Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Proof We're a Cult

Those readers who recently heard my guest appearance on a podcast will recall that I went on a diatribe about the way D&D is treated by the media.  No doubt, some of you strongly disagree with me.  I can only say that my experience with the media's missing the point has a long history.

Still, I try to have an open mind.  Which brings me to the recent article about D&D in last month's The New Yorker magazine.

Let me start by saying that it's nice to see that The New Yorker has become aware that people are still playing Dungeons and Dragons.  I don't mean that sarcastically: the writer makes it fairly clear in the article that there was every reason to believe the game had drifted into an enthusiasm-free obscurity by the time of Gygax's death in 2008.  The context suggests, with a sort of wonder, that people are still playing that game and that it seems to have retained an unexpected popularity ~ though the article makes clear that "the culture was receptive again" only after the amazing release of fifth edition completely revived the game from the brink of death.

Now, that may have exaggerated the writer's presentation.  From this point, I'm going to assume you've stopped reading me and that you've acquainted yourself with the article, so you can make up your own minds.  While the article is fresh in your mind, and you're mulling over the research the writer did into D&D, I'd like to explain that a typical fee for getting an article published with The New Yorker is $5 a word.  As the article is 2,614 words, one might impress on one's mind that the price tag here was about $12,500.  I offer this tidbit for the sake of perspective.  Measure the article however you will, but measure it with the article's value in mind.

On the whole, I think it is a positive article.  This alone makes it unique among those I've read.  Yes, the writer Neima Jahromi is off base on a few points, but as a media outsider writing about an unusual activity enjoyed fervently by a non-media driven agenda, the mistakes made are reasonable.  Thus the title of this post; when you're a cult, you can't expect non-believers to understand the basic dogma.

When I talk about the media's treatment of the activity, Jahromi gives an excellent example, with this description of ~ apparently ~ what I used to be in 1979:
"This turn of events might shock a time traveller from the twentieth century. In the seventies and eighties, Dungeons & Dragons, with its supernatural themes, became the fixation of an overheated news media in the midst of a culture war. Role players were seen as closet cases, the least productive kind of geek, retreating to basements to open maps, spill out bags of dice, and light candles by which to see their medieval figurines. They squared with no one. Unlike their hippie peers, they had dropped out without bothering to tune in."

She contextualizes it correctly, where she says, "Roleplayers were SEEN ..."  Yes.  That is how we were seen.  Unfortunately, Jahromi then does nothing to investigate this characterization, or suggest it may not have been the case.  Instead, she let's the media's description stand as is, as I would expect from a reporter who cannot be bothered to dig up a source to ask the question, "Were D&D players actually what the media depicted?"

But then, this would have ended in another 500 words of content, meaning another $2,500 out of The New Yorker's pocket, so perhaps the magazine just couldn't afford it.

So, the depiction stands.  And after some further discussion of how D&D is "everywhere now" ~ with the concurrent argument that it wasn't everywhere ten years ago ~ and that the Big Bang Theory highlighted the existence of the game to millions (or at least to The New Yorker, along with a few game stores in massively player-thick New York city), the article begins to expose its actual agenda.

D&D will save children from video games.

See, it's a wonderful thing that these boardgame clubs are including D&D in their line-up, since the games popularity proves that it's capable of drawing children away from their dark holes and out into the bright sunshine, where they can enjoy the ages-lost feeling of talking to people, before it is too late for them.

This brings me to a paragraph late in the article ... perhaps the most insulting, abusive, blatantly ignorant statement I have ever heard anyone write or utter in connection with RPGs.
"... the terms of hiding have changed. When mainstream American culture was largely about standing in a factory line, or crowding into smoke-stained boardrooms for meetings, or even dropping acid and collapsing in a field for your hundred-person “be-in,” the idea of retiring to a dimly lit table to make up stories with three or four friends seemed fruitless and antisocial. Now that being American often means being alone or interacting distantly—fidgeting with Instagram in a crosswalk, or lying prone beneath the heat of a laptop with Netflix streaming over you—three or four people gathering in the flesh to look each other in the eye and sketch out a world without pixels can feel slightly rebellious, or at least pleasantly out of place."

That is simply incredible.  As a feat of writing, I must pause and say, yes, well done.  The sentence construction here is excellent.  The theoretical balance between the depiction of the age past and the depiction of the present age is damn near perfect.  The nuance of the verbs and imagery is remarkable.  I am not, repeat not, being sarcastic.  I am a writer.  I recognize good writing when I see it.  Jahromi is a good writer and this paragraph proves it.  She is earning her money.  The New Yorker hires good people.

Unpacking it, I'll also pause to argue that, from the writer's point of view, this undoubtedly sounds logical.  I would guess, however, that she doesn't have the least idea of what the 1970s were like, having somehow connected D&D with factories and board rooms, as if to suggest that no other cultural circles featured in the world of 1970s science fiction, in film and literature, or the explosion of sexual role-play and film porn, or the technological explosion of video games and accessible computer programming.  I have to believe that Jahromi was not a conscious adult experimenting with sex and culture in 1979.

But yes, it's true, the media depiction of friends "retiring to a dimly lit table" does seem fruitless and antisocial. Of course, those of us who were playing in brightly lit rooms with up to 40 people at a time, as every table in a study hall was packed with gamers playing just as socially as they could, have to stare agog at the words of a writer as, however well she writes, goes right up her own ass, a dimly lit place all of its own.

Following that, the balance of the paragraph feeds the "save the children" argument: we must rescue children from instagram and Netflix by letting them see each other in this pixel-less world that is so much more real and nice and decent for everyone.


Given the perspective of the article, that it began with a gamestore in New York, which is getting along a little better because they added an unexpected game to their roster, it only follows that the writer of the article will view the world from the inside of that bottle.  It is painfully clear that the internet was not consulted as part of this article's research.  The word, "internet" only appears twice in the whole article: once in a quote from the television creator of "Community" and then immediately after in the next sentence referring to that quote. Here's the quote:
"The internet really allowed everyone to realize that everyone was a nerd."

That is probably true in the mind of a television producer, but in actual fact the internet really allowed everyone to realize that everyone is a troll.  Followed immediately by the immediate awareness that salespeople on the internet are the first to try to express a tautology, thinking that's what being brilliant sounds like.

As a nerd, still able to make everyone in a room feel uncomfortable just by looking at them, I have some contention with the argument that D&D is popular "now" because everyone is, in fact, a nerd.  If so, why is it that I'm still spoken of as "strange" and "fucked up," not to mention "autistic," by people who still reach for a label to explain something they don't understand.

Frankly, I think D&D is popular with those people who are likely to turn up at a board game place because those are the same people that were likely to turn up at a board game place 40 years ago.  And yes, we had stores where they played board games back in the days of factory workers and sweaty board rooms.  More to the point, D&D didn't "save" kids from video games in 1979, either, when the games were not nearly as enticing as they are now.  I wouldn't expect a huge bust up of the video game market because the media is willing to admit that, lo and behold, a lot of people play D&D.

Go figure.

1 comment:

Rob Schwarz said...

I think two changes occurred that helped bring D&D into he mainstream more:
(1) Tv shows such as Freaks & Geeks and Community and Big Bang showed people playing the game, some popular celebs came out as gamers (Vin Diesel and Colbert), and video games showed a 'version' of role playing that was obviously a lot of fun so things seemed less strange all of sudden.
(2) Everyone realized the "cool kids" were playing fantasy football which was by comparison kind of weird (you mean you have a team comprised of players for a bunch of different teams and make some half year long competition out of it?)