Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Big Bang Theory and D&D: One Geek's Perspective


Those of you who visit this blog with any regularity know that I am not merely a fan of Geek Culture, but I'm a bit of an evangelist as well.  I want the world to have the same love for Geek Culture that I do.  So portrayals, and reactions to portrayals, of Geeks and Hobbyists are something that I pay close attention to.  I am also a big fan of the television show "The Big Bang Theory."  To my memory TBBT has had the cast play D&D on two occasions, the most recent being the December 13th episode "The Santa Simulation."  This episode has met with quite a bit of criticism on my Twitter and Facebook feeds.  One of the most mild criticisms was Chris Pramas' post on 12/14,  though the brief conversation that followed gives a glimpse at some of the ire that the show can engender from the Geek community.

Before I continue, I'd like to point out that I'm on friendly terms with two of the writers on the show.  This isn't to say that I'm close friends or anything that intimate, but that I and my Geekerati co-host Shawna Benson have done podcast interviews with both Executive Producer David Goetsch (in 2008) and Supervising Producer Maria Ferrari  (late 2012) on separate occasions.  Maria was one of the writers of "The Santa Simulation" episode, so my curiosity wonders if some small spark for the episode came from her participation in my little podcast.  My Shatnerian hubris tells me "Of course it did," while the person who has an understanding of production schedules and how Hollywood actually works says "Puh-leeze, get over yourself."  These facts make me predisposed to be favorable to the show, and I thought everyone should know that before they read further.

The fact is that I find the Nerd Rage being tossed at the creators of THE BIG BANG THEORY to be ludicrous.  I can understand not liking "The Santa Simulation" as an episode, though I liked it and will discuss why below, but to rage at the creators accusing them of "laughing at geeks rather than laughing with them" is unmerited.  Having forced two of the writers to endure marathon live-streaming runs on my podcast, I have learned two things.

First, the people on the show are geeks.  They don't all geek out about the same things you do, but they do all geek out about aspects of geek culture.  They have writers who are comic book fanatics, Star Trek fanatics, video gamers, and hobby gamers.  Have you ever noticed the games that the cast plays at the beginning of episodes?  While the "Ticket to Ride" game going on in a recent episode was a fairly mainstream demonstration, the playing of "Talisman" during an earlier episode points to some serious Hobby Gaming on someone's part.

Second, these people are nice.  Extremely nice.  David Goetsch's only failing as a human being is that he is a Red Sox fan.  Given that the Cubs likely threw the 1918 World Series to give the Sox their much discussed "pre-curse" World Series victory, I have a particular disdain for Red Sox fans.  The fact that David Goetsch is so nice that he overcomes my anti-SoxFan bias is a testimony to how nice he truly is.  Listen to the conversations Shawna and I live-streamed with the writers.  They not only put up with my asides, meanderings, and bad jokes, they join in.  When hanging out with "real geeks," they spend not one moment laughing at us and are instead laughing with us.

Now for a discussion of "The Santa Simulation" proper, as it is an episode that has fostered so much distracting discussion on my various social network feeds.

"The Santa Simulation" is an episode that has as it's "A Storyline" that the core cast -- minus Penny -- haven't been able to play D&D as much as they like over the past few years and want to play.  They want to play so badly that they are willing to prioritize it over night's out with the women in their lives, in Sheldon's case he "forbids" his girlfriend from participating.

The first criticism that leaps out at gamers, and the one highlighted by Chris Pramas in the tweet I linked earlier, is that the show "propagates the myths that only dudes play D&D and that it's either D&D or sex."  I think that this is a fair criticism of the episode, but I'd like to examine it a little further.  It is true as far as it goes, but it should be pointed out that a) it is only Sheldon who "forbids" his girlfriend from playing, b) that Sheldon has very peculiar ideas about societal norms, and c) that Sheldon's girlfriend very much wanted to play in the game.

I'd also like to share a quick anecdote with you.  This past year, the company my friends and I started up launched our first Kickstarter.  We funded a Cthulhu Claus Holiday Card project that was illustrated by my wife Jody Lindke and that contained greetings written by Gaming God Kenneth Hite.  When the project was completed and all boxes had been shipped to backers, I approached my Friendly Local Game Store and asked if they would be interested in carrying the cards.  I also had a retailer tier available on the project.  The manager/owner of the local store said, and I paraphrase here, "the customers at this store would likely not be interested in the project as they aren't very sociable and won't have people to send them to.  They'll look at them, think they are cute, but won't buy them." 

I am not kidding.  Additionally, ZERO retailers backed the project.

That store owner was harder on the hobbyists who frequent the store than TBBT has ever been to the geek community.  The fact is that "gamer are not social" is tried and true stereotype.  The fact that hobby gaming is itself a social hobby that requires social networks -- physical ones not digital ones -- in order to fully appreciate is beside the point.  The most sociable people I know are all gamers.  Are all gamers sociable?  No, but many are and all seem to enjoy the company of their friends while playing games.  TBBT's "The Santa Simulation" at least got that part right.

Back to Chris's point though, he's right that the show didn't break stereotypes and it would have been nice if they had.  It would have been fun seeing how Penny reacted during Leonard's "Holiday Themed" D&D adventure.  I think there was some real room for comedy gold just in that thought experiment, not to mention how it would drive Sheldon crazy.  This is especially the case given that Sheldon has yet to defeat Penny at any game, and an entire episode was dedicated to Penny besting Sheldon -- though sad to say that episode (The Re-Entry Minimization) didn't include any hard core hobby games.  So I think Chris is on to something with his reaction.  TBBT had a moment when they could have gone for the harder, but funnier, storyline and they didn't.  TBBT stuck with the easy gamers are boys assumption when they could have been narratively braver.

That isn't only due to meeting stereotypes though, or from a lack of ability.  It also has to do with screenplay structure.  TBBT -- like most modern shows -- has an A and a B storyline.  Sometimes they even have a C storyline.  Given that the majority of the cast was playing D&D and they only had 3 regular characters not in the game, what would be left for the B storyline if everyone was playing the game?  That's a challenge the writers had to face, and they came up with the episode they came up with.  It was essentially "boys night vs. girls night out."  And you know what, the "boys night" looked like more fun.

That's right, the D&D game looked like more fun than going out "clubbing."  Leonard's "Let's rescue Santa Claus" D&D adventure was exactly the kind of thing gamers do for the holidays.  Savage Worlds has a free Christmas Evening adventure -- and I should point out that a couple of years ago I ran a Savages Save Santa Necessary Evil game.  RPGNow is filled with holiday themed adventures for heaven knows how many game systems.  This year I ran a Call of Cthulhu holiday themed adventure -- and no it didn't involve Cthulhu Claus.  Next year's will.  The guys were all having a great time, the play looked engaging and fun, until Sheldon ruined the boys night out due to his personal history with Santa Claus.

Let me say something that was embedded in that last paragraph again.  It made playing D&D look fun.  It started off silly, but in the end it looked like a great time.  I can see someone saying, "That's what people where afraid of in the 80s?  Really?  It looks fun and I'm going to give it a try."

Do I think the episode could have been better?  Yes.  Having Penny and Sheldon battle it out over the fate of Santa Claus would have been amazing.  Showing non-gamers being recruited to gaming was a missed opportunity for D&D evangelization.  But the episode was fun, and it made me happy that I'd already planned a holiday themed Cthulhu game.
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