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Funyuns and Crowdfunds: How Dungeons and Dragons escaped a moral panic and terminal lameness to become multi-million dollar content engine

They say that Facebook’s algorithm is designed to show you content that generates an emotional response because it makes the chemicals in your brain keep you on Facebook and that’s how Facebook makes money. The brain science people say that the emotion which drives the most engagement is anger, which explains a lot. But I think the anger I feel when I go on Facebook is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy because whenever I come across some stupid shit, which is always almost immediately, I’m reminded of the knowledge that everything I’m interacting with is designed to make me stupider and meaner, and then I get even more annoyed.

It was in this frame of mind that I came across some especially stupid shit last week which I will now retroactively repurpose to fit the narrative of this story. I wasn’t scrolling Facebook on purpose by the way, the liquid crystal in my phone screen had sprung a leak and three quarters of the goddamn thing had gone black in my pocket some time along the stumbling walk back to my apartment at like 5 am. I had my messages open and my eyes wandered to the main feed okay, sue me and my brain chemicals. I just need you all to know that I don’t casually go on Facebook like some kind of psychopath.

Anyway, a few brisk and self-loathing scrolls in, I came across this repost of a truly aversive listicle-infographic-historical quote hybrid, its resolution crunchy from countless tours on the content farm circuit. The memetic abomination contended that Bill Gates had given some talk at an unnamed high school somewhere on an unknown date and had gotten up on stage to spew a list of platitudes about kids these days and personal responsibility, etc... It was a bunch of bullshit, and I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if I weren’t already in that frame of mind I mentioned, or if an item near the bottom of the list hadn’t stirred an early memory of my bullshit detector in development. It was a piece of advice that I remember hearing a decent amount growing up but that I’m only now realizing never really made sense to me: “Be nice to the nerds. They will grow up to be your bosses.”

Seriously, who the fuck thought it would be a good idea to tell kids ‘hey, you know that kid who’s different from you in such a way that makes you so uncomfortable or insecure that you’re driven to perform acts of physical, emotional, or social violence against them? Well, you better make sure to be nice to them, because they’ll grow up to be better than you.’ Yeah that’s really gonna make the bullies go easy. And even ignoring that, why are we feeding into kids’ delusions that your social caste in grade school has literally any bearing on your success in life?
lmao remember this meme?

It’s such fucking reptile brain thinking. Everyone just loves the narrative of the nerd from highschool showing up in a Lambo to the gas station of their hometown and having their gas pumped by their highschool bully or whatever, it’s a modern-day parable. In the end, the bully pays the ultimate price for their hubris and childhood shittiness: ending up relatively poor. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be. But honestly, get over yourself, it’s all random, life doesn’t fucking work like that, and you should know better fake Bill Gates.

Now with my signature page-long, rambling, and barely relevant intro out of the way, we can get on with the main point of this story: nerds growing up and becoming successful by pursuing their nerdy interests. Specifically, we’re talking about the resurgence of Dungeons and Dragons. I suppose on the off chance that you’ve managed to both stumble across this article and avoid learning anything about D&D, I should run you through a brief primer. D&D is a tabletop role-playing game, played in groups. One player, the dungeonmaster, runs the game chiefly by telling a story. The other players play the main characters of the story, making decisions which affect the narrative on the fly. The players can do pretty much anything they want, as long as they don’t break the rules as interpreted by the dungeon master and roll high enough on 20-sided dice, as determined by the DM. Players design their own characters and assign themselves special abilities — magic or extreme feats of athleticism — based on their progression through the narrative. And that’s pretty much all there is to it, the whole game takes place in everyone’s imaginations, so aside from dice and someone with a knowledge of the fuckton of rules, you really don’t need much to play.

D&D didn’t have a glorious beginning. Created in 1974 and based on table-top miniature wargames, it was a cult smash with theatre and comic book types, the people who I imagine would make Midwest emo music if they had had the resources, lived experiences, and/or musical motivation. After the initial success though, came the hysteria and the backlash. In 1979, a teenager named James Dallas Egbert went missing for a month after attempting suicide in the steam tunnels of Michigan State University. After the failed attempt, he may or may not have made a quick pit stop at Gen Con before going into hiding at various friends' houses, during which time he made a second attempt on his life in New Orleans. At this point, the press had picked up Egbert’s story and were printing unfounded speculations on the part of his family’s private investigator that his D&D habit may have contributed to his disappearance, and in fact that he might have been acting out a live version of the game in the steam tunnels the night he disappeared.

Egbert made a third attempt at suicide in 1980 and was successful. D&D paraphernalia was found in his dorm room, and his death, somewhat ironically, captured the public imagination. Though his suicide has since been accepted to be the result of stress and depression, many accounts printed the speculations about D&D’s involvement right alongside the actual news and a book was written based on the sensationalized version of his death. (It was made into a TV movie with fucking Tom Hanks of all people too). This was the first major example of D&D’s mainstream association with suicide, but it wasn’t the last. In 1983, a Canadian horror movie called Skullduggery depicts a man who is made by the devil to believe he is a Warlock in real life and that the Devil gives him instructions to kill people through role playing games.
Read the section called "Intellectual Fantasy Game"

In 1983, a woman named Patricia Pulling, whose son committed suicide and also played RPGs, founded a one-person advocacy group called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons the next year (BADD, like MADD, get it?). She began this work after her wrongful death suits against her son’s school’s principal and then-publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, TSR Inc., failed. BADD began publishing material that further claimed that D&D encouraged suicide and Devil-worship. According to academic David Waldron, BADD said the game “uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings,” which, really casting a wide net there Patricia.

