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The Ironic Connection: Reflections On Gygax, D&D, Tolkien, And The History Of Popular Culture

March 12, 2008

[Updated: 3/13/08]

Last week Ernest Gary Gygax died. For those of you unfamiliar with his significance, the Chicago-born Gygax co-created the Dungeons and Dragons phenomenon. The ever-present, all-knowing Wikipedia provides a broad outline of the game, its history, and derivatives.

Here are some excerpts from the Chicago Tribune‘s obituary by Emily Fredrix—interspersed with my commentary—and a reflection after:

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“Gary Gygax, who co-created the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons [D&D] and helped start the role-playing phenomenon, died Tuesday morning at his home in Lake Geneva. He was 69. He had been suffering from health problems for several years, including an abdominal aneurysm, said his wife, Gail Gygax.”

TL: I know that everyone has a mother, but I must admit that I wasn’t sure that Gygax’s interests would make him marriage material. There’s someone for everyone!

“Gygax and Dave Arneson developed Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 using medieval characters and mythical creatures. The game known for its oddly shaped dice became a hit, particularly among teenage boys, and eventually was turned into video games, books and movies.”

TL: I’ve continually forgotten that D&D was co-created. I’ll have to read up on Arneson through the Wikipedia link.

“Gygax always enjoyed hearing from the game’s legion of devoted fans, many of whom would stop by the family’s home in Lake Geneva, about 55 miles southwest of Milwaukee, his wife said. Despite his declining health, he hosted weekly games of Dungeons & Dragons as recently as January, she said.”

TL: I guess it wasn’t a phenomenon of only Gygax’s youth. Interesting.

” ‘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,’ Gail Gygax said. ‘He really enjoyed that.’ “

TL: I can imagine that otherwise unoccupied fire fighters, in particular, would find D&D an engrossing passtime.

“Dungeons & Dragons players create fictional characters and carry out their adventures with the help of complicated rules. The quintessential geek pastime, it spawned a wealth of copycat games and later inspired a whole genre of computer games that’s still growing in popularity.”

TL: As a kid I thought the Star Wars role-playing analogue was a bad idea. Why? I suppose because that was already a complete story, whereas in D&D it felt like you were creating a new story (however inadequate). But kids don’t understand the fun inherent in contingency—or at least this kid didn’t.

“Born Ernest Gary Gygax, he grew up in Chicago and moved to Lake Geneva at the age of 8. Gygax’s father, a Swiss immigrant who played violin in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, read fantasy books to his only son and hooked him on the genre, Gail Gygax said.”

TL: An only child of what appears to be a mildly eccentric father. The math is adding up. …As a kid, I always wondered what it was about Lake Geneva inspired people toward fantasy.

“Gygax dropped out of high school but took anthropology classes at the University of Chicago for a while, she said. He was working as an insurance underwriter in the 1960s, when he began playing war-themed board games. But Gygax wanted to create a game that involved more fantasy. To free up time to work on that, he left the insurance business and became a shoe repairman, she said.”

TL: The Chicago connections continue. But as a college student in the 1960s, I can see how he became aware of J.R.R. Tolkien.

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The picture of Gary Gygax to the right appeared in the New York Times. It’s the first time I’ve seen the face of a man whose game occupied a great deal of leisure time during a few of my adolescent years. Yes, I’m roughly a part of that “teenage boy” geek cohort mentioned in Fredrix’s obit. Actually, my attraction to the game came a bit earlier, when I was in the 10-13 age range. In my memory the unusual name of “Gygax” is consequently linked to low-quality video game graphics, Commodore computers, middle school, MTV, and Van Halen.

In fact, my introduction to Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, came in two parts: during a “home room” instruction session with a middle school friend named Dustin, and a Boy Scout camping trip moved indoors due to inclement weather. These events caused a two-year or so diversion from more healthy, outward interactions. I frame this negatively because I had no one regular with whom to actually play a game. To this day I cannot directly see how my interactions (I can’t honestly say “playing”) with the game helped me afterwards. I have no idea what I positively took away from the experience.

Of what did my hobby consist? Imagining that I might someday play or be a “Dungeon Master” caused me to waste a great deal of time creating a “world” replete with characters—all carefully constructed according to the rules. I used reams of graph paper to design dungeon adventures and map out communities in which my hoped-for players would interact, meaning fight.

