Michaud on the Benefits of RPGs

Monday, July 28, 2014

Some time ago, I linked to a good piece on the ridiculous "moral panic" back in the 1980's over role-playing games (particularly Dungeons and Dragons). Over the weekend, I ran across an equally good, positive piece on Dungeons and Dragons. Like its author, I enjoyed the game while it was at the peak of its popularity, and I also saw the engrossing game as a much better passtime than most of the alternatives:

For much of its existence, D. & D. has attracted ridicule, fear, and threats of censorship from those who don't play or understand the game. It is surrounded by a fog of negative connotations. David M. Ewalt, the author of Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, writes, "If you're an adult who plays … you're a loser, you're a freak, you live in your parents' basement." The game has been accused of fomenting Communist subversion and of being "a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft." One mother, whose D. & D.-playing son committed suicide, started an organization called Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD).

Though that negative perception is changing, as popular culture and the fantasy milieu become increasingly synonymous, I believe that the benefits of D. & D. are still significantly underappreciated. Though its detractors see the game as a gateway to various forms of delinquency, I would argue that the reverse is true. For countless players, Dungeons & Dragons redirected teen-age miseries and energies that might have been put to more destructive uses. How many depressed and lonely kids turned away from suicide because they found community and escape in role-playing games? How many acts of bullying or vandalism were sublimated into dice-driven combat? How many teen pregnancies were averted because one of the potential partners was too busy looking for treasure in a crypt? (Make all the jokes you want, but some of my fellow-players were jocks who had girlfriends; sometimes the girlfriends played, too.) How many underage D.U.I.s never came to pass because spell tables were being consulted late into the night? (It's hard to play D. & D. drunk; it requires too much concentration and analytical thought.) Just this week, the Times published an article about the game's formative influence on a diverse generation of writers, including Junot Díaz, Sherman Alexie, George R. R. Martin, Sharyn McCrumb, and David Lindsay-Abaire. (To the Times' lineup, I'd add a murderers' row of Ed Park, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paul La Farge, Colson Whitehead, and Sam Lipsyte.) [format edits]
John Michaud goes on to note such benefits as the game getting kids to read who otherwise didn't care to. (I remember my mother noticing how much better my brother became at reading after we'd played a while.)  And, speaking for myself, who was shy and very bookish then, the game (and others like it) got me to expand my circle of friends in high school and helped me jump-start my social life when I began college. Would I make the claim, as the author does, that D&D saved my life? No, but it certainly made it more enjoyable, and Michaud has helped me see that it was beneficial for many of the other kids I knew who played it.

I recommend reading the whole thing some time before the new New Yorker paywall goes up in three months. And I look forward to dusting off my old rulebooks some time down the road and, like Michaud, introducing my kids to the game.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "And I look forward to dusting off my old rulebooks some time down the road and, like Michaud, introducing my kids to the game."

One of my best friends, an opera singer in Germany now, was and is a geek chick in part because when she and her sister were just at the end of their tween years, her father started them all playing D&D as a family. She told me that their very first game, their father took aside her sister, who was playing a thief, and told her that she had entered a room with thirty gold pieces on a table, then asked her how many gold pieces she'd tell the other players she'd found for dividing up the spoils. "Twenty," she answered, and she said that from then on her father knew her sister was a born player.

I might add that she told me this story when we met for coffee the first Monday after Gygax died and I shared with her this cartoon, which is a perfect tribute.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for sharing that amusing story and the XKCD cartoon.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I started playing in college with a circle of friends that included guys that were a year behind me in High School.

Engrossing play and we actually took the trouble to create custom dungeons with aspects of various sci-fi and fantasy writers own universes plagiarized for the game.

Unfortunately, by the time 2nd semester rolled around I realized that I no longer really had the time to work construction, go to school, study, and play D&D - particularly with marathon sessions that would go all weekend long. So I bowed out of the group.

No regrets, though. And I laughed when all the Satanic Panic showed up a couple of years later. Apparently I should have ended up like Charlie or Marilyn Manson. Or so the panic story went. Huh. I guess I just missed turning into a psychopath. Go Figure.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Work, specifically to save for a semester in Europe, did me in as a player. Also, no regrets.