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An Amusing Episode, Of Our Lives

Kenneth Burke described literature as “equipment for living”: “A work like Madame Bovary,” he wrote, “is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutis mutandis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude toward it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary.”

My mother once said she felt bad about not giving my siblings and me a religious upbringing–not because she feared for our souls, but because she worried we’d miss out on all the biblical references and allusions woven through Western culture.

Simpsons Anniversary Poster

You needn’t have worried, Mom. There’s my equipment for living, there’s my vast Talmudic dictionary of allusions and parables for apprehending and articulating the world. The first episode of The Simpsons aired twenty years ago today.

(*) Just to reiterate: The worst fate Mom could imagine for her heathen kids was not hellfire and damnation, but not getting all the references. I am my mother’s son.

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Fantasy Vietnam

When in doubt, quote Dylan:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting, “which side are you on?”

Previously on the deep history of roleplaying games: When David Wesely created Braunstein, his seminal proto-roleplaying game, he was inspired, he said, by three books he’d found in the University of Minnesota library. One was a wargame by 19th-century crackpot Charles Totten. One was a primer on game theory by the Cold War eggheads of the RAND Corporation. And the third was Conflict and Defense, an assault on RANDian game theory by the Quaker peace activist, systems theorist, and mystical poet Kenneth Boulding. A catholic trinity, to say the least.

Like Totten’s Strategos and RAND’s Compleat Strategyst, Conflict and Defense is an odd duck. Written in 1960, it is a heartsick response to Cold War brinksmanship and a critique of RAND-style game theory, but it is written in precisely the same esoteric language of models and matrices the RANDies used. “Just as war is too important to leave to the generals,” Boulding concludes, “so peace is too important to leave to the pacifists.” The book is a forest of diagrams and equations, “indifference curves,” “bare-survival contours,” and “mutual submission equilibriums.” It seems to have been an effort to devise some universal geometry of conflict and peace, and in so doing save the world from nuclear war. Boulding was a prominent economist and a pioneer of general systems theory, but his quest for a unified ecology of knowledge ultimately became a kind of religious mysticism. The information revolution, he argued in the 1970s and 80s, was weaving us all into one planetary superorganism. (Which it is, but serious economists aren’t supposed to come right out and say that.)

I’m not claiming that all or even any of this found its way directly into David Wesely’s Braunstein, though I remain impressed at Wesely’s eclectic tastes, and consider the whole story yet more proof of the indispensable serendipity of open library stacks. But the fact that Braunstein was inspired by a spacey Quaker on the one hand and by the RAND Corporation on the other makes me wonder: which side of the culture war were roleplaying games on? Were the first D&Ders squares or hippies, hawks or doves? This was a hobby invented by young American men, men of draftable age, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two of the biggest groups of early gamers were college students and the military. Is it strange that the conflicts of the era are not more reflected in the history of the hobby? Is it strange that the received history of roleplaying games barely mentions Vietnam?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. I’d really like to hear the thoughts of anybody reading this. Especially (but not only) if you were a gamer back in the proverbial day.

“When you’re in an old-school dungeon you’re in @*%!ing VIETNAM. Check EVERYTHING. Clear out EVERYTHING. Don’t take ONE STEP MORE than you have to until you’re COMPLETELY SURE it’s clear. Check EVERYTHING for traps. Search EVERYTHING. … THE GM WILL USE IT TO @*%! YOU OVER. Be PROACTIVE: set traps and ambushes for the monsters before they do it to you. Find a position of tactical advantage and DUMP FIREBALLS, FLAMING OIL, AND BARRAGES OF ARROWS on your enemies. And even if you do everything right, you STILL might get screwed by wandering monsters.”
a post by “Calithena” on Dragonsfoot, an old school D&D forum

I shouldn’t assume everything was colored by the conflict over Vietnam. My Dad was a grad student at UW-Madison circa 1968-70–not too far from the birth of D&D in either space or time–and my parents always describe it as this peaceful, idyllic period in their lives. After I saw The War at Home, I was all, “how come you guys never talk about about the riots and the tear gas and the people blowing up post-docs?” And Mom and Dad were all, “Oh, none of that really registered with us. We did go see Hair once.”