Being a fastidious youth, but also being a bit of a spendthrift (at least in that particular period), I bought all kinds of D&D manuals—even the hardback “Advanced” D&D ones—and carefully saved all of what Tolkien [right] would call my “subcreations.” In the end it was all harmless, but nothing obviously constructive came out of it. It has the feel of any number of activities covered in episodes of That Seventies Show where time is frittered away. In many ways my D&D encounters mirrored that of the LA Times‘s Joel Stein as articulated here.

With that, I never understood the virulently negative view of D&D. I still don’t fully comprehend the fear-mongering do-gooders who warned all and sundry that playing D&D was a ticket to either hell or the looney bin. I remember the bad, made-for-tv movie Mazes and Monsters, the screening of which caused my mother to investigate my doings. At that time she was no fearful do-gooder, so the film clearly struck a middle-class chord of concern. But she never ultimately restricted me from my hobby. I suspect the same fear-mongerers felt revived when J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series appeared on the scene: they had a new fantasy genre to demonize.

In mentioning Tolkien I should not neglect a cultural irony with regard to Gygax. Critics of Tolkien feared that he had fictionalized too well, creating an world for those with “escapist” tendencies. Indeed, many readers of Tolkien and other fantasy fiction novelists are derided for engaging in escapism (as if all novels aren’t objects of that impulse). But, as Tom Shippey [right] notes in his Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tolkien hoped to re-present reality through Middle-earth. Tolkien hoped to teach us something about ourselves through fantasy fiction.

In my estimation, Tolkien succeeded. I have returned to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for both profit and pleasure, many times over the years. I find therein many qualities that I expect from great books: a variety of characters, adventure, first-rate use of language, creativity, and an engagement with transcendent human ideas such as good versus evil, beauty, mystery, and humor. In journeying with hobbits, humans, dwarves, and elves, Tolkien causes me to re-view my own life and circumstances. His books have grown as I have through the years. If this is what fantasy is supposed to be about, then I—and many others—need more of it.

But Gygax, obviously inspired by Tolkien, sought through D&D to deliver us more fully into other worlds, but with no mission to inspire. Gygax was about entertainment only. You might argue that D&D was a game, and therefore not comparable. But Gygax wrote numerous books of fiction based on his game. Gygax’s fantasy novels include full series such as the Greyhawk Adventures (2 books) and Gord of the Rogue (5 books). I could fairly argue, in reverse, that Gygax used the game to inspire his popular fiction. Because of this, Gygax and Tolkien should be seen as polar opposites, if not enemies, in the world of fantasy. This is the ultimate irony of their connection.

I hope that whoever writes the history of fantasy in American popular culture—whether in terms of fiction or closely-related cousin, role-playing—takes note of the cross-purposes of these founders. But maybe this is only an intellectual historian’s view of the matter? – TL

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P.S.—I hadn’t seen this Slate article, by Erik Sofge, when I wrote the post above. Here are some excerpts from his piece that go to my points above (bolds mine):

– “The problem is most apparent in one of Gygax’s central (and celebrated) innovations: “experience points.” To become a more powerful wizard, a sneakier thief, or an elfier elf (being an elf was its own profession in early editions, which is kind of like saying being Chinese is a full-time job), you need to gain “levels,” which requires experience points. And the best way to get experience points is to kill stuff. Every monster, from an ankle-biting goblin to a massive fire-spewing dragon, has a specific number of points associated with it—your reward for hacking it to pieces. So while it’s one player’s job—the so-called Dungeon Master—to come up with the plot for each gaming session and play the parts of the various enemies and supporting characters, in practice that putative storyteller merely referees one imagined slaughter after another. This is not Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, with its anti-fascist political commentary and yearning for an end to glory and the triumph of peace. This is violence without pretense, an endless hobgoblin holocaust.”
– “For decades, gamers have argued that since D&D came first, its lame, morally repulsive experience system can be forgiven. But the damage is still being done: New generations of players are introduced to RPGs as little more than a collective fantasy of massacre and greed.”
– “[D&D] promises something great—a lively (if dorky) bit of performance art—but delivers a small-minded and ignorant fantasy of rage, distilled to a bunch of arcane charts and die rolls.”

Ditto. – TL

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