Tuesday, March 04, 2008

End of an Era

Walrus texted me this morning with the news that Gary Gygax was dead. Now, Walrus and I aren't huge gamer geeks for reasons that I will explain later, but it struck me as significant nonetheless.

Gygax falls into that category of innovators who push something into the poular consciousness then lose control over it and become omnipresent but increasingly irrelevant, much like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell or (as much as I love the guy for being perhaps the most sincere human being on the planet) Stan Lee. They're happy to see their passion become so widespread, but they don't really get what's become of their work and aren't getting as many rewards as they probably feel they deserve.

Before I move on, let me explain that earlier statement that Walrus and I aren't gamer geeks. It's not a claim of superiority, really. I have a lot of respect for geeks of all varieties because they can achieve a much higher level of focus than I can. Not since I was a teenager could I become obsessed with something completely enough to lose all perspective. A lot of that comes from simply being intensely self-conscious. It's kind of hard to immerse yourself in something maintain an ironic distance from it. Conversely, neither of us really fell into the hipster group because we're not all irony--we actually do get jazzed up about all kinds of stuff and really don't get into the whole hatin' thing.

I played role playing games fairly regularly from about the age of 12 to about the age of 30 with some consistency--at that point, my life and the lives of others became to complicated to make the whole thing happen. There are a lot of people my age who still manage it, but I stand in awe of their geeky dedication, but I think the real reason is that I found that most, if not all, of the people I was playing with were there at cross purposes to mine.

Back in elementary school, teachers would occasionally have the class write chain stories, where each person writes a sentence, then passes it on to the next person, who adds a sentence, and so on. I HATED this, mainly because there was always some jackass who had to insert PacMan into each and every story regardless of relevance. This is roleplaying about 90% of the time.

People play for all kinds of reasons, but few of them to engage in (to get all up my own ass for a second) the collaborative exploration of a narrative space. Some people want to play a reeeeeally slow version of a video game; others want to act out some wish fulfillment scenario, many of which, disturbingly, involve naked zebra women or the like; still others are bucking for alpha male by poring over arcane regulations like a Fortune 500 tax accountant. All of this is a giant buzzkill for me and makes me wonder why I gave up a Sunday afternoon.

Gary Gygax spawned an entire subculture that has evolved and thrived for over thirty years now. Conventions, which used to be about 99% comic-book guy types, have become family affairs, involving two or three generations and a broad mix of cultures and a much more balanced gender profile. People can immerse themselves in this life without having to compromise with the culture at large. Game stores are to these people what bars are to frat guys--friends fantasize about opening one, and when one of them manages to do so, the group usually rides the whole thing all the way to the ground (although I tip my hat to those people who manage to make the necessary adult decisions to really make it work). Gary's legacy will outlive him by decades.

I've been reading about 4th Edition D&D lately--it seems like there's some interesting things going on there. It might be fun to thumb through, even if I can't quite get it together enough to actually get it together enough to geek out.


  1. It's one of those deaths that really makes me silent for a moment. It's not that it's a shock, he's had a good run and at a certain age it's simply a possibility at any given time. It's not that I feel robbed-I haven't recently played much of his original product much less kept up with what he's doing now. But his original product had such a profound effect on my childhood, on my development, and as Sous Rature mentioned, how I viewed story.

    And while he may have cashed every check he got, I sincerely believe that it was a base curiosity, the same kind of exploritory joy that we all got when we cracked the rule books and realized that we could be the story, that was at the core of what he did and it made him one of life's winners.

    It's been longer for me than Sous Rature since I gamed with any regularity. The self consciousness that he mentions made it difficult to form new game connections. But even given that gap, I don't feel ashamed for getting a little teary eyed. Like the people Sous Rature mentioned, he took joy and enthusiasm and invited us all to the party and I'm a better person for it.

    I say this every time someone I respect dies, and it's at its truest as it's ever been when I say it here.

    Goodbye, Mr. Gygax. And seriously-thank you. Thank you very much.

  2. Anonymous10:06 PM

    Very sad indeed, however by definition anyone who plays "Kill Dr. Lucky" is a gamer geek.

  3. Anonymous8:11 PM

    "It's not a claim of superiority" is, in fact, a claim of superiority.