Many key figures in the history of RPGs had military backgrounds or connections–no big surprise when talking about the wargaming side of things. Totten, we know, was an Indian fighter and professor of military tactics. James Dunnigan, founder of SPI, discovered wargames as a 19-year-old recruit on his way to Korea. And when David Wesely ran the first Braunstein in 1967 or 1968, he had either enlisted or was just about to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserves. Wesely reported for active duty in 1970, telling Dave Arneson to keep on running the game without him: “I … expected to go off to Vietnam and get killed,” he said, “so I did not really care a lot about who ‘owned’ Braunstein.” That’s a comment Major Wesely could make lightly in 2006, but in 1970 it must have had bottomless implications.

Vietnam floats around the edges of roleplaying history in weird ways. There were Vietnam games in the 1980s like Recon, which indulged the odd modesty of relocating to a slightly alternate world where a superpower called “Stateside” found itself bogged down in a country called “the Nam.” “Fantasy Vietnam” is the nickname for a D&D playstyle where the Dungeon Master is out to get the players so everything is boobytrapped and nobody can be trusted. Charles Swan Roberts, founder of Avalon Hill, says he got the idea of hex grids from a photo of wargamers at RAND. I suspect the photo was this one, which appeared in Life magazine in 1959. The man in the center foreground is none other than Daniel Ellsberg, who, for those of you just joining us, roleplayed the Berlin crisis with Walt Rostow before it happened, first informed Robert McNamara about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, leaked the Pentagon Papers when he saw Vietnam could not be won, and indirectly brought about Watergate and the fall of Richard Nixon.

“You might say that each and every one of us is a crewmember here on ‘Spaceship Earth.’”
“Ooh. When could we say that?”
“Anytime. Dinner. Literally, anytime.”
Wet Hot American Summer

But Wesely’s mention of Kenneth Boulding brings in the hippy heritage of the hobby too. Along with another brainy pacifist, Buckminster Fuller, Boulding promoted the holist-environmentalist idea of “Spaceship Earth.” Boulding and Fuller also rubbed shoulders in the “New Games” movement of the late 1960s, which rejected winner-takes-all wargames for a countertradition of peaceful, cooperative play. “It’s a pity that New Games are even less cool than D&D these days,” says Paul LaFarge in his wonderful Believer tribute to Gary Gygax. New Games ranged from hippy happenings like Stewart Brand’s “Earthball,” where an unorganized crowd bounced a huge inflatable globe around a field, to the cooperative classroom and theater exercises known as “role playing” years before Gary Gygax ever picked up a 20-sided die.

“In a society that conditions people to compete … Dungeons & Dragons is countercultural; its project, when you think about it in these terms is almost utopian. Show people how to have a good time, a mind-blowing, life-changing, all-night-long good time, by cooperating with each other! … The resemblance of this description, to, say, an old-school rave, experienced by a person or persons under the influence of Ecstasy, is not unintentional. Actually, a rave is one of the few things I know of that’s as massively and necessarily cooperative–and as fun–as a really good game of D&D.”
–Paul LaFarge, “Destroy All Monsters

Here’s what I think: The war games and the peace games of the Vietnam era were united in an unlikely place: the garages, basements, and dorm rooms of Midwestern hobby gamers.

The original Braunstein was a war game at heart, but Dave Wesely took from Boulding the idea of giving each player distinct but not irreconcilable objectives. Then, to oversimplify and invite angry emails, Dave Arneson added dungeons to the mix and Gary Gygax added dragons, by which I mean a grab bag of fantasy tropes from J.R.R. Tolkien and pulp authors like Robert Howard and Jack Vance. (These authors were in vogue on the campuses of the 1960s and 1970s thanks to a boom in paperback reprints.) Gygax and Arneson also moved from Braunstein’s chaotic free-for-alls to a cooperative adventuring party. And this is huge. D&D characters, by and large, work together. That’s a profound revision of traditionally competitve wargames, and it was one of the hardest parts of the hobby to initially explain. A game where you play for weeks on end but nobody wins or loses? Gotta be something pinko about that.

