What’s in a Game?

When you think about it, Dungeons and Dragons is a lot like fantasy football. Or, more broadly, fantasy role-playing games in general have a lot in common with fantasy sports leagues, so far as I can tell. This seemed like a fairly innocuous observation to me as I reflected on it yesterday morning on the subway. It didn’t occur to me that someone might actually feel threatened by it.

Because of their respective audiences, I suspected that most people wouldn’t associate fantasy football with D&D. After all, the name “Dungeons and Dragons” conjures images of socially maladjusted teenagers playing on the living room floor with dice and pewter elves. D&D is sort of the father of fantasy role-playing games, inspired largely by The Lord of the Rings and other works by Tolkien. I personally associate fantasy football, on the other hand, with … well, what most folks might call “normal people,” and what bitter geeks often refer to as “mundanes.” You know, guys cheering in bar when their players score, coworkers flashing with smug grins as money changes hands in the office betting pool, that kind of thing. People with more “mainstream” interests. Thank goodness for Google, though, which informs me that the connection between D&D and fantasy football has already occurred to somebody else—only to be dismissed by a writer at FOXSports.com, who reassures sports fans that fantasy football isn’t just for “geeks.” I started writing this essay because I had been reflecting on my recent post about games, business, and creativity—before I found the FOXSports article—but let’s see if I can pull this all together as I go.


Roger Rotter addresses what he believes are the most common myths surrounding fantasy football. “Myth No. 1: Fantasy football is only for geeks.” No, Rotter points out, fantasy football can be played between family members, coworkers, friends who want to keep in touch, football fans who want to learn more about the game, just to name a few. In other words, people of all ages can have fun with this game—not just nerdy teenage boys—and it can even lead to positive social experiences. Just in case you were still suspicious about how geeky this is, Rotter offers “Myth No. 2: Fantasy football is make-believe football, with players made of cardboard cutouts that you move on a board game based on the roll of a dice.” No, in fantasy football, you win points by keeping track of real players you selected in a draft. The physical trappings most commonly associated with nerdy games—namely, dice, boards, and miniatures—are nowhere to be seen, which means that you can breathe easy; no geeks here. Let’s skip ahead to “Myth No. 7: A fantasy football league is like a book club where your friends and/or co-workers meet weekly and share your innermost feelings and thoughts.” Thankfully, nothing so unmasculine need be involved here: “A fantasy league is a weekly competition made up of your friends and/or co-workers who want to score more points than you for pride, bragging purposes or some combination thereof.” Nothing says “normal male activity” quite like pride and bragging. Clearly, fantasy football has not spoiled what makes American football special to so many fans in the first place. 

When Rotter says that fantasy football is dissimilar from D&D, though, he’s referring to somewhat different aspects from those I refer to when I say that these games are actually quite similar. Rotter refers pretty specifically to the respective audiences of these games, and I’m inclined to agree that this is the most apparent difference, at least superficially speaking. Then again, as Rotter himself demonstrates, the audiences of these games might not be so different as he might like to think. Rotter makes a bid for legitimacy by describing the “true” audience of fantasy football and dispelling other “myths,” which we might also call “stereotypes.” (You don’t put your article in the myth vs. truth format unless you’re concerned that people have the wrong idea about something.)

Where have I heard this same argument before? Oh, yeah: nerds. Comics aren’t just for kids, and everybody reads them in Japan. Video games can be art, and they make you smarter. You get the idea. This kind of argument becomes a rallying cry for people who are tired of being labeled because of their media consumption habits. Perhaps there’s even a genuine desire among those behind the rallying cry to elevate the status of their favorite media because they think it will benefit society at large. The defensiveness and contempt (toward nonbelievers or the people keeping the stereotype alive) in so many such arguments leaves me suspicious, though. I should know—I was the “save comics” poster child on my college campus before I lost my taste for so-called comics activism. If it takes one to know one, take it from me that Mr. Rotter is not so far removed from the nerds he disparages in his article.

