Thursday, December 3, 2020

A product of our imagination

Years and years ago, it was 1981 I believe, I had my hands on that most precious of all annual publications: the Wishbook.  Technically only Sears had a 'Wishbook' by name, but like Kleenex and Xerox, "Wishbook" came to represent any of the Christmas Holiday Catalogs that came from various retail giants like JC Penney, Sears and Monkey Wards.   

That particular year I was gushing over a model diorama of the Battle for Hoth from the recently released The Empire Strikes Back.  That film was - and remains - the one Star Wars movie (pre-Disney) that I never saw in theaters.  The reasons were many, but family crises and health issues for my grandmother were among the reasons.  

Despite this, or perhaps because of, I tried to get my hands on anything and everything 'ESB.'  Since I was going into high school, playing with the famous Kenner brand Star Wars toys was off the table, so a model seemed the next best thing.  After all, as you got older, it became more and more difficult to exercise that old imagination in ways that wouldn't draw scorn from our surrounding culture.  

As I've said, it proved to be a disappointment.  I didn't pay attention to the dimensions, and was rather crestfallen when the package arrived in a box barely large enough for a pair of shoes.  It was the first time I went through the trouble of returning something I actually had wanted.  I remember looking again at the picture and wondering how I missed the size of the thing.  

Another thing I missed, or paid scant attention to, was a strange game I first saw or heard of in that very catalogue.  On the same page was something called "Dungeons and Dragons".  It said it was a game, but was in the section that included models and other similar hobbies.  Some of the pictures looked like they were of little miniature models.  But some of the section said it was a game, and all I saw were books that looked somewhat like thin textbooks.  No game box, game board or playing pieces.  How that was a game I couldn't guess.

Where's the geometry problem?
Later that Fall, being my freshman year of high school, I was sitting with some fellows in our study hall.  Our study hall was actually our cafeteria.  Sitting at the tables, three of my fellow freshmen one day were doing something that caught my eye.  They were drawing something on graph paper.  

Back then, graph paper existed in school for two reasons: A math class or shop class.  Since none of them were in shop, and they were in my math class and I couldn't recall anything to do with graph paper, I asked what they were doing. One who was named Rodney explained he was 'drawing a dungeon'.  After more prodding, he explained it was for that game I remembered seeing earlier in the catalog.  He said it was more or less the game's board he was drawing, and that it would be used for the game he was preparing. 

I couldn't fathom it.  How do you 'draw' a game board?  What does that even mean?  And how do you know where things are?  I know where Boardwalk is, and where Kamchatka is, but what does it mean to 'put treasure' or 'place monsters'?  It made no sense at all.  So he showed me a book I had never seen before.  The cover had rather amateurish artwork, the stuff I'd expect on some kid's book.  But inside it was something I would have paid a million dollars for when I was a kid.

Inside those pages was a treasure trove of artwork and information about monsters of myth and legend, or movies and stories, of fancy and fantasy.  Most I had never heard of.  Again, I wasn't into fantasy or sci-fi that much.  I loved Star Wars as most my age did.  I watched Battlestar Galactica because it was a thing.  I was so-so with Star Trek.  I generally didn't care for the genre of fantasy, or anything much medieval.  

I did like monster movies.  And dinosaurs.  I had actually at one time thought of being a paleontologist as a kiddo.  So I loved me the old Harryhausen.   Also I enjoyed whatever cheap B Movies with monsters Super Host Mad Theater showed on a Saturday afternoon.  If someone gave me the latest issue of Movie Monsters magazine, that was fine too.  

In any event, you couldn't really get much more than such a magazine if you were interested in monsters or creatures of legend.  A local library might have a dozen different books that dealt with different subjects, including these or those mythical beasts.  Since there was no book store in our village, a trip to the local Walden Books at the small city a half hour away might yield a coffee table book that had something of monsters or dinosaurs.  Encyclopedias could sometimes help.  But that was it. 

But now, in that study hall, I was looking at a single, hardcover book that had literally hundreds of small entries, along with pictures, of more monsters, creatures and spooky things than I ever saw in one volume.  And in those days, in the hazy days of the pre-internet early 1980s, that was about a rich of a find as you were likely to come across.  Even VCRs weren't around yet, so there was no guarantee of a movie to see such critters in.   But there it was, in all its pen and ink glory.  Even if some of what was said in the entries make no sense at all. 