In researching this story, I’ve learned that the 80s in North America was a wild time. People were just accusing each other of Satanism and Devil worship and motherfuckers were just like treating it as a rational thing to do? I don’t know what it is about panics like these, but it’s crazy that people will come across literally two flimsy examples of a correlation between something and satanism and decide to dedicate their lives to extinction of that thing. Shadowboxing unti they die, in the name of the Lord. I’ve seen a lot of weird shit in my time on this Internet-plagued planet and never has it occurred to me to start telling everyone that Satan is responsible and growing stronger, and it’s certainly never occurred to me to make a career out of it. I stick to much more realistic bogeymen like capitalism.

Anyway, D&D became a much maligned subject in the coked-out paranoia of the Reagan era, but shockingly the RPG’s demo didn’t exactly line up with that of BADD and the Christian columnist panic peddlers of the time. Any publicity is good publicity, as they say, and sales began increasing with the hype. Which honestly surprised me, because I figured the decline in the game’s relevance over the next couple decades would’ve been due to the whole suicide and Satan association, but when it comes to why people played less D&D in the 90s and 00s, I think the answer lies less in what had happened than what hadn’t happened yet.

Firstly, nerd or geek culture hadn’t been mainstreamed yet, by which I basically mean The Big Bang Theory didn’t come out until 2007, and Stranger Things was released in 2016. I’m serious, even though now the show makes we want to put my head through a door three times and say "Penny?" in between, the public hadn’t had a chance to really identify with a gang of neuroatypical, aggressively nerdy sitcom stars before then, and if I’ve learned anything about America, it’s that if you want your identity to be acknowledged by the dominant culture, you’d better get some representation on a sitcom quickly. Until anyone was exposed to a competing mental image, people thought of D&D as a game neckbeards played on the night of prom whilst munching on funyuns in their mothers' basements. 

Nothing more relatable than a squad of seven extremely successful millionaires. Thank you for everything you've done

Another factor is that D&D’s current publisher, Wizards of the Coast, made the game better. In 2014, it released the 5th iteration of the rules, and according to most everyone I know who played the 4th edition, it was a dumpster fire, so 5e was a welcome adjustment. The release of the newest edition coincided with the game’s 40th anniversary, and many interviews point out that its modern success also has a lot to do with older players coming back to the game and teaching younger players, including their children and classrooms.

The last thing that I think D&D was waiting on so it could step once again into the limelight was a more inclusive world. Diversity and inclusivity were high priorities for the designers of 5e, and they wove into the material an explicit attempt to remove identity-based barriers to entry. D&D has always resonated with people who don’t feel they fit in so well in life, and who sought escape in a fantasy world. With the new edition, Wizards actively tried to demonstrate the sheer amount of diversity an imaginary game-setting can offer, and tried to strip away dominant symbols of fantasy like the (literally) white knight and the damsel in a chainmail bikini. Plus, society is more willing to accept neurotypical and autistic people as deserving of and needing accommodation and encouragement. D&D can offer a source of escape and safety and therapy for those people.

I’m not just going to tell you D&D is more popular because of those reasons and not back it up though. In 2020, Wizards reported that 2019 was the IP’s 6th consecutive year of profits, and represented a 300% increase in sales. Also in 2019, a popular D&D YouTube and Twitch channel called Critical Role launched a Kickstarter for an animated series which raised $11.4 fucking million and the show was picked up by Amazon for two seasons. College Humor’s Dimension 20 and the McElroy brothers’ Adventure Zone each garner hundreds of thousands of views/listens per episode. The internet is the real final game changer for D&D. Content creators reach millions of people and make the game, which is admittedly obtuse and inscrutable, accessible for everyone with like no effort. It’s how I got into it, I’ve never purchased a D&D book (those shits are like $40 a pop), but I could probably run my own whole ass campaign just from having sat on my ass and watched YouTube videos for like a couple straight days (Critical Role videos are 4 hours long on average, and a season lasts around 100-150 episodes).

So yeah, D&D has had a resurgence from its histrionic peak of the 80s and has built an unprecedented modern industry on a critical mass of fans, new and old. And I’m sure some people definitely regret not being nicer to the nerds from their school who just raised 11 million dollars for their nerd project, but that’s definitely not the moral of this story. The moral is that you shouldn’t be nice to nerds simply because it may financially advantage you down the road, you should be nice to nerds because they could be onto some crazy shit and you won’t know until 40 years later. Or you could just not be shitty for the sake of not being shitty. Also, check in on your kids if they’re having a hard time, don’t just yell at them for playing too many roleplaying games, they’re depressed or maybe gay, but they’re not Satanists for fuck’s sake.


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