A friend of mine recently posted a Facebook quiz. It had well over a hundred questions, many of them moral/ethical, which you were supposed to answer. Would you cheat if you knew you couldn’t get caught? That kind of thing. Plus other questions about your physical abilities. The idea was, if you were a D & D character, to discover what kind of D & D character you would be. Turns out I’m a level 6 chaotic good cleric. I think that means I shouldn’t ever fight anything–I should use spells instead. Which sounds about right, except that I don’t actually know any spells. But I suppose I could learn some.
I have never in my life played D & D. But my oldest son loves it, and is, according to his friends, one of the world’s great Dungeon masters. And my younger son loves it too, as does my son-in-law. I think we’re sort of a D & D family, kind of. I would very much like to play sometime, but I gather it takes a long time to learn and get good at, and I’m not sure when I would.
But I like fantasy novels, as does my wife and oldest daughter. I loved the Harry Potter books, and was reading them aloud to my kids before they were cool. I was good at reading Harry Potter. Had voices for all the characters, except that my Harry and my Ron, unaccountably, were indistinguishable. One of my favorites was Mad-eye Moody, except I gave him a really gravelly voice, and it hurt my throat. So to the extent that D & D is about fantasy (about constructing, on the fly, new fantasy scenarios), we should be down with it.
One of my favorite things about D & D are the alignments. There are nine possible alignments; characters are either good, neutral, or evil, and either chaotic, neutral, or lawful. I love that. ‘Lawful evil’ suggests someone like Adolphe Eichmann, for example; evil, certainly, but within the context of a system; his evil is orderly. (Certain college administrators I have known fit nicely here.) Chaotic good, however, means someone inclined to do good, but undisciplined, unsystematic. Bill Clinton comes to mind. Alignments are more than a useful tool for the construction of a fantasy; they make real world sense.
When I was much younger, and taking creative writing classes, I remember, every class without fail included this: the well-meaning play (or story or novel) about the Dangers of Dungeons and Dragons. The plays were about innocent high-school-aged kids who become obsessed with a fantasy game based on the occult. It takes over their life. Their grades drop. They become anti-social, withdrawn. Their families despair. D & D becomes a gateway drug (or drug-like experience), to, you know, ouija boards and Wicca and satanic possession and drinking mare’s blood by the light of the full moon. And, you know, eventually, teen suicide.
Man, I hated those plays/stories/novels. I was young and arrogant and I’d say mean-spirited things in class and I think I offended people. I didn’t play D & D–I was a big enough nerd to, but my friends and I tended to express nerdiness through the music of Gentle Giant. And limericks. But I knew enough about D & D to defend it.
Older generations always freak out over what younger generations think is fun. That’s always been true, and remains true today. “These kids, they’re all . . . gyrating. To music. It’s so . . . sexual. They call it–I don’t know if I have this right–waltzing. Waltzing!” Jitter-bug, The Twist, break-dancing, krumping. There’s always a Cool New Thing, and it always freaks out old folks (in fact, that’s most of the appeal) and it’s pretty much always turns out to be harmless fun and no big deal.
The fact is, getting good at anything takes a lot of time and practice, and can look like an obsession to outsiders. I always love it during the Olympics when they feature X-games style sports, like snowboarding. I think of someone like Shaun White, and imagine the conversations with his family when he was kid, about why he had to waste all his time skateboarding and stuff. I don’t know that that happened, maybe his family was totally cool with it, and super supportive and all, but I like to imagine massive family battles. Apollo Ohno’s Dad was apparently always in his camp, for example. Good for him, but I don’t suspect that’s mostly true.
Are video games a waste of time? Probably, sure. But kids like doing cool fun stuff that their parents don’t approve of. For parents, freaking out over what kids do for fun is our idea of fun. I’ve been in those conversations too.
“How’s Jimmy? He’s fifteen now, right?”
“Oh, he’s driving us crazy. Teenagers, you know?”
“In what way?”
“Oh, he’s got this game. He wants to play it with his friends all the time. I’m so afraid we’re losing him.”
We parental units can get a good couple hours fun out of that conversation.
But unless the thing your kid is doing is, like, starting a meth lab, it’s probably not worth bugging out about. My sister-in-law has a favorite phrase: “is this the hill I want to die on?” Is this fight worth it? Mostly she decides it isn’t. And that’s not abdicating a parental role. We parents can set a more effective example if our kids don’t think of us as the Fun Police. My favorite baseball writer ever, Bill James, once said that he was always getting in trouble in school because he’d was a class clown, joking about his teachers and getting laughs from it, and because he spent every waking hour thinking about baseball, and specifically, baseball stats. He can’t remember a single thing he learned in any of his classes. What does he do now? Makes a very good living writing about baseball (developing a writing style around making smart-alecky comments about baseball establishment figures) and re-thinking baseball stats. The two things he got in trouble for became the two things that made him a millionaire.
Fact is: getting good at any game takes a lot of time, and is fun enough that you’d want to spend that time. I’m too old to really count as a gamer–but I’ve put in my time on Madden, too. I think I’m pretty good at it. I’ll never be great though: Madden requires better hand-eye coordination than I have. But EA Sports, who makes Madden, hires literally hundreds of computer geeks. All of whom love football, and love goofing around on computers.
And now my son is in Grad School, and he’s teaching for the first time, and he’s nervous and scared about it, and he’s also doing brilliantly. He tells me about the exercises he does in his class, and I’m amazed and impressed; he’s so imaginative. But I knew he’d be a fabulous teacher. I know that, because he’s a fantastic Dungeon Master, and those skills transfer.