Socrates, Apology 37e-38a
We are given to understand that the context of these words were spoken as Socrates, condemned for things he did not do, was given the option of either exile (ostracization) or death (drinking of hemlock). I reproduce the whole quote here for one simple reason ... that Socrates himself did not believe that the ordinary individual - indeed, not even his own friends and students - would understand him when he said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Socrates was a 71-year-old man when he died. He had plenty of experience in how others responded to his arguments, and just what to expect from them when he made an argument.
Nothing has changed. Present the argument to an individual today, that they should sit down and at length examine their lives, and you will receive back a blank stare and incomprehension; at best, you may expect them to ponder for a moment, the briefest of motions mind, before asking you, "How?"
Suppose we consider a typical D&D event: the destruction of the big bad, in its lair, sitting upon a heap of treasure. Suppose as a DM I have you and others roll up characters of 15th level, and zing! pop! I drop you into the big bad's lair and the fight begins. You hack, you cast, you bring holy damnation upon the big bad and as a result you gain all its treasure.
Does this seem like a meaningful exercise to you? Is this something that sounds like it would please you, or fulfill you? Is it something you'd want to do?
If your answer is yes, then you may take comfort in the knowledge that you have just found the attitude you bear that has brought you all the unhappiness that it has in your life. It is time that you sat down and truly considered why it is you think the way you do, and how that thinking has brought you to the place it has.
For most of us, the answer would be a resounding "No." It would be an empty, meaningless way to spend an evening. It would be as meaningless as a host of reporters showing up at your door, along with the presenters of the Nobel Prize, altogether having the purpose of giving you that Prize for having accomplished the immortal task of picking the grunge out from between your toenails. The money might be nice, but you would very soon feel like a fool as you were asked questions, and thereafter for the rest of your life compared endlessly with people who had actually accomplished things.
Like real life, accomplishments in D&D are empty and worthless without the greater picture of how those accomplishments were achieved. The greatest ills in a game are not the number of characters that are killed, but the number of characters who carry toys and power they did not earn. Not because there is an unfairness about it, but because having a toy you did not earn is an empty, soul-sucking experience ... all the more empty for people who do not know that is what is wrong with the campaign they're running, or in which they're playing.
This is not an uncommon thing. The world is full of people living in the throes of hedonism, maniacally globbing up every bit of fun and pleasure they can from one moment to the next, concentrating their effort like a laser beam on avoiding any three-minute period of self-examination like the frigging plague. That is because three minutes without fun brings deep, abiding unhappiness. An hour without fun is a depression of epic proportions. And three days without fun can be all it takes to make suicide seem like a viable alternative.
People who play D&D from the angle that ten minutes of 'non-fun' is a great wrong not to be perpetrated against them are playing D&D for reasons that go much deeper than the game itself. They are avoiding their lives. They are grasping at straws to escape their lives ... and in that escape, they insist that all must be beautific and great, and that no obstacle can exist that cannot be overcome. They must be gods or the game does not give them the solace from reality they demand. They are not getting their fix. And you, O gentle DM with your world, are the reason they are not getting it. That is why they are angry. That is why they are screaming when the die comes up low. That is why they are sullen once their character has died. They are not in control of their own lives; they insist they must be in control of their character's lives. It is the only reason they play.
I do not doubt that this avoidance is the fuel that makes more than a few hundred play this game world-wide. I do not doubt that the considerable weakness of D&D to provide this sort of escapism is the reason it is not played by millions. D&D will never measure up with heroin. It will never offer the terrifying reality-separation to be found with skydiving or spelunking. It is an extremely crappy sort of avoidance strategy, and for that reason it will never, ever be popular with the great masses of people. Successful avoidance strategies, by definition, must be available everywhere; they must be simple and direct; they must be immediately effective; and they must work when the participant is alone.
Liquor, for example.
Your player - or you yourself if that is the case - screaming at the die, is an unusual sort of person. They possess the peculiar mind-set makes this game an escape. They are in a very tiny minority of individuals.
We are not, however, all invested in this game for these reasons. We are not all fearful of examining our lives. We are not all bent upon escapism. Some who play the game play it because of the opportunity it gives to examine our lives further. To put our personalities into a laboratory, as it were, and run tests on it, and compare the results of those tests with our ordinary, everyday behavior. If we suffer loss in our lives, how does that compare with the loss of our characters? If we are ambitious in our lives, how are we able to be ambitious with our characters? How do they play off each other. How does the imagination I put towards my world reflect the imagination I put towards my other art, or my social responsibilities, or my interactivity with other persons?
For the smallest number of players of the game, characters are not measured by their successes, or by how they differ from we ourselves, but by the means by which our imaginations work within frameworks we do not encounter everyday. I do not, for example, kill monsters on my way to work. I would much rather not live in a world where that was necessary. But the process of killing monsters, and the way it tests my ingenuity, is very much a process of my mind examining strategies I don't get to play out otherwise. And playing out strategies in my mind, regarding my competitors, my writing, my sex life and so on, is the way I self-examine every element of my life. I examine with gusto, because it is in examining that I determine where I am, where I'm going and why I'm going there.
If my world is going to be useful in that regard, for me or for my players ... if it is going to be a laboratory of any value towards that purpose ... then the one thing it cannot be is disproportional and erratic. It must operate according to fundamentally particular principles which are the same from session to session, from adventure to adventure, and from campaign to campaign. The players, when the sit down to play, must know what to expect. They must have rules they can rely upon. They must be able to judge accurately the scope of their actions and the limitations they have. Only in that way can they measure themselves against the world I create, just as they measure themselves against the world none of us created.
The reason worlds like this go on, and on, and on, is because the examined D&D life IS worth living. It is worth sacrificing moments in the real world for. It is not replaceable by liquor, or skydiving, or heroin. There's no self-examination in any of these things, for hedonism is the manner in which self-examination is avoided.
There are elements of this game that rise magnificently beyond hedonism. These cannot be comprehended escapism any more than life can be. The very argument of escapism - to escape from life - is the manner in which fools doom themselves. There is no escape. This was the point Socrates made. It is the point I am making.
But he and I are alike in one other way. I don't expect the listener to believe me, either.