Misplaced Overlords: Into the World of a Game Master

Jerry. Photo by Jay Kelly - www.jaykellyimages.com

Jerry. Photo by Jay Kelly – www.jaykellyimages.com

“No, I would not want to live in a world without dragons, as I would not want to live in a world without magic, for that is a world without mystery.”

– R.A. Salvatore


Before I can offer him a drink, Jerry Harris hands over a grocery bag full of Dungeons & Dragons literature. “I thought these would help,” he says. It’s on our first meeting he makes this offer, not by request, but because, he says, he wants to make my research easier.

He wears a polo and jeans to our first interview. He’s 5’11”, fair-complected and naturally thin with brown eyes and peachy facial hair. He’s easygoing, gregarious, and makes conversation right away. At 30, he looks and acts younger than he is.

Jerry is a gamer. He plays tabletop role-playing games (RPGs)–Dungeons & Dragons among them–in which players create and explore complex and imaginary worlds. Inside these worlds thrive characters through whom Jerry and his friends complete quests by combating enemies and winning treasures.

The RPG stereotype paints gamers like Jerry as social deviants, introverts in the extreme, and unfashionable, trench-coat-wearing high school bohos, strange and weak. Almost everyone with whom I spoke regarding this article, all professional adults, in some way affirmed this perception; friends and acquaintances met me with tilted-heads, confused stares, and loaded questions like, “That’s weird. Why write about that?”

Jerry isn’t ignorant to the stereotype, and when asked how he feels about it, he slows his otherwise hurried speech and removes from our conversation his boy-like charm. Thoughtfully and calmly he responds, “If you have confidence, you attract the people you want in your life.”

His confidence, indeed, is manifest.

Role-playing games fall into three categories: Live-Action, Virtual, and Tabletop.

Photo by Jay Kelly – www.jaykellyimages.com

Live Action Role-Playing (LARPing) is best analogized to outdoor childhood play for its physical and imaginative nature, but contains sometimes extremely adult content and high levels of strategy and forethought. Like stage actors, LARPers channel characters and game-play through costume, voice, prop, and movement. With no script from which to read and largely with no planned choreography, top players are masters of improvisation and experts in stage fighting. (Renaissance festivals are mild LARP environments.)

Virtual RPGs are the genre’s most ubiquitous. ‘80s video game franchises Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy opened the format, and in 1991, AOL published Neverwinter Nights, the earliest example of what’s today known as a graphics-based Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), allowing players to interact online through virtual avatars. Today, World of Warcraft is the most popular MMORPG title in the world, with more than 8 million unique members (and it’s hard to stop playing: Anthony Rosner, a former prominent World of Warcraft player, in 2012 created a short film about his WoW experience and the consequences of its addiction, of which moving to Norway was part).

Games usually identified as “traditional” RPGs are tabletop hobby games. Dungeons & Dragons (1974) became the first commercially successful, mass-produced role-playing game, and is today widely acknowledged as the “grandfather” of modern RPGs. The game has spawned at least 242 authorized novels, 3 major feature films, comic strips, toys, art, and special interests magazines, in addition to thousands of RPGs inspired by its success. Many celebrities publicly have stated that they play, or have played, Dungeons & Dragons, including Vin Diesel, Moby, Wil Wheaton, and Robin Williams.

Tabletop RPGs, like LARPing but with minimal physical effort, often require gamers to create and develop characters, ground-up, through whom they play. Players typically designate a “Game Master” who acts as the game’s lead–whose role it is to create the environments and scenarios players navigate. In Dungeons & Dragons, the Game Master famously is called a “Dungeon Master,” or DM, and is a godlike non-competitor with dictatorial control over all aspects of play (including its ending: in the 2008 documentary Dungeon Masters, a DM, much to the chagrin of his players, abruptly ends a game that had been in active play for more than 10 years).

In Dungeons & Dragons, though he has limitless power, the DM is impartial between players and ambivalent to good and evil. In other tabletop RPGs, such as Descent: Journeys in the Dark, the Game Master is an antagonistic competitor—an “Overlord” whose sole objective it is to destroy the game’s heroes, controlled by other players. To win Descent, heroes must work together to seize dungeon treasures, conquer the Overlord’s monsters, and achieve objectives provided for a scenario.

