An Unlikely Restoration of Memory: Why Dungeons & Dragons Matters

In a sea of ambiguous or contradictory information about the trajectory of culture during today’s digital age, one subcultural data point merits significant attention: the return of Dungeons & Dragons, America’s founding swords-and-sorcerers role-playing game. Armed with little more than pencil and paper, some exotic dice, and an active mind, you and your friends can use the game to plunge into sweeping, rich, and deeply resonant worlds that mix iconic fantasy tropes with your own personal flourishes. Created in Wisconsin by a square-peg libertarian bearing the fantastic moniker Gary Gygax, D&D notched its biggest year since its parent company’s acquisition in 1997—probably, although prior records are scarce, its biggest year ever.

In raw numbers, that translates to: 8.6 million Americans playing in the last 12 months, with 9 million viewing gameplay video on Twitch, Amazon’s livestream site, alone. Remarkably for an online phenomenon, D&D is a decidedly incarnate pastime—one which can be played remotely, but reaches its consummately consuming pinnacle face to face, over weeks, months, and in many cases years. It’s this dynamic, more than the game’s re-entry into popular culture via trendy nostalgia-driven TV shows like Stranger Things, that’s responsible for D&D’s remarkable staying power in a social milieu where even stars and crazes get plowed under day in and day out.

And it’s the sustained, even painstaking practice of face-to-face relationship-building that marks the return of D&D out as a revealing indicator of the hidden truth about today’s technology-driven social changes. If digital life can instantly place us under one another’s microscopes, D&D demands we attend to one another’s details as they weave together in time, not as they trigger us instant by instant. Strangely enough, these two experiences stand in a collaborative relation of their own. Spontaneous visions and feelings once ruled our electric-age culture. Today, under pressure of digital life, the old supremacy of pure imagination is being replaced by a culture structured more by memory—that of human beings as well as of machines.

For proudly misfit or renegade libertarians cautiously reveling in their growing influence and normality, Gygax and his game augur a new proof that human harmony and flourishing come through radical imagination—whether online, off, or, increasingly, in some mutant condition where the analog and the digital, the incarnate and the disincarnate, merge. “D&D is a deeply libertarian game,” CJ Ciaramella recently wrote for Reason, “not in a crude political sense or because its currency system is based on precious metals, but in its expansive and generous belief in its players’ creative potential.” That ideal, he continues, grounds a culture that’s

collaborative, not competitive. It offers a framework of rules, but no victory condition and no end. The world you play in, and how you shape it, are entirely up to you. In the afterword to the original D&D manuals, Gygax encouraged players to resist contacting him for clarification on rules and lore: “Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?” It’s the game’s unboundedness that has seduced millions of people—children, teenagers, and adults—to sit around tables and essentially take part in highly codified games of make-believe.

As a person who spent more than a few teenage hours drawing detailed, full-color topographical D&D campaign maps on large sheets of small-hex paper, I find it difficult (indeed pointless) to object to the role imagination can and does play in the vitality of the game.

But while Gygax, like so many of his heirs, confidently proclaimed the game belongs to “those whose imaginations know no bounds,” as Ciamarella can’t help but observe, the conceptual ground upon which D&D’s figures and players collaborate is much more strictly and specifically bounded than its celebration of imagination wants to suggest:

In D&D, each player becomes a character with a race (dwarf, say) and class (ranger, cleric) based on classic fantasy tropes. The objective is to quest for loot and fame—or justice and saving the world. Players work together to delve into dungeons and defeat baddies, gaining power and abilities as they go.

While D&D might, in theory, involve any type of sentient beings engaged in any type of intelligible activity, in reality, the wide-open possibilities of the game are only discernible as a result of the boundaries and conditions defining the game space—boundaries and conditions with centuries-old, if not millennia-old, roots in the Western world’s most fundamental archetypes and divisions among human beings and human myths. To open the game’s manual of monsters and adversaries is to see spread out before you characters and themes almost as old as our historical memory itself. And when a Dungeon Master builds a campaign, he or she will characteristically recall his or her world’s past events to build the narrative within which the players will live. Radical originality is impossible; what happened makes the world.

With its often but scrupulously updated original rulebook and its mix of alphabet-driven (that is, spoken) and number-driven (that is, dice-rolling) gameplay, D&D is a powerful but commonsensical demonstration of how the Western imagination attains such generative and creative heights when it is placed in the service of imagination’s apparent opposite—memory.

The reality is that D&D depends even more on memory—the living memory of the archetypes, traditions, cultures, and anthropological preoccupations of inherited myth and experience, as well as the particular in-game memories of the players building personal and relational quest narratives—than it is on imagination. I believe the evidence is plain, given the way that online life has first commodified and then disenchanted imagination, that the return of D&D to a place of prominence as a national pastime has to do with its welcoming function as a safe yet inspiring access point to the personal, relational, and distinctly (if not exhaustively) Western retrieval of individual and collective memory.

What else can explain the way that other landmark cultural creations of the mid-1970s have become so outdated and banal over the past ten years? Bono, to take one monumental example, transformed unwillingly from the world’s biggest superstar of harmonious unity through the power of imagination into the most well-known annoying has-been to force his way onto your phone, there to live in irrelevance forever. Steve Jobs, penetratingly yet placidly presiding over our civilization under the holy motto “Think Different,” has been posthumously humiliated by the depressing and nauseating parade of bizarre different-think that his devices have vomited up in his wake. Flat-earthers, neo-nazis, and waifu-craving military servicemen tweeting from inside stolen armored vehicles are not what tech’s prophets of imagination democratized had in mind. Their imaginations, it seems, were too limited.

But in fact their imaginations were actually impoverished because they became detached from memory, no longer educated or bounded by the wisdom or the categories of thought of the ages. The result was what the postmodern French theorists on the cusp of the internet era said it would be: a vast trash heap of arbitrary and trivial possibilities, ever more equal and interchangeable in their declining value. Gygax’s contemporaries, who believed technology was the tool that would allow those with the best imaginations to change the world to conform with them, failed to understand that democratizing imagination in that way would horrifically strip imagination of its charms and its special purpose.

And yet, they also therefore failed to see how, in the postmodern wreckage left by the imagination crash, individuals and groups would reassemble meaning and substantiality in their lives by abandoning creative work grounded in narrative in favor of creative work grounded in character. In Japan, where these developments began to mature even before 9/11, social and media theorists like Hiroki Azuma came to understand that, online, the residue of imagination was put primarily into the service of deriving identity and emotional entertainment from fictive characters and character types, not the stories incidentally framing them. Rather than the narrative being the ground of the activity, the database of character types was—the always-updated archive of remembered and re-remembered archetypes emerging from the postmodern wreckage of democratized imagination.

The influence of this remarkable Japanese experience on American life online can’t be overrated, and certainly demands deep and sustained study. But, online, America is still influenced in even more profound ways by the reality-processing myths and categories of thought that trace back through the West’s historical development to its very origins. D&D lifts a corner onto the obscured truth that digital technology is driving social transformation away from the collapsing cult of harmonious unity through unbounded imagination—toward the much darker, deeper, and fertile soil of the retrieval of memory. For now, much of the most headline-grabbing retrieval is likely to strike the general reader as somewhat outlandish or marginal. The coming future, however, probably has less to do with (say) the political influence of quasi-Jungian professors from Canada than with the shared experience of incarnating D&D’s commanding character types of quest, protection, and fellowship.