Thanks, Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died at age 69:

Gygax and Dave Arneson developed Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 using medieval characters and mythical creatures. The game known for its oddly shaped dice became a hit, particularly among teenage boys, and eventually was turned into video games, books and movies.

Gygax always enjoyed hearing from the game’s legion of devoted fans, many of whom would stop by the family’s home in Lake Geneva, about 55 miles southwest of Milwaukee, his wife said. Despite his declining health, he hosted weekly games of Dungeons & Dragons as recently as January, she said.

“It really meant a lot to him to hear from people from over the years about how he helped them become a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, what he gave them,” Gygax said. “He really enjoyed that.”

dungeonmasterguide4cover.jpgI’ll second that last statement. I was one of those teenage nerd boys that got hooked on D&D during junior high school. For a geek, in junior high in rural middle Tennessee, having D&D there to fire my imagination and creativity was nothing short of essential for survival. In fact, one of the only memories I retain of junior high — and one of only 4-5 good memories — is playing Basic D&D with my nerd friends in the back row of the bleachers in the basketball gym in the 15-20 minutes we had before our first class. I had more fun, and exercised my mind more, in those few minutes than I did the entire rest of the school day.

My parents, like everybody’s parents during the 80’s I suppose, basically equated D&D with drug use and Satanism all at once, and they had major problems with me playing the game. (They really loved the cover of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, above, when I brought that home one day.) But that didn’t matter to me — as long as my 10th-level magic user still had enough hit points to withstand a blow from a +3 enchanted mace.

D&D taught me to visualize events inside my head accurately and in real time, which I believe prepared me to visualize mathematical constructions later on in college and graduate school and even today. D&D also taught me how to handle abstraction, for example in the fact that two different characters of different classes can both be Lawful Neutral and therefore share the same basic outlook despite their differences, and to keep different combinations of complicated rules in my head while following them faithfully. I also remember discovering the concept of expected value and the normal distribution on my own, years before I learned them by those names in my stats classes, by generating characters using three rolls of a six-sided die.

So thanks, Gary, for providing this geek not only with a much-needed escape to a world of my own imagination but also an early education in the grown-up kinds of things I know and love and teach today.



Filed under Geekhood, Personal

4 responses to “Thanks, Gary Gygax

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  3. coderprof

    I always credited my math skills to playing around with calculators in the back seat of the car during road trips. I came to understand what repeatedly multiplying by two would do (exponentiation!). I also figured out square roots.

    But I may be underestimating the role of RPGs in my young math development. 3d6 distributions are a very real part of my childhood. Perhaps my understanding of probability theory comes from DnD or Avalon Hill strategy games.

    Thanks for posting this.

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