Wednesday, July 30

What's In A Game? Maybe All The Creativity We've Lost.

Last week, one of my friends shared an article that appeared in The New Yorker and it made me smile. I've known him for almost two decades but never knew he felt nostalgia for a fantasy game that peaked in popularity during the 1980s.

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is like that. It's almost akin to being or having been a member of a secret society that doesn't share its membership roster with members. Enough people played to transform this basement-made role-playing game into a multi-million dollar empire, but proportionately few ever talk about it. And even when some do talk, they couch their connection.

"I used to play until I started driving and discovered girls" is a common quip from those who still suffer from an almost inexplicable discomfort in having played it. Few games carry such a stigma.

Today, D&D still feels a bit saddled with its unfair share of stereotypes. Aside from being labeled as a flagship game for geekdom, there remains this lingering association with past religious objections and accusations that the game could cause psychological disorders. None of it was really true, but the outcry earned enthusiasts a sideways glance as being somewhat "weird" anyway.

When combined with several business disputes and trademark battles, the tabletop game was relegated to a niche gaming experience while its brand became a commercial success from extensive licensing agreements that included collectables, card games, novels, films, television series, computer games, online role playing games, and pop culture references. The outcome cut both ways. While the commercialization made the brand accessible, none of it captured the heart of the tabletop game.

At its heart, D&D is a game of imagination. The rules are just a framework.

Wizards of the Coast, which is currently launching the fifth incarnation of D&D, has taken to describing the game as collaborative storytelling. It's a fair description, given that every group of people who play have vastly different experiences. Some people like to play it like a board game with a finite timeframe. Others play it like an epic adventure without end.

The difference between the two play styles (and everything between) is dictated only by the limits of imagination — specifically, the imagination of a narrator (a.k.a. Dungeon Master) and the players (a.k.a. Player Characters). To help them, everyone follows a framework built upon descriptions, definitions, and computations (e.g., a sword with magical properties, provides +5 chance to hit something).

Proponents of the game have always highlighted this framework as the most redeeming part of the game because reading, writing, and arithmetic are at the core of it all. In fact, some would say that if creator E. Gary Gygax and his partner Dave Arneson deserve to be remembered for anything, it was in developing a game that encouraged kids to become immersed in all three areas, while picking up smatterings of science, history and literature alongside those core skill sets.

D&D also provided an effective venue to discover new hobbies and practice a host of other competencies. The game is loaded with problem-solving exercises, social dilemmas, leadership opportunities, conflict resolutions, team-building challenges, and ethical lessons. It reinforces the concept that individuals can strive for success if they are willing to work hard and take risks, but not alone. The best groups (or "parties" as they are called) consist of a mix of races and professions.

More importantly, Dungeons & Dragons nurtures creativity and imagination. It relies on the ability of the people playing to imagine an encounter, spontaneously embellish or add to that encounter, and then communicate their contribution so that other players can incorporate it into their version of the experience. And it relies on imagination, sometimes with an assist from prewritten game modules, to create those encounters. So why is that important?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” — Albert Einstein

It might not be a coincidence that the decline in U.S. education coincides with its decline in creativity and imagination. Since the 1990s, children in the U.S. have been subjected to more standardization in the classroom and outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, it comes in the form of convergent education structures (standardized instruction measured by the ability to provide one correct answer). Outside of the classroom, it comes in the form of convergent play (video games built on someone else's imagination or movie characters that children use to reenact television shows and movies).

The irony? Despite an increased need for creativity and imagination (leadership traits) in a workforce plagued by average worker syndrome, children are generally discouraged from creative thinking (the ability to think in novel and unique ways to create new solutions) and divergent thinking (the ability to think up several answers to the same question). People might deny it, but evidence bears it out.

Specifically, children who ask too many questions, embellish reality in their drawings, resist conformity, seek independence, display self-expression, dislike rote recital, or seek out solitary playtime — all of which are traits of highly creative minds — are more likely to be discouraged or even reprimanded (if not diagnosed as ADHD) than their peers. Even outside the classroom, most parents prefer their children to obey authority, achieve popularity, and seek social affirmation.

Consider Dungeons & Dragons a solid barometer for the times. Most parents won't pay any attention to a Dungeons & Dragons video game (or especially explicit video games like Grand Theft Auto), but seeing a 20-sided die, some graph paper, and a sketch of an umber hulk could prompt them to validate their concerns. What's the difference? Nothing, except whose imagination drives the story — a game developer/movie producer/etc. or the child who has to employ reading, writing and math to make it work.

Personally, I was very fortunate to have kept my now vintage Dungeons & Dragons materials. On occasion, my family has even dug out the well-worn manuals, dungeon modules, and an alternative timeline that I had superimposed on The World Of Greyhawk created by Gary Gygax. And while those occasions don't happen often enough, it's still fun to know that I've introduced them to a world shaped by dozens of friends, their characters, the descendants of their characters, and a smattering of embellishments such as "overmen" from a series written by Lawrence Watt-Evens or a ranger society based loosely on Arboria from Flash Gordon (but without the science).

If nothing else, doing so reminds me to balance the experiences my children have while growing up. Yes, I think it is important to strive for educational excellence and encourage participation in activities such as sports and social engagement. But I also think it is equally important to nurture their imaginations whenever possible. The world needs more individual creativity.

If Dungeons & Dragons can help them open their minds even a little bit, then I'm all for it. I wish more people would be for it too. And if a game with a fantasy setting akin to Lord Of The Rings doesn't hold any appeal? Then consider the setting. Tabletop role-playing settings include everything from the Old West to outer space. Or, if nothing else, look for other games or activities (like drawing) to keep their imaginations alive and creativity sharp.

That is the point. The world could use a little more imagination and creativity. If the contributions aren't coming from you, then perhaps you can inspire someone else to never give it up. To me, the greatest gift you can give anyone is the empowerment to never say "I used to do this [creative thing] .... until I got old [and boring]."
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