Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Dave Arneson died last week. Although I don't often see references to Dungeons & Dragons in the mainstream media, almost every time I do, there's a phrase like "popular geek pastime" or "marketed primarily to teenage boys." Sure, some of the commentary comes from people who know little about the game, but it is rarely acknowledged that role-playing games can engage the mind in a uniquely beneficial way.

In a social environment focused on design, story-telling, and cooperation, people exercise both strategy and empathy to do something adults typically do too little of: play. When we let it, a role-playing game can clue us in to some of the dramas we play out in reality. But in a game, we can explore the consequences of those dramas without seriously risking jobs, finances, and relationships. And if we are willing to, we can realize some things that aren't working in our lives because of decisions we make for our imaginary characters.

I didn't know Dave Arneson. I never had a conversation with him. And yet I have a great deal of respect for him. He contributed some of the ideas I value most. He saw the potential for role-playing games to be about more than fighting imaginary foes and killing exotic creatures for pretend treasure. People were important to him. He believed that personality is as important as combat in the game. Maybe that's what can seem so threatening about role-playing games: they have the potential to be more about vulnerable people than impervious heroes. If we aren't careful, we might learn something about ourselves.

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