Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Your Roll Brings You To A Door That Seems To Lead To the Perimeter of the Game Itself: In Memory of Gary Gygax

I’ve been away from this blog for a long time, and it’s sad that it takes a death to bring me back. Gary Gygax, the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, godfather of the role-playing game, and stepfather of the computer game, died Tuesday at the age of 69.

What he meant to the gaming industry is all too well understood by gamers themselves. His work revitalized the imaginations of game designers and of players who now didn’t always have a board, although there was an explosion of dice dimensions and colors. And nothing was black and white in D&D. As any dungeon master knows, there could be twenty sides to every argument, although the DM’s side was the only winning one. But Gygax didn’t reduce gaming to mere math – there was a sense of theatre for the players and the DM, and a sense of flexibility - the DM was like a good DJ just trying to keep the game flowing along in a way that seemed fair.

To observers, D&D seemed like a group of people having an argument over an airy nothing at best, or a group of obsessed or even possessed children feverishly carrying out Satan’s bidding. But time has proven that the airy nothing could become quite profitable when numbers married Tolkien and gave birth to trillions of rampant pixels populating legions of video games. (As for Satan, well, word is he’s still leering over millions of feverishly obsessed video gamers.)

But for me the implications go beyond money. My dual interests for much of my life have been creative ventures such as poetry, theatre, movies, TV and playful ventures such as sports and games. Maybe that’s why I have these fantasies about my two worlds coming together more and more in the future. After all, Gygax, as I’ve said, brought theatre into gaming. The first step was to imagine the world one was gaming in. The next step has been to navigate it on a small or now increasingly big screen and to interact with the very movie-like stories. And filmmakers are paying attention to video games, going after licenses and converting famous games into albeit less famous movies. And game designers are conceiving of increasingly more cinematic games - the blockbuster Halo series being just one example of many.

No, I’m not going to say that the future belongs to games. But I will argue that there is a strong gaming element to all that has come before in terms of cultural activities. Consider the poet who has often used metre (numbers) and form (genre) to lead the reader through one or more emotional states and to consider a new way of looking at the world embodied in the construct of the poem. Is this anything less than a kind of game played with the reader? Oh sure, people will tell you that they hate it when a writer manipulates them (like a game designer giving you only a handful of simplistic options), but the truth is that every work of art is manipulative. The only time we see through the game is when it is a game we don’t like. The other games we are perfectly willing to play.

That’s why I can look at a movie like Super Size Me and yawn – at least partly because I’m an avid McDonald’s guest, and also because I’ve heard the same tired and ill-considered arguments about eating right for far too long. But many intellectuals found the movie compelling and insightful even though they would (almost) never set foot in a McDonald’s restaurant and are already well aware of the ‘facts’ the movie is simply reinforcing. They like this game and so they play it with enthusiasm, suspending their pre-beliefs, just like children being told stories again and again even though they know how they end.

All I’m saying is that the boundary between serious art and frivolous gaming is less rigid than many would like to think. But the stories we tell in our art and in our games have many similarities and Gygax tapped into elemental fears of enclosed places and monsters and evil bosses to give us stories that we could walk into as more or less ourselves or as a character we don’t like to admit is a part of who we are. I prefer to play rogues, for example, despite my gleaming veneer of innocence. And one sweet girl I knew opted to play D&D for the first time whispered to me that she really wanted to play an assassin. Gygax was, in a way, the Freud of gaming, leading us deeper into our imaginations and our psyches, all without our being aware the dungeon we were navigating was inside ourselves.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Jocko, I was going to call you when I heard the news of his death. And now Jeff Heally as well.
''..on a long enough time line, everyones survival rate drops to zero."

I'll call ya,

10:32 PM  

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