I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.
Those who have never played computer games aren’t going to enjoy this post much. They probably won’t enjoy the story, either. It’s available online.
Full disclosure: I was a middle-aged gamer. Yes, I am blushing down to the roots of my hair. Oh, I dabbled in D&D back in the early 80s when I hung out with people who wrote their own game programs. And I still play word games, but they don’t count. My dirty secret: I played Pyroto Mountain, where I fretted about manna and esteem and cast spells for a few years, even went to a RL get-together in Toronto where I met, among others, beeg, Sethari & Isabel, and the infamous Soup. When Pyroto went dark, I followed Feldermer and em to Kingdom of Loathing, which is hilarious rather than loathsome. I had a Mr. Accessory (worth a million meat). Never got a Mrs. Accessory, though. I came in 49th in a race, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. I won a prize, after all.
During my Pyroto years, I became fascinated with the Bartle classification of gamers. Socializers play to chat with other players. Achievers play to win, get the most points, whatever. Explorers play to understand every nook and cranny of the game (and are the admin’s best friend and worst enemy, since they will point out obscure bugs no one else will ever encounter). And the Killers, their objective is to annoy other players – not beat other characters, but annoy the person behind the characters. The famous Soup, mentioned above, was a Killer. A psycho hell-bent character. And a perfectly nice guy IRL.
The Dragon Master, in this Dungeon & Dragons based story, is a Killer. Except he isn’t, really. As Sam Lipsyte says in a great interview with Wizards.com, “Generally the Dungeon Master does see it as his duty to teach them that life is disappointment.” He does a very good job. The mystery is why they stick with him.
There’s another D&D game group in an afterschool program, and it’s full of creative kids making up fun adventures. Eventually the narrator tries the other group. He finds something is missing. To me, this addresses the question: do violent games make kids violent, or do violent kids gravitate towards violent games?
But I don’t think that’s what Sam Lipsyte was after. I think he was exploring these kids’ lives – bleak lives – using a game. He does a terrific job of it, staying in the game for much of the story. It’s through the game that we learn how they react to frustration, to success, to failure. There’s a quick flash-forward at the end that cues us in on how their lives proceed. I’m not a fan of the “where they are now” flash forward, but this one is masterful.
In his Contributor Note, Lipsyte says he wrote this story right after college, then put it in the proverbial drawer for twenty years until it finally and suddenly clicked. It’s the third story of his I’ve read, and it’s probably my least favorite. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it; I admire the technique. And I do have a soft spot for D&D.