Dungeons and Dragons Culture and Psychology: A Player’s Perspective
Dungeons and Dragons seems like a drug: an addictive practice that transforms the mind and soul of the players, leaving them wanting more and more fantasy, more adventure, more escapism, more fun! In our last article on Dungeons and Dragons, Adam ran down a brief history of the game and described the formation of his personal addiction to D&D. Since we published the article, we’ve spoken to a few fellow role players about their experiences and opinions of the game and what it is that makes Dungeons and Dragons such a unique and satisfying experience.
The World of Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons is a world unto itself. In this, I’m not talking about the fantasy world that takes place within a gaming session. In his discussion, Adam only touched the tip of the iceberg with a few of the extensions and campaigns that stemmed from the original Dungeons and Dragons game, and that doesn’t even begin to touch the multitude of D&D imitators.
In addition to the role playing game, the Dungeons and Dragons franchise has spawned Dragon Magazine (1975-2007) and Dungeon Magazine (1986-2007), periodicals containing game scenarios and other information now published in electronic format; Dungeons and Dragons, an animated television series co-produced by Marvel; Dungeons and Dragons Official Role Playing Soundtrack (2003), a studio album from Gothic rock outfit Midnight Syndicate; numerous novels and traditional format board games, computer games and a feature movie, Dungeons and Dragons released in 2000.
Dungeons & Dragons Players – Geek or Chic?
With the widespread popularity of the game also came a particular cultural image attached to players of Dungeons and Dragons. Let’s not beat around the bush here. People who play Dungeons and Dragons are popularly conceived as the epitome of nerd, geeks, social rejects and eternal virgins. To be clear, this is a description of the misguided stereotype of Dungeons and Dragons players developed in popular culture, not the highly attractive role playing staff of Pop Cultured, or our sexy role playing compadres.
Fear of Girls, a mockumentary series detailing the lives of Dungeons and Dragons and LARP gamers (that’s Live Action Role Playing for the uninitiated), was released online in 2005, and enjoyed a viral popularity.
Watch the first episode of Fear of Girls
The stereotypical nerd, geek, dork, gamer is more than obvious in this short film. But how close to reality is that image? I asked our panel of gamers how they felt about the stereotype of D&D players being the epitome of geeks and socially inept freaks?
“I have always found those stereotypes slightly offensive, particularly in the current culture that seems to hold them up as a sort of freak show in TV shows such as Nerds FC,” says Nick, a gamer of 20 plus years.
Shades of Sentience’s Alanna, a gamer since her youth agrees: “More than anything I just think it’s a shame. It’s a fun, interactive game and I know a lot of people who believed the stereotype until they played it themselves,” she said.
The Geek Gamer stereotype we’re seeing in Fear of Girls is, like all stereotypes a misrepresentation. But is there any truth in it? Adam Hennessy believes, “for the most part it is an inaccurate representation of the gaming community, although if you go to the cons, it is hard not to get that impression.”
“All subcultures have stereotypes built around them,” Alanna adds. “Things like the iiNet Top Geek competition have been doing a really great job of trying to show the public that geeks come in all forms, from the socially inept to the stunningly charismatic and everything in between. Hopefully in time the message will get through. I think a lot of it is simply a lack of familiarity with the game. As geeky things like D&D become more understood, a lot of the stigma will go away – I hope!”
The geek stigma is changing. The last few years have seen the rise of the Geek Chic culture. In the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory, the nerd is now a celebrated icon. How then has this shift in stereotype affected the image of the Dungeons and Dragons player?
“The biggest difference I have seen is that people who once would have said “D&D? That stuff’s just for geeks!” are now far more opening to sitting down and having a try,” Nick observes. Adam does not see that much of a shift in perception he believes having people like Vin Diesel, who wrote the forward to the 30th Anniversary D&D books admit he is a gamer does help a little.
“I think the changes in how people see D&D players are trickling through, but in a slow and patchy way. Often I find people’s openness in learning more about it is directly correlated to how much time they spend online. They don’t have to be hardcore geeks or gamers themselves, but I think that the internet has allowed the geek community to expand and connect. While it might mean there are a lot more geeks out there talking to each other, there is still that other part of society that has no idea what we’re going on about. When you then take into consideration that the shows I mentioned earlier are all they have to judge us by, you can see why the perceptions are changing in a slow and patchy way. I’d say we’ve become curiosities rather than freaks. It’s a start.” ~ Alanna
Novelist and stand-up comedian Mark Barrowcliffe wrote a memoir on his experiences as a Dungeons and Dragons obsessed child. The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange is an amusing read where Barrowcliffe tells of the trials and triumphs of being a gamer, his attempt to use his prowess of the game to pick up girls (with varying degrees of success), and basically what life was like for a kid in the late 1970s who thought nothing of speaking in some bastardised medieval tongue, and dressing in the same fashion.
Barrowcliffe goes into detail about the personality types of the gamers he played with. Sardonic, nasty jerks, obsessed with social class and intellectual elitism, some of them even Neo-Nazis. The book, while praised for its amusing recollection of life for the Dungeons and Dragons obsessed, is criticised for pigeon holing Dungeons and Dragons players as people who take their battle into the real world, one way or another, who box people in terms of race and class and abilities, and who were all at the most elemental level desperate for escape in their lives.
It does seem as though Barrowcliffe’s individual experiences were unique to him as our panel of gamers unanimously agree their personal gaming worlds are generally nothing like this. “You come across a large cross section and yes, some are like this, but no more so than in any other group, club or organisation,” Alanna says.