Old school D&D was thus a hybrid, a peacenik New Game bolted onto the chassis of a skirmish-scale war game. The fantasy setting and the cooperative play style allowed it to leap over the hawk-dove divide in a way that Braunstein or the Avalon Hill wargames never could. Just as the Tolkien fad of the 1960s and 70s embraced both hawks and doves, just like Star Trek or the Homebrew Computer Club or any number of geek culture touchstones, roleplaying games had a way of straddling the third rail of Vietnam and the generation gap and all that Forrest Gump mishigas.

And it was all there in 1967, encoded in the recombinant DNA of David Wesely’s three unlikely library books.

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Old School, New Histories

Two pieces on this site that I’m rather proud of are my essays on the secret history of tabletop roleplaying games: Dungeon Master Zero, on the eccentric Indian fighter, pyramidologist, and Anglo-Israelite who brought refereed wargaming to America, and R&D, on Cold War simulation gaming at RAND. One of the things I’m not proud of is that it’s been two years and I haven’t completed what was to have been a trilogy of posts, not to mention a long-promised article for Jonathan Walton’s journal PUSH. The idea for the trilogy came when I read that David Wesely’s Braunstein, a seminal proto-roleplaying game from 1968, was inspired by three books: Charles Totten’s wargame Strategos, the RAND Corporation’s Compleat Strategyst, and Kenneth Boulding’s Conflict and Defense. And it seemed to me that each of those three books could tell us something unexpected and as yet untold about the roots of the roleplaying hobby and maybe something about geek or gaming history more generally.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my third post: two years went by! And in those two years, the whole landscape of information and interest in the history of roleplaying has been transformed. A renaissance in “old school” gaming, that is, gaming that tries to emulate the feel or philosophy of the hobby in the 1970s, has brought with it a new interest in the early history of tabletop rpgs.

The immediate reason I never finished that tryptych of posts, apart from my own fecklessness, was that I was approached by an editor at a major American newspaper (ie, not the NYT, but you’ve heard of it) and asked to write up the deep history of roleplaying games for their weekend Ideas section. Which was an opportunity so ridiculously excellent, so clearly just what I had been put on this earth to do, that I botched the job. I dropped almost everything and spent way too much of Summer 2007 trying to tell the complete history of roleplaying in 1500 words. In my defense, that’s what the editor asked me for. The idea was to tell the story of the 1960s-70s origins of D&D, but also to go way way back into the deep history of wargaming–to medieval carosella and ancient Indian chess and more–but also to tie it all to something of immediate contemporary interest, a “peg,” like the popularity of Warcraft or Second Life. (You remember Second Life, don’t you? In Summer 2007, major media outlets were required to print at least one item a week on Second Life. It was like Twitter with feet.)

I struggled with this dream assignment for weeks. I got some tough but smart feedback from the editor on my first attempt, but my second submission received no reply. Maybe it dropped into some electronic void. Maybe they could see that it just wasn’t going to work or that I wasn’t the guy for the job. I live in a world where people take 1500 words to clear their throats, and where you get in trouble for pegging things to the contemporary. I think what I wrote was serviceable, but it wasn’t all I’d hoped, and the experience soured me on the untold history of gaming for a while.

A year later, something else happened: Gary Gygax died. Now there was a peg: the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons levels on up to the GenCon in the sky. If I’d been smart and feckful (oh, it’s a word), I’d have pounced on that, reworked my essay, and shopped it around. I didn’t, but others did. And one silver lining of Gygax’s passing was a burst of good to great writing about D&D and its legacy, in Blogville and the mainstream media both. Of course it wasn’t all good. NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” did a cringeworthy mock-the-nerds segment. Right, like Peter Sagal and Mo Rocca were star quarterbacks in high school… But after Gygax’s death, a lot of writers and journalists outed themselves as former gamers, and there was sweet, reflective stuff everywhere from Wired to the New York Times. (Though my favorite MSM piece on Gygax and D&D remains Paul La Farge’s 2006 Destroy All Monsters.) The death of Dave Arneson last week has provoked another boomlet of media notices.

