I’ve often said I hate going to funerals and memorials. In my experience, most people don’t know what to say or how to act, but they nevertheless feel they have to say something. Unless restricted to a very close family or a community with deeply shared beliefs about death, public expressions of grief cannot help but be awkward and maudlin. Americans in particular have no script for funerals; ours is a youth culture, and the only American ways to die are in a car crash, from a drug overdose, or by an assassin’s bullet.
The death of E. Gary Gygax last week at the age of 69 was rather, um, mundane for men of his generation: an incomplete recovery from an abdominal aneurysm and at least one heart attack. He smoked and he drank and, if he was anything like most of the followers of the hobby he launched three decades ago, the only muscles he regularly exercised were those in his wrist.
Probably owing to the large overlap between D&D players and computer enthusiasts, the online reaction to Gygax’s death was prolific. The comment threads contained their fair share of banal sentiment and expressions of "loss," a "sad day," or simply "tears." Of course, most such mourners had never met Gygax nor read anything he had written in years, and many had long since moved onto different game systems or stopped role-playing altogether. For me and I imagine for many others of my age, Gygax’s death was not simply another occasion to reminisce about characters and campaigns past or to marvel at how far the influence of D&D nerd culture had spread, but also an opportunity to finally reject the ignominy we believed our adolescence had deserved.
It was hardly surprising to see tributes to Gygax in the nerdier ghettos of the Internet. What was gradually bewildering—and what transformed my wistful fondness into giddy relief—was the number of mainstream media outlets devoting voluminous and respectful space to Gygax and the impact of the D&D worldview. Most thrilling were the many non-renunciatory admissions—by people of varying notoriety—of having played D&D at some point in their past, from the middlebrow to the kind of people Alex P. Keaton deified. It was always known to my generation of players (late 70s and early 80s) that one could play D&D and go on to have a full life, but it was widely thought that one had to disown the hobby to do so. Most of my crew role-played into and throughout college, but we learned not to advertise it.
With the Triumph of Nerd Culture (most significantly, the rise of MMORPGs like EverQuest and World of Warcraft), I had an intellectual awareness that the younger generations of gamers didn’t carry the same social stigma that we had. Stephen Colbert became my hero, not only for facing W at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but also for going on Conan O’Brien and bragging about being a D&D nerd. But until last week I still probably wouldn’t have admitted to new acquaintances how much of my teenage time and energy had been devoted to D&D and other (better but not cooler) games.
The full extent of how much I had internalized this shame burst forth when I read this comment. My son is an irrepressible performer and fantasist, yet in all his six years I had never even contemplated trying to introduce him to paper role-playing games. Clearly, I had implicitly decided that playing D&D with one’s children was the social equivalent of Christian Scientists refusing to have their kids vaccinated. I have since started to survey genres and systems, and I am already planning the precise stage of development to escalate from playing Make-Believe to filling out a character sheet. It’s hard to qualify the weird mix of embarrassment, relief, and joy that has followed this revelation, and it was wholly occasioned by Gygax’s death and the public reactions thereto.
In sum, for my generation the observance of Gygax’s passing has been less of a funeral and more of a coming out party. While they have occurred primarily online, I have been humbly grateful for everyone who has publicly embraced their D&D pasts. I gave my 20-year high school reunion a miss, but I would have certainly attended a local memorial service for Gygax, especially had someone convinced me that there would be girls.
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