It may sound odd coming from me, but it makes sense that one might want to distance oneself or one’s group from nerds, geeks, losers, whatever you want to call them. Nerds often identify themselves by their intellect, creativity, and disaffection for the mainstream culture that has rejected them. The cultural mainstream, on the other hand, identifies nerds as having poor social skills and a loose grip on reality, heads buried in escapist fantasies (superhero comics, fantasy role-playing games, super-spy video games, science-fiction movies, etc.). Say what you will about nerds relating to the cultural mainstream, but it’s also worth noting that role-playing games can (and sometimes do) allow for the same kind of social interaction you’d get in fantasy football. The vast majority of role-playing games feature a fantasy or science-fiction setting, though, which caters to a particular, and somewhat insular, audience. It’s for that reason, really, that I’ll concede this point to Rotter; fantasy football and D&D almost certainly belong to separate social subcultures with very little overlap. I’d say they’re different in that way.


At their core, though, I’d say fantasy sports leagues are somehow related to role-playing games, if we can imagine a family tree of sorts for creative, open-ended games. In the end, the goals are about the same, and the means of achieving them are more similar than they seem at first glance. Rotter suggests that the formal aspects of the games as a major point of difference, but he aims at stereotypes rather than any characteristics inherent to the games. What difference does it make if a game uses dice on a coffee table or players on TV to determine its outcome? The only notable formal difference I see is that one is more abstract than the other, requiring more creativity or imagination from players. Fantasy football is legitimized in Rotter’s mind by getting as far as it can from make-believe, while still allowing for some creativity and player ingenuity in the draft picks.

Even so, while dice, miniatures, boards, maps, and hefty-rule books are often employed by many role-playing games, this isn’t always the case. If I remember correctly, the D&D rule book encourages you to toss out whatever rules don’t work for you or your friends in favor of whatever works best for you. My group of friends took this to heart; by the time our last gaming group disbanded, we’d been at it off and on for a few years, and had done away with the stereotypical tools of the trade altogether. We relied primarily on the same kind of supplies used in fantasy football: pens and paper with names and scores written on them.

In the role-playing games we played, you’d craft a character based on a list of attributes, and over the course of the game you’d play things out to see where it led you. At some points, we’d use a deck of poker cards to add some external influence or randomization. One person kept track of everybody’s characters and helped direct the plot of the story unfolding in the game. Fantasy football relies a bit more on external factors to determine the course of the game—the actions of players during the season takes the place of the roll of the dice or drawing of cards—but there’s still an element of player skill and interaction in choosing the players for your team. The ritual of building the perfect team in the draft will sound very familiar to gamers whose favorite part of D&D was building the perfect character; it’s all a matter of knowing about the source material (whether it’s a rule book or a pro football league) and keeping track of various elements available to you (whether they’re skills chosen from a list or players … chosen from a list). As my roommate was telling me earlier, he was just talked into joining a fantasy football league, and he’s a little daunted by the many hundreds of options available to him, especially as every character is pre-ranked with skill ratings. (This should sound familiar.) I told him I was writing this essay, and he agreed that D&D and fantasy football are pretty similar. I think he said something to the effect of, “Of course they’re all losers. What difference does it make? People enjoy what they enjoy.” My roommate is as comfortable playing basketball as he is playing Scrabble over the internet.


Mr. Rotter is trying to make fantasy football seem more natural as a pursuit than role-playing games; one should be understood to be normal and healthy, while the other is already widely understood to be neither. In this particular case, I find it a little silly, but I don’t think it will do much harm in the long run. It’s just one article on one web site, and he’s just picking out stereotypes that were in place long before he got to them. As a trend, though, I get a little uncomfortable when I recognize attempts to make one kind of cultural practice seem more natural to the detriment of others. (This was a major focus of Mythologies, an influential book by the French literary and cultural critic Roland Barthes. The concepts most relevant to what I’m writing about here can be found in the book’s final essay.)

