There are many ways a nominee for The Al could improve the human condition. Some, like Matt’s recent nominee Malcolm McLean, are inventors of products or methods that make us better off by increasing economic prosperity. Others, like Greg’s winning nominee Wim Nottroth, improve the human condition by fighting for greater liberty. My nominee for this year’s Al didn’t do either of these things. Gary Gygax, the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), made a significant contribution to improving the human condition by giving us license to continue “playing pretend” into our adolescence and adulthood.
How does it improve the human condition for teenagers and adults to continue playing pretend? Well, mostly because it’s fun. Children love playing pretend, but traditionally we’ve been socialized to abandon these childish things as we assume adult responsibilities. That might make sense when every waking moment had to be devoted to making a living, but society has grown remarkably wealthy. That wealth has created significant opportunities for leisure, most of which people now consume by passively sitting and watching movies and TV. D&D involves story-telling, just like movies and TV, but it is more active and social. It is collective story-telling, with each participant adding details and shaping the plot.
I won’t bother to defend the benefits of story-telling other than to note that it is as old as human beings and universal in its appeal. We obviously need to do it. By inventing a new way for people to tell stories and giving us a mechanism for continuing that activity beyond childhood, Gary Gygax made a significant contribution to improving the human condition.
Let’s be clear. D&D really is just playing pretend, not a formal game — at least if you are doing it right. Even Gary Gygax, who made his living mostly by selling rulebooks for D&D, understood that the rules were really unnecessary when he conceded: “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” Gygax is also reported to have said, “A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make.” To play D&D you don’t need to follow rules and it doesn’t really matter what numbers the dice roll. All you need is a group of people willing to tell a story together.
I haven’t played D&D in many years, but I remember it fondly. In fact, I first played D&D in 1979 — the same year that the first Dungeon Master’s Guide was published. The “game” for which I was DM was loosely based on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The players had to fight the spiders and ultimately defeat Ziggy by “crush[ing] his sweet hands.” Yep, we were incredibly geeky… but pretty cool geeks. And we used to make fun of Gary Gygax at the time for what we thought were his stupid books and rules. We didn’t understand that he just meant them as suggestions to get us started. At that they succeeded. So, thank you Gary Gygax for getting geeks everywhere to keep on playing pretend and telling stories.