An epideictic eulogy for E. Gary Gygax
By Robert Blezard
On Tuesday, March 4, 2008, I had just returned home from class determined to begin this argument but not about the topic you are about to read. I had planned to write a tribute to the Saskatchewan Roughriders regarding the team's 2007 Grey Cup win. However, upon arriving home, turning on my computer, and reading the news of the death of E. Gary Gygax — the man who co-created the Dungeons and Dragons game with Dave Arneson — I immediately changed my mind. The decision was emotional. As I read tribute after tribute by fellow gamers on EN World, a Internet Dungeons and Dragons fan site that Gygax was also a member of, I was overcome with a sadness that I've not felt since the death of my brother. I could not understand it at first. I did not not know the man, but it felt like I had lost someone very close to me. It was a strange feeling sitting in front of my computer with tears welling up in my eyes. It is as if a small part of the game, which I enjoy so much, died with him. In my opinion, no amount of prose or poetry can be compiled to give this great man the tribute he so properly deserves. Yet, I must add my voice to the chorus and pay tribute to the Grandfather of Gaming. I must prove the worth of a man, not based on the sum of his life, but based on the sum of how his life affected others.
Ernest Gary Gygax was born in Chicago, Illonis, in 1938. The son of a Swiss immigrant and and American mother, Gygax's childhood was spent devoted to exploits of imagination rather than serious study. Years later he would discover a new medium for his imagination: tactical war games. This would eventually lead him to create a miniatures game called Chainmail and then Dungeons and Dragons — his most famous creation. Gygax would create other games throughout his life, as well as write fiction novels and short stories in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. At the time of his death, on March 4, 2008, Gary Gygax was 69 years of age. He is survived by his wife, Gail, and his six children.
Naysayers, such as indie game designer Matt Snyder, have tried to downplay Gary Gygax's life as being unimportant to anyone other than his family. They fail to see how the game he created not only changed the way people entertain themselves but also changed the type of work that many people do on a daily basis. Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games provide a way of melding imagination and cooperation into a game in ways that had not been conceived of before. In the past, games have always had defined winners and losers, whether it was old-style board games like Monopoly or team sports like hockey or football. Even a thinking-man's game like chess, which Gary Gygax enjoyed, has a defined winner at the game's end. Gary Gygax changed all that when he published Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargame Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures in 1974. He and Arneson started a tabletop game revolution that would affect the entire world.
I doubt Gary Gygax was aware of what was to come in the next thirty years as fans of Dungeons and Dragons and the idea of cooperative games molded people and games in completely unexpected ways. An entirely new subculture came to life as role-playing games became a money-making venture. Tactical Studies Rules, which Gygax founded in 1973, quickly became a leader in the tabletop game industry. His company and many others required a new type of employee: the role-playing game designer. Today, these men and woman owe their livelihood to Gygax, whose initial creation inspired them to seek a different kind of career. After the initial explosion of the game's popularity, it was not long before the growing computer revolution also became infected by Gary Gygax's genius as fans of the game began to program the first generation of computer role-playing games. These initial games would seem primitive compared to today's online phenomena that is World of Warcraft, but that game and all computer role-playing games that came before it and have come after it are the descendants of Gary Gygax's vision. Without Gary Gygax, modern computer games would likely be descended from simple, competition-based arcade games such as Pong.
Gary Gygax dealt with a lot of controversy throughout his life as not only rivals tried to but also extremists tried to bring down his livelihood and hobby by attacking Dungeons and Dragons as being dangerous to the minds of the disenfranchised youth that flocked to the game. At one point, Gygax required a bodyguard after receiving death threats from these extremists who believed he was a bringer of evil. These small-minded people could not see that Gygax was a teacher as much as he was a businessman. Gygax built D&D to require its players to know math and to be creative. Although the game could never replace true education, it did inspire me in ways that school never did. I found a love for art, ancient history, computers, mythology, and language through learning to play the game. I admit that it never made me love math, but it did make me realize its importance in life. That foundation made me want to learn everything I could, and I owe that love of knowledge to Gary Gygax.
It is this fact that ties gamers together; we are passionate about our hobby. Right from the beginning, Dungeons and Dragons and the role-playing games that followed it, whether created by Gygax or not, brought like-minded youths and adults together to socialize — even if it was geeky. This is one of the games most endearing and important qualities and is what sets it apart from other types of games in my opinion. Gygax always believed that the game's in-person, social aspect was Dungeons and Dragons most important aspect. “D&D is not an online game,” he once said. “There is no role-playing in an online game that can match what happens in person.” While this viewpoint might seem contrary to where the world is going, I agree with Gygax's assessment. True role-playing is meant to be a face-to-face experience when one is surrounded by friends, laughing and improvising and having fun without the burden of competition. Online role-playing has never appealed to me as it lacks that social quality, and Gary Gygax exemplified this quality. He continued to run role-playing games for family and friends and fellow enthusiasts up until his failing health took him from us — much too early.
His life and death has shocked and touched so many people in ways that they may not even be aware of. The worlds of fantasy and science fiction that have gained a measure of respect on TV and movie screens owe as much to Gary Gygax as they do to George Lucas. Popular culture would be very different without Gygax. A man like Stephen Colbert would not be the man he is today without Gygax's influence. A gamer in his youth, Colbert is known for his political satire and his semi-fictional character of the same name. Without his gaming background, one has to wonder if Colbert would have chosen the path that led him to create that character. In a fitting tribute, Colbert honored the life of Gary Gygax on March 5 by ending his show with a roll of 20-sided die. If that does not speak of the impact Gary Gygax had on the world, then I cannot convince you. Perhaps the only way to understand the worth of the man is through his own words. In an interview with Gamespy in 2004, he expressed how he wished to be remembered: “I would like the world to remember me as the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else.”
I will, Gary. I will. And thank you.