also got to pick your moral alignment, like whether you were “lawful good” or “chaotic evil.” And you could buy swords and fight dragons. It was cool.
Yes, I played a little. In junior high and even later. Lawful good paladin. Had a flaming sword. It did not make me popular with the ladies, or indeed with anyone. Neither did my affinity for geometry, nor my ability to recite all of “Star Wars” from memory.
Yet on the strength of those skills and others like them, I now find myself on top of the world. Not wealthy or in charge or even particularly popular, but in instead of out. The stuff I know, the geeky stuff, is the stuff you and everyone else has to know now, too.
We live in Gary Gygax’s world. The most popular books on earth are fantasy novels about wizards and magic swords. The most popular movies are about characters from superhero comic books. The most popular TV shows look like elaborate role-playing games: intricate, hidden-clue-laden science fiction stories connected to impossibly mathematical games that live both online and in the real world. And you, the viewer, can play only if you’ve sufficiently mastered your home-entertainment command center so that it can download a snippet of audio to your iPhone, process it backward with beluga whale harmonic sequences and then podcast the results to the members of your Yahoo group.
Even in the heyday of Dungeons & Dragons, when his company was selling millions of copies and parents feared that the game was somehow related to Satan worship, Mr. Gygax’s creation seemed like a niche product. Kids played it in basements instead of socializing. (To be fair, you needed at least three people to play — two adventurers and one Dungeon Master to guide the game — so Dungeons & Dragons was social. Demented and sad, but social.) Nevertheless, the game taught the right lessons to the right people.
Geeks like algorithms. We like sets of rules that guide future behavior. But people, normal people, consistently act outside rule sets. People are messy and unpredictable, until you have something like the Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. Once you’ve broken down the elements of an invented personality into numbers generated from dice, paper and pencil, you can do the same for your real self.
For us, the character sheet and the rules for adventuring in an imaginary world became a manual for how people are put together. Life could be lived as a kind of vast, always-on role-playing campaign.
Don’t give me that look. I know I’m not a paladin, and I know I don’t live in the Matrix. But the realization that everyone else was engaged in role-playing all the time gave my universe rules and order.
We geeks might not be able to intuit the subtext of a facial expression or a casual phrase, but give us a behavioral algorithm and human interactions become a data stream. We can process what’s going on in the heads of the people around us. Through careful observation of body language and awkward silences, we can even learn to detect when we are bringing the party down with our analysis of how loop quantum gravity helps explain the time travel in that new “Terminator” TV show. I mean, so I hear.
Mr. Gygax’s game allowed geeks to venture out of our dungeons, blinking against the light, just in time to create the present age of electronic miracles.
Dungeons & Dragons begat one of the first computer games, a swords-and-sorcery dungeon crawl called Adventure. In the late 1970s, the two games provided the narrative framework for the first fantasy-based computer worlds played by multiple, remotely connected users. They were called multi-user dungeons back then, and they were mostly the province of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But they required the same careful construction of virtual identities that Mr. Gygax had introduced to gaming.
Today millions of people are slaves to Gary Gygax. They play EverQuest and World of Warcraft, and someone must still be hanging out in Second Life. (That “massively multiplayer” computer traffic, by the way, also helped drive the development of the sort of huge server clouds that power Google.)
But that’s just gaming culture, more pervasive than it was in 1974 when Dungeons & Dragons was created and certainly more profitable — today it’s estimated to be a $40 billion-a-year business — but still a little bit nerdy. Delete the dragon-slaying, though, and you’re left with something much more mainstream: Facebook, a vast, interconnected universe populated by avatars.
Facebook and other social networks ask people to create a character — one based on the user, sure, but still a distinct entity. Your character then builds relationships by connecting to other characters. Like Dungeons & Dragons, this is not a competitive game. There’s no way to win. You just play.
This diverse evolution from Mr. Gygax’s 1970s dungeon goes much further. Every Gmail login, every instant-messaging screen name, every public photo collection on Flickr, every blog-commenting alias is a newly manifested identity, a character playing the real world.
We don’t have to say goodbye to Gary Gygax, the architect of the now. Every time I make a tactical move (like when I suggest to my wife this summer that we should see “Iron Man” instead of “The Dark Knight”), I’m counting my experience points, hoping I have enough dexterity and rolling the dice. And every time, Mr. Gygax is there — quasi-mystical, glowing in blue and bearing a simple game that was an elegant weapon from a more civilized age.
That was a reference to “Star Wars.” Cool, right?
Adam Rogers is a senior editor at Wired.