Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Exposure Explosion: 30 Years Later

The world was quite different 30 years ago when I first explored the enthralling new hobby of roleplaying games. It was what some folks might call the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s), when a handful of publishers dominated the market, everyone had played some iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, and any “real” gamer got all his gaming news and inspiration from Dragon Magazine. In the intervening years, gamers and their hobby went from oddball to mainstream.

I don’t mean to delve into a comedy monologue of “When I was a kid, we had to hike 12 miles to school each way…uphill…in the snow,” but I hope I can illustrate some of the differences in how gamers discovered and learned about the hobby, how they acquired new materials, and how they interacted as a limited “community.” Looking back often gives us a sense of appreciation for where we stand and what we have today; perhaps it may challenge us, too, in looking toward the future in improving our hobby and community.

A Gathering of Geeks

Getting involved in the roleplaying game hobby back then required a predilection for geeky pursuits: fantasy and science fiction novels; video games in all their blocky, nascent glory; comic books; film and television, just beginning to delve into the realm of the fantastic and futuristic. These prerequisite interests sometimes brought one in contact with others who shared their geeky pursuits…and thus ideas were shared and communities -- however small -- flourished.

In those days people of a gaming disposition sometimes stumbled into the hobby through indirect paths. Some noticed full-page advertisements for the Dungeons & Dragons game (or TSR’s Dungeon board game) in the pages of magazines for young people. Occasionally such periodicals even profiled the game as a new form of teen entertainment. If one’s habits brought them to the local hobby store (in my case a place to find balsa gliders, interesting toys, and model railroad accessories), they might spot a small yet growing display dedicated to the books, boxes, and minis depicting fantastic worlds and tempting one to engage in fascinating adventures. Sometimes people encountered others already immersed in roleplaying games: neighborhood kids, classmates, or even those involved in a D&D club at their school (a rare and often controversial organization). One’s involvement in roleplaying games wasn’t a source of pride but was a mark of awkwardness, the sign of someone who didn’t fit in with the average school kid whose extra-curricular life centered on sports, school musicals, or other acceptable pursuits.

My Experience

I won’t say my own experience was typical, but it demonstrates some of the realities of becoming a gaming geek in those days. I was almost out of junior high school when, while hanging out with some neighborhood kids, I watched them play Basic Dungeons & Dragons with module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands; it inspired me to create my own game along a similar vein (what eventually became Creatures & Caverns) before immersing myself into the officially published roleplaying game hobby.

My parents noticed my interest in these gaming pursuits and purchased the Basic D&D boxed set for me as an Easter gift. I purchased the Expert D&D set with my allowance money and spent a wondrous “summer of D&D” before entering high school. The local hobby store -- Branchville Hobby, about which I’ve reminisced before -- had an adequate display of products for the growing roleplaying game hobby, and it was there I discovered other diversions in the adventure gaming vein: Avalon Hill wargames, metal miniatures and paint sets, gaming magazines, and a growing selection of products from TSR, GDW, Steve Jackson Games, and other game companies.

When I started high school I discovered several D&D players rode my bus. They were an odd, likeable bunch, the kind you find on a school bus, with lots of witty and not-so-witty repartee, put-downs, and an occasional D&D-themed discussion. I didn’t fit in much with them, but being the na├»ve freshman I was, I lingered on their every word about their involvement with D&D and other similar pursuits. I regret never having played a game with them, but, aside from our enjoyment of gaming and other geeky interests, we had little in common. I remember them fondly nonetheless because they affirmed that I wasn’t alone or abnormal in my strange devotion to roleplaying games.

Gaming in high school ebbed and flowed in balance with my academic priorities, which seemed overwhelming at times. After-school time brought neighborhood kids to the house where we rolled up characters, ran encounters, played board games (particularly those published in the pages of the late, lamented Dragon Magazine), and even began creating our own board, card, and roleplaying games. I used rare free time during the school day playing roleplaying and board games of my own design with like-minded classmates. Summers brought occasional game gatherings with friends in town. I attended my first gaming convention, PointCon VIII at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which I discovered listed in “Convention Calendar” listing of Dragon Magazine. Gamers met each other more by engaging each other’s geeky interests and channeling that toward games, though we certainly enjoyed shared tastes in movies, television shows, novels, and comics.

