I hadn’t thought of saying anything about the death of Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons and Dragons, until I read this article by Robert Talbert at Casting Out Nines. Talbert reflects on how playing D&D in his youth prepared him in certain ways for what he is doing now as a professor of mathematics:
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.
Similarly, I suppose I could say that much of what I enjoy most about my profession is in some way a development of things I learned as a teenage D&D nerd. I learned how to think concretely and imaginatively about how people might have gotten things done in a preindustrial society: how they fought, how they earned a livelihood, what they did in their spare time. It was D&D that prepared me a decade later to ponder the sort of questions Dr. Songer would pose in his New Testament backgrounds classes: what was farming like in the world of Jesus? How did armies operate? What were the expected social roles of kings, priests, and sages? Who believed in magic, and why, and how did magic “work” in their world?
I was also exposed to the rich heritage of world mythology and began to think “phenomenologically” about beliefs, values, and worldviews different from my own. Along the way, I also discovered the power of storytelling to bind people together. D&D was my entryway into Tolkien, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Elder Edda, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. (In Mrs. Smith’s A. P. English class, when everybody else had to choose between a paper on Norse or Greek mythology, I got a special dispensation to tackle the Etruscans!)
So yes, thank you, Gary, for hours of entertainment that‚ looking back‚ actually accidentally taught me some pretty cool stuff.