Fighting the dragon queen Tiamat is a much more satisfying way to spend time with my friends than social media ever was.
By Annalee Newitz
Ms. Newitz is a science journalist and novelist.
I started playing Dungeons & Dragons right around the time I completely gave up on Facebook. It was a little less than a year ago, as the first stories broke about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I was sick of the social media idea of friendship, defined as likes or shares or “X knows the same 50 people you know.” So when my friend Kate suggested we start a game of Dungeons & Dragons, I thought, “Yes, I’m going to get together with people face-to-face, without any hearting or retweeting, and we’re going to eat chips and fight those damn cultists who are trying to resurrect the evil, five-headed dragon queen Tiamat.”
Until then, I had played a little D&D as an adult, but I hadn’t joined a group that met regularly. But I am basically the target demographic for “Stranger Things.” Like the characters on that show, I played D&D in the 1980s with a group of geeky guys every day at lunch throughout the sixth grade, slaying vegepygmies in a crashed spaceship and meeting the great demon Lolth in her sticky transdimensional web.
Kate became our dungeon master, the narrator of our adventure, who sets the scene using maps, dice, flowery language and silly accents. We were joined by seven other friends around my dining room table, eager to take on the roles of fighting monk, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, paladin, bard and cleric. As soon as Kate told us to fill out our character sheets, I remembered the feeling of sheer awesomeness that had drawn me to the game when I was 11. I was about to become an Aarakocra cleric, a bird person with a divine connection to nature who could call down lightning, raise winds, grow plants from the barren earth and heal the dying with a touch.
But D&D isn’t only about inventing a more badass version of myself, with wings and magic powers instead of sneakers and a laptop. I was also drawn to the idea of building a social group whose baseline assumption was that we’d see one another regularly. There’s a sense of purpose to the gathering.
Using a few maps spread on the table, we chart our course, explaining to Kate and one another what we want to do next. And when Kate leaves us on a cliffhanger, there’s no “Hey, I’ll text you later and maybe we can meet up.” Of course we’ll meet up again. The point of the game isn’t to win; it’s to go adventuring together.
Wizards of the Coast, the parent company of Dungeons & Dragons, reported that 8.6 million people played the game in 2017, its biggest year of sales in two decades. That mark was eclipsed in 2018, when D&D sales reportedly grew 30 percent. All of those D&D consumers are snapping up the Fifth Edition, a new rule set released in 2014 that emphasizes a flexible approach to combat and decision-making. New players don’t need to learn as many arcane rules to get started, and sales of D&D starter kits skyrocketed.
Adding to the newfound popularity are thousands of D&D games broadcast on YouTube and the live-stream service Twitch. “Critical Role,” a popular livestream and podcast, features actors playing the game.
But online, my friend would be just another dude with leathery blue skin, not someone whose face might crumple in sadness if I’m a jerk. There’s a toxic distance created by online gaming and social networks that allows us to pretend we’re not socializing with friends. Our empathy gets switched off. That may be one reason gamer arguments over fake countries and nonexistent knights can morph all too easily into hate-based social movements in the real world.
Plus, even when things get heated during our D&D game — and they do — none of us can win by getting 10,000 of our “friends” to harass the person we disagree with.
There are, of course, genuine friendships forged in online game worlds and on social media, and I don’t mean to dismiss those. But after months of playing D&D with my friends, I’m socializing on Twitter and other social media less than I did before. I don’t click to see hundreds of half-lives flash before me in an instant. Instead, I look forward to an evening with a handful of people.
What drove me away from Facebook wasn’t just the fake friending. It was that fake friendship could be weaponized, used by a hostile government or group to manipulate us. When we fantasize together, in person, we always know that the bot army isn’t real. We know that an insult can hurt. But online, we wear masks over masks. I still love the internet, but I’d rather have a real friendship with a half-elf bard than a thousand faceless followers.
This surge of interest is no doubt also inspired by shows like “Stranger Things” and the D&D-esque world of “Game of Thrones.” We want to escape into fantasy worlds where we know who the bad guys are and our spells to banish evil actually work. In this way, D&D is similar to online games like World of Warcraft, where people take on imaginary identities, form a guild and shout at one another using headsets while fighting orcs.
What makes D & D different is that we can never forget about the human beings behind the avatars. When a member of my group makes a bad choice, I can’t look into his face and shout insults the way I would if we were playing online. He’s a person, and my friend, even if he also inexplicably decided to open an obviously booby-trapped trunk, get a faceful of poison and use up my last remaining healing spell.