Now that my mile-long precede is done, let’s get into it.
Part of the work I did for my thesis this year was on stigma in popular culture, specifically in comics, and it’s really highlighted to me the ways in which some stigmas can really prevail even when the thing being stigmatised becomes accepted by social groups. Dungeons and Dragons has, arguably, been stigmatised since it first came to prominence in the 1970s. It’s the go-to tenet meant to symbolise a hopeless, socially-retarded nerd with way too much time on their hands and a set of social skills extending only towards a +15 bonus to Diplomacy when speaking to any elven-descended table dancer. It’s used by clueless idiots as an insult to popular culture aficionados like myself, and while by and large it’s nowhere near as negative an identifier as it used to be it’s still got some bad qualities.
Since high school I’ve been a frequent gamer of both the original DnD, now nearly four decades old, and Pathfinder, a game involving a reinterpretation of some older DnD rules that in some cases supplants the core game itself. I’ve loved roleplaying as a sexually-amorous cleric, a dimwitted paladin with a penchant for stabbing things and a half-demon ranger who fell victim to one of the aforementioned tree-people. I enjoy the escapism, the ability to slip into a different role every now and then and partake in long, brutal quests to rescue towns from the villainy of goblins, dragons and money-laundering casino operators.
However, after several years of play, I can really see why the stigma of DnD symbolising the peak of nerd-dom as an insult still applies today. There are actions and dispositions that modern players take that would’ve had them laughed out of high school with underwear wedged firmly and uncomfortably between buttocks during DnD’s heyday, and yet so many players I’ve met are surprised or offended when random people hurl racially-motivated dwarven slurs at veteran players as a form of social interaction. Quite a few players I’ve spoken to understand the stigma, but too many exponents of the game seem confused as to why they are consistently mocked for sitting in a cramped, body odoured room filled with nerds of varying ages every weekend when they could be out playing football or copulating with others of their sexual preference.
While I love DnD, the fact of the matter is that approaching it in a particular way will, in some cases, erode social skills. There are three reasons for this:
1 – ESCAPISM
The whole point of DnD is the ability to escape from the trappings of everyday life and engage in a creative pursuit where, through immersion, you become a heroic character in a fantasy setting. Unfortunately, some of us nerds blessed with high intelligence (the mental process, not the ability score) and a passion for these escapist pursuits are also imbued with what Richard Dawkins would call a “selfish gene” – namely, compulsion.
Those of us with addictive personalities take to things we like and cling to them the way fleas cling to a wet dog, which is probably how World of Warcraft racks up such a high body count. God knows I got roped in playing recent video games like XCOM and Halo 4, and that’s only got light immersion elements to it compared to some of the stuff DnD can throw at you.
There are literally some campaigns that can run for days at a time, and spending hours upon hours roleplaying as as half-elf druid/ranger combo who has a a +2 longbow of fire and a weakness for boys named Greg can leave lasting imprints on particular players’ psyches. I know of one guy in particular, who hopefully will never read this blog, who once spent every school day of a particular week as his Elven warlock in every single class. God bless my science teacher that year, who had a saintly patience to rival Mother Teresa.
This is an extreme example, but for many garden variety players it still sticks a bit. For a while after playing back in high school I preferred to have mannerisms from my Human ranger when talking to people occasionally, since he was a snarky asshole and I was just a meek teen. Hell, even this year, after attending a Pathfinder convention over Easter, I found myself speaking in my character’s accent as naturally as my own. It was just organic, seamless and unavoidable for me, like a decent bowel movement.
Playing as someone else, essentially participating in another life for hours on end, leaves marks, no matter what kind of player you are. Even if pretending to be a Halfling rogue with anal bead proficiency leaves you wanting to wash your mouth out with some Call of Duty, every escapist character leaves an impact. On the more pervasive players, that impact can be a bit bigger. Talking to normal people doesn’t cut it anymore. You’ve got to talk to players, people who speak the language you’ve learnt, or characters who interact with the life you’ve constructed.
Which leads me rather neatly to…
2 – TIME
All DnD experiences, at least the more memorable ones, require a time commitment to get the most bang for your buck. There’s no such thing as a “quick” game, or, at least, “quick” usually means a minimum of three hours of questing, NPC conversation and laughing when your New Zealander paladin clobbers another orc skull with a single swing of his testicles.
Campaigns are easily massive time sinks, some taking years to complete and clocking in weeks-worth of consistent gameplay in that time. I’ve been a part of at least six separate campaigns in the last few years that have all ended unceremoniously due to time constraints, and some of these ran for months each. While they were awesome, they did eat up hours like a time-hungry leviathan.
