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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 1: The Early Years (1980-1983)
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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 1: The Early Years (1980-1983)

February 23, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Welcome, brave adventurer, to the first of my in-depth feature articles exploring the history of our favorite computer game genre: The Computer Role-Playing Game, or the CRPG. For many avid gamers, the CRPG is the perfect storm of gameplay, story, and strategy. Whether we're talking about a randomized "dungeon crawler" like Rogue or a story-driven game like Betrayal in Krondor, a click-fest like Diablo or a stat-crunching Pool of Radiance, the CRPG has always enjoyed a tremendous appeal. Even today, when the first-person shooter and sports games seem to have crushed all opposition, everyday millions of players login to World of Warcraft, and each new installment in the Zelda series sends ripples throughout the entire game industry. Whether acknowledged or not, the CRPG will always play a major role in computer and console gaming. The CRPG is the spine of the electronic gaming industry--and it's not hard to see why. You just can't have more fun with a computer or a console than when you're engrossed in a well-crafted CRPG. But where did the CRPG come from? From what deep, dank dungeon did they crawl? How has the genre evolved into the amazing games we enjoy today? If you've ever wondered about these and other CRPG-related questions, of if you just like reading the very best writing you can find on the net about gaming--then grab a mug of your best ale and prepare to read an article only an author of Armchair Arcade would ever dare to draft!

From Tabletops to Desktops

Although most people would probably think it's a trivial matter to trace the CRPG back to its tabletop, paper-and-pencil based "equivalent," doing so probably obscures more than it reveals about the two genres. As anyone who has actually played D&D is acutely aware, the two games are as different as playing intramural basketball and College Hoops 2K7. Indeed, the typical "CRPG" is not a "role-playing game" at all, or, if it is, that's generally the least distinctive thing about it. After all, you "play a role" when you play PAC-MAN or SPACE INVADERS,and even in games like Tetris you're playing a role--the unseen force that causes those falling blocks to shift and rotate. It's probably more accurate to describe first-person "interactive fiction" games like Zork or Myst as a "role-playing games," since in those games the player literally assumes an important fictional role within the game. Likewise, a first-person shooter like Half-Life seems to come much closer to the ideal of "playing a role" than a game like Icewind Dale, in which you only indirectly control a whole group of characters.

Taxonomic quibbling aside, there is no doubt that while they are not direct descendents, CRPGs were deeply inspired by D&D. At the very least, it's obviously more than a coincidence that so many of the themes and trappings are shared by both genres, and both are highly absorbing and addictive. One wonders if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson knew the full implications of what they were doing when they sprung Dungeons & Dragons on an unsuspecting public back in 1974. However, Gygax and Arneson's classic tabletop "role-playing game" didn't come out of nowhere. As near as I can tell, the clearest precedents were war games like Avalon Hill's Tactics II (1958)and sports simulation games like Strat-o-Matic (1961). However, while D&D certainly borrowed (whether intentionally or not) many of the conventions of these older games (especially an emphasis on caculation), it contained some radical new innovations. For one thing, instead of recreating painfully-accurate historical Civil War battles or the World Series, D&D was set in a fantasy world populated by elves, dwarves, and dragons. Although there's some question about how deeply J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring trilogy played in the development of D&D, most players of the game were hardcore fans of Middle Earth, obsessively reading and re-reading the novels. Indeed, for countless Tolkien-enamored teenagers of the 70s and 80s, D&D was simply a more enthralling way to experience these lavish fictional places. After all, it's one thing to read about Frodo and Bilbo going on fantastic quests, but the appeal of going on one themselves was simply too much for many teenagers to resist.

Strat-O-Matic: Paper-based games like this paved the way for D&D and CRPGs.
Strat-O-Matic: Paper-based games like
this paved the way for D&D and CRPGs.