More dragons than I ever saw in one place
Hid dice? Armor class?  What did those mean?  It was a game, but made no sense.  I still couldn't get my mind around something without a board and a set of rules telling where everything was.  One thing I did realize, however, was that somehow it tweaked and piqued my imagination.  In those days, you only had a few outlets for your imagination if you weren't a pro in some art or entertainment vocation.  You could read.  You could watch television or movies.  You could, well, read or watch television or movies.  In my case I could draw well enough, though I was never a Rembrandt.  

Something that appeared to be almost blank slate ready to be filled by an adult (or at least teenage) imagination seemed at once confusing, but also a godsend.   Somehow, even without getting the strange numbers and terms, the idea that you could recapture some of that old creativity everyone has naturally as a child, that seemed to be diminishing greatly as more and more we turned to the screens big and little to do our thinking for us, was mighty appealing.  Oddly enough, the game didn't garner love from our industries of imagination and magic. Quite the opposite. 

I've often pondered the reaction of the popular culture to the game.  True, Spielberg treats it positively in the movie ET, and not unrealistically.  When I first heard of the game, it was as likely being played by the football captain or varsity lettermen as the geek or nerd.  That Elliot's cool, football playing brother Michael is playing it seemed no surprise.  But it didn't take long for that portrayal to fade, and soon everyone - Hollywood included - was jumping on the 'D&D is for geeks and losers who will kill themselves or you' bandwagon.  

Perhaps it's for the same reason that you see television held up to such derision in old Loony Tunes and Tom and Jerry cartoons.  My boys noticed that when they watch the 'disclaimered' cartoons of that period.  About the time television is making a big splash, you have several cartoon shorts that deal with this new technology, and almost all of them in some negative or mocking light.  Why would they do that?  Because back then, those little shorts we grew up watching on Saturday mornings were actually produced to play before movies in the movie theater.  And television was a threat.  So what do you do when you make the art that is being threatened by something?  You use the art to attack that something.

Football players playing D&D?
Same goes for a product of your imagination.  Consider a product that allows adults to use their imagination in ways that, by the 1980s, were no longer acceptable.  For ages storytelling and parlor games, even games involving what we might loosely call role-playing, were popular and even common among adults as well as children.  Even childish games like blind man's bluff or tag would be played by adults until relatively recent times.  Though theater existed, it wasn't an every day affair.  It was movies, and later television, that taught the adults (and perhaps later children) of the world to surrender their imaginations and abandon to an industry that would do it all for them. 

And it could be that the powers that be in the entertainment industry saw a game like this as a challenge to that growing monopoly.  In fact, it likely isn't confined to just this game.  Think how often in our popular culture anything not involving sex, or something to do with a form of entertainment produced at the industrial level, is lifted up and celebrated in our popular media culture.  Not that it never happens.  But how often is the person who eschews the latest, biggest industrially produced leisure activity shown as a positive?  

So it could have been for that.  Whatever the reason, our pop culture joined religious leaders, educators, scientists and medical pros, and journalists to trash, hash, and drag this game through the proverbial mud.  I admit I tried to play it despite it all.  In the end, it felt like it was more fun to think about playing than actually play.  

It might have been the local game group in which I first dabbled my D&D toes.  As I said, it was a mixed bunch, with guys from all around the high school social spectrum.  There were few girls.  Unlike the guys, they weren't from a large swath of teendom, being in that sort of middle 'reads a lot and likes Star Trek' mold.  Not many cheerleaders or homecoming queens.  But the guys were from all over the map.  Perhaps they just had a hard time setting aside their social differences and that showed in the game.

Whatever the reason, my attempts were less than positive.  But I remember those first days of looking through that book, and trying to get my mind around a game that seemed to give a blank check to my imagination, even the imagination of a teenager or adult. 

It seemed crazy, and yet also one filled with promise.  I'm not sure the promise was fulfilled as we imagined it would be.  But then, I think that about a great many of the breakthroughs from those days.  Heck, I remember when people said getting computers would put an end to paperwork and make things so much faster and easier.  I'm still waiting for that to happen.

Nonetheless, the game that seemed so full of promise to tweak the imagination, especially if you were too old for Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, broke into my world in a hazy, lazy study hall my freshman year, just as Reagan was moving on from his would be assassin and Disco seemed a thing of the past.  Whatever promise it had, or why it elicited such pushback from an almost universal coalition against it, I don't know.  But at one point, at least, it seemed to say that despite all of our modern advancements, it might still be our own creativity and time shared with others that brings the most joy and happiness.  Just a reflection on things as I get ready to enter my 54th year in this old life. 

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