But how do you win?

Mazes_and_monstersI discovered Dungeons & Dragons in 1977 with the blue basic set. This was before the general public came to understand that D&D was a possibly satanic form of play-acting typically performed in steam tunnels. When I described my new passion to folks, they always asked the same question: “How do you win?” I would explain that you could improve your character, but no one actually won.

I inevitably got the same follow up question. “If you can’t win, then what’s the point?” The notion that you played to have fun without any chance of winning puzzled everyone.

The how-do-you-win question, more than anything else, reveals the gulf between how people thought of games in 1977 and just a few years later. Now, for example, we rarely think of video games as something you win rather than something you finish. But in 1977, the first few video games, Space War and Pong, only featured head-to-head competition; the point had to be to win.

I would like to credit D&D and other tabletop RPGs with broadening games from competition to fun activity, but I trace the change to video games. In 1978, Space Invaders began appearing in every bar and bowling ally in the country. Even though you could never win, the game became a sensation. The space invaders march endlessly toward your cannon until you inevitably lost. The point of the game turned from winning to performing a fun activity.

Space Invaders snapshot

Space Invaders and the avalanche of video games that followed changed the way people saw games. From time to time, people still ask me to explain Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s been at least thirty years since anyone asked me the question that used to be inevitable. “If you can’t win, then what’s the point?”

Next: What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?

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One Response to But how do you win?

  1. This is very insightful. Classic video games indeed did keep a score. You might not win, but you could reference your score at the end of the game as a way to demonstrate your level of mastery. The D&D Experience System is very similar with the added innovation that greater levels of experience unlock new ways of playing the game was absolute genius. I am not sure that this innovation appeared anywhere else prior. Some games such as Donkey Kong provided different games at different levels, but this would not have been precisely the same since it was not tied to the score of the player.

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