Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Sad Day For Nerds The World Over

Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died. At only 69, he died too young. It is a sad day indeed (personally, I cried).

For me, Gary's passing is much more personal than the recent passing of William F. Buckley. Though I respected Mr. Buckley's writing abilities, my own personal development has been influenced far more by D&D than by conservativism. Much of my earliest writing came in the form of writing adventures, and creating extensive histories for my characters, for D&D (and then AD&D, and then all manner of non-Gygax games like Twilight 2000, Traveller, GURPS, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Paranoia, etc.) Text-based role playing games were the first large computer programs I wrote, on my trusty Commodore 64 (a machine that is as nostalgic to me as a box of dusty AD&D manuals).

Back in those days a role playing campaign could span a year of weekends, all of us hunkered down in one of our parents' living rooms, and it wasn't uncommon to own the same computer for five years. We committed to our gaming for the long term, and as such we evolved rich stories and complex characters. In college, much of my first couple years were spent playtesting the homebrewed gaming system that became a college friend's undergraduate thesis project.

I not only learned a lot about creative thinking, and writing, from role playing games -- but also about data management, the psychology of rule adherence, and negotiation. D&D was full of arcane rules and tables of data (which, honestly, most players learned to ignore after trying them out a couple times). Understanding how and why rules came to be abrogated, annulled, or redefined during innumerable role playing sessions -- and taking part in many negotiations regarding these issues -- has given me a deep, functional understanding of the psychology of rules. This has been very useful both in my management roles, as well as helping me better understand the nuanced pragmatics of politics and the legal system.

Though I haven't played a AD&D (or any other non-computer RPG) in years, role playing games were a huge part of my formative years. I can honestly say I learned far more about creative thinking from playing role playing games than from any class I took in school. Like John August, I have also been unable to separate from my box of D&D books over all these years. Occasionally, in a fit of nostalgia, I buy one of the rare ones I "always wanted" on eBay. I still harbor some notion that I may play again someday, and while I doubt that will ever come to pass, there is as much nostalgia-for-my-youth comfort in knowing that I could if I wanted to as there is in eating New York Pizza, listening to Pink Floyd, or watching A Christmas Story.

Gary Gygax, and the industry he helped create, really did help foster the imaginations, and encourage the development of valuable writing and negotiating skills, of generations of nerds all around the world. I also believe D&D helped pave the way for the success of things like Harry Potter, World of Warcraft, and even the resurgence of The Lord Of The Rings.

But even that's not the whole story, as D&D and things like it have an even greater impact. Fantasy and Science Fiction stories, and games, aren't just an escape from reality but also a clarion call to try to make reality a better place. Not only writers and artists, but also astronauts, scientists, engineers, etc. frequently cite Star Trek, D&D, and similar F&SF fare as inspirations for their quests to make the world a better place.

And Gary Gygax did indeed inspire legions of nerds in their quest to make the world a better place. He will be missed.