For those of you who don’t know, I’ve picked up the hobby of playing Dungeons and Dragons over the last few years. It’s quite fun, and satisfying in ways that other hobbies haven’t been… namely that anything I can imagine can happen, yet it’s still tempered by a shared reality of playing with other people and random outcomes to events.
For my entire life, well before I starting playing D&D, I have heard people describe it as “escapist” entertainment. Much more prevalently than other activities. Dictionary.com defines escapist as: “avoiding reality through entertainment or fantasy, or enabling people to do so”
Needless to say, I’ve mostly found the term “escapist” to be a tad derisive. As in, these people can’t handle life so they have to escape away from it occasionally. Though, honestly, who doesn’t need to escape from reality a little bit these days?
As someone who has played competitive sports for a good portion of my life, done my fair share of manual labor, made creative projects…. I don’t find D&D any more escapist than any other activity that forces you to focus on what’s in front of you to play it. Basketball, for instance, is engrossing enough that you can’t really think about your mortgage or your kids while you are playing it. Yet I don’t hear people describing basketball as escapist. Making art, when one is in the midst of it, is certainly all-engrossing enough to “escape” from daily concerns. Yet I don’t hear people calling that escapist. The list goes on.
The funny thing is, coming back to basketball (or professional sports in general), is that I think our culture is longing for more escape – and looking and failing to find it in professional sports. I follow Tim Kawakami for sports news – he’s by far the sharpest reporter that covers professional sports in the SF Bay Area – and he deals with this all the time in the course of reporting what is happening with bay area teams and their machinations behind the scenes. Here’s a sample of what goes on on his twitter feed:
The context here is that Kevon Looney is the starting center for the Golden State Warriors (the basketball team) and Steve Kerr is the head coach. He’s taken them to 5 championship series, winning three of them. He is probably the most respected coach in basketball right now, and is already considered one of the best to ever do it. He has always had the Warriors play this style of offense, and like any type of offense it doesn’t always work. But it works a lot, especially with the players they have. But this random guy feels the need to yell about firing Steve Kerr.
It would be one thing if this was a one-off – but it is not, by any means. Tim Kawakami’s feed is filled with people yelling about what their favorite team should do, or yelling at Tim himself for pointing out the clearly sub-optimal things that their favorite teams are doing. I just found the most recent interaction, but his feed is filled with them. Raiders fans seem to hold him in special contempt – because for years the Raiders have been a dumpster fire and he’s had the temerity to point it out repeatedly. The truth is that everyone who runs large organizations is prone to making mistakes, Tim points out the mistakes that the people running professional sports teams in the SF Bay Area make – and takes a lot of heat for it.
The thing with D&D is that it is a shared imaginary world. If something doesn’t go the way you want it, it’s either because the dice didn’t cooperate or because your idea of the world didn’t line up with the rest of the people you are playing with. It can still be upsetting, but there are people to talk to when you are upset. You can ask your “Dungeon Master” or “Game Master” why it went a certain way. You can make your argument for why you thought it should have gone a different way. They might change their mind when they hear your argument, they might not.
In professional sports, the fantasy is that your team is going to win the championship this year. Or, if that isn’t realistic, that they are on the right rebuilding trajectory to contend soon. But you can’t argue with the results of a game. You can’t argue with your team’s record at the end of the season. When folks’ fantasy about their team is punctured by reality, all they have is their raw feelings about losing. Somewhere they mixed up their fantasy and a game that produces results that exist outside of their minds.
And when someone, like Tim Kawakami, comes along and says “you know that bad team, that you love? I talk to their people, and they are going to keep being bad” that punctures the fantasy too. So what do people do? They yell on twitter, for one. That’s what I see. I’ve felt that too. I definitely have not felt great at times when my teams have lost.
But also, the further removed I am from games the more the results have seemed to matter to me. I was lucky enough to go to a lot of Santa Cruz Warriors games this year (they are the development team for the Golden State Warriors), and seeing them play in person, seeing their strengths and weaknesses, seeing them develop… gave me perspective. When they lost in the first round of the playoffs, I wasn’t upset. They had flaws as a team, and they played a team that exploited those flaws well. Watching on tv, or trying to follow a game on twitter (which is much worse), heightens for me the feelings after a win or a loss and even during a game. I guess for me it’s easier to get wrapped up in the fantasy and to lose track of the realities when I’m only getting bits and pieces.
Ir’s okay if your team sucks. It’s okay if they are mediocre. It’s okay if they are good, but not great. It’s okay if they make mistakes. It’s okay if the coach makes mistakes. It’s okay if the refs make mistakes.
And maybe, just maybe, if you need your team to win…. give D&D a try. With D&D, your fantasy is never going to be punctured by a missed three point shot.
…… unless you want it to be.