Drifting Apart

I don't know a lot about Dungeons & Dragons, having only "played" (is that the right word?) once or twice in my life. I never really took to it, as I never understood whether what I was doing was supposed to be pretending I was a knight and running around with a toy sword, or sitting down with a pen and paper, rolling dice and keeping score. I suppose that's the allure of D&D for those who like to play: It's a bit of a combination of both things.

But old-school RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons did manage to bring one clever innovation to the world of gaming, and that is the following: In most RPGs, there are various types or classes of characters from which to choose. Players could choose to be a thief-type character, for example, and being a thief meant you scored high on some traits (sneakiness? agility?) and lower on others (strength? honesty?). Wizard-type characters had a different set of strengths. Knight-type characters had others still.

What's attractive about this kind of game feature is that the whole game plays differently, depending on one's strengths and weaknesses. Suppose the player has to open a locked door. A thief might have to pick the lock, a giant might have to break the door down, a wizard might have to cast a spell… In order to build up enough points to manage opening the door, the thief character might have to spend some time acquiring thief-related points, obtaining lock picks, and so on. A wizard, on the other hand, might have to spend time on completely different activities, such as studying spells or acquiring potions or magic wands, or whatever the case might be. The point is that gameplay requires only that the door be opened; how a player managed to do that depended on his or her choice of character. Not only do different players get to have different kinds of experiences, the same game can be played hundreds of different ways, based on one's choice of character and list of strengths and weaknesses.

This gameplay innovation, given to us by the old RPGs of the 70s and 80s, bled over into computer-based RPGs like "Final Fantasy" and "Quest for Glory." This, in turn, inspired fighting games like Street Fighter II, with characters whose controls were radically different from each other; and racing games, in which different cars had different strengths and could approach terrain and speed differently.

Forty years later, it's not much of an innovation at all. Players expect to choose among classes of characters, or to experience gameplay in which one develops some set of abilities rather than others, and the events in the game vary accordingly.

Another benefit to this kind of game feature is the fact that it feels more true-to-life. Rather than everyone's having to pretend to be the same kind of character, we get to choose that character that most appeals to us. Some of us think of ourselves more like wizards than paladins. That's normal and expected. Far better to play the character that seems more like you than to play the only character available. Or, perhaps you'd prefer playing a character that is nothing like the real you. That can be a wonderful form of escapism, too. You might never be a swaggering pirate in real life, but in an RPG, you can play at being one, just for a chance to step out of your own skin for a while.

What makes this all work is the fact that the players know they are playing a game. We can choose which role we want to play, from a relatively small set of options, knowing full well that we can always start the game over again and play as a different kind of character. Today, I can choose to be a great wizard; tomorrow, I can be a swordsman who knows nothing about magic at all. It would be incredibly odd if your ability to play a particular game were defined entirely by the choice you made the first time around. It wouldn't be very appealing to play a game in which you could choose from twelve different characters, but if you chose to be the Elf the first time around, that impacted how you played the game the second time, the third time, and every time thereafter. That wouldn't be a very fun RPG; we might enjoy playing the first time, but subsequent rounds of the game would be frustrating, as a player tried to convert his homunculus character into an evil succubus or something.

In life, we don't get to start the game over and choose again. If we choose one path the first time around, we can always sort of pull back, change our minds, and follow a different life path later on, but that new path will be greatly impacted by the choices we made initially. Life is more like the less-fun version of the RPG.

Even as little as fifty years ago, a person could change course in their careers, go back to school, and have a quite illustrious "round two." Factory workers could become policemen. Teachers could become doctors. Ex-convicts could become lawyers. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs, of Tarzan fame, worked as a salesman, a rancher, a miner, a military man, a journalist… and a famous author. My own grandfather was a farmer, a mechanic, and a consultant for the state Timber and Coal department.

Today, though, this seems almost incomprehensible. The only valid "second rounds" in a person's professional life involve either transitioning from ground-level work to sales or management, or going from a low-skill job to a skilled profession. No one goes from ranching to mining, as Burroughs did, unless that means being a Manager of Data Science for a ranching concern to being a Manager of Data Science for a mining concern, and that's not really the same thing, is it?

The more exposure you get to any given world, the more you realize how small that world is, especially as you climb your way toward the top. There are only a handful of noteworthy university professors, for example. If you're one of them, chances are you know or have heard of most of the others. The same is true for any industry, be it cars or oil or pharmaceuticals or chemicals or software. There are millions of people at the ground-level, but once you've worked your way to one of the higher echelons, the world gets really very small. Before you know it, you couldn't possibly imagine playing as a new character and starting over again.

I don't know whether this is good or bad. I don't know whether this is "just life" or whether there was a benefit to living in a bygone era, in which one could try one's hand at all manner of work and live a contented life throughout. Or was it simply not very contented at all? Was it considered a personal failure if a person sold their farm and went to work in an automobile factory?

In any case, these days I have the feeling that the Elves don't hang out much with the Knights. The Knights don't have a lot to say to the Thieves. The Thieves and the Sorceresses don't intermingle. Once someone gets swept up by a life in politics, say, that becomes their world. They don't spend much time hanging out with auto mechanics; not because they don't like mechanics, but simply because there's no common experience uniting those people to each other.

It's possible for specialization of task -- and industry -- to drive people too far apart. When I think back to the school kids sitting in a circle, playing RPGs, I think of their diverse backgrounds, but that they were basically united by the fact that they went to the same schools, lived in the same communities, and shared at least an interest in RPGs. They grew up, their life choices caused their paths to diverge, and now they don't even have those things in common anymore. One is a doctor, one is an office worker, one started her own business, one barely scrapes by…

Without any kind of social glue keeping us together, we drift apart.