Today’s post originated on my old blog, which has been lost to the mists of time. That blog was about language and identity, rather than rhetoric and social skills, but I talked about many of the same subjects that I do on this one. I’ll be reposting the sequel next week, and I may get into the weeds a bit more and do a third post if there’s demand.
Kung Fu Joe (not his real name) came up to visit for a couple days a few weeks ago. Joe lived across the street from me when we were kids. We lost touch for two decades, but we reconnected a few years ago, and we get together whenever neither of us is busy. He’s a complex guy, tribally speaking—his mom is Irish Catholic, his dad was Jewish, and he’s married to a first-generation African immigrant. He’s also deep into an esoteric form of Chinese Wushu, which he has practiced for the past thirty years, and reads a lot of Asian philosophy.
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Joe was drinking a Thai iced tea and I was nursing a coconut water on the patio of a Thai restaurant as we waited for our food (vegetarian in Joe’s case) when a new SUV pulled up across the street. The driver, a tall, fit woman in her early twenties, was apparently on her way to one of the achingly hip restaurants further down the block. Joe and I watched her pass by appreciatively—she was young and confident and beautiful, all three enhanced by her dramatic bleached-blonde side-shave and the tattoos on her muscular arms. I noted her thick leather bracelet and elaborate boots with interest. When she had disappeared, Joe turned to me.
“Doesn’t she look like an Elven Ranger out of Dungeons & Dragons?” he said.
She really did. I don’t know how intentional the connection was, but if Gary Gygax had never come up with the most important role-playing game in the history of RPGs, I don’t think the fashion choices that woman made that day would ever have occurred to her.
There’s a lot to like about Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). You define your gaming group’s goals collaboratively, the rules can be modified to fit the way you all like to play (and you can discard the ones you don’t like entirely if you want), and as someone whose interests include both language and psychology, I think it’s an incredibly useful metaphor for the way people’s various identities intersect and the way they communicate with other people, both people who share some part of their identity and people who are mostly or entirely unlike them.
I’m most familiar with old-school 2nd and 3rd Edition Advanced D&D. There have been a whole bunch of updates to that system since I used to play with Joe, and later, with other friends, but a review of the literature shows that the principles haven’t changed too much.
A brief summary for the benefit of the tiny minority of Americans who have no idea what D&D is or how it works:
Like most RPGs, D&D is played with a group of your nearest and dearest friends. Between two and five people is best (more than that and it gets unwieldy). One person acts as the Dungeon Master, or DM, whose job it is to prepare a storyline, either from scratch or out of premade modules, and to referee the action. The DM rolls various specialized dice to determine the outcome of combat and other interactions between players and non-player characters, or NPCs, some of whom are recognizably human.
Players can pick between a number of what D&D refers to as “races” as the basis for their character. When I played, the racial choices the official Player’s Handbook gave you were humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, gnomes, and half-orcs, but I played a Minotaur once, and you can work out the mechanics (a practice called “statting up” among enthusiasts) for playing a character of almost any race in the D&D bestiary, the Monstrous Manual. (I understand it’s gotten a bit more complicated in recent years.)
Once you’ve picked a race, you get to pick a character class—Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard, Monk, and Bard are the ones I remember from 2nd Ed—and within that character class there are all kinds of different specializations you can choose from to customize your character.
Within the Fighter class, off the top of my head I remember paladins, barbarians, and gladiators. Probably fifty others exist. Like every character class, the player has to roll a twenty-sided die to determine their fighter’s ability scores (Intelligence, Dexterity, Strength, Constitution, Wisdom, and Charisma) when they first create her, and many players decide to allocate the lowest score to Intelligence (you don’t need to be smart to swing a sword in D&D, just strong and fast and tough) which can lead to some funny in-game moments—a lot of smart people enjoy role-playing dumb meatheads.
Within Rogue, you can be a thief or an assassin or a ninja (like Fighters, there are literally oodles of other specialties within the class), depending on the flavor of the game. The stereotypical D&D universe is based on Tolkien, but there are versions set in post-apocalyptic Fury Road universes and spacefaring pirate worlds, too. Your half-elven ninja might be a natural fit for one universe but stick out like a sore thumb in another, and the neat thing is you’re allowed to play that character in either place as long as you can square it with your DM and the rest of your group. Rogues, like all character classes, have certain skills and limitations—they’re typically quick and nimble, which means they incur penalties if they wear heavy armor, but they can pick locks and steal things out of your pockets without getting caught, and they’re usually a bit more morally flexible than, say, paladins.