Authors Brad King and John Borland, authors of Dungeons and Dreamers: From Geek to Chic, claim that "it's almost impossible to overstate the role of Dungeons & Dragons in the rise of computer gaming." What could be more true? The "gamer" as we know him or her today was born in the D&D era. Although there have always been games, none of them had the drawing power of D&D. While cards and dice can certainly become disastrously addictive (see Gamblers Anonymous), gambling games were always about prizes the players could win, not the games themselves. Strategy games like chess, meanwhile, are so abstract and "mental" that it's often not clear whether they are true amusements or really just exercises in logic. Furthermore, the fact that you can become a professional chess player indicates that chess lost its status as a mere "game." If you can earn a living doing something, you can no longer describe it as a "pure amusement"--it's become a sport with real earning potential. Finally, board games like Monopoly and RISK, while certainly fun and engaging, are only very rarely enjoyed over extended periods for any significant amount of time. These are games that get hauled off the top shelf of a closet a few days out of the year to keep idle hands busy during the holidays. Though you can find large, highly devoted communities of UNO and ROOK players, these seem more like exceptions rather than the rule.

Every childhood has its talismans, the sacred objects that look innocuous enough to the outside world, but that trigger an onslaught of vivid memories when the grown child confronts them. For me, it's a sheaf of xeroxed numbers my father brought home from his law firm when I was nine. -- Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You

Not so with D&D. In so many ways, D&D was more of a lifestyle choice than a "harmless diversion." Indeed, the closest equivalent I can think of is the children's game of "make believe," in which a group of kids pretend to be in various social and occupational roles--such as a father, doctor, superhero, and so on. The other kids will "go along" with the fantasy, helping to perpetuate it (generally in return for similar reinforcement from the other children). For instance, two boys will take turns being the "cowboy or the Indian," or I suppose nowadays the "Republican and the terrorist" or some such nonsense. Often enough, these games can get quite elaborate, with imaginary pals, exotic fictional settings, and plenty of simulated action. I must confess to having played many such games with my younger sister, when we "went on vacation" to all sorts of fantastic locales. Of course, once a kid gets to a certain age, playing "make believe" seems too juvenile or irrational to engage in (at least openly), so all of these impulses are repressed--at least until D&D comes onto the scene. Suddenly, playing "make believe" is back, and players can enjoy the activity without being accused of being immature or schizo. Indeed, the strength of D&D lies in its combination of make-believe, play-acting, and a logical, math-based rule system. As Johan Huizinga illustrates in his book Homo Ludens, such play is a vitally important part of learning. The more kids get to play "make believe," the more intelligent they become! As Steven Johnson would say, playing D&D makes you smarter!

Sadly, when enough "concerned" citizens realized that so many young people were having so much fun playing this new game, they began insinuating and then outright accusing players of engaging in a "Satanic ritual" or, at the very least, dangerously influenced by hidden subliminal content (for a sickening example, see this analysis of a Chick tract). We might perhaps be more sympathetic to these folks; they knew just enough about D&D to make them dangerous. For instance, they quickly learned that they involved graphic violence, magic (or, "witchcraft"), and often demonic forces (dragons, hell hounds, demons). No doubt, walking by and hearing a 7-year old cry, "I summon forth a black demon to annihilate your cleric!" was enough to convince any well-meaning parent that something odd was going on here. Furthermore, as then as well as now, occasionally news surfaced of some genuinely disturbed gamer performing some horrific crime and then blaming it all on the game. The same could be said about the D&D-themed "heavy metal" music of the era. Obviously, Iron Maiden or Judas Priest was a powerful catalyst for evil during all those dice rolls for initiative. The fact that so many people are still willing to buy into this rubbish is far more fearful than any demonic foe encountered in a D&D session! Ironically enough, many of the friends I played D&D with were far more devout Christians than anyone else I knew. Even the ones who weren't religious tended to live more morally upright and ethical lives than most other folks--another reason, no doubt, for religious hypocrites to despise them.

Still, no matter how someone feels about the moral influence of D&D, no one can deny it played a highly constructive role in developing the computer game industry. Besides creating a new type of person--the "gamer," and sowing a generation with seeds of creativity and imagination, adapting D&D for computers became one of the Holy Grails of early computer programming. Although many game historians cite Richard Garriott's Akalabeth as the first CRPG, we can find earlier precedents in the world of mainframes.

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