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Imagination is a 20-sided die

BY ANDREW SARGUS KLEIN

Published March 12, 2008

Before dorm-wide "Halo" and "Warcraft III" tournaments, before "World of Warcraft," "Second Life," "EverQuest" and "Baldur's Gate," there was "Dungeons & Dragons."

This is not an obituary for E. Gary Gygax, the "DnD" creator who passed away last week at the age of 69. I never knew the guy, never played his game and never knew anyone who did. But (and I take this next step with proud trepidation) I was a huge "Magic: The Gathering" stud. To add to that, my friends and I created our own "DnD"-like role-playing games in elementary school. I rocked a legit Tyranid army in "Warhammer 40K", I've devoured all of Tolkien and I played "Warcraft III" through freshman year of college. I have a big space in my heart for this stuff.

Robert Jordan - author of the long-lasting "The Wheel of Time" fantasy book series - passed away in September. But his death was not nearly as publicized as Gygax's: While the man sold millions and millions of books (and maintained a baller blog), he didn't create a movement like Gygax did.

There's something to be said for titans like Gygax and Jordan. (You and I are too young to appreciate "Conan the Barbarian" creator Robert Howard). These thinkers understood, either consciously or unconsciously, the need to find wonder in something completely divorced from reality. The human imagination is constantly reworking itself: soldiering through ridiculous stats problem sets, daydreaming about a pretty someone, getting a little thrill while owning fools, rereading "The Return of the King." And that's just the simple stuff. You don't need me to tell you that our imaginations are the instruments of our greatest successes (and, perhaps, our greatest failures).

It's a dorky pursuit, basements and lisps and all. But damn if it isn't an important milestone in our culture. Much like comic books and the film/video game explosion that followed them, "Dungeons & Dragons" holds an arguably significant role in the history of our culture and its collective imagination.

In an article for The New Yorker's Style Issue, of all things, best-selling author Michael Chabon ("The Yiddish Policemen's Union," "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay") wrote about superheroes - specifically, their costumes. He relates a story his Hebrew schoolteacher told involving a boy leaping to his death with a beach-towel cape around his neck.

Chabon writes in the article, "Secret Skin: An essay in unitard theory," that what his teacher was trying to pound into him and his peers' heads was that "Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you . could understand . would betray you, too."

This type of betrayal, though, is a psychological one, and perhaps a necessary illusion with necessary disillusionment to follow. But that argument is for another column (one I don't feel I'm smart enough to write). Regardless, the teacher's argument is felt in the very existence of "World of Warcraft" gold farms (dozens of gamers, held in slave-like conditions, earning fake gold to sell to lazy gamers on eBay); in MySpace-based murders and suicides; in expulsions and suspensions based on Facebook profiles; and in sexual predators on the Internet. The worlds we project ourselves into, however innocuous, sometimes screw us over. That's unavoidable, though. The best we can do is to minimize the effect as much as possible.

But there's another type of betrayal, and it's specifically involved with "DnD" as a game and must be addressed. On Monday, Slate's Erik Sofge eschewed any sort of respect for the dead and took Gygax to town, calling him "an unrepentant hack, more Michael Bay than Ingmar Bergman."

From one geek to the next, Sofge offers salient, if obnoxiously snarky evidence to back his argument that "DnD" is actually a pretty shitty game, and that Gygax is "far outclassed by contemporaries such as Steve Jackson and Greg Stafford." Fair enough. When observed in the insider mold, I'll take Sofge at face value. He rails against "experience points" and the senseless bloodbaths the games create. Think: "World of Warcraft" gold farms.

" 'Dungeons & Dragons' strips the 'role-playing' out of RPGs," Sofge wrote. "It's a videogame without the graphics, and a pretty boring one, at that."

I'm going to let Fraywatch, Slate's collection of the best comments on a given article, answer this one (several times over): "Your dungeon master sucked"; "Whiny neckbearded contrarian trollery"; and, "I can't think of anyone who belittles Henry Ford because his automobiles have been transformed into something far superior. Or, for that matter, the first person to come up with the household mop."

Sofge missed the point of all those grand paeans. Sure, they might have overlooked the nitty-gritty-ness of game play that Sofge trumpets, but they called attention to how ubiquitous Gygax's imaginative world became. In the opinion section of The New York Times, Adam Rogers, a senior editor at Wired Magazine, wrote a beautiful paean to "DnD" and its founder:

"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."

Sofge can quibble with 20-sided die all he wants. Gygax played a major role (pun intended) in legitimizing nerds, dorks, geeks and those on the edge of puberty - allowing, as Rogers put it, "geeks to venture out of our dungeons, blinking against the light, just in time to create the present age of electronic miracles."

In response to his teacher's condemnation of comic characters, Chabon wrote, "It was not about escape . It was about transformation."

That might be the most relevant observation that can be made about the fantasy genre and its shining effects. Give kids the chance to momentarily escape to/create a faux reality world, and you give them the confidence to rework their own lives. Fraywatch picked up this anecdote of a "DnD" player who sacrificed his/her (who knows?) character for the good of the group: "This was a character I had played for months. I had purchased her a home, drawn up the floor plans, detailed every outfit, every weapon my character owned. And she died. I live a boring life. For that moment I felt what it felt like to be a hero, if only for a moment."

Yeah, yeah. Take your eyes out of the back of your head and go back to the captivating narrative sequences in "Halo." Show me a kid who, by the time he/she (probably he) is 13, understands sacrifice, strategy, lateral thinking and the vocabulary of a high school senior - all because of Dungeons & freakin' Dragons - and I'll show you a shining example of nerd-dom at its best. If you go to Robert Jordan's blog (www.dragonmount.com/RobertJordan/), you'll find, through every last heartbreaking entry, evidence of an audience that is both beautifully nerdy and beautifully articulate in its grief over the loss of a man few of them have ever met.

An enlightened, open mind is not so terribly hard to develop. Thank you, Mr. Gygax, for opening up a different means for the end we're all, hopefully, trying to reach.


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