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On the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons (1974) -- A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Twenty-Three)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 17, 2024

The author of this series has recently become aware of a possible major counter-argument to the ideas expressed earlier in the series – which were, briefly put, that role-playing games are a kind of vehicle for an escapism disengaged from serious notions of history and religion.

However, we live in a world where notions of history and religion – and most, especially, those of Western civilization – have been almost entirely removed from the consciousness of many younger persons. Indeed, there are multifarious techniques in place today for rendering nearly all of Western civilization to appear as utterly hideous to so-called decent human sensibilities. In a landscape without real heroes, and with very little real history being taught in the schools, considerable numbers of young people have been thrown upon their own resources in searching for something heroic.

Thus, they may sometimes turn to various fantastical landscapes, where honor and heroism can live again, without being "tainted" by the association with a currently-disgraced Western civilization.

The argument would therefore be that, for considerable numbers of younger people, role-playing games represent a yearning for the heroic and honorable that is so manifestly lacking in today's society.

It could be argued that there are various types of role-playing gamers. Some may indeed be searching for "something better" than that found in the desiccated world of late modernity. Some of the fantastical genres may indeed be suffused with a nostalgia for earlier and alternative periods of history (an example of the latter being an alternative Victorian era that is usually called "steampunk") that differs little from the typically traditionalist yearning for "the good old days". A considerable amount of science fiction set in the future (or an indeterminate era) also participates in what has been called "feudal values plus high technology" – probably most prominently represented by Frank Herbert's Dune series, and, to a certain extent, George Lucas' Star Wars series. This is what could be called "moving forward to the past". Such subgenres as cyberpunk focus on individual resistance to near-dystopic situations that can, without too much difficulty, be seen as "managerial-therapeutic" regimes.

It may be noticed that many role-playing games tend to appeal to aristocratic notions. Even much of vampire fiction posits the vampires as a sort of aristocracy. These notions of aristocracy are also somewhat linked to pop-cultural trends like the Society for Creative Anachronism, and Goths.

Certainly, role-playing gamers tend to be of high intelligence. Their interest in earlier periods of history might lead, among some of them, to a re-discovery on their own, of the currently almost totally suppressed real history of the West. It offers a way out from the current-day, almost obligatory self-hatred.

J.R.R Tolkien clearly showed the way in intertwining fantastical history with long-standing Western and European notions.

Perhaps, for some role-playing gamers, their fascination with invented histories and worlds may lead to engagement with real scholarly pursuits of which RPG's may be somewhat suggestive – for example, history, literature, librarianship, archivy, archaeology, ancient and classical languages, fine arts, architecture.

If it is commonly said that most role-playing gamers are so-called "geeks", they may nevertheless be searching for some vehicle for successfully transcending their "geekhood". There may indeed be a so-called "cunning of reason" operating – where even the most supposedly "impractical" pursuits – if consistently and conscientiously followed – can sometimes result in considerable, worthwhile achievements, and even career successes. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.


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