Dungeons and Dragons – Controversy and Condemnation
In early days, Dungeons and Dragons game books were described as borderline pornography, particularly in the depiction of large breasted, scantily clothed women (who may or may not have been riding dragons, wielding giant battle axes, and so forth). This lead to the change of artwork in later manuals, but that culture, not limited to the Dungeons and Dragons franchise still exists as any basic Google search for “fantasy women” will show.
Remember the moral panics from religious groups at the peak of the Harry Potter phenomenon, fearing the promotion witchcraft, Satanism and occultism. That same flavour of moral panic has surrounded Dungeons and Dragons for almost as long as it has been around.
“Honestly I think it’s a bit silly. Anyone who has ever played the game will know that it’s got nothing to do with traditional Satanism at all. It wouldn’t even be a good bridge. Yes, there are all sorts of demonic creatures in D&D but they’re created in such a way that a healthy person would find it hard to take seriously,” says Alanna
Nick believes this culture of fear will continue to dissipate with the increasing popularity of fantasy in mainstream popular culture. “Given that the majority of people today are familiar with Fantasy and its tropes, with books and movies available in plenty, these panics and the people that used them have been relegated to anachronism status and aren’t given much credence. It’s no longer a real issue.”
Dungeons and Dragons and Psychology
Dungeons and Dragons fueled controversy has also accused the game of exacerbating and even causing psychological disorders where players have difficulty separating the game from reality.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s the famous 1979 case of James Dallas Egbert III erupted a panic that fueled the flames of Dungeons and Dragons hate. Despite the later assertion that Egbert’s psychological problems and suicide attempt had nothing to with Dungeons and Dragons, the episode spawned a cultural phenomenon in itself, such as the Mazes and Monsters novel and film, and a host of other novels and books that nod to the Egbert case with people experiencing difficulty separating their game world and their real world. While Adam admits to having had round the clock gaming marathons filter through to his dreams, he says he has never experienced or witnessed any kind of negative psychological effect of role playing games.
“It’s possible to grasp a basic understanding of the fear involved in this panic, but is this fear grounded in any kind of reality? “I’ve never met or gamed with anyone who has had this problem. I think in this case, as in the video-game outrage of last decade and most such moral panics, the problem exists in individual people, not in the medium they latch on to. Those people who confuse an imaginary world with reality don’t have a problem with or because of D&D, but rather have a serious mental problem that gives them a loose grip on reality anyway. These people should be helped as much as possible, not used as an excuse to attack a subculture that is misunderstood.” Nick
“Incidents where people have been psychologically damaged from playing D&D are rare and it is important to take context into account. If indeed, as some studies claim, D&D players feel more alienated from society, is this because of the game itself, or because of how they are treated by people who view the game in a negative way? D&D has always been associated with geeks, who in turn have generally been treated somewhat poorly by their peers. That they are then attracted to a game where they can express themselves freely with like-minded individuals would explain why some D&D players might come to the game with pre-existing issues, while others are simply taking advantage of what the game can give them in a completely healthy way.” Alanna
On the reverse of this coin, there have been numerous studies into cases where playing Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games has been used to treat patients with psychological and social problems.
In 1994, The American Journal of Psychotherapy published a case study by Wayne D Blackmon, chronicling the use of the game in the successful treatment of a schizophrenic patient. ‘Fred’, a 19 year old student with an obsessive, schizoid personality, the article claiming he was “not safely reachable” using traditional psychotherapy. The study concluded that the game was successful in that it allowed Fred to recognise his own emotions in transferring them to his game character, also improving his ability to interact with other people. It was concluded that the defined rules of the game made Dungeons and Dragons a more effective psychological tool than other role playing therapy activities.
It seems to me that the group nature of the role playing game would have a positive influence on most people, encouraging communication and promoting community interaction among players, all of which are key for healthy social functioning.
So, at the end of all of this theory…
What is the appeal of playing Dungeons and Dragons?
“A lot of it for me is about sitting around a table with people who share a common interest and a common bond and socialising, be it through characters, or mostly table talk, it is that safe environment. No judging, no looking down the nose. I also think it takes me back to simpler high school days when I would play instead of study for the HSC…again no worries or doubts, it is definitely a form of escapism.” ~ Adam
“I play because it’s fun. D&D is a challenging and interactive game. It makes use of problem solving and all sorts of healthy creative and intellectual pursuits. The game is so vast that there will always be something new to do and if by some miracle you run out or simply get bored, it is set up with guidelines so you can add to the game yourself. Being a writer myself, I loved designing my own adventures and campaign world.” ~ Alanna
“For me, it’s a creative endeavour. I can’t remember which game it was, but one of the roleplaying books I have read over the years started with the following sentiment (paraphrased by my unsteady memory). “There are few statements as emotionally resonant as this one – Tell me a story”’. I love stories, and always have. From well written movies and tv shows to the dozens and dozens of books I devour each calendar year, there hasn’t been any period of my life that hasn’t involved stories. I’ve written them, read them, shared them and talked about them. I think the love of stories is something universal, an essential part of the human condition. Given that, the idea that entertainment could be gained by a group of friends sitting around a table making up a story together isn’t was inevitable. I’m looking forward to teaching my kids when they get older – a role player is just someone who never bought the lie that you can be too old to enjoy make believe.” ~ Nick
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