Imagination and execution are requisite in the role-playing world. Inside Jerry Harris I find both in extremis.

“We weren’t happy with the new Descent,” he says, referring to the title’s latest installment, “So my friends and I created an expansion pack to Descent 1.0 with the changes we wanted to see.”

Jerry’s confidence rises audibly when he shares something for which he is proud. His eye contact in these moments is gripping, and his already high level of detail intensifies. He seems most proud of the changes—expansions, rather—he and his friends made to Descent, changes he believes not only make the game better, but that are marketable.

Photo by Jay Kelly – www.jaykellyimages.com

I’m skeptical when Jerry tells me he plans to pitch to the game’s developer his homemade supplement, so he hands over a few game cards for me to preview. Their quality is strikingly close to the factory-produced cards. He schools me on the expansion pack’s substantive content enhancements with language fast-paced, proud and jargon-dense—I catch dizzying terms like “lightning sword,” “armor class,” and “hero ability”—but, green as I am, the materials are impressive, and I sense that his project is no farfetched dream.

The developer to which Jerry and his friends intend to pitch their idea, Fantasy Flight Games, is a Roseville, MN-based company. It entered market in 1995 with tabletop board, card, and RPG games during a burgeoning time for the gaming industry, when console and PC-based games were revolutionizing RPGs with boundary-pushing virtual content and sophisticated graphics, while card and board games were becoming increasingly passé.

Maybe once considered a farfetched entry into the industry, Fantasy Flight today has estimated annual revenues exceeding $30 million and continues reporting year-on-year double-digit percentage growth. It still hasn’t published a major video game. The video game industry, meanwhile, is leveling off.

Jerry’s bedroom looks like any bachelor’s: clothes strewn about but somehow organized (Jerry seems likely to know exactly where everything is), a bedside microwave and beer fridge, and a computer desk. We step over laundry, gaming materials, and DVDs, and Jerry clears for me a leopard print armchair and sits on the edge of a sheet-less mattress. Behind him looms a glossy image of Lady Gaga.

Jerry has an air of humble confidence and, despite Lady Gaga and his large collection of role-playing games, he fits neither the gay male nor gamer stereotype. Jerry is quick to dismiss this observation altogether. He’s uncomfortable with the word “stereotype.” This is first apparent when he reflects on high school culture:

In high school, he says, “There are Leaders: the jocks, cheerleaders, the popular kids. There are the Gamers. The Outcasts–they’re your goths, your stoners. Then there’s the Get-Wits–the band geeks, drama geeks, computer nerds. Then there’s the Liaisons that keep everything together–people who are friends with all groups, but part of no group. I was a gamer, a band and drama geek, but I was a liaison. I was smart, so I tutored some of the football players, and [they weren’t what people stereotyped them to be]– they were smart. They needed help on some things, and the smart kids needed help on others… Was I picked on in high school? Maybe, yeah, probably, because I was a band and drama geek, but I had my close friends, and I had friends in every group.”

On the stereotype of the gay male, he is hesitant to make an observation. I ask him to describe a “normal” gay man, and, after a long pause: “Unfortunately, what comes to mind are the bad stereotypes–superficial and cliquey. Personally, my sexuality doesn’t define who I am. Do I have to be superficial? No, I don’t want to be,” he says, but also admits, “That’s not to say I don’t make judgment calls. I do.”

I take Jerry through a series of other stereotypes, and from drag queens to football players, Jerry relates himself to each, in some ways diverting away stereotypes from the groups they describe. Of drag queens, he sympathizes with what it’s like feeling misunderstood in pursuit of one’s passion and with the challenges one faces with character development.

Photo by Jay Kelly – www.jaykellyimages.com

“[But] overall, I think the gay community is accepting,” Jerry tells me, though he says he sometimes feels like an outcast. He enjoys to some degree observing the gay community from the “outside-in” but wishes he were a more part of it. He places on this admission the caveat that “being part of it” doesn’t entail changing himself–no level of acceptance, he emphasizes, is worth that price.

