It must be a good 23 years since I played Dungeons and Dragons last, in John's gameroom in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Regardless of what one might wish to say about D&D geeks, they are a culture - and a very long standing one by modern measure. Practitioners of social media and social networking who aim to create on-line cultures and communities need look no further than Dungeons and Dragons to find all the elements necessary for strong community.
It is brilliant work. Complex, subtle, and utterly open ended.
We used to play D&D not only for hours, but for days. It was an incredible focal point for bored teens eager for both competition and intellectual challenge.
I can firmly see a huge table with the map and game objects, the players (Chad, Kurt, John, Chris, myself, and the cycling guests), the piles of food, the bean bag to let people crash when they couldn't go on. Marathon sessions that didn't cause carpel tunnel. That required face to face interaction.
All because E. Gary Gygax sat down and created some books.
It was the vital ingredients in D&D that allows it to be a sustainable community, not the game itself. The game is merely a game. It's construction and Gygax's forethought is what makes it sustainable.
Why is D&D so special in particular? What do we have to learn from it? Well, it has all the key ingredients to culture, here's just five of them:
1. Cooperation is Vital to Survival
In a D&D world, you can be a super powerful character that can run around kicking butt and taking names - for a while. But, unless you have a dungeon master that's scared of you, something more powerful will come and get you.
In a well balanced culture, people rely on each other for success. Every so often we may need a character like Willem Dafoe's Elias Grodin in Platoon, but they don't make a healthy culture overall. In fact, their uniqueness is what makes them valuable to the group.
Usually, you need to build a team of varying skill sets in order to succeed. You need visionaries, detail people, and workers. You need producers and consumers (see my previous post about LiveJournal). You need balance. You need cooperation.
When you need cooperation, you build virtuous cycles to success. Each person not only adding their strengths, but also relying on others to do the same. Surprisingly, people actually like to be relied upon. They don't like being forced to do things, but they love the freedom to do good.
Cooperation is a key ingredient of culture.
2. Positive Feedback and Reinforcement
Do good, get experience points. Get experience points, become more skilled. Become more skilled, do even more good!
Seem simple? Well, it is.
Surprising, there are so many VCs out there giving money to Social Networking sites that simply don't get it. They don't see why it's important.
And why should they? Only recently has business begun to even accept that basing performance on strengths and not weaknesses is a good idea. As a society, we're just beginning to grasp that positive reinforcement might be beneficial.
Gygax figured that out decades ago.
He made a game out of not getting your pudding before you eat your meat. He figured out that we want to do the work if the reward is right and that the reward not only makes us feel good, but it makes us appreciate the reward giver even more. In short, it earns loyalty.
Reinforcement is a key ingredient of culture.
Loyalty is a key ingredient of culture. (Bonus ingredient!)
3. Freedom of Choice
And Devo sang:
We're victims of sedition on an open sea
No one ever said that life was free
Sink, swim, go down with the ship
Just use your freedom of choice
In life we have a lot of choices and some of them are a real pain in the ass. No choices, however, is the very definition of tedium.
Creating an open ended environment where players were limited only by their imaginations - but still bound to a set of conventions - is truly masterful work. The conventions need to be firm enough to create a coherent environment, but open enough to allow the users to build whatever environment they choose.
This freedom isn't just important because people's minds like to wander, it's important because culture is not a fixed concept. Culture meanders through time. It morphs, reinvents itself, but still maintains an identity - if it is allowed to. If not, it simply dies and is replaced with something else.
Let's copy and paste that sentence a few times. If not, it simply dies and is replaced with something else.If not, it simply dies and is replaced with something else.If not, it simply dies and is replaced with something else.
Stupid VCs who want to fund something quick take note, the world of culture building is not quick and building on-line communities to flip will fail in the long run. Certainly you can build a bubble and
steal make some money, but the tools will fail.
Gygax created a very detailed environment that let people go where they wanted and do what they wanted - within a given boundary. A good dungeon master, in the end, was someone who knew exactly when and how to apply rules. To keep the game interesting and fun, while being neither ungoverned nor oppressive.
Freedom is a key ingredient of culture.
4. Role Definition
We all wear many hats. But, damn, we love hats. When we don't have a hat, we're confused about what our roles are.
This is closely coupled with two other things: Fit and Style.
Don't give me a Cowboy hat.
The roles we choose need to fit our personality and our aesthetic. In business, people often wear all sorts of ill-fitting hats. Excellent producers who get promoted to managers, but hate managing people. Team members who get a role because it's needed, but doesn't fit their strengths. People fighting for a position for which they are ill-suited because society doesn't value what they do well.
Fit requires matching with your skill set, which requires definition. Your role must come with an explanation of what society thinks that role does. You will augment that within bounds based on your style, but the role itself needs some boundaries in order to recognizable as a role.
(You will see many posts by me for management theory, discussing why process changes at some companies fail because people are reassigned to roles that aren't adequately explained or incorporated into the culture.)
Style is how that role integrates with you. How are you going to be a good cost accountant or an elf mage? Do you want to be one at all? Does your style lead to success or failure? You can mold the position to fit your style, but you can't completely obliterate the rules for that role. You can't be a cost accountant that only bakes cookies, for example.
Gygax's D&D universe has a set of classes and subclasses of roles that are compelling enough to attract a wide variety of personality types and skill sets.
Roles are a key ingredient of culture.
5. Maturation Process
Can your community mature? In D&D you mature by the leveling up of your character, but after time this becomes the mechanical part of the game. Predictable, almost.
What starts as your primary motivation for playing the game, becomes merely a byproduct of it. After a while, maturation takes on some familiar roles.
Mentoring, specialization, and governance are primary indicators of a mature community. As characters and players mature, they lead other players forward and teach them the ropes (mentoring). They become more and more skilled and subtle in their areas of knowledge (specialization). And they tend to watch for malfeasance and, from their position of authority which comes from being a long-time member of the culture, deal with it (governance).
Again, we can see this in yesterday's LiveJournal article. Players of World of Warcraft will recognize these elements immediately. This process is a major factor in the success of Wikipedia.
This type of maturation reinforces culture by providing a healthy continuum of member growth and internal policing.
Cultural maturation is a key ingredient of culture.
Emotional Goodbye to Gary
You know, at the time of an experience you never know what lessons you will take away. It's certain that at 13 years of age I wasn't really all that concerned with the cultural maturation processes of D&D. I don't even know that Gygax was too concerned.
I do know that more than few funds were pooled to go to the Conestoga Mall in Grand Island and pick up yet another D&D book.
What I see now, as I work with clients to help build communities and collaborative management processes, is that Gygax understood tactics on a deeper level than any of us ever gave him credit for.
His company TSR (Tactical Studies Rules), which produced D&D, is keyed on tactics. We always thought it was battle tactics. It's pretty clear now that he understood social tactics as well.
Consider this: D&D was sold primarily from word of mouth in a pre-Internet era. (The lack of advertising scared parents who felt it was a pawn of the devil.) In other words, it was a highly successful viral marketing campaign in an era where there was tremendous friction for word of mouth.
Gygax, in the end, was a person who seemed ultimately interested in the game and the community around the game. He said in 2004:
Games give you a chance to excel, and if you're playing in good company you don't even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game.
In this one, compact sentence, is about half the essay above. Every person interested in creating community, whether a social media creator, an urban planner or whatever, should have this quote on their wall.
Gygax's game did more than keep me off the streets, it reinforced deep community values and contributed to many of my current management and social theories.
So, thank you for that Gary. I genuinely appreciate your thoughtful creations.
I would like the world to remember me as the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else. - Gary Gygax