Playing at the World book cover

Playing at the World is a historical book, written by Jon Peterson, focused on the history of chess’s evolution into war games and from there into role-playing games. It is a scholarly approach to the subject done with great attention to detail and massive amounts of primary source research. The book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in modern gaming, and more particularly in role-playing games and their war game forerunners.

This book is the most thoroughly researched book out there on the history of the evolution of gaming. It helps that the author is quite eloquent, in order to get through the vast amount of ground covered in the book.

A very tiny thumbnail sketch of the of the history within the book follows.

Chess was used as a strategy training game within military academies and royal families for much of its early history. In the late 1700s and on through the 1800s it became obvious to various people that it was simply too unrealistic a game to adequately test the strategic mental mettle of future officers. Thus, came the attempts to make the game more realistic. More units were added. Terrain effects were added in. The grid system was eventually done away with in favor of more free form measured movement. Most importantly, the new mathematical field of statistics was gaining a foothold within military circles. Statistical analyses of past wars and battles allowed people to determine the exact percent probability various weapons and groups of troops had of success in battles based on a variety of circumstances. These statistics were eventually incorporated into the war games being played. This meant that dice needed to be added in to the games to model the various probability spreads. Previous to this dice had been viewed as merely the implements of gamblers, but now they became statistical tools in modeling the real world. These war games became ever more complex as they evolved. Eventually, most of them started to use referees whose job it would be to determine the validity of actions a player might want to take. In other words, in an effort to make the games as strategic as possible it was necessary to bring in a separate player whose sole job was to listen to whatever the other players could imagine attempting and then rule on its result in an impartial way. This process happened throughout the 1800s within Prussia for the most part. However, it spread from there throughout the world as other nations began to be interested in what Prussia was doing to train its military officers.

H. G. Wells playing Little Wars

Eventually these war games moved into the hobby arena around the beginning of the 1900s as companies began producing various lines of toy soldiers and other miniatures for play. HG Wells wrote a book titled “Little Wars” on how to use these toys to play war games at this time. Robert Louis Stevenson was also known to play these games before HG Wells.

But then the invention of the atomic bomb happened. Suddenly tabletop war games with miniatures didn’t make much sense anymore in terms of real world applicability within military training circles. Far more important now was the negotiations between the leaders of nuclear powers. Thus, defense contractors like RAND and military colleges began to invent simulation games where players played the roles of the leaders of governments. This becomes one of the first uses of the term “role-playing”. (The very first use of the term was in psychotherapy.) The war gaming hobbyists outside of official military circles also became uninterested in trying to recreate modern warfare on the tabletop.

Thus, war gaming as a whole became more and more anachronistic in its subject matter. Once Vietnam rolled around, war became downright unpopular among the college youth who were the main players of war games. This probably contributed to the desire with some to start moving war games into the realm of fantasy. Tolkien and other Sword and Sorcery writers were extremely popular among these gamers.

Dungeons and Dragons 1st edition

Gary Gygax, a pacifist of the Jehovah Witness faith, published a ruleset designed to help run medieval games called Chainmail, which also ended with a section on how to incorporate fantastical elements (mainly from Tolkien) into the games. Dave Arneson, a wargaming college student, took ideas from Chainmail and developed the idea of a fantasy medieval game where the players played only one character rather than a whole army of nameless ones. These characters would get stronger as they played. The characters would go down into dungeons beneath the fictional Castle Blackmoore and fight all manner of fantastical beasts for treasure. Arneson took his ideas to Gygax in a very unfinished casual form. Gygax loved the ideas and worked to massively expand and organize the rules into a game that could be sold. And so Dungeons and Dragons was born. The game grew and grew over the years and eventually influenced basically all of modern gaming, whether it be electronic or tabletop gaming. The idea that characters get stronger through taking on challenges originated for the most part with Dungeons and Dragons. Gygax also collected a monster manual of all the mythical creatures throughout history that he could find for the heroes to battle. He also added many ones of his own invention. The end result was the most extensive collection of fantasy creatures ever published before. Most modern people’s ideas about what fantastical and mythical creatures are supposed to be like comes from Dungeons and Dragons, whether they know it or not.

The last chapter deals with the misguided religious backlash against the game that happened in the 80s. The backlash happened because a college student, James Egbert III, disappeared, and his parents hired a private detective. The detective found out that the young man played D & D with a lot of college friends. These friends also liked to play down in the steam tunnels beneath the college doing what would today be called LARPing. Most people at this point, including the detective, had never heard of D & D. They did not know how popular it had become across college campuses. The detective thought that playing a game with wizards and fantastical creatures was very disturbing and believed that the young man must have been too brain addled to tell the difference between reality and fantasy games and that something nefarious had happened to him due to the game. The detective wrote a book about it and started talking to media about the game and how disturbing he found it. Newspapers jumped on board without doing any research in a snowball of ever more hyperbolic headlines about a sinister game brainwashing the minds of the youth. The young man was later found safe and sound. He had run away due to personal issues. It had nothing to do with D & D at all of course. But predictably the newspapers and press did not print detractions once the truth was discovered and the legend among the uniformed public of a game that brainwashed children into weird behaviors and beliefs continued to persist.

Next, a boy, Irving Pulling II committed suicide and his mother, Patricia Pulling, found some D & D books of his and got it into her head that D & D must have turned her son into a Satanist and that this was the cause of his suicide. Apparently, the mother was clueless her son had been playing the game and only found out by going through his room. She then started an organization dedicated to advocating against the game and rock music, which she also felt was turning youth into Satanists. She wrote a book called The Devil’s Web about these fears as well. Various uninformed Christian pastors jumped on the Satanic scare at that point and began preaching the evils of D & D.

However, as usually happens when adults start criticizing something benign as being an evil influence on youth, many youths were then drawn to D & D as part of youthful rebellion. The sales of Dungeons and Dragons soared ever higher as the controversy went on. In fact, I wonder if D & D would have ever reached the level of popularty it has without those misguided protests. We are now long past the controversy these days.

The book ends with discussing how D & D has played a major role in influencing modern digital games. It’s hard to imagine a major video game without some form of hit points and character progression these days.

And with that the book closes. I enjoyed the book immensely and learned a great deal. I did not grow up playing D & D. Instead I played the early computer role-playing games and adventure games which were based on D & D, from Zork to Wizardry. Now as a parent and educator I see the worth of using the paper and pencil role playing games with children. There are few leisure activities that come close to approaching the mental activity required to play these games. And so, it was fascinating for me to learn the rather exhaustive history of how these games evolved from chess over a process of a couple centuries. I definitely recommend reading this book if you are interested in modern gaming.

After reading the books and fully understanding the history involved, I can see the importance of chess in a way I simply hadn't before. Because of that, in my gaming club and with my own children, I now explicity draw the comparison with chess whenever I play a new game with them. And I discuss with them in a critical manner the way in which the modern game modifies chess (and then possibly D&D) as high-order-thinking analysis practice.