The Original Dungeons & Dragons

Long before Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft, America was seized by a craze for fraternalism. In the late 19th century, millions of Americans headed to the lodge hall on a weekly basis. They dressed up in outlandish costumes, performed elaborate scripted rituals, and gained titles and ranks. For the evening, anyway, they became knights and warriors and druids. They were, in effect, inventing the role-playing game—creating alternative realities in which they could assume altered identities, leaving their workaday worlds behind. 


And nowhere did these groups prove more popular than within the black community. Excluded from most of the mainstream groups, blacks responded by creating a welter of their own organizations. "The colored people," as one Missionary periodical of the era condescendingly put it, "are crazily fond of organization." But it also worried about the evils of the lodge, that "insidious foe to piety and thrift." And it was far from alone. Frederick Douglass fretted that "the weak and glittering follies" of fraternalism were "swallowing up the best energies of many of our best men," and as a result, "indisposing them to seek for solid and important realities." Or, to put it more simply, that those crazy kids were throwing it all away. 

Some people still join such groups, but they've lost their cultural primacy. In recent decades, the imaginations of young men have been more likely to be fired by their cultural heirs—D&D, MUDs, and MMORPGs. And those games have become the targets of new anxieties. It's the timeless nature of that concern that makes the analogy compelling, despite the obvious differences between a fraternal order and a computer game. Each generation, it seems, this plays out again - new entertainments are blamed for corrupting and distracting the youth. Their artistic merits are disparaged. Their social worth is weighed, and found wanting.

But there's an interesting postscript here. In recent years, scholars have belatedly recognized the value that members found in fraternal groups. Perhaps a century from now, academic journals will be rife with encomia to the golden age of online gaming, when players formed guilds, built relationships, and experimented with identity. Or maybe MMORPGs will seem as quaint as stereoscopy, merely an antiquated entertainment. It's tough to say. But either way, the anxieties and controversies these games now provoke will come, in time, to seem absurdly overdrawn. By then, we'll be worried about some truly insidious new fad, that really is corrupting our kids.



This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.
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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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