I was sad to read of the death of Gary Gygax, co-creator (with Dave Arneson) of the legendary role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. I was first introduced to the game when I started college at MIT in 1978. There, I learned that many of my classmates were already seasoned players from their years in high school. (I guess they were early adopters, considering that D&D had only been published in 1974!) Although I was never a player myself, in college I was surrounded by the rule books with “Gary Gygax” imprinted on the cover, so I immediately recognized his name atop the obituaries this past week. If you haven’t heard of the game, you should know that in addition to sales that topped $1 billion, and 20 million players, D&D had a cultural influence far beyond the numbers.
The major national newspapers covered this passing (see articles in WSJ, NYT) . I’m noting it here because, after a bit of research, I’ve learned that D&D emerged from the same innovation process that I’ve seen everywhere in today’s economy. Although Gygax certainly deserves to be recognized for his important role, he was not the sole creator of D&D; it emerged from a long series of collaborations, from an almost invisible community of like-minded wargamers. Innovation always works this way: Even though one person often gets credit for an invention, all innovations emerge from groups. In Gygax’s case, the group included dedicated wargamers who lived around Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Many different Lake Geneva groups came together to play wargames, with names like the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association and the Midwest Miltary Simulation Association. There were so many groups that in 1966, they formed an umbrella organization called the International Federation of Wargamers (IFW), with separate chapters for different periods of military history—the “Castle and Crusade Society” for medieval wargaming, for example, and the “Armored Operations Society” for World War II wargaming. IFW became nationally known by sponsoring an annual convention of gamers called GenCon, and publishing a magazine of wargaming called The Spartan.
These communities of hobbyists had been experimenting with medieval wargames using miniature figures, just like D&D, for years. The first published set of rules appeared in 1967—for a game called Siege of Bodenburg, created by Henry Bodenstedt and published in Strategy & Tactics magazine, a wargaming fanzine created in 1966 by Chris Wagner. (Wagner created his fanzine to compete with the magazine The General, published by the wargame-publishing company called Avalon Hill starting in 1964.) The wargamers around Lake Geneva read these rules, and a couple of them began experimenting with their own variations. In 1971, two of them—Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax—published their own set of medieval wargaming rules; they called it Chainmail and sold it through a company called Guidon. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was gaining a cult following at the time, and sales of Chainmail were surprisingly strong. A third Lake Geneva wargamer, Dave Arneson, began experimenting with his own variation that he called Blackmoor. When Arneson and Gygax began collaborating on the next generation of medieval wargame, they took most of Blackmoor’s features intact. They intentionally named the main characters after those in Tolkien’s trilogy—orcs, ents, hobbits, wizards—to tap into its popularity. (A lawsuit from Tolkien’s estate later forced the game’s publisher to rename some of these characters.)
I love stories like this one, because they show so clearly how innovation emerges from a collaborative process. In my book Group Genius, I tell many similar stories—for example, how Monopoly emerged over a 30-year period from a national community of Quakers, frat boys, and economics professors. Dungeons & Dragons was a collective creation, emerging from an unsung, almost invisible collaborative web. With the help of Gary Gygax, this emergent phenomenon was disseminated far beyond the Lake Geneva community to become an international phenomenon. When the International Federation of Wargamers faded from history in 1974, its passing was not noted—there’s no such thing as an obituary page for groups. So we use the obituary pages to remind ourselves of the true nature of creation by recognizing those individuals who played key roles within genius groups—like Mr. Gygax, who died March 4 at age 69 at his home in Lake Geneva. It’s all about collaboration; as Gygax himself said in a 2006 interview, “The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience.” Rest in peace.