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[whitespace] Hollywood Sucks

But the real D&D people already knew that

By Annalee Newitz

LIKE EVERY OTHER GEEK in the universe, I played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) when I was a kid. And thus, like every other geek in the universe, I recently dragged my office chair-imprinted ass over to the theater to see the breathtakingly stupid movie version of Dungeons & Dragons.

It's true that I had been warned. For weeks, on the Internet, I had been reading incredulous postings from gamers whose prodigious imaginations were actually strained to the breaking point by this flick. They just couldn't believe that something so foul and brainless could be perpetrated in the name of their beloved role-playing game. Even the good bits--swooshing digital dragons, satisfyingly claymationish beholders and sparkly elf kingdoms--couldn't rescue a plot that was not only nonsensical but racist and sexist to boot.

Damn, I thought to myself as I left the theater, was the real D&D like this? Full of dumb chicks who need rescuing, queeny evildoers and a black Stepin Fetchit-style thief right out of Spike Lee's worst nightmares? Did D&D limit our dreams with stereotypes instead of teaching us to reimagine the world?

I had a vivid memory of myself at age 12, spending hours with my dorky friends at a store called Gamesmanship, poring over graphs built out of hexagons, clear plastic 20-sided dice and the latest dungeon modules. My buddies Dave and Rob vied for DM (dungeon master) status and I spent days rolling up characters, trying to create the perfect half-elf, chaotic neutral thief. We argued over bags of holding, the price of horses and whether one should roll for damage points when a character had gotten drunk.

It wasn't always innocent fun. Dave got kicked out of Catholic school for playing D&D, which was rumored to be satanic. And I had my first taste of sexual harassment during a D&D campaign led by a new, 18-year-old DM who interpreted my character's high charisma to mean that he could occasionally roll the dice to see if I would be raped in the local tavern. In fact, that rape-riddled campaign convinced me to quit playing D&D forever. I subsequently turned to science fiction and fantasy for my epic adventure fixes.

But the problems I had with D&D followed me, and they all had to do with the way D&D taught me to view human nature. What D&D shares with, say, Robert Jordan's bestselling Wheel of Time fantasy series or the notorious Gor universe is that they all work with archetypes. Characters are good or evil, lawful or chaotic. They can be fighters or magic users, clerics or thieves. Gamers these days sometimes say that they prefer other role-playing games (RPGs) because they allow for subtle shadings in character creation. And even Gary Gygax, the former insurance underwriter who invented D&D, has abandoned his creation to develop the more open-ended Lejendary Adventures, a game Gygax calls "rules lite."

When players and DMs get used to archetype-based adventures, it affects their expectations about other kinds of narratives. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series influenced what gamers wanted to see in the early days of D&D, the D&D game has affected what fans expect in movies, books and even real life. They want characters that conform to type and whose abilities and actions can therefore be logically extrapolated. Thus, it is perfectly rational for a DM to view rape as a likely outcome of male-female relations in a tavern full of fighters--after all, fighters can be violent and rape is violence, therefore all fighters are statistically likely to commit rape.

In the movie Dungeons & Dragons, you can see this archetypal system taken to its logical conclusion, because it incorporates modern racist caricatures like the black Sambo, a "humorously" incompetent servant. And the evil guy who chases the (white, male, strong) main character looks and acts like a leather queen who can't decide whether to penetrate our hero with his sword or something else.

As wretched as it is, the movie Dungeons & Dragons is simply a bumblingly obvious example of what goes wrong when we allow archetypes to control our stories. The only crime there is that we will read and watch bad stories. What I worry about more are the ways "stories" affect our expectations about the people we meet outside the realm of fiction.


Annalee Newitz (lolth@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who needs a good RPG once in a while. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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From the January 4-10, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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