The Rise and Fall of Imagination in Gaming

As a novice pen-and-paper RPG (D&D) player and a casual video gamer, I was recently presented with a quandary from a fellow player regarding the relative social status of gamers as viewed by the general public: why is it that people who play D&D are caricatured as nerds living in their mothers’ basements, drinking gallons of Jolt or Mt. Dew and quite literally living in a fantasy world, whereas video games have become a popular medium through which many people–including college students, families, and professionals–communicate? My wife, for example, would much rather play Final Fantasy–a game which, as much as I appreciate it, is a copy of thousands and thousands of others just like it–as opposed to trying out the pen-and-paper style RPG, which requires only a minimal monetary investment and a vivid and active imagination. At the core my question comes to this: Why has society decided that using one’s imagination to create a shared world among a group of friends, which requires actual human interaction, socialization, and cooperation, is inferior to and is less socially acceptable than video games, which, if you want to play multiple games, requires a relatively large monetary investments (at least $200-$300 for a new console, or far more for a decent gaming computer, $20-$60 per game, plus more for accessories)? To play D&D, one need not even invest in a rulebook, though those usually only cost around $20-30. One might spring for some nice dice, but can usually find decent sets for less than $20. The game itself has infinite replay value and is never the same twice. I wish I could say that about most video games. You know why I didn’t finish Skyrim? Because every time I played I wound up getting sidetracked by a goal, such as upping my armor skill, or I went on a random side quest that yielded little reward.  It got old pretty quickly. Sure, I could’ve finished the main story with relative ease, but I could never make myself do it, and even if I had, there would be no reason to keep playing. Such is the finality of most video game RPGs.

The aforementioned friend who first posed this question offered one answer of which I’m not entirely convinced. He suggested that the stigma or taboo surrounding tabletop RPGs might stem from a time in the 80s when D&D became (mistakenly) associated with satanism. At a time when censorship was a top priority and Tipper Gore had parents worried that Twisted Sister was going to turn regular kids into devil-worshiping, murderous psychopaths, the idea of the use of “magic” and its association with witchcraft and wizardry (themes that are more accurately appropriated to the entire genre of fantasy in both literature and gaming) apparently had much of the world convinced that D&D–or almost any tabletop RPG for that matter–was a training ground for unsuspecting youth, initiating them into mysteries of the occult and subsequently sealing their entrance to eternal damnation. Nobody stopped to think that players’ better natures, deeply ingrained personal beliefs that ran quite contrary to the occult, or pure common sense might keep them grounded in the real world, understanding that these are games played in a fantasy setting. It also seems that those who believed this nonsense ignored the fact that, by this logic, Gandalf, (I think we can all agree Gandalf was a good guy) being a major character from Lord of the Rings who happens to be a wizard, must also be associated with evil SINCE HE WAS A FUCKING WIZARD,  thus branding Tolkien–the father of modern high fantasy literature and a devout Catholic–a peddler of anti-Christian, occultist smut.   But I digress.

I will hand it to my friend. He did hit on something. I remember a time in my adolescence when I first mentioned to my parents that I wanted to learn about D&D. They told me that it was evil and satanic and that I should stay away from it. This was in the early-to-mid nineties. That stigma created by religiously-fueled panic lasted for years, and I’m sure that remnants of those assumptions are still present today. I never brought it up to my parents again, so maybe I should ask them what they think about it now. Either way, the idea itself–that D&D is associated with the occult because of the use of magic and wizardry and the like–is in itself pure misconception. It confuses the player with the character. Those who make this assumption obviously do not understand the whole point of the phrase “role-playing.” It is, essentially, acting. So unless we’re going to condemn actors who have taken on roles that involve the same themes, I think we should put this case to rest.

But there still remains the question of stigmatic stereotypes. I’ll admit that, even when I hear “D&D,” I think of some fat guy with no wit, class, or game, living in his mother’s basement, who doesn’t bathe often and lives on a diet of Doritos and Mt. Dew. Sure, he has friends, but those friends are all like him. I know better than this because I play D&D, and I’ve seen others who do. Sure, I’m a nerd; I have a master’s degree in English, I love sci-fi and fantasy books, and I love to play all sorts of games,  but I also have a full-time job, I live on my own, I’m married, and I have numerous friends from all walks of life. So what gives with the negative stereotypes? Why do I think of Cartman from South Park and his addiction to World of Warcraft or the nerdy kid from from the Robot Chicken skits? I don’t think there’s a single, completely satisfactory answer to this question. I think a lot of it, though, is based purely in assumptions, some of them left over from the 80s, and some of them that are such deeply-ingrained stereotypes in American culture that they may never change.

I think part of America’s biggest problem with D&D is a lack of imagination or mental lethargy on the part of our culture. Why create a world when there are so many hand-made universes made for you? Sure, you might be able to interact with your friends and go on quests and use magic and level up in an MMO such as World of Warcraft or Everquest, but the fact remains that nobody but the game creators made that happen for you. You merely drove your character through the more or less linear path that the designers set out for you. Nothing happened on-the-fly. If you get killed, there’s no starting over. You have a saved game or character and you can pick up from the last checkpoint. There’s no danger in going back to level-one character creation and rolling for stats or permanently losing a party member (unless there’s an Aeris moment-spoilers!). The fact remains that D&D demands that players flex their imaginative (figurative) muscles. It’s like a workout or jog for the brain. It relieves stress while requiring concentration and creativity. The same could be said of only a few video games, especially RPGs.

Video games are mainstream now. They are in almost every household. Kids play them, parents play them, and video games are a multi-billion-dollar, worldwide industry. They are here to stay, and they are taking over living rooms. The new generation of video gaming consoles is trying to position itself at the center of our lives, and I’ll admit, I will almost definitely own one sooner or later. I won’t stop playing video games.