This process of “naturalization” makes me uncomfortable because it invariably seems to lead to persecution. In an essay titled “Why Nerds Are Unpopular,” Paul Graham writes, “Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.” When taken at face value, there’s nothing more rational about playing fantasy football—or even playing actual American football—than playing D&D, Monopoly, poker, or Pac-man. In the end, a game’s primary intended functions are entertainment, distraction, social interaction, with the spoken goal generally nothing more ambitious than “bragging rights.”

Graham attributes the persecution of nerds largely to the cruelty of children and the insularity of high school culture. The reactions of many adult sports fans at championship events, however, demonstrate that certain games seem more natural and relevant to many people’s lives than others, even later in life in our culture at large. It’s fairly arbitrary that the success of a football or baseball team should be more tied to a community’s collective identity than the success of a water polo team, or even the local police force. Following football is a seemingly more natural and culturally acceptable pursuit than orchestrating adventures involving magical creatures, and so I have to imagine that this is a major factor in how legitimate fantasy football seems alongside Dungeons and Dragons. The great irony here, perhaps, is that one of the negative stereotypes associated with D&D is that players lose their grip on reality, convincing themselves that the game is more than “just a game.” The truth of the matter may be a little more complex, especially as that stereotype may well be grounded in some truth; after all, escape from reality starts seeming pretty appealing to when your classmates think you a freak, and high school demarcates the boundaries of your world.

Graham also suggests that nerds don’t put in the effort to care about the arbitrary things that make kids popular because nerds have better things to worry about, thinking about relevant things. I find his essay pretty incisive on many points, but to read it, you’d think that nerds in high school spend all day trying to build a better mousetrap. Some nerdy pursuits are indeed quite productive; Dan, for example, spent his spare time as a teenager making a shareware Star Trek information guide in Hypercard, and now, a decade or more later, he’s making a buck off his computer skills. D&D is designed to be an entertainment experience above all else, however, and any productive skill you gain as a result is pretty much incidental.

That’s actually a large reason behind why I quit playing role-playing games; I had plenty of other social outlets with my friends, and I wanted to actually write stories and draw pictures that other people would see, rather than getting a short-lived “creative fix” that would tide me over for awhile. That’s not to say that role-playing is a bad pursuit—any entertainment can be productive in that it prevents people from getting bored or burnt out—but just that it’s as arbitrary and meaningless as any other game. If I could find people who were interested, I’d certainly be playing some of the other close relatives of the role-playing game that interest me, such as the storytelling party game The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. That’s even less structured and more imagination-intensive than a role-playing game, though, so you kind of have to gather a group of like-minded folks and set aside a decent chunk of time. (Some alcohol doesn’t hurt either.) These days, though, I tend to gravitate toward Ms. Pac-man and Scrabble, as they provide a pleasant break, leave me with creative energy for later, and (unless you get involved with a tournament circuit or something) aren’t easily mistaken for having any impact on the world at large.

This raises another question for me: What is the difference between the entertainment media of nerds and that of the cultural mainstream? What qualities do nerd media possess, not just in terms of genre, but also in terms of formal characteristics? I had planned to make that question the central topic of my dissertation, but I’ve been advised to address a question that other people are actually wondering about. I don’t want to fall into the trap of being the only one who reads my own academic writing, and plenty of other things interest me just as much, so I’m taking that advice to heart. I can’t help wondering about what makes a medium “nerdy,” though, so I’ll probably get back to that question later in my personal writing, which may be just as well. This kind of question is far more theoretical and will be more interesting to write and read without worrying so much about following proper research procedures. With some topics, I can’t help but value creative thinking more than scientific rigor.


As I’ve been writing this, I’ve come up with plenty of ways that most role-playing games differ significantly from fantasy sports leagues. Fantasy leagues are much more goal-oriented, ending with a winner, whereas role-playing games are much more open-ended; fantasy leagues tend to be more competitive, whereas role-playing games tend to be more cooperative; and perhaps you could come up with something about a focus on narrative, but I’d hate to have to get into a semantic discussion of what is and is not a narrative.