Acceptability & Interaction Today

Today society’s overall acceptance (and in some cases celebration) of all things geeky and the ease of interaction the internet provides make discovering roleplaying games far easier than 30 years ago.

Almost 40 years since its first publication Dungeons & Dragons -- and to a lesser extent the entire roleplaying game hobby -- has passed into the comfortable vernacular of American popular culture. Despite, or perhaps because of, years of scrutiny and persecution by fundamentalists and alarmists who typically target new trends and youthful diversions as the reason for society’s ills (video games, television, comic books), roleplaying games have evolved from embarrassingly dweeby butt of sitcom and comedy show jokes to the focus of mainstream media comprehended by most of today’s adult and youth audiences. The prevalence of fantasy and science fiction television shows and films has helped this, though the proliferation of computer-generated images for media aided that progression. Geeky pursuits in general have found general acceptance in today’s society thanks in great part to extended media exposure and internet communities. 

Certainly the internet has played an equally important part in helping roleplaying games -- and the broad spectrum of adventure games, from “Euro” board games to miniature wargames -- find a larger audience. The internet has enabled people across the vast spectrum of interests to more easily find like-minded individuals and interact with them on a regular basis, more so than face-to-face interaction would allow. Geek culture in particular has taken advantage of that since so many pursuing such interests have aptitude and affinity for computers and digital media.

The internet offers gamers numerous means to engage their roleplaying game interests with participants in a vast internet community. Gamers can share information, from opinions and news to supplements and adventures. They can discuss issues in gaming on numerous game-related forums. Gamers can even gather to play online via Google+ Hangouts and other applications. An internet search can summon information on local and regional conventions, game stores, and community gaming events. Professional publishers, online communities, and independent creators enabled through technology (word processing, layout, graphic design, internet) bring their own vision to publication and disseminate it among those interested in the hobby; where gamers used to wait for the latest release of their favorite game to show up in the local hobby or game store, now the market is flooded with product across a broad spectrum of adventure gaming interests one can order, usually at a discount, immediately upon release from manufacturers or online distributors.

Despite the prevalence of online interaction, or perhaps because of it, brick-and-mortar game stores have evolved into more than simple retail outlets, but community hubs for the hobbies they serve. Good “friendly local game stores” -- the ones that survive more than a few year and have a vibrant, involved customer base -- offer a physical space and supportive atmosphere where gamers can gather to play, hang out, and immerse themselves in their hobby. I’m proud that I can think of three in Virginia that offer well-organized retail space, a gathering space for in-store games, and busy schedules for gamers including club game meetings, tournament events, swap meets, and other regular gatherings. The digital, internet revolution has not only enabled online interaction but enhanced face-to-face gaming.

My Experience Today

Though my adult life contains many responsibilities limiting the time I devote to gaming, I still remain active thanks to the magic of the internet. I share my creative, game-related ideas weekly across two blogs. I can self-publish game material via PDFs available on DriveThruRPG.com and promote my gaming activities on the Griffon Publishing Studio website. Social media offers a means to promote my professional materials to a broad audience. I’ve engaged in numerous discussions in forums and on Google+ about gaming topics related to my interests, and even tried my hand at running a game in Hangouts. Company websites often provide PDF rules to games I’m considering purchasing. Internet searches and specialized communities like BoardGameGeek.com provide reviews and additional information about games I own or would like to buy. I can seek out new area conventions and game stores online, check out their web presence, and plan expeditions to experience their offerings firsthand.

Electronic interaction on the internet has also led to opportunities for face-to-face gaming. After reading about a local library teen gaming program online, I e-mailed the librarian running the events and volunteered at monthly events for a year. I’ve coordinated with area gamers online to organize one-shot gaming sessions in person. I discovered area conventions online, e-mailed organizers, and volunteered to run games. The internet has even made the casual gaming afternoon much easier to organize; rather than getting on the telephone and making numerous calls to friends inviting them over for gaming, I simply write one e-mail, insert all the relevant addresses, and hit “send.”

All these activities would have been far more cumbersome 30 years ago when we lacked the technology and the general digital access to the internet that enables such extensive interaction. The internet connection has supplanted the telephone, letter, and magazine in disseminating information and facilitating the birth and success of communities. Despite my old-fogey tendencies to stick with tried-and-true technology, I look forward to the advancements the internet age offers gamers in the coming years.