Philosophy of The Game

What is the philosophy of The Game?

This is one of the more controversial topics in The Game. What is the philosophy that underlies gaming? Is there such a thing? Should there be? Or is it an attempt to offer unnecessary analysis to something that, when push comes to shove, is “just a game”?

When Gary Gygax first published the Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979, he tackled this issue head on: “In all cases, however, the reader should understand that AD&D is designed to be an amusing and diverting pastime, something which can fill a few hours or consume endless days, as the participants desire, but in no case something to be taken seriously. For fun, excitement, and captivating fantasy, AD&D is unsurpassed. As a realistic simulation of things from the realm of make-believe, or even as a reflection of medieval or ancient warfare or culture or society, it can be deemed only a dismal failure. Readers who seek the latter must search elsewhere.” By the end of the 1970s (and only a few years into D&D’s existence), Gygax was already dealing with critics. He was in a power struggle with his co-creators (each with their own vision) but he was also dealing with the inevitable criticisms that would come from the war-gamer community, from whence D&D emerged in the first place. Therefore he sought to disarm the historical war-game purists who would attack the game for its lack of realism: “It does not stress any realism (in the author’s opinion an absurd effort at best considering the topic!). It does little to attempt to simulate anything either.”

At the same time, Gygax was looking to head off a popular reaction against D&D. He was well aware of what he had discovered and how alluring it was (and would be) to gamers. So rather than tackle the deeper reasons for the game’s popularity, he fell back on what would become a familiar refrain: it is just a game. What is now dubbed the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s demonstrated the vitriolic nature of that public response. People who knew nothing of D&D entered the fray to offer criticisms. The game seemed to hold some mysterious power over those who played, based on the argument that they wanted to play so much. The game included demons and devils (prominently displayed on the cover of the first edition DMG), so therefore it must be bad and dangerous to Christian beliefs. These attacks has a personal element for Gygax who held to relatively fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

But in seeking to fend off the critics, Gygax likely went too far in stressing the lack of realism and that D&D was “just a game.”

After running my campaign for several years, I came to believe that there was certainly more to D&D than “just a game”. In 1990, I wrote a thought piece that reveals where my thinking was going:


Dungeons and Dragons is just a game…or is it? This rather simple question is of vast importance to many avid players and dungeon masters alike. Inside this question can also be found a key to solving the main problem and fear that almost all D&D enthusiasts face: the fear of the game itself. Most players will admit that they play the game a great deal. It obviously surpasses the definition of a mere game in the amount it is played and the fascination that it holds for the participants. The term `hobby’ is often applied, but even this label is used, more often than not, in an attempt to explain the game to non-players. So what then is so special about Dungeons and Dragons? Why is it such an enjoyable yet unnerving form of entertainment? What actually takes place when that group of people gather around the table? Is the endeavour more than just a game? 

It must be immediately pointed out that the following contains the opinion of one D&D enthusiast who has been playing a form of the game now for eight years. My opinion is not expected to apply to every situation or perhaps even the majority of them. It does, however, contain some food for thought. Whether what is being offered is digested, is totally up to the reader. It must also be noted that I am discussing the game in its campaign form. To those players who bounce around from game to game, this opinion will probably offer little, other than the view of someone who is obviously too involved in a game that he plays too much and into which he places too much thought and analysis. 

Approximately five years ago I often found myself in the position of having to defend the game. At this time (1980s), D&D was particularly unpopular and media coverage was negative. Set in this hostile environment of a small-town community, a great deal of time was spent attempting to explain and defend the game to a group of close-minded, xenophobic people who really did not care to understand it anyway. No effort was made to hear nor give any consideration to my pleas. Although we spent many hours of enjoyable game playing, the dilemma made my high school years that much less satisfying.

My defense of D&D during those years was grounded in the argument that it was “just a game.” This phrase was commonly employed in an attempt to disarm critics who, although they had no clue as to what the game was, had heard negative reviews and attacked it on the basis of being unChristian, too violent, and too engrossing. I argued that D&D was not unChristian, it was rather set in a time period when Christianity was one faith among many, and when past cultures worshipped different deities. I argued that life was violent, and to deny this fact would be to deny our entire history, as well as our present reality. This did not suggest that violence was therefore acceptable and should be encouraged, but the game was based on our reality and, as a result, reflected that reality.  

But then came the issue of being too involved in the game. This criticism was more difficult to dispel and caused the most problem. There was no doubt that we played D&D far more than any other game. In fact, we played it practically whenever we found an opportunity. When we were together, it inevitably became the issue of conversation. Time alone was often spent expanding individual facets of the game and pondering ways to build on the campaign. Undoubtedly, we were very involved. At times we found ourselves throwing around the casual jest of, “I think you are getting too involved.” Our laughter at this statement was always hollow and we were all left feeling uncomfortable and uncertain.  

