Favorite RPG Media Appearance — #RPGaDay2015, Day 8
Media appearance? Really?
This seems like it’s pandering to people who are huge fans of “Big Bang Theory” or the like, where it’s fobbed off as being quirky and fun for a Friday Night Sitcom crowd. I still find it odd that media still holds something of a hands-off approach to gaming in general, since it still holds leftover stigma from the 80’s era Satanic Panic nonsense. (As a side note, Leftover Stigma might be the name of my Stabbing Westward Tribute Band.) I grant, I haven’t watched the supposedly well-loved Community episode about D&D, but that’s just because Community has only provoked marginal awareness with me.
For me (again, showing my age), media appearance of RPG’s tends to be a negative portrayal, rife with inconsistent ideas and absolute idiocy on what’s going on. There was a book I read a while back, from a series I otherwise enjoyed, where a minor character was shown as being a gamer, which meant that he had all manner of occult paraphernalia in his backpack as part of his hobby requirements. Sure, there were miniatures, but there were also tarot cards and, if memory serves, candles of some sort. Unless he was playing something like The Everlasting: The Book of the Unliving, where such lunacies are bizarrely encouraged (one of these days, when I get such things unpacked, I’ll go over just why that game line failed so dramatically), having what amounts to being ritual trappings is largely unneeded for normal sessions.
Favorite RPG Media Appearance
For my money, there was nothing more indicative of the times we were living in than the pivotal early Tom Hanks movie, Mazes & Monsters, based on a quickly dashed off novel by Rona Jaffe. (Apparently, this is Tom Hanks’ first starring role. I wonder what he thinks of that these days?) Prior to the publication of this rather sensationalist potboiler, Jaffe was a well-known writer for Cosmopolitan Magazine, under the stewardship of Helen Gurley Brown. Think Carrie Bradshaw, set in the Mad Men era, and you’ve probably got a handle on where we’re coming from with her. A bit of an odd choice, when you’re looking for an author to deal with things like this.
Mazes & Monsters, naturally, was based loosely on the media’s portrayal of the James Dallas Egbert disappearance, the Michigan State University student who tried to commit suicide in the campus steam tunnels. There’s a larger story to Egbert’s particular bent, but back in 1979 the correlative link to a new and largely unknown pastime was enough to obfuscate actual details on what went on. The suicidal tendencies had nothing to do with any mythical, Tolkien-derived fantasy world, but that didn’t stop the national media from finding interesting enough to run with.
The movie (and I have to assume, the novel as well) takes the most lurid ideas from the media accounts and turns it into a huge spectacle of delusion and mental illness. Tom Hanks portrays a rather unstable college student whose brother either disappeared or killed himself before the start of the movie.
There’s an awful lot of suicide and weird mental illness in this flick, to be honest. Not only is a referenced character implied to have killed himself, another character advances the plot through intending to off himself in a cave, the same person’s M&M character kills himself, and they have to save Tom Hanks’ character from jumping off the World Trade Center at the end of the movie. And naturally, it all links back to role-playing games in the end.
What’s interesting is that, despite the moral problem of role-playing games at the center of the movie, the actual portrayal of gaming didn’t seem too far off. Granted, they were trying to LARP in the early 80’s, but that just seems weirdly anachronistic, at this point. The small spaces, bad maps and actual session of the game didn’t seem to far off from what I remember. (Although, thinking back now, it seems like Tom Hanks did have a ludicrously out of scale miniature for his character.) The point where it goes off the rails is when the movie insists that people start to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, and this shared delusion is what makes them go irrevocably mad. I have to think that similar thinking is what informed the moral panic of the 1950’s, when Frederic Wertham spoke so eloquently of comic books warping young minds.
The movie follows Tom Hanks as he wanders New York, possibly murdering a random mugger, and ends up trying to throw himself off the WTC in the early morning sunshine, all the while in a weird, hallucination of some dire fantasy world. (One review terms this as a “jazz daze,” which I can’t argue with.) The ending has him utterly unable to separate himself from his RPG character, and the other characters have to leave him in his pathetic delusion while they are implied to have grown up and left gaming behind.
Not, I guess, that I can blame them. I mean, it’s got to have left a stain on things to have seen someone go so mental over the pastime, but the movie also seems to imply that this is pretty much unavoidable in this universe. And that’s the weird part of an already weird movie. The movie deals with characters that have an established baseline of mental problems (Tom Hanks’ character may actually be schizophrenic), which would be enough to anchor things, but then it tries to establish a link to RPG’s alongside this. Without going back to watch the movie again (it’s around here in a box somewhere), I’m not sure if there’s a causative relationship that makes any sense. Does the hobby only attract people with problems differentiating fantasy from reality? Does it cause these barriers to break down over the course of play? What’s the actual danger here?
This isn’t a particularly good movie, even judged on the basis of being a Made-For-TV spectacle. It is, however, an excellent snapshot of the era of “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons” and the attendant hysteria.