Dungeons & Dragons & Imagination

I think imagination is often left out of the business and marketing and blogging equation. Managers will challenge their employees to think outside the box but then deride anything truly revolutionary like What if we pleased our customers and employees before our shareholders? or Gee, our products do kinda suck – maybe our customers are right.

Creativity gets a lot of press these days as the competitive difference for businesses in an age of automation, abundance and offshoring. But I think imagination pushes the envelope a little farther. Creativity seems to be something you apply to the problem or challenge – imagination asks you to dream up a whole new challenge. Imagination seems to be much more into seeing an entire system of moving parts or people or principles – an ecosystem (this is my MBTI N side coming out). You have to ‘hold more’ in your brain at one time. Where creativity looks at what you’ve got and synergizes things, imagination says What’s that over here? What if we zagged?
There’s a few great imaginations that were big influences on me growing up. One was Jim Henson with his strange combination of optimism and anti-establishment humor that permeated the Muppets before they got pillaged by that dreadful mouse. Hitchcock with his complete command of his craft (Rear Window might just be a perfect movie) and a wicked obsessive attention to theme and detail. Rod Serling’s hope that television could fundamentally change society for the better. The geniuses at Infocom that created the Zork games that continue to haunt my dreams (yes, I got the Babel fish but never did get past Dam #3).
Which brings me to Gary Gygax.
If you know who Gary Gygax is, you probably just smiled at the mention of his name. He was no scientist or economist or politician or Laureate of Something but he helped train generations of children and adults to use their imagination in new and interesting ways – to hold entire alternate worlds and fictional cultures in their heads – to wrap their brains around math concepts like algebra and probability.
Gary Gygax was one of the creators of the original Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. This was way back in the 1970s when many played table-top wargames where you’d move miniature game pieces representing entire phalanxes of soldiers across a hexagonal board, fighting adventures in settings like World War II or Middle Earth. Gary and his collaborators took things to a completely new level – instead of that game piece representing an entire platoon – what if it was an individual? This gentle shift birthed an entire industry. Suddenly, the world of the Normandy Invasion or King Arthur could be experienced intimately.
For over 3 decades, the D&D games and their spinoffs have shaped the imaginations of millions of kids and adults, literally creating an entire economy of products that eventually shaped the world of computer games and beyond. From the outside, these games looked like a bunch of losers sitting around talking and rolling dice but from the inside you were co-creating an entire world with a group of friends. Dungeons & Dragons combined favorite fantasy worlds in a social setting and the tactics of improvisational storytelling. Of course, like anything that awakens creativity in children and challenges them to create and explore new worlds or alternative ways of living, D&D became the target of a moral panic in the late 1980s (much like the comic book code of yesteryear or today’s panicked screeching about MySpace).
This profile of Gygax from Believer magazine illustrates the impact of the genre:
“[T]here is neither an end to the game nor any winner. But if D&D isn’t a game, then what is it, exactly? In order to get very far in the cave, the players need to work together. Which would make D&D not very different from any other team sport, if there were another team; but there isn’t. The remarkable thing about D&D is that everyone has to play together…. In a society that conditions people to compete, and rewards those who compete successfully, D&D is countercultural; its project, when you think about it in these terms, is almost utopian. Show people how to have a good time, a mind-blowing, life-changing, all-night-long good time, by cooperating with each other! And perhaps D&D is socially unacceptable because it encourages its players to drop out of the world of competition, in which the popular people win, and to tune in to another world, where things work differently, and everyone wins (or dies) together.
And much of that relates directly to blogging and all these shiny new technologies – of looking at technology as a way towards utopia (hell, the entire internet was the outgrowth of all the 1960s love-children sobering up from Woodstock and going into IT) – considering that cooperation and collaboration might benefit all instead of competition.
Blogging comes from that imagination to say: Surely I shouldn’t have to handcode my website and upload the entire thing every time I want to update it or wait for somebody else to do it for me or have to learn FTP and HTML.
Mr. Gygax passed away yesterday in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Few men or women could cause such a global reaction of respect – maybe Roddenberry or Asimov. His work touched millions of people across several generations. I spent many a summer rapt and wrapped up in imaginary worlds as a mage battling monsters like the Beholder or a gelatinous cube with magic missiles. I’d beg my parents to buy me the latest Dungeon Master’s guide at Waldenbooks (very hard to convince them to pay $30 for a skinny hardback book). Heroic paintings by Larry Elmore promised a great body, cunning dragons, glistening treasures and hot babes. I credit those hours spent concocting adventures and stories with my talents in writing, theatre and creativity. And I still think D&D could be the number one way to teach boys algebra. Rest in peace Mr. Gygax and condolences to his family.
YOU can affect the world around you – or awaken an industry or a movement – with just a shift in imagination.






