Awesome Men Throughout History: Gary Gygax
It may or may not surprise you to learn that I am a nerd. Actually, it had better not surprise you; I write things on the Internet, for God’s sakes. The Cheeto clouds above my apartment are probably visible from space.
In any case, it’s been said that nerds are now the drivers of American culture, and while I don’t think that’s exactly true, nerds certainly have a greater cultural foothold than ever before. A lot of people and things can take credit for that, but one guy who deserves credit and never gets it is Gary Gygax, who invented Dungeons and Dragons in the early 1970s. He is this week’s Awesome Man.
Gygax was pretty much bred to be King of the Nerds – for one thing, he lived in Lake Geneva, where you either invent your own fun or go insane from boredom. For another, he was obsessed with games of all kinds, especially pinochle and chess, and was introduced to science fiction and fantasy by his dad, who read him pulp novels before bedtime. All this naturally led to an interest in wargaming, by which I mean tabletop strategy games where military operations are simulated with miniature figurines, modeled terrain, and bitching about minor rule violations for hours at a time.
Gygax eventually saw an opening in the games hobbyist marketplace for a strategy game that could be played with just paper and multi-sided dice, drawing upon the imaginations of the players rather than maps and miniatures. He partnered up with friend Don Kaye and business partner Bryan Blume to form Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) to develop and promote his idea, and the first D&D rulebook was published in 1974, gaining popularity among nerds on college campuses and in boutique stores.
Like a lot of outsider hobbies in the 70s and 80s, D&D was immediately connected to Satan after some idiot from Michigan State wandered into the school’s steam tunnels. Later, Patricia Pulling would form BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) after her gamer son committed suicide, and the resulting backlash against the game forced Gygax to defend it on 60 Minutes. The anti-D&D hysteria even spawned a movie, Mazes and Monsters, starring a very young Tom Hanks as a college student who gets too into the game and loses touch with reality. It’s not a very good movie.
Despite all that, Gygax’s creation has become a subcultural phenomenon, and has given many awkward nerds a way to socialize and make friends with likeminded people. It has also influenced computer gaming – World of Warcraft and Neverwinter Nights, for example – and an arguable influence on film as well. Some may argue that associating the game with fat neckbearded guys instead of Satanists has made it less dangerous, and therefore less cool, but its role as a highly visible rally point for nerd culture (which is fast becoming pop culture) can’t be denied. And to think, it all came from the brain of a weird little guy in Wisconsin who didn’t expect to sell more than a few thousand copies of the first rulebook.
And if nothing else, Gygax is indirectly responsible for the funniest Dr. Demento skit of all time. Even if you’ve heard it before, which you have, give it one more listen and dole out some posthumous bro points to Gary Gygax. He earned them.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.