Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Dictionary of Adventure Gaming Biography

Way back in my high school days I frequently took refuge in the library. During the occasional free period each week (after suffering through mandatory “study hall” as a freshman) I’d hang out in the library using the now-extinct card catalog to research interesting subjects (mostly geared toward my Dungeons & Dragons hobby), browsing for science fiction to read (not much at the time), and even trying out new game designs with friends in the group study area (until a British librarian kicked us out for “gambling” because we were using six-sided dice...).

The school library had a full set of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB) which, as part of various English class projects, we occasionally consulted. I was delighted to find a volume covering fantasy and science fiction authors, many of whom had captured my imagination. While the articles didn’t help my academic pursuits, they showed me how various authors got their start and the scope of their literary accomplishments. My college library also had a set of the DLB which I occasionally consulted when seeking refuge among the labyrinthine stacks. The DLB still exists today, possibly as a relic in some libraries, but more prominently as a website accessible through paid subscription. While one might consult Wikipedia and other online repositories of group-contributed knowledge, the old DLB still holds authority (at least for me) with edited, well-researched materials under a tried-and-true brand.

As part of my fascination with the adventure gaming hobby – as a young amateur and older professional – I’ve always taken an interest in the life experiences of people behind my favorite games. It started in high school when a supportive English teacher encouraged me to investigate and write about the creation of Dungeons & Dragons for a major research paper. From the school library’s meager holdings of newspapers and magazines on microfilm I gleaned a very basic biography of Gary Gygax and his development of D&D, TSR’s meteoric rise, and the controversy surrounding the game in the early and mid 1980s. I later reworked portions of the research paper into several articles for the extremely amateurish gaming fanzine I produced at the time. It was fine for a high school junior but miserably incomplete by even the most meager journalistic standards.

Later I discovered Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, a comprehensive tome covering game lines and individual game product up to the time of its publication. While it didn’t offer biographies of prominent roleplaying game designers, it presented several essays about games and game design by industry notables at the time, including Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, Greg Gorden, Steve Jackson, Tom Moldvay, Sandy Petersen, Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, and Michael A. Stackpole. The recently published Designers & Dragons series of books focuses more on game companies and their product, occasionally mentioning prominent designers; more so in the early volumes, when such personalities helped shape the hobby, and far less so in subsequent volumes when designers and their contributions seem a dime a dozen and hence rarely worth mentioning unless truly groundbreaking or controversial. Brent Newhall’s Old School Renaissance Handbook – perhaps the only survey of popular OSR games – focuses more on the systems than the creators, though it includes interviews with several designers that provide more insight into their games and views on mechanics than engaging biographical information. Other recent efforts at constructing a history of the roleplaying game hobby and its notable personalities include Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World (about which I’ve written before) and Michael Witwer’s “bio-pic” style Empire of the Imagination, which, while not as scholarly as I’d like, relied on both archival ephemera and interviews.

I enjoy historical analysis of gaming trends – themes, mechanics, genres, marketing strategies – but existing work often only briefly touches on the people behind the games. As those designers and illustrators who founded the adventure gaming hobby begin passing away people start paying more attention to their legacies and the insightful, often unpublished ephemera they left behind: notes, correspondence, maps, doodles, and other bits that could lend insight into their design inspirations at the time. Some works like Playing at the World and even Empire of the Imagination have analyzed these artifacts and expanded our understanding through interviews; I’d love to see this material available for others to examine and present in more academic formats. One of the more notable legacy projects – The Tékumel Foundation – strives to “support and protect the literary works and all related products and activities surrounding Professor M.A.R. Barker’s world of Tékumel and the Empire of the Petal Throne.”

Certainly the contributors to some of the first roleplaying games in the field deserve more academically written and editorially vetted biographies to summarize their achievements, analyze their impact on the hobby, and offer insight into the lives they led. What form this might take and the rationale behind the approach remains uncertain. Some intrepid authors mentioned above have undertaken projects of this magnitude, though not specifically one this biographically focused. Aside from the basic questions – who would undertake this task, why would they take it, what profit does it hold, and what format would such a work take – this endeavor raises a host of concerns and complications. What and who determines the importance of one’s contribution to the adventure gaming hobby? Does enough documentation and ephemera exist to compose an objective biography? What weight do interviews with the subject have, considering they are naturally biased? Does one organize it chronologically by author contributions? Does the work include only those contributors who have passed away? While it might seem safer to profile only those adventure gaming hobby notables who have passed on, the DLB – and certainly the science fiction/fantasy editions I perused in my youth – included authors still living; I think I might have found Larry Niven’s mailing address in one and sent him some interview questions for an article in my amateur gaming zine.... What author would want to navigate the touchy personal landscape of gaming notables still living with vested interest in forging and preserving a positive legacy in gaming? Reading about game designers in the aforementioned sources – and having worked professionally in the adventure gaming hobby myself – I’m painfully aware how contentious and at times downright nasty game designers (and people in general) can become when defending their creations.

Having outlined this daunting project I’d love to read – even edit – I’ve also convinced myself this is certainly not an endeavor I personally would want to undertake as a writer. Until someone else accepts such a challenge, or one like it, I’ll remain marginally satisfied with what I’ve seen so far.


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