My point, anyway, wasn’t that fantasy football and role-playing games are the same game, but that they have a lot in common. People talk about “games” as if the only varieties are sports, board games used by families to pass the time, video games, and whatever other stuff the weirdos are using. Designing new and original games tends not to be very lucrative for most of the people doing the development, especially when you’re talking about games that will never be seen beyond the relatively tiny market of game hobbyists. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg problem—which came first? The tiny market that loves games with elves and time travel, which encourages such tropes to be dropped into clever game systems that could do without the associated stigmas? Or was it the mainstream market that turned its nose up from efforts to create new diversions and entertainment, leaving designers to turn to the nerds? I think I need to leave that question open for now and get back to it later. If you got this far, God bless you, and I welcome you to chime in with any Comments.

Actually, Starfleet Files was written in BASIC. I think I made a good $15-$20 off that program too. Ah, the beginning of a career in computers, which I hope to now leave behind…

You raise some interesting points. My personal theory about the dominance of sports has mainly to do with the physical prowess component of it. Consider that there was (is?) a time when being physically fit was how things like tribe leaderships were determined. Less so for being creative, which is also more difficult to measure than who can bench press more.

I suppose I take some issue with your contention that games are “arbitrary and meaningless,” though the context in which you use that phrase suggests that you might merely mean games are all equally arbitrary and meaningless, which could also be taken to mean that they all have equal amounts of meaning.

Games are important in a lot of ways: sports, for example, provide an excellent source of exercise for people who no longer need to run away from predators or forage for food. Role playing games might benefit not only in a practical sense (I wonder if a lot of actors, for example, used to play D&D…besides Vin Diesel, that is), but also in a psychological/emotional sense of placing yourself in somebody else’s shoes (nerds are often stereotyped as being somewhat low on empathy, though that perception seems to be changing with the more “mainstream” nerd movement that is emerging).

You’re right, though, insofar as “game” is often used in a perjorative sense, to indicate something that is childish, or a waste of time. However, they’re anything but. Games are meant to challenge us in one way or another, put us in situations that we do not face in the everyday world so our brains (or bodies) don’t atrophy in the pursuit of mundane repetitive tasks.

I wonder, too, if the type of games people play impacts “real” life. If games can merely be the application of a particular set of skills to a particular set of situations, then what is life but a big game? Thus, are people who are interested in sports more likely to see life as a game to be “won” (acquire the most money, the nicest car, etc.) as opposed to people who play more open-ended role-playing games, who might be more interested in the experience, and thus less competitive? Perhaps that’s why I feel sometimes that I have such a lack of ambition…

As always, in attempting to answer some of your questions, I end up raising plenty of my own. However, it’s too late for philosophizing…

For all my posturing on “creativity” versus “scientific rigor,” I have to admit that if any of my professors saw this, they would tell me to define “arbitrary” better (and would be right to do so). I think by “arbitrary” all I meant was “not necessarily universal or predetermined by nature, but something which could have evolved differently in another context.” You caught me, though: I even cited Barthes in this essay, and I totally forgot about all kinds of terminology (motivated, unmotivated, arbitrary) that helps to keep these concepts straight. Rather than get into a summary of semiology, though, I’ll stick to the (still problematic but at least somewhat manageable) word “natural” to refer to the definition suggested above.

I definitely agree that games are designed for a variety specific purposes and in reaction to any number of environment/market conditions. I suspect that the difference between “nerd” games and “mainstream” games is hidden in the details somewhere there. I think what I was trying to say was just that even if certain characteristics of games were created the way they were intentionally, that doesn’t necessarily mean those design choices are natural, that they are made the one and only way they could be made, and that the stereotypes and stigmas that accompany certain characteristics are part of their intrinsic form.

A 20-sided die, for example, carries a lot of connotations for people in our culture, but to someone who has never met a geek or seen our numerals, it means nothing. The connection between that object and the pseudo-random, external forces it represents is ultimately based on common understanding. The connection between an oblong ball and manhood is something else we gather from common understanding. It makes sense that physically able people would gravitate to games that allow them to show off their prowess, and that such activities would thus be considered somehow preferable to activities that attract people who would be less enviable as mates or allies. If things had developed differently, though, nerds probably could’ve found a way to use an oblong ball to tell stories about dragons, and athletes used polyhedral dice instead of a coin to determine who starts the game with the ball, and those objects would have different associations.

