Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fail saving throw versus nerdgasm

Dave Arneson died this week. Nerds everywhere put on their mourning robes and wizard hats. And I'm one of them.

Arneson was a co-creator, with the late Gary Gygax, of Dungeons & Dragons. Begun in the '70s, it launched a revolution in paper-and-dice role-playing games that led to many lost nights' sleep for the adolescent boys of Generation X. You may now point and laugh...

...okay, now to the point. I didn't actually play that much D&D. I wanted to, but never got around to organizing the giant "campaign" that I dreamed of. Instead, I found I spent most of my time reading the dungeon modules and writing my own. Creating worlds in my head. It was the best training I could have had for the years to come.

You see, D&D trained a generation of young minds to create stories for other people to live. You came up with the backstory, mapped out the sets, the props and the background cast, but you left the actual plot development to others. You drew, for example, an underground maze full of monsters and treasures, but you had to leave it up to your friends to decide how to go through it, and in what order.

This new, non-linear, user-centred storytelling quickly made its way into the adolescent books of the time. "Choose Your Own Adventure" was a popular series where every page gave you several choices of where to take the story next, creating almost countless possibilities (even though they tended to shepherd you to only three or four quite predictable endings).

The parallels with computers and programming are hardly accidental. (Especially when we had to draw flowcharts for our BASIC programs.) The home computer revolution was going on at the time, and the technology of the early '80s was stretched to its limits trying to create text-based role playing games that didn't completely suck.

And thank God that our Commodores weren't up to the challenge. Because having to do all of that non-linear storytelling and handing all the plot decisions over to users in our heads is what trained the minds who created the Web, 10+ years later. It took us a while to get the hang of it, but writing for Web in the '90s was very much like mapping out a dungeon without knowing which route the players would take through it, or authoring a Choose Your Own Adventure where every page had to create a random but continuous flow with every other one. Same as when I map out labyrithine social media engagement strategies in 2009.

I still consider those early days with graph paper, a pencil, and my dog-eared copy of the Monster Manual (with its ridiculous carnivorous jellies and line art naked lady demons) to be the beginning of something important in communications that's still playing out today.

R.I.P., Gary and Dave.

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