Thursday, March 06, 2008

More Thoughts on Gary Gygax's Passing

I was just watching CSI, and they ran an episode about a game that involved problem solving, which was described as being like clue, but the play-testing which the episode centered around seemed much more like a role-playing game. There was even a scene which showed a bag of dice and miniatures. I guess there are some geeks in scheduling at CBS.

For the past couple days, most of my spare internet time has been spent trolling through the plethora of internet eulogies and tributes to Gary Gygax. Being a new transplant to New England, I've yet to really develop any geek friendships, so in true geek style I am fulfilling my social needs through the internet. Because this has impacted me, it's hard to really explain, unless like so many of the other nerds posting, you understand what D&D meant to a certain clique of youths in the late 70s and the 80s.

"It's kind of like the death of Elvis for me," one fan told a Canadian newspaper. ...

There's no denying Mr. Gygax's game drew a certain kind of person – most of the time, we preferred books to basketballs, and the only time you would see us running on the football field is if we were trying to get away from a linebacker who was trying to give us a wedgie.

We would grow up to be engineers, artists and maybe a journalist or two. But back then, the game gave us a safe harbor during the stormy passage from youth to adulthood. More accurately, the people we played with – on our parents' castoff dining room tables, with bags of chips and liters of soda almost crowding out the gaming materials – became both anchor and shelter.

-From the Dallas Morning News

Culturally, Gygax was a crazy favorite uncle to an entire generation of geeks. Before the internet and computer billionaires made nerdiness sexy, D&D was like that favorite uncle's garage where we could talk about Tolkien, and Conan, and Greek Mythology freely. Myself, the only hippie kid at a junior high in an army town in central Texas, well, words fail to express how safe that garage made me feel.

It is soothing to read others' memories of similar experiences. Mathematicians, anthropologists, folklorists, lawyers, computer programmers, theologians, artists, writers, and of course, game designers have all fondly recollected how playing this silly game of make-believe indelibly influenced them.

Almost from the inception of D&D there was the outcry from religious fundamentalists, that a game which included magic, demons, and thievery was a diabolical influence on young people. Let me tell you, as a teen, I indulged in pretty much every vice that has been damned by Upright Citizens Brigades. Comic books, Punk Rock, Alcohol, premarital sex, and psychedelics, and while all of these led to both positive and negative experiences (well, except for comic books), I have nothing but good to say about role-playing games. At worst they are a harmless parlour game. At best, they can introduce practioners to a variety of higher-thinking techniques, strategies for reality simulation, techniques of problem solving, as well as ethical and moral inquiry.

Personally, I know that some of my earliest thinking about moral philosophy came about through heated discussions about the Character Alignment Graph in the AD&D Players Handbook. Where earlier versions of D&D mapped the moral code of individuals in the game as Good, Neutral, or Evil; AD&D was a little more complex:

For the uninitiated, "Lawful," is just that, someone who follows the letter of the law. "Evil," represents complete self-interest. "Good," shows a concern for the greater good, for the community over the self. "Chaotic," represents a total disregard for rules and dogma. For a twelve-year old, this is pretty heady stuff.

I have for sometime decried the blinding limitations of a binary value system. As an artist, even value systems that allow for shades of gray seem limited for mapping the whole of human experience and action. I think we would be far better suited to discuss ethics if we could see it as a color wheel, rather than black and white, or even gray-scale. I suppose it would be too much to hope for a culture of such sensitivity that we could even conceive of a value system based on the Munsell color solid. But the philosophical/artistic/gamer in me thinks what such a system lacks in playability, it more than makes up for in verisimilitude.

Still, when discussing ethics with other gamers, I have taken for granted that I had a model which allowed me to discuss it in "color," rather than in "black and white." It is only in writing this post that I have put this all together, and realized why I have such frustration in discussing moral issues with non-gamers. It is because in this arena, like so many others, AD&D is like a Common Tongue (or Lingua Franca for non-gamer academics) for discussing simulation.

As a counterpoint to the Bible-thumpers, I think is interesting that Mr. Gygax was quietly practicing Christian. In fact he last publisher reports:

Gary had a favorite Bible verse: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:16

Gary's light was that he liked a good game. And games will never be the same for the incandescent beam he shown upon them.

Godspeed, my friend.

1 comment:

Cliff said...

I remember when I first encountered the Political Compass - moving beyond the facile 2 dimensional Left/Right axis to a four dimensional Political and Economic axis - and wondering if the creators were gamers because it reminded me a lot of the AD&D morality axis.

As a kid I always wanted to play chaotic good characters and later embraced the ideology of anarchy (My ideas have evolved a little since then. My Political Compass read -7.00 / -5.74 the last time I checked, which means essentially a lefty libertarian) The connection seems obvious.