Clerics have even more fun—not only do you get to pick a professional specialization (“Twilight Warriors” and “Blessed Healers” are popular choices), you also get to pick what religion you represent, and even what your god is like. This has significant implications for your character once you start playing, including how you are perceived within the game and what kind of magic spells you can cast. Clerics get their magic by praying for it, unlike wizards, who have to memorize their spells from books and scrolls, which has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, celestial fire support is hard to beat in a fight. On the other, if you stray from the restrictions imposed by your religion and your role within it, or if you lose your faith, you soon find that apostasy in a world in which the existence or nonexistence of a personal deity is a settled question can be hazardous in ways that go far beyond the social ostracism, imprisonment, and brutalization of the body that are typically the worst consequences in store for an apostate on Earth. If your in-game god’s angry followers don’t get you first, your former spiritual benefactor might turn you into a frog or age you a hundred years in an instant.
There are Wizards who are Sorcerers and Wizards who are Illusionists and Wizards who are Scholars; all can choose from an assortment of magic spells as their primary tools and weapons. Sometimes those spells overlap with the spells Clerics and Bards and Druids can cast, sometimes they don’t. Wizards are the character class with the most inherent destructive potential, but they take a long time to get to a level at which they can employ their most powerful spells, and while they’re learning, they’re more vulnerable than other classes, because they can’t wear armor and they’re not competent physical combatants.
There are warrior Monks straight out of a poorly-translated circa 1974 Kung Fu double feature (Joe’s preferred class when we used to play), Druids, Rangers à la Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, Bards, and a number of other classes that I’m a little hazy on (it’s been a little while since I played), but those are the basics. Also, there’s dragons.
“Jesus, Jay,” you may be saying, chuckling to yourself as you shake your head bemusedly and retreat ever so slightly from your monitor in the hopes that physically distancing yourself from the words on the screen will contribute to a degree of psychological detachment from their author. “I see it now. You’re a total fucking nerd. What does this fanboy shit have to do with what you promised I was going to read about? I thought I was getting the kind of controversial, trailblazing public intellectual output Substack is known for. I gave Glenn Greenwald five dollars and he told me about how the government lies to me and reads my emails. You’re waxing poetic about elves and wizards. Fuck, I thought you were some kind of academic. I want my money back, you charlatan.”
First of all, I haven’t started charging admission yet, you judgmental prick. But more importantly, embracing mildly embarrassing pop culture phenomena like superhero comic books and D&D is a useful strategy for advancing your understanding of interpersonal communication, for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, it’s about the form, not the content. If nerds are good at anything, it’s categorizing things. They label their comic book collections and keep the complete run of Gen 1 Transformers they have painstakingly acquired on eBay, the work of years of patient searching, under glass. They carefully arrange their Funko Pops on their desks at work. It’s kind of sweet, right?
Consider that nerds absolutely apply the same set of standards and procedures they apply to organizing their collectibles to understanding and labeling themselves and other humans. Gary Gygax, mentioned above, wrote book after book of templates and procedures and statistics for dividing people up by their race and profession and religion and skill set. Yes, I know those books include answers to questions like “If I kill a goblin standing ten feet away from me with a fireball, will the collateral damage from the explosion include my +3 Vorpal Sword?” That’s not the point. The context of this discussion is language, which is determined in part by culture. It’s hard to argue that popular culture doesn’t affect the ways people think about their identity, and that includes the metrics by which we measure ourselves and each other.
The people who got into RPGs in the 1970s, when Gygax started TSR (D&D’s first publisher), are in their fifties and sixties and seventies (Gygax was 36 in 1974, when the first edition of D&D was released) today. Their kids play it. Their grandkids play it. It may or may not have been a useful way of categorizing people before it reached its current cultural saturation point, I don’t know. But it has penetrated our culture, and it has fed back into the way all Americans think about themselves.
“All Americans?” you say, laughing lightly. “Jay, I’ve never played a role-playing game in my life, and none of my friends have, either. You’re overgeneralizing.”
