Taking turns to contrive a story gives off a radical whiff

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

In 2017, playing Dungeons & Dragons — outside the realm of the Internet — can feel slightly rebellious, the New Yorker suggests:

This turn of events might shock a time traveller from the twentieth century. In the seventies and eighties, Dungeons & Dragons, with its supernatural themes, became the fixation of an overheated news media in the midst of a culture war. Role players were seen as closet cases, the least productive kind of geek, retreating to basements to open maps, spill out bags of dice, and light candles by which to see their medieval figurines. They squared with no one. Unlike their hippie peers, they had dropped out without bothering to tune in. On the other side of politics,Christian moralists’ cries of the occult and anxiety about witchcraft followed D. & D. players everywhere. Worse still, parents feared how this enveloping set of lies about druids in dark cloaks and paladins on horseback could tip already vulnerable minds off the cliff of reality.


In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.

Adult D. & D. acolytes are everywhere now, too. The likes of Drew Barrymore and Vin Diesel regularly take up the twenty-sided die (or at least profess to do so). Tech workers from Silicon Valley to Brooklyn have long-running campaigns, and the showrunners and the novelist behind “Game of Thrones” have all been Dungeon Masters. (It’s also big with comedy improvisers in Los Angeles, but it’s no surprise that theatre kids have nerdy hobbies.)

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