James M. posted an old ad from Dragon Magazine in a recent post, and in discussing it said:
There were all these ads for games I never saw in the stores … which suggested to me that the hobby really was much bigger and more diverse than the small part of it I knew in suburban Baltimore.
Now, James entered the hobby a good 5 years earlier than I did, and by the time I was really getting into it (late 80’s, into the early 90’s) my only recourse for gaming related material was the couple sad shelves in the back of a comic book shop. There were plenty such shops, they all had the same couple of shelves, and it was pretty random what you might find there. I wasn’t very discerning though — if had a D&D logo on it, I bought it. This led me to owning an odd collection of Dragon Magazine issues myself, and despite their dates being a few years old, I still felt the exact same thing James did. I was sure there must be some huge group of roleplayers out there somewhere, if only I could find them! I didn’t, and in fact, at that age I spent more time reading about D&D than actually playing it. Players were very hard for me to find, at least until 2nd edition hit the shelves, and even then it took a couple years before I had a really solid regular group to play with.
I noticed an odd connection too — that this sense of wonder at the existence of a larger realm that was completely foreign to me, this is basically the theme of D&D itself. A lot of the old school folks like to point that out as being especially indicative of the old school, a focus on exploration rather than on combat and character advancement. I agree with this basic sentiment, and I’d say the shift from graph paper mapping to battle-mat and miniatures is the most clear indicator of the move away from this focus.
In my comment on James’ blog, I mentioned that it seemed to me that this sense of wonder at the size of the hobby itself was surely lost for current generations due to the advent of the internet. I think this applies not just to the gaming hobby, but really any subject matter. In this day and age complete knowledge of any topic is quickly accessible right at your computer, heck maybe even on the phone you carry around in your pocket. I think this is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it connects people interested in more obscure hobbies. Where they were once a loner with a peculiar interest, now it’s easy for them to connect and discuss their interest with like-minded people. On the other hand, that sense of wonder that can drive us to new and unusual experiences (like driving halfway across the country to Milwaukee to seek out a gathering of like-minded enthusiasts) is gone. Is it any surprise that the game has moved away from this theme of exploration when it’s so much rarer to find in the real world?
It’s a different world, I guess. I’d better walk away from this before I drown in the waves of nostalgia. Still, I think there’s an interesting lesson in here somewhere. I think it behooves us to pass this lesson on to anyone that will listen, lest we revert back to where we started: a loner with a peculiar interest. It’s especially hard when that interest basically requires a group of like-minded folks to share it. Sometimes I wonder what will happen in another thirty years — will I still be able to find a group to play D&D with when I’m retired? I hope I will. And if not, I think I’ll just have to get out there and make new players.
5 thoughts on “On Themes of Exploration”
Nice observation. Recently I read a similarly-themed article on music (can’t find the link after quick search). Compared to “back in the day” dedicated aficionados searching hole-in-the-wall music stores for rare releases. Prolonged yearning (and so more memorable) and delayed gratification. The legendary Lester Bangs once fantasized about having a cellar with all albums ever released — and now pretty much everyone does through various streaming services and/or iTunes.
And likewise, now that I think of it, this blog by complexity theorist RJ Lipton (on aspects lost from physical library searches): http://rjlipton.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/searchin/
Ah, here’s the music article I was thinking of: http://www.slate.com/id/2291532
Dan, thanks for posting the Lipton article – that was fantastic.
Jenn, glad you liked it!