While it can be awesome to have a long, rich experience inside a DnD campaign, it takes time away from other things you could be doing. Like socialising with people outside the nerd club. Or eating an entire birthday cake with a Baileys chaser. Or curing cancer. Or writing a screenplay that’ll one day star Suri Cruise as the main character’s love interest.
My point is, to get the most out of pen-and-paper games, rather than have it be a flighty, occasional experience, it needs time. That time spent speaking Draconic and continuously rolling bonuses to Initiative can, for some of the already socially-awkward people among us (like me), seriously impinge on your ability to consort with members of your sex, the opposite sex, and most quadrupedal reptiles that aren’t offspring of a dragon. The shelter of being immersed in that fantasy world of swords and sorcery can blind some of us to the realistic expectations and genuine pleasures to be found in walking on a beach, frying a cat kebab or increasing risk of heart failure by going on daily jobs to the national park. The more time you spend, the more safe it feels, the more you stay inside it. Vicious cycle, or what?
There is, however, one massive final reason why DnD is to social skills what Christmas is to people’s wallets.
3 – PEOPLE ARE JERKS
Fairly self-explanatory, and kinda obvious, but it’s true. People are douches. There’s no escaping it. The nerd mob have a worse time of it than others because the socially-stigmatised favourites like Batman and NyanCat don’t conform to a large part of dominant social circles and what most people term “cool”. While it’s true the kind of stuff we’re into is becoming more of a cultural staple (with things like “geek chic” and other similar terms that make those who coin them seem more hipstery than the people they’re ironicising) there’s still a large part of modern culture that rejects what people like me hold dear.
DnD is one of those rejects. The unfortunate truth is that quite a few games I’ve sat through resemble the video at the start of this post, lisps and all. Mainstream culture hits nerds over the head with the Jersey Shore and professional football hammers, meaning the downtrodden scarper back to one of their most beloved sanctuaries in an effort to escape the cruelty and douchebaggery associated with current cultural trends. This means more speaking Draconic, more time invested, less time branching outside the dragon-hunting social group, and a distinct genesis towards more of a divorce from other people.
It’d be lovely if we could all be tolerable of more elements outside our own sphere of personal taste (God knows I’m trying to be more supportive of Twilight fans, if only because otherwise the missus might poison my morning coffee again) but the sad truth is DnD still carries a hefty stigma that makes people hesitant to profess their love for it to those with watermelons in their biceps who pack loads for a living. Same thing with comics, science fiction and Tyler Perry, it’s all marginalised for separate reasons that are all kinda linked under one umbrella (except that last one).
So because of this, people like me, and some other players I’ve met, use DnD as armour (not just the +5 damage resistance kind). Linking back to the two former reasons, being in a group of like-minded players who scull in-game mead and reminisce about ogre-slaying for hours on end is wicked fun, and provides an alternative to getting spat on by jocks in high school or laughed away from the office water cooler. It’d be much easier to hang out with people who won’t call you a fag and brand you with the dungeon-crawling iron for life, and as such you don’t need to work too much on stuff in that vein. The armour becomes a skin, and you’re staying inside it to avoid the harsh realities of everyday life.
Now, I’m absolutely certain a lot of what I’ve just written is incredibly generalistic, and as such there is still no blanket ideal that Dungeons and Dragons, and those which it has spawned, identifies by. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, plenty of players with social competence, well-paying jobs and a relationship with two lesbian news reporters. But on the whole, there are still people and parts of the game that contribute to the negative impact modern culture has on the pen-and-paper community. There are still elements that are stigmatised, still people who add to the bad reputation, and still others who will consistently be trampled under the self-appointed superiority boots of what contemporary society terms as “cool”.
But putting aside my Devil’s Advocate status for a moment, DnD is f**king fun. Seriously. It might carry negative weight when you hear the term, but I’d be willing to bet most people why shy away for it either have no clue what it is, or have never played it in their lives. Or both. I’ve met a few people – and one in particular who, also, will never read this blog – who are as opposed to DnD as the Vatican is to gay marriage, and it’s such a disappointment that they don’t give it a go. I understand negative stigma is meant to shy people away from a thing, but since this isn’t something like ethnic cleansing or supporting the Third Reich, it’d be great if people could put that aside for a moment and try to experience DnD for what it is – good ol’ escapist fun with the odd bit of body odour and a shitload of numbers.
I’m not sure what I hoped to accomplish with this post, as it seems to have gone a little schizophrenic by the end, and the idea’s been in my head for a few months now. I guess my final point is I can see why people react negatively to DnD, and I can see why some people would be turned off by it, and I can see why it would erode the social skills most people could enhance and develop if they got out of the basement once in a while. But I can also see the fun, and why DnD can be used as such a powerful shield against what we don’t like in real life. I guess maybe in the end it all comes down to moderation, or a good home life, or a partner, or the Rapture. Who knows.
I’ll leave you all to figure what I’m on about.