Jerry eats two ice cream Drumsticks back-to-back as we chat under Lady Gaga, and in the company of dirty laundry, a leopard-print chair, and Dungeons & Dragons, it occurs to me that Jerry is still the liaison he was in high school: relative to everyone without being just “anyone.”

Jerry meets weekly with a group of friends to play Descent. Over potluck, homemade, and carryout food they spend Saturday nights navigating dungeons and conquering Overlords. Jerry counts these nights as some of his most treasured and fellow gamers as his closest friends. As most of the gaming world is comprised, his group consists mostly of straight men, but sexuality is never at issue—not to say that it’s wholly ignored in the larger role-playing community.

Jerry tells me that homophobia is prevalent among gamers, and while he’s found a group of close friends with whom to game, he’s run into his share of discomfort.

Of the stereotypes given to a traditional RPG player, open-mindedness is one of the flattering. One’s inclined to think of gamers as we might perceive high school outcasts: strange and socially deviant, but definitively liberal and open-minded. In the gaming world, however, heterosexism and sexism, Jerry tells me, are commonplace.

Jerry relates his own experience to such class-within-a-class stereotyping, in both the GLBT and RPG communities. When one afternoon I visit a gaming center with Jerry, we’re met with unwelcome, go-away stares. “[It’s like being ostracized in the GLBT community],” he says, “You’re used to the gay, lesbian, bi, and transgendered people. But when you come along and [are even more different], they’re like, ‘Wait… huh? You’re part of our group how?’”

I initially sympathize with Jerry when he shares this part of the gaming community. Once outcast in high school, now shunned by much of the gay community, and faced with close-mindedness from other gamers, he’s an outcast inside a community outcast by both straights and gays, in an already disenfranchised GLBT community.

If he’s affected by any of the above, however, one can hardly tell. His disposition is as bright and as charming when he reflects on this as it is at all points in our conversation (his friends nicknamed him “Sunshine” for this unwavering non-judgmental optimism).

He invites me to his house for our final interview. It’s a cozy two-story stucco-and-brick craftsman set on an eclectic street in west Minneapolis. Behind a mature oak, the home feels quaint but hidden. Inside I meet his roommate, a shy, scholarly man much older than Jerry. Jerry ever-polite and respectful, their dynamic seems as much roommates and friends as it is father and son. Jerry excuses us to his room to show me his game collection.

Jerry offers me Kool-Aid when we’re chatting in his bedroom. He apologizes for the mess. He offers to show me–and give me–whatever material I can use to help write this piece. He’s patient—incredibly patient–when teaching me the basics of Descent. He’s honest, humble, and himself during this (and every) interview, all the while carrying about him an enviable sense of initiative and creativity.

Despite his good nature and impressive ambition, however, Jerry is an outcast because he plays role-playing games.

I can’t help but think of those who’ve stereotyped him this way–people we call “normal.”

For escapist entertainment, one today considers “normal” watching Real Housewives of [Insert City Here] and American Idol; reading Us Weekly and TMZ; texting ad nauseam; wasting away on Facebook. The Normal’s escapist entertainment is found through the lives and in the imaginations of television producers, celebrity gossip, and smartphone backlight, leaving his brain to wander only in his sleep.

And it is the Normal who will judge Jerry and those like him. He’ll outcast Jerry for playing silly games, for taking seriously pretend wizards and dragons, for wasting Saturday nights over imaginary adventures. The Normal will look at Jerry as a social hazard, a could-have-been, a fixer-upper, an object for the judging.

But Jerry doesn’t rely on the imaginations of others. His escapist entertainments aren’t found in the opulent lives of spoiled housewives or in the devastated dreams of wannabe singers. Jerry escapes to exactly where he wants to go–into worlds mammoth and fantastic—into stories of his own making.

Envy, what one considers the outcast feeling toward popular hierarchy, indeed applies to my perception of Jerry, but its meaning is inverse. I realize in Jerry’s messy bedroom that the stereotypes you and I hold against him–and those that are held over us–are simple misplaced insecurities, locked inside the dungeons of our judgment, guarded by the dragons of our ignorance.

Photography: Local Minneapolis photographer Jay Kelly seizes the beauty of his subjects. Finding great delight in allowing people to see how beautiful they can be is what he strives for.  www.jaykellyimages.com

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