9 responses to “Dungeons & Dragons & Imagination”

  1. Sue Downing Avatar

    So true. I was quite surprised when it was my eight-year old son who yesterday told me the news of Gygax’s passing before several of my 40-something-year old brothers who grew up playing D&D. Imagination lives on.

  2. Andy Wibbels Avatar

    Yep! Amazing the genre has reached across generations. Does your 8-year old play the table-top games or the computer versions?

  3. jennydecki Avatar

    Damn. Gary finally failed his saving throw. Too bad he didn’t have a mage in his party to resurrect him.
    All that being said, when I met him about…um…six years ago now at GenCon in front of his hotel, it was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had. He was a very. interesting. dude.

  4. Andy Wibbels Avatar

    saving throw 🙂
    Here’s the best graphical tribute I’ve seen so far:

  5. Gail Z. Martin Avatar

    Thanks for a great tribute to a great man. I also spent many wonderful hours with a close group of friends experiencing the world he created and shared with us. The desire to build my own worlds and share them with others now lives on in my books. Because of Gary Gygax, I’ve experienced some amazing adventures, and just like the best vacation moments, those memories live on forever.
    Gail Z. Martin
    Author, The Summoner and The Blood King

  6. Eran Malloch Avatar

    Hi Andy & thanks for this touching post.
    Like you, I was a D&D player (gasp! Yes, it’s true mom, i DID play d&d lol) back in my late teens & early 20’s (now 42 and been out of it for quite some time).
    I can look back now and credit SOOOO MANY of the good things in my life to D&D, silly though that will sound to an outsider.
    My mother certainly wasn’t thrilled with me getting involved back then (guess she thought I had gotten into a cult or something?), until she actually saw the benefits it offered me and stopped hassling me… 😉
    From D&D I learned to:
    write with imagination, speak confidentally, express myself, become self confident, tell stories, have ambition, learn to work in a team, make friends (something I was NOT good at b4 D&D), enjoy using my mind, problem solving/critical thinking and a host of other smaller things.
    In addition, I even became a published author (co-author actually, but who’s counting 😉 ) of a RPG book (the Mentalism Companion for ICE’s Rolemaster series)!
    Gygax had his own idiosyncracies for sure, but his contribution to my life was vastly more than he can ever know, and even though I have not seriously been a gamer for probably 10-15 years minimum, I still have fond memories of my D&D years.
    Mordenkainen, you’ll be missed – there’s NO doubt about that – and thank you for your contribution to my life and all the other gamers (and ex-gamers) out there.
    Eran Malloch
    Perth, Western Australia

  7. Toni Jones Avatar

    Reading Andy’s blog gave me a full circle moment. I read it just after I got off the phone talking with a friend about “change the imagination, change the world” -Eckhart Tolle stuff. This is an old friend and we played D&D whenit first came out in the late 70’s. It (among other things then!) opened doors to our imaginations.

  8. E N Shook Avatar
    E N Shook

    Andy, thanks for your memory of our good man.
    It’s very cool of you!
    My hours are all askew because of this, and I spent much of last night at my best friend’s house, Rob Kuntz, of Deities and Demi-Gods and Greyhawk fame, etc. Gary was like a father to Rob.
    Imagine my surprise when looking for blogging software comparisons I found this here.
    I’ll never cease to be surprised by how many people’s lives Gary touched.
    GAME ON!

  9. Jeff Avatar

    A great post, I just came across this while at work browsing some broken links (you linked to my work site). Gary Gygax was a pioneer of a genre and for me too, he influenced creativity and writing and all sorts of things. We played in my backyard on our deck for hours, me and my brother and some friends through many a dangerous adventure, though sometimes very funny as well. Every once in a while, we still get together and toss the dice and make up characters, just for fun. Although I tried to run a campaign, it’s difficult to get everyone together these days with work, kids and other responsibilities.
    I now write my own books and stories and have an entire world that I created, all from using my imagination in way that Gary Gygax envisioned.
    Wonderful post! Thanks!

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