Another Nerd Bites the Dust

Coming right at the heels of Gary Gygax’s death, Arthur C. Clarke, he of 2001: Space Odyssey, died today.

That’s two icons/legends of nerds/geeks world over dying within 2 weeks of each other. I have to say that, as a verifiable nerd and geek, those two guys played some part in the formation of my identity.

I never played an actual game of Dungeons and Dragons, but god knows I played D&D-based computer RPG games while growing up. I must have played Baldur’s Gate 2 at least 8 times, and since each play through is about 60 to 70 hours, that’s a lot of hours. But I loved it–every single time.

What is interesting about Gary Gygax, and D&D in general, is that Gygax essentially introduced a computational model of existence into the mainstream. D&D is not the first game to numerically represent states of existence, but it made it popular, to the extent that now nobody even blinks an eye when a character’s “health” or “life” is represented in points. Every aspect of D&D’s world is numerical, including morality. Because the difference between lawful neutral and chaotic good is only about a couple of points.

And we see it everywhere in today’s video games: D&D essentially introduced a whole way of modeling a virtue world based on purely mathematical models. And we have taken that for granted: after all, if you really think about it, what do “levels” really mean? It certainly doesn’t map onto anything we might call a maturation or learning process in real life. It’s a mathematical model of convenience, so that the game creator can have an easy way to create an incentive and award structure for the player. This structure is still with us today, in almost every video game ever made.

In other words: without D&D, we would not have video games as we know them today.

As for Arthur C. Clarke, I read 2001 when I was in 8th grade, about 13 years old. And frankly, it freaked me out a little bit, but it also intrigued me. Arthur C. Clarke got me thinking seriously about science fiction, and even though nowadays I tend to be dismissive of most science fiction books, I nonetheless acknowledge that sci-fi, if executed properly, can become a legitimate exercise in philosophical speculation–and I think this way because of Arthur C. Clarke.


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