Okay, I’ll throw my two cents in, as someone who once played Dungeons & Dragons with considerable vigor. This was during my high school days, some 20 years past now, and my primary role was as the Mansonesque Dungeon Master. (I.E., Satan Incarnate, according to some people.)
What was the attraction to me and my cohorts in this role-playing weirdness? Looking back, I think it was a combination of factors. Creative outlet was the big one. In spite of the vast, arcane game rules, most of the game could best be described as interactive story-telling. Buncha guys collaborating to tell a tale. Most of the rules we ignored as being unnecessarily complex. We concentrated on what essentially amounted to fits of imagination. Strange? Sure, but relatively harmless when you think about it. We weren’t out drinking and driving, egging houses, playing mailbox baseball, or harassing the teenage girls. Mostly we were sitting around someone’s dining room table talking and drinking too many caffeinated soft drinks. Could we have been doing something else as a creative outlet? Sure, but we were having fun and nobody was getting hurt. (And, frankly, most of us moved on to other creative endeavors – one of my screwball game cohorts is now a fairly successful mystery novelist.)
Another factor, I think, was a quest for a sense of control. Let’s face it, me and my buddies were low on the social ladder, which in high school is pretty important. We weren’t particularly attractive or athletic, and our sense of where we belonged was fairly fragile. Role-playing games provided the chance to move, even temporarily, in a state of mind where we were powerful and respected. Once again, strange? Yes, but also, for the most part, fairly harmless. As we grew up, we grew out of D&D, and it was because we found other outlets for feeling successful. Whether it was school or art or work or whatever. Some people never grow out of it, I suppose, but D&D isn’t the problem here – it’s simply the symption.
A lot of fuss got made when I was in high school that D&D made you insane. My mom was constantly in a dither about it. There was a guy from my home town that flipped out and ran away and was last seen alive at a Dungeons & Dragons convention. Supposedly he wanted to play “real life” D&D. Eventually he committed suicide and the news was awash with the brainwashing power of D&D. All I can say to that is, “Hogwash.” D&D can certainly be the expression of mental or emotional distress, but so can drinking, smoking, scrubbing the floor all night, etc. People escape reality in all sorts of ways, and D&D just happens to be a way that got especially bad press. The guy I mentioned above turned out to have been sexually abused by his father. But that wasn’t nearly as exciting for the TV news as “D&D is brainwashing our children.” If this kid just watched a lot of TV and molested his sister, it never would have made the news.
I don’t want to sound like I’m being unduly defensive of D&D. It’s weird, no doubt, as an avid former player who still remembers my D&D days with mild fondness, I nonetheless found Cecil’s description to be essentially accurate and pretty funny. But I can also tell you that weird as it is, it essentially boils down to just one more thing that some people like to do.
I mean, you think D&D is weird – think about how some people are about golf.