On Gary Gygax, on his day
Today is Gary Gygax’s birthday. It’s a day to remember his contributions to culture and society, and a lot of people are being very eloquent in doing so. Me, I’ve got a somewhat personal perspective on the matter, but hey, I have a blog. That’s what I’m supposed to put on it, so they say.
Through the age of eight, I didn’t have too much trouble making friends. There were always kids in the neighborhood I could play with, and “let’s pretend” was my favorite thing to play. Sure, there was plenty of time for toy cars (I preferred Matchbox), cartoons, Tinker Toys and the like, but “let’s pretend” was the best. I could be a cowboy, or a space man, or a detective, or whatever my imagination could create. In those games, I spent time as a mad scientist, a Time Lord, a super hero, and took flights of fancy that left my parents baffled, but satisfied that they had an imaginative child.
Then, my family moved from Cerritos, California to Chesterfield, Missouri in 1976, and the whole world changed.
It was hard for me to meet friends in the new place. The neighborhood was larger, kids my age were fewer and far between, and most of the activities that the locals enjoyed were far more sports-oriented than the activities I enjoyed. “Let’s pretend” was a game for much younger kids, apparently, while a good hearty game of tackle football in a muddy field was a great afternoon. I started to have a bad time.
I was the “new kid” in school, and imagination was far less important than how well you played soccer. Add to that the fact that my exertion asthma wouldn’t be diagnosed for quite some time, and I was an unpopular outcast in record time. There were a few of us outcast kids in the class that I was in at my parochial school, but we were constantly in a brutal fight to not be the one on the bottom of the pile. There’s kind of a sense of personal satisfaction in knowing that you suck as a bully, but that rarely overcomes the shame of what you went through to find that out.
Then, in sixth grade, one of the kids I was less antagonistic with came to school with a local newspaper article about a game that was gaining popularity on college campuses; Dungeons & Dragons. He had a very basic idea of what it was all about, and I was hooked on the concept long before I owned a single book.
After a little wheedling and dealing, my mom purchased me a big desk blotter that was essentially a stack of 24″ by 18″ graph paper. Oh, the dungeons I crafted…
Then there were the books (first edition) and the dice (also first edition) and the miniatures. I owned the official D&D Coloring Book. I didn’t understand all of the material, but I dug into it. It was partially through my struggles with this material that my parents learned that I had undiagnosed learning disabilities (along with the help of very dedicated English teacher). I had always liked to draw, now I had more pure source material for my art and my imagination than I knew what to do with.
In time, I found other people around me who were also fans of D&D, and we played. I acquired new friends, some of whom I have to this day. By the time that Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures came out for Advanced D&D, the gaming was helping me to compensate for my learning disabilities. It was actually kind of like a kung-fu movie where the master hobbles the student during training; because I had to fight so much harder to learn the information, by the time I learned to deal with the disabilities, I was able to develop a powerful grasp of the concepts.
In time, I moved on from Dungeons and Dragons to RPGs in genres that I had more of a personal connection with; I’ve always been more Sci-Fi than Fantasy. Still, D&D was the foundation my gaming career, which has become my vocational career.
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson showed me a way to take my old “let’s pretend” skills and refine them into a cooperative storytelling experience. I learned to get excited every time a new book came out, to look through illustrations and lists of equipment as if I was in a toy store. My days of “I roll to hit” were very short, followed by my career of “I try to take his hand off on the draw; if I take another minus three, can I do it without even looking at him?” Role Playing Games were more than a new kind of book or activity; they were like a new data-media or transfer protocol. They allowed not only for the transmission of imagination, like you could accomplish with a story or a comic book, but also for people to interact with your imagination. I could invite people into my daydreams.
Being the highly imaginative yet unpopular outsider with learning disabilities was like being locked in a room. I had all of these images and sequences and characters in my head, but I couldn’t share them. I tried to write, and it was almost like sharing the thoughts in my head, but it was incomplete. It was lonely.
After my discovery of RPGs, though, I could sit at a table with a group of friends, and they could walk around in my imagined worlds. I could walk around in their imagined worlds. My characters could be defined in terms that meant they could interact with other people’s characters in a meaningful way. That revelation was so huge that it has shaped the rest of my life.
So, on this day, my warmest “thank you” to Gary Gygax for guiding me out of the prison that my mind and life were becoming.