The impact of Gygax’s death on gaming bloggers was even greater. For one thing, it inspired James Maliszewski to launch his blog Grognardia, which has become the soul and center of the old school gaming renaissance. Ken Hite calls Grognardia “tetchy, diamantine, opinionated, finely-researched, and downright amazing,” and I cannot but agree. My own gaming has mutated in the past few years, from cutting-edge indie storygaming to nonexistent to an OD&D game so old school Maliszewksi would yell at me to contemporize. I don’t really feel any stake in the rivalry between different subspecies of gaming. Again, I agree with Ken that “the indie elves and the old-school dwarves” share deep similarities. What I love about old schoolers like Maliszewski, Jeff Rients, or Elliot Wilen (I hope none of them mind the label) is their respect for and interest in the history of the hobby–their commitment to carefully reconstructing not just a sequence of published texts, but something far more ephemeral: forgotten styles of play, unarticulated philosophies of gaming, what it felt like and meant to be present at the creation of seminal unreal worlds. And thanks to guys like James and Jeff and Elliot, there is now far more, far smarter, and far more accessible information available on the history of the hobby than there was just a few years ago.

(Don’t get me wrong: I think there are plenty of guys from the indie-elf side of the spectrum who care about early gaming history too. The threads that drew me to the Forge were history threads; and if anyone has advice about forums where this material is addressed thoughtfully, I’d love to hear.)

So while I would have loved to be published in a major newspaper, I’m thrilled to see the flourishing of gaming history online. It encourages me to return to the topic, and actually frees me from doing work I don’t want to do, like ruling on which modern styles of gaming are apostasies, or parsing out how many experience points worth of credit are due to Gary Gygax and each of the Midwestern Daves.

The most careful criticism of my earlier posts came from Elliot Wilen and some other regulars at a forum called the RPGsite. Elliot was a little irritated at the inexact way with which I approached questions of priority and intellectual lineage. If I call Charles Totten “Dungeon Master Zero,” am I really claiming that he invented roleplaying, or that he was the only possible link between the Prussian wargame and the modern hobby? Not intentionally, but I see how you can read me that way. If I say something like “Braunstein begat Blackmoor which begat Chainmail which begat D&D,” one contingent of gamers will nod in agreement, but another contingent will gnash their teeth in fury at my lies. So I’d be wiser to stay away from such minefields. And now I can! With the internalist history of gaming in such good hands, it’s plain to me that what I really wanted to write is a more externalist history: one that looks for unexpected links between this thing we do and the wider world around it. It may offer some idea where I’m coming from if I tell you that I’ve spent a decade (geez!) researching the early history of the telephone–an invention whose parentage is one hundred times more contested than roleplaying games–and I actually don’t care if Alexander Graham Bell invented it or not.

So DMZ tackled Totten, and R&D examined RAND. The next essay, at least if I get to it before the baby’s born, should consider Kenneth Boulding’s Conflict and Defense and the silence in the history of roleplaying games around the war in Vietnam. I have no idea if old schoolers or indie punks or bewildered nongamers who inexplicably read this far will love it or hate it. (Unless I’m distracted by this other post about a great old book I found, a kind of Anthology of American Folk RPGs.)

Big picture? One commenter on my much-linked election post saw the line on my About page about being a “geek historian” and was much offended at the very possibility of such a beast. I don’t want to get too grandiose here, but there is a history of geek culture in America waiting to be written. People are nibbling around the edges, in memoirs like Extra Life, novels like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and pop ethnographies like American Nerd, not to mention fan culture studies, where the origins of fandom keep being pushed farther and farther into the past. But we’re in the adolescent stages of the subject. Can we connect our internalist, hobbyist histories to broader narratives and bigger questions?

[Crossposted for old times sake to The 20′ By 20′ Room.]

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Burger Time Event Horizon

There’s a great article by writer Joshuah Bearman in this month’s last month’s (what do you want from me: I’m a historian) Harper’s about Billy Mitchell and the world’s best Pac-Man players. Mitchell is the subject of the recent documentary King of Kong, and he is a total piece of work, but I won’t spoil that if you haven’t seen the movie. While focusing on Pac-Man rather than Donkey Kong, the Harper’s article necessarily covers some of the same ground as the film. But the parts I really like are about the zen of classic arcade games: the difference between Pac-Man’s complex but essentially predictable patterns and the randomized unknowability of Ms Pac-Man (ah, woman); Mitchell’s analytical schematic approach versus the dream-inspired chaos surfing of Abdner Ashman; and (shades of Lucky Wander Boy) the eternal mystery of the “kill screen” and What Lies Beyond.

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