It was to this most penetrating criticism that we formulated the defense of D&D being just a game. D&D was the most expansive and complex game that any of us had ever played before. The entertainment that it offered seemed to justify its extensive playing. This argument was formulated not only for others, but also for ourselves. The fear of becoming too engrossed in the game that so concerned the community also concerned us. Why else would we play it so much? The justification of D&D being just a game seemed to offer sound reasoning for its playing…but it did not. I left the community with the campaign still intact but the definition and reasons behind playing the game not settled. Not until two years of my university career had elapsed, did I begin to make what I believe to be a breakthrough. I had come face to face with the fear of the game, and had failed. In arguing that it was just a game I had failed to come to terms with what was really taking place within the game’s confines. Dungeons and Dragons does not have to be just a game, but can be much more, and when this is realized the real adventure can begin.

There will be many people, both players and non-players, who will read this and scoff. They will call it an over-analytic interpretation of something that is simply entertainment. Play it, enjoy it, and leave it at that, they will say. This argument is valid and I do not dispute that the game can be approached in this manner, but only if the individual is satisfied to play only at the “simplest” level. Unfortunately for these critics, human beings are not so “simple.” In any endeavour that involves numerous people pouring many hours into one particular pursuit, a complex situation inevitably results. A good campaign is such a situation. So many complexities are occurring that it is “simply” mind boggling. But if D&D is not then just a game, what is it? 

Once again it must be pointed out that what is about to be detailed only involves what can take place and what the game has the potential to be. A good campaign should consist of many complicated factors. One of the most important things for the dungeon master to remember is that the only limits to the game’s dimensions is not only his/her imagination, but also the imagination of the players. When the players offer insight and the willingness to expand the game into areas and directions that the dungeon master is unfamiliar with, they should be encouraged. In this way the campaign gains many facets and takes on the characteristics of a realistic world. It should be remembered that the game must not only be a “hack-and-slash” quest to kill and pillage. Rather, it should include strong elements of philosophy, religion, sociology, political science, history, geography, economics, literature, linguistics, and psychology. Naturally, built into the framework of this real-life world will be the individual adventuring aspect that does provide much of the entertainment. But once a complex, realistic world has been created, it can serve as the fabric upon which the players will then weave their destinies. The existence of these factors in the campaign also boasts well for the game itself. These elements provide the basis for the game to be educational as well as entertaining.

But this still does not fully answer the question of why Dungeons and Dragons is more than just a game, nor does it explain what is actually taking place when the game is being played. Certainly a well-developed and complex world can add a strong sense of realism to the game, but it does not lift the endeavour above the label of “just a game”.

D&D critics base a great deal of their attacks on the attachment that always seems to form between the players and their corresponding characters. The players themselves are often alarmed by the strong bond that is inevitably created, yet there is no real cause for concern. The attachment of the player to the character is natural when one considers the amount of time and effort that has been placed into building the characters’ many skills and attributes, but this does not totally explain the phenomenon. The answer to the question helps to illustrate why D&D is more than just a game and can be found in the actual definition of a character. The process of playing D&D is termed role-playing. I agree with this statement only to a limited degree. Certainly, the player is playing a role, but in a very definite sense he is also playing himself/herself. The outer characteristics of the game character are part of the role, but the inner personality is directly parallel with the actual player. It is naive to believe that the player and the character can ever be truly separated. This then brings the discussion to the symbol that I believe best represents the definition of Dungeons and Dragons: the mirror.

People often ask, how does the dungeon master receive his enjoyment from playing the game? The obvious and simple answer is that the DM gains pleasure from not only controlling the world of his creation, but also by being able to create the situations to which the players must then react. I believe, however, that the dungeon master’s pleasure comes from a much deeper psychological satisfaction. D&D can be a teaching tool. Within the confines of the game world, players can confront situations, problems, dilemmas, successes, and failures that are very similar to those which occur in the real world. The game then can be a model for life and much can be gained from these experimental experiences.

Although the Dungeon Master is in possession of a great deal of influence, he/she does not directly control the moral teaching tool. Rather, the DM poses as a mirror in which the players view themselves through their characters. Because the players do in fact have a strong bond with what are in fact their alter-egos within the game, they can directly view themselves and their actions through the game world. The players create a self-image and project it at the mirror-like Dungeon Master who then displays the reflection into the game. If the player can realize that his character is a reflection of his own persona, he/she can decide whether he/she is satisfied with what he sees in the mirror. In this manner the DM acts as a mirror to turn an otherwise simple game into a psychological character-building tool.

A way to test the validity of this “mirror” theory is to study the similarities and differences between the player and the corresponding reflection. Attempt to determine why these differences exist? What do they say about the person? Study the characters that the player has controlled throughout the campaign and place them on a time line. Determine the variations that have occurred in the player’s character and then see how these variations correspond with the player’s real life. By using the mirror to observe the characters, the DM can often learn more about the players then they often realize themselves.

Dungeons and Dragons can also be a strong friendship-building tool. It is not just a game, it is a powerful form of comradeship. Behind the game facade the player-characters fight together, achieve victory together, and die together.

It is possible for Dungeons and Dragons to be much more than just a game. The first step in allowing the game to fulfill its potential is not to fear what it has to be offer. Face the fact that a game can be a deep psychological and educational experience yet still be enjoyable. Raise yourself above the simple process of merely playing the game and question what is taking place. Allow the game to solve problems that are more difficult to deal with outside of the game’s confinements. Use it to improve yourself and help others, at least see themselves as they actually are. Most importantly recognize the fact that although a game is a relatively simple pursuit, those that are playing it are not so simple.