The first time that I sat in my friend’s basement–polyhedron in hand–I understood that Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t an activity that one advertises. The intense focus on D&D as “satanic training” from the 1980s wasn’t the issue (this was 1991). Mazes and Monsters was simply another brilliant comedic performance by Tom Hanks. While the 12-year-old me couldn’t pinpoint the issue, looking back, I think it was as simple as my subconscious realizing D&D was considered mindless entertainment. Something that “rots your brain,” like comic books or video games.
What constitutes mindless entertainment has changed a lot in 20 years. An entire generation of video game addicts have grown up–brains intact– had kids, and continue to be “gamers” while functioning as productive members of society. Family nights at the Symphony that once consisted of Star Wars and Indiana Jones scores, now include orchestral interpretations of Zelda and Mario. Even the Smithsonian American Art Museum has opened an exhibition that celebrates 40 years of games. While never reaching the commercial heights of video games, it can be argued that comic books have been more successful in claiming the title of art. Gene Luen Yang, author of the graphic novel American Born Chinese, was a finalist for the national book awards in the Young’s People’s Literature category in 2006. An achievement that follows in the footsteps of the special Pulitzer Prize awarded to Art Spiegelman for his book Maus.
Gaining acceptance as an art form is a monumental task. Early novels were seen as the frivolous pastime of aristocratic women. Fantasy novels were labeled as children’s books for decades, despite their intended audiences, and even today’s writers of the fantastic often feel the need to relabel their work as speculative fiction. It seems most mediums and genres are subject to this artistic rite of passage, forcing me to wonder why some forms succeed while others fail.
These series of posts, in the vein of Susana Grilo’s exploration of speculative fiction, will discuss tabletop roleplaying games as a medium for artistic expression. In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, why don’t roleplaying games “get no respect?”