What video games owe to tabletop games

Forget about orcs and elves: the underlying logic of Dungeons & Dragons is computing. That's why it had so much influence on video games.

Jon Peterson speaking about D&D and video games at the NYU Game Center.

(Photo by Brady Dale)

If you see people playing role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and you focus on the dragons and swords, you are missing the underlying insights that have made it enduring and, even more importantly, technically influential.
Jon Peterson thinks that computer games owe a lot more to tabletop role-playing and board games than historians have, up till now, given them credit for. He aims to prove it. He gave guests at the NYU Game Center some samples of his thoughts May 7 in Downtown Brooklyn, in a talk titled “Dungeons (and Dragons) and Data.”
Peterson is the author of Playing at the World, A History of Dungeons & Dragons, which could fairly be called a tome. It’s 700+ pages of close analysis of the game and the games that led up to it. Frank Lantz, the NYU Game Center’s director, in his introduction, called the book perhaps the greatest single historical work on a single game ever made.
Peterson says he was moved to tell the purely factual story of the ideas that converged to play the game, though he is not deeply a D&D fanboy. Not only was he late to the game (only starting to play seriously after college), he also came to the game in the live-action role-playing tradition, which is a more theatrical evolution of the game, seen by some as drifting away from its tactical roots.
The talk he gave on Thursday however was much less about D&D and much more about the larger ideas around games and how the world of video games has been informed by ideas that either originated in or became popularized by D&D, and, more broadly, board games and role-playing games.

The evolution of fandoms

Peterson’s work is grounded primarily in the primary documents of fandom, especially its mimeographed newsletters and zines. Fandom, he argues, was fundamentally changed by the internet. While science fiction, gaming, fantasy, comic books and computers have always had a lot of strong interplay, the internet has mushed them all together to a way where one fandom is hard to distinguish from each other today. Fandoms are a bit of a blob now known as geek culture, he argues. “The Internet has just fundamentally transformed the ways communities form around interests and products,” Peterson said. Before the internet, their separate identities were more distinct, even if everyone involved took part in at least two fandoms.
Each community had its infrastructure of zines, newsletters and conventions.
The three legs of that era, he says, were Science Fiction, Computers and Games. Yet, strangely, all of these things came together to birth D&D, a game which, superficially, seems to owe no allegiance to any of those things.

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D&D’s computational inspiration

Everyone knows that D&D is about elves, orcs and trolls. Its trappings are the world of fantasy which make it appear distinct from the world of spaceships and the ferment from which cyberpunk would arise.
Peterson thinks this is completely wrong. In fact, he’s building up a case that the creators of D&D, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and the creators of other, related games that approached some of the ideas that would come together in D&D, were all intimately involved with sci-fi and computers. That the superficial veneer of orcs is a distraction from the undergirding logic of D&D and many of its brethren in IRL games. That undergirding logic is, in fact: computing.
Many board games and role-playing games are heavily computed. That is, random number generators (dice), paired with modifiers used under different situations to increase the realism of games taking place in the imagination. He charted a complex story of games that have used incredibly sophisticated computation (without computers) going all the way back to the 1800s.
Computers and Sci-Fi were meeting up, Peterson says. It was these fans that would create D&D. “I keep finding more of these encounters,” Peterson said, referring to those between computers and gaming, in forgotten games that tell the story of tabletop gaming’s evolution into games played on computers.

D&D’s influence on video games

Peterson has a set piece argument about ways D&D influenced video games that he’s been making for a while. Here are his four big points. Video games owe a debt to D&D if they show any of the following:

  • Anything with a health bar
  • Anywhere characters change or level up (it’s what feeds your addiction to games, he says)
  • Anywhere that you explore the world and learn new features of that world as you poke around, where the map has secrets
  • Anywhere the game tells a story

D&D came out in 1974 and it took a while for those influences to show up. Pong popped up in 1972 and arcade games started coming out in the late ’70s. They don’t show many of the D&D influences above, but by the late ’70s, games started to show evidence of a narrative, maps and character. Now, it’s everywhere. Diablo, Peterson said, might as well be a D&D campaign.
However, just because computers took a while to reach the public, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t influencing gaming before regular people had access to them. In 1970, Flying Buffalo Games innovated by using computers to run the first computer managed Play-By-Mail games, a pre-video game industry that preceded video games. Computers ran the computations that figured out what happened based on the players’ decisions, which they sent in by mail on forms.
Peterson says that Flying Buffalo first started off as a war games company, but as D&D completely took over fandom, it adapted. In fact, one contribution it offered to the world of roleplaying gamers was randomly generated dungeons. So, for example, one of the parent companies, TSR, had product lines selling people new and different dungeons they could play through. These dungeons quickly circulated throughout the scene, however, and avid gamers quickly learned all their ins and outs.
Flying Buffalo began selling packages generated by computer, where everyone dungeon in every pack was different.
In 1977, at the University of Illinois, computer scientists took a stab at building a graphics based quest on a mainframe, using the PLATO system.
In another interesting overlap, as D&D rose in popularity, another imitator, Tales of Mirkwood was published. One of the collaborators involved in that project, William Crowther, would go on to create one of the very earliest text-based adventure games that people could play on PC, Colossal Cave Adventure.
Just remember, though, kids, these games are dangerous. Look what happened to Tom Hanks:

Spoiler alert: you just watched the end of Mazes and Monsters (1982). Very necessary.

Companies: NYU Game Center
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