But I won’t give up on D&D either, and I refuse to be ashamed to play it. I almost always have a blast improvising, acting out, ROLE PLAYING.  It’s a lot of fun, it’s entertaining, and it’s a chance to socialize with a different crowd.  I only wish others were more open to it. Perhaps that is, sadly, a fantasy.

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10 responses to “The Rise and Fall of Imagination in Gaming

  • 1001-Up.com

    This is a great article man. 🙂

  • Catalyst Games

    There are some points you fail to make in your arguments.
    1. Video Game Players (Gamers) are also stuck with the same streotypical stigma that P&P RPGers are. The stereotype of “some fat guy with no wit, class, or game, living in his mother’s basement, who doesn’t bathe often and lives on a diet of Doritos and Mt. Dew. Sure, he has friends, but those friends are all like him.” applies to gamers as well, in fact its more well known as a gamer stereotype because of the popularity of video games.
    2. Video Games are finite stories. They shouldn’t even be compared to P&P RPGs because they are 2 different beasts. Game Developers have limits, profits to make, deadlines to hit, specific stories to tell. Dungeon Masters have virtually no limits, no profit, no deadline, no specific story. The freedom allows P&P RPGs to be much more “on the fly” then video games ever could be.
    3. Video Games are visual representations of their worlds. P&P RPGs aren’t. At least not nearly as much. Which is great because it makes you use your imagination more. But it lacks the same immersion factor of a video game. Which means P&P isn’t going to be enough for everyone.
    4. Video Games, specifically RPGs, typically create much more character attachment than P&P RPGs. This is because they are designed to tell a story about a specific person or group. P&P RPGs are about telling an adventure, not necessarily a story. In my experience, your character is more apart from the story in P&P than in video games.

    To me, video games and P&P RPGs are two different entities battling the same battle against mainstream media. They both have the same stereotypes, both have been wrongly accused of causing problems in society (satanism for D&D, violence in video games) and both are really just trying to allow someone to get some enjoyment and entertainment out of their free time. If anything, fans of each should find solace in the other, kindred spirits of sorts. But that is just my opinion. I’m going to go back to playing Neverwinter, a free MMORPG video game, based of the D&D Forgotten Realms (see they can get along!)

    • Cory Lockhart

      Catalyst Games,

      First of all, thanks for the excellent comment and for taking the time to read my post.

      You make some interesting and valid points here, and for the most part, I would say that I have to agree with you to some degree. However, I do have some points of contention, especially with your first point.

      1. You may be right that video gamers are similarly stigmatized and stereotyped, but I think that sentiment is quickly changing because of the sheer popularity of video games. As I mentioned in the post, video games are becoming a household entity now. They are becoming the center of entertainment in the everyday person’s living room, and as the industry continues to grow and prosper, the stigma attached to video gaming has shrunk proportionally, and, I think, continues to do so. Sure, video games may always carry with the3m some similar stereotypes, but I don’t think they are as widespread and pronounced as the ones attached to tabletop RPGing.

      2 & 3. My point here was not really to compare the two as equals, but rather to contemplate why this trend is so. And you are probably right that, because people are so easily immersed in video games, video games have become the more popular medium for the representation of RPG universes. However, I still hold that–for me at least–using one’s imagination to produce and participate in a universe is far more rewarding and less monotonous.

      4. You would have to elaborate on how one is more removed from character and story because I’m just not seeing it. The fact that you build a character from scratch, come up with a backstory, and participate in the adventure accordingly would seem to me to be a more fulfilling creative endeavor. For example, when I write something, I am far more involved and immersed in it than if I had read something by someone else. Something that I have created is something that I put time and effort into and feel an attachment to. On the other hand, let’s say I do play a video game RPG (which I do. As I said, I play them too!) and I can’t really identify with the main character. I am far more likely to give up half way through the adventure than I would be if I had hand-made my own character for myself. If you still disagree, I am afraid we will have to agree to disagree on this point.

      Finally, you are right that P&P RPGs and video game RPGs are two separate entities. Their differences are numerous and significant, and it is perhaps a bit unfair to compare them gameplay-wise. However, I still do not believe that they are fighting the same stigmas. The only thing they really share is the fantasy setting, and I have never heard of anyone blaming video game RPGs (though the FPS genre is a popular target) for violence, although I’m sure it has happened somewhere.

      You are also right that, either way, we are looking for escapism of some kind, and both mediums provide that. As for myself, I participate in both, and, until recently, exclusively played video games. But my current involvement in tabletop RPGing led me to reflect on how and why the history of these games is what it is, so I put finger to key and let it flow.

      Thanks again for your thought-provoking contribution and for reading. This was my first post on gaming, and it seems to have gotten the most attention, so perhaps I will post more about games in the future.

  • redraggedfiend

    Just off the cuff I think part of the thoughts illustrated are a move from face-to-face social interaction to mostly digital interaction. I admit after college I basically had to relearn how to make face to face friends without the forced common environment such as school or sports.

    As a society people just don’t get together to spend face time with each other like we used to, there’s always an alternative means of entertainment that’s cheap, easy, and provides escapism.

    • Cory Lockhart

      Reddraggedfiend,

      I appreciate the honesty and insight. I think that, to a certain extent, you are probably right. We spend so much time “socializing” through Facebook and other means that we have become detached from face-to-face communication, and modern technology only makes it easier to avoid real, meaningful social interaction. But I also think that the stigma associated with tabletop RPGs is somewhat more sinister and less obvious in origin.

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