Admittedly, that’s only one half of how I was using the terms “arbitrary” and “natural.” The other half was the claim, quoted in Graham’s essay, that actual activity involved in a game is arbitrary—that there’s nothing “natural” about a “caste of giants” established through a sport. As you suggest, Dan, sports provide an opportunity for exercise; on a social level, which is most relevant to this topic, sports also afford people an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities, attract mates, establish a local hierarchy of leadership, etc. In that sense, high school football might seem a fairly natural and ultimately functional way of establishing social organization. That function is very specific to a certain kind of insular environment, however, which (as Graham suggests) may be somewhat unrepresentative of the world at large. (Then again, when you consider that football players tend to be more rich and famous than college professors….)

Nevertheless, as anyone who went to our high school knows, you could be physically fit and quite athletic but still considered a loser so long as the only outlet for your physical prowess was Ultimate Frisbee. Ultimate is no less physically intensive than several of the more “respectable” sports, and you could even be considered a not-nerdy Ultimate player so long as you also belonged to the cross-country team, but the sport had associations at our school that didn’t exist in many other high schools (probably due to the fact that we were considered a club rather than a sport, and much of the team was also known for playing collectible card games in the cafeteria). I was surprised to learn years later that the Ultimate players were considered part of the popular group in many other locales. There were reasons why we were considered nerdy … but the function of the sport itself is similar enough to the function of soccer and football that there’s no natural reason why the masters of wit on the breezeway should have derisively called out to us, “Hey, frisbee geeks … gonna play some frisbee?”

Now take me to task on this one some more! Don’t let me get away with lazy essay-writing, people!

Oh, I just realized another thing I could say that might help clarify things: While the results of a game might have meaning or impact in your life beyond the game (like developing social skills or getting exercise, as you mention), I meant to suggest that executing the process of gameplay itself is meaningless in a larger sense. A person could get very strong and fast playing sports, but that strength and speed are evident in and of themselves. Winning may be a result of being strong and fast, but winning doesn’t mean that you’re strong and fast—it means you won, and nothing else. Silly example: In all those silly comics, video games, and movies where victory in battle means winning control of the world (or whatever), that connection between victory and the prize is one that people (or supernatural entities I guess) made up and agreed upon (or forced others to recognize). It’s not one that naturally comes with the game.

You can win at many games by exploiting loopholes. Doing a “wall hack” in a first-person shooter doesn’t mean you’re good at first-person shooters. It just means you win.

So, I do think that you overlooked a slightly important bit of the differences.

Fantasy Football is integrated into the public. To get information about a football game, you just need to turn on a tv, read a newspaper, etc. This is not true of the speciality shops where you need go to acquire the stuff of D and Ds.

More importantly, I think that Football is also more socially acceptable because it is a bigger part of the economy?

I dunno.

I think that money has something to do with it?

(To think about comics, have been gaining respect in part because movie studios have put them on the map by spending 50 to 200 million making movies out of the characters.)

So…if you were to rank them in terms of mainstream acceptance: D and D, then Ghostworld, and then Fantasy Football. This is also the way that the money flows into the three. You know?

So I think that the money is there…Don’t you think?

Who knows.


[…] I’ve written here before about fantasy football, but apparently sports fans aren’t the only ones using real people to play their games. For you political buffs, check out a recent article from the New York Times on Fantasy Congress… “Especially this time of year, all you hear is people talking about fantasy football leagues,” Ms. Montgomery said. “I couldn’t care less if I tried, either about real football or fantasy football. But hey, I actually pay attention to what goes on in Congress.” […]

[…] First fantasy sports, then fantasy politics, and now fantasy soaps. Okay, I think I can probably do a whole dissertation chapter now on “fantasy” games that don’t involve dragons. Anybody know of (or have neat ideas for) other games running on a fantasy-sports-type model? […]