Maybe, maybe not. But we talk about “leveling up a skill” in contexts completely divorced from nerd culture. That concept is taken straight out of the first Player’s Handbook. D&D characters learn new skills and magic spells as they increase in level (Depending on the game and gaming group, player characters may start at any level, but the rules are written with the assumption that at some point the character began at level one. Gaming groups typically end campaigns—which can last years—when their characters get in the neighborhood of level twenty, at which point they’re so overpowered that they’re essentially demigods.), which are determined by the number of Experience Points (XP) they earn from various encounters. That concept has made it into video games, where I’m sure some people think it originated, but it has been a core component of D&D since 1st Ed.
The blonde bombshell who walked past me and Joe at the Thai restaurant may never have played a tabletop RPG in her life—she was absurdly attractive in a totally conventional way, and people who look like that have opportunities to socialize in any context they want, so it’s hard to tell—but you never know. Whether or not she is aware of it, though, her semiotic palate was at the very least intriguingly correlated with that of fantasy art, which is intimately tied to D&D. Fantasy artists have been illustrating D&D books and advertising material since the beginning, and even people who have never heard of Boris Vallejo would say of his pinup art, “Yeah, that looks like some Dungeons & Dragons shit.”
“Interesting,” you say, stroking your chin. “Cogent summation of a pop-culture phenomenon and its impact on American culture at large. Still, I thought this blog was about an under-studied, or at least under-discussed aspect of pop social psychology, namely the intersection of identity and language?”
Easy, hoss. I’m getting there.
Wizards of the Coast, D&D’s current publisher, did print sales worth $31 million between May 2017 and October 2018 alone. More than $1 billion has been spent on game equipment and books since 1974, when the game was first published. By contrast, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the basic diagnostic reference of the American Psychological Association, made the APA $100 million over a period of eighteen years. The DSM-5-TR, the most up-to-date edition, retails for $170 even. The Player’s Handbook, by contrast, costs $31.30 on Amazon. Do a little mental math—how many copies of the Player’s Handbook do you have to sell to get to $31 million in a year and a half versus how many copies of the DSM do you have to sell to get $100 million in eighteen years, given that the current edition of the DSM retails for more than five times the cost of the Player’s Handbook? In purely economic terms, D&D may be the most widely consumed psychometric system in existence. I would argue, although it’s hard to prove, that it has penetrated our language and culture to a greater depth than clinical psychology—after all, the way we as a culture think about the treatment of mental illness by medical professionals has experienced…um…growth and reevaluation, but the principles of D&D are comfortingly constant. The rules have been streamlined over the years, but people still use modules from 1975 in games today.
“The point, Jay,” you say, as the penny begins to drop. “Get to the point. I am literally frothing at the mouth, beside myself with curiosity. I must know what this has to do with the intersection of language and identity.”
Good heavens. I hope you’re using the most up-to-date definition of “literally.” To address your request more directly, the intersection of language and identity are intimately tied up with concepts used in psychometric systems like D&D and, more explicitly, the DSM. I’ll get into that and explain what I mean by a social language in my next post.
The philosophical distinction between what constitutes a “race” and what constitutes a “monster” (given that you can in theory play a dragon if you can talk your DM into it) is outside the scope of this blog (or at least this week’s post), but it’s worth noting that the Drow, or “dark elves,” appear as monsters in early editions of the game and also as a standard playable race in later editions.
One of the most fun campaigns I ever played was as a female half-orc barbarian. The 3d6 stat rolls during character creation ended up with a bimodal distribution - 3 very high, 3 very low. Naturally, I allocated the highest to strength, dexterity, and constitution, and the lowest to charisma, wisdom, and intelligence. Once the race modifiers were applied my Int was borderline animal. The comedic possibilities introduced by a literal retard with maxed-out physical stats were endless. By the end I'm pretty sure the DM hated me.
All that said, not only does D&D provide a fairly simple, yet versatile and rich psychological map (especially via the alignment system, which I'm surprised you didn't mention), it enables players to dip into those identities and explore them from the inside. The DSM offers no such possibility. That alone gives it a remarkable degree of power as an educational tool. It would be fascinating to look at the empathic development and emotional intelligence of kids during a longitudinal study comparing those who do and don't play tabletop RPGs.
ah, the good old cliffhanger.
have you seen the way they do it in the early movie-series like Flash Gordon?
your cut-off just short of the information tauntingly referenced throughout the story, with the big build up to reveal, Oh! What's that! To be continued "next time..."
it gave me a flashback to the old reruns of Matinee at the Bijou on PBS.