Today is, according to Jon Peterson, the 40th anniversary of the release of the first iteration of the Dungeons and Dragons game. Much has been said of the impact of D&D on both individuals and on whole industries. One could go on forever trying to gauge the total impact of D&D on American popular culture, and some have tried, or recounting the roller-coaster ride of its rise from obscure past time to 1980s sensation/scapegoat and back again, with a few stops at both nerd obsession and geek chic. All of that history is interesting and important and many writers have recounted the power of D&D on popular culture before and will do so again.
What I am interested in is something a little different. As ide from inspiring a generation or two of authors, game designers, filmmakers and others, the arrival of D&D also created a whole generation of fantasists. A fantasist differs from those aforementioned types in that a fantasist, by definition, does not necessarily make a living creating fantasies. Of the approximately 20 million people who have played D&D, every one was or is a fantasist. Every one has created a fantasy world or just a piece of it. Every one has helped craft a unique universe, populated by unique characters undertaking unique adventures. While there are of course many published worlds and even more commercial modules for the game that provide players a shared experience, each iteration of such a module, each group’s version of such a world, is still a unique creation. Even though they are clones, they are not the same.
What does it mean to have empowered 20 million daydreamers with the tools to create whole worlds? In some cases it has meant commercial success, but for most the rewards have been more subtle. The act of creation is one that has many benefits for the creator. Because D&D players are fantasists, and fantasists are creators, that population of gamers has enjoyed those benefits even if they don’t translate to a career as a best selling novelist or a high octane action star. And anecdotally, we know that being around creative people is fun and makes us happy, so the rest of the non-gaming world has benefited, too.
On a personal note, the existence of D&D gave me system by which to organize my creativity. before I discovered D&D at age 10 in 1985, my brothers and I played fantasy games we made up ourselves (usually involving hitting one another with sticks). I played by myself, having riotous adventures in the barn when I thought no one was looking (and my mother was watching via the horse foaling cameras we had installed). I wrote stores about heroes with shining “sords” and dragons whose eyes “glew” before I had ever read a book myself (what I would not give to have a copy of that notebook today). It was D&D, though, that allowed me to take all of those fantasies and wrangle them into a way that not only were they ordered for myself, but they could be shared with others. D&D gave me a venue. It also gave me the greatest friendships I have ever had and still have, but that is another post entirely.
So to all the gamers out there, from the most famous to the most common, I say: happy anniversary and Game On.