What is Kotaku’s Problem with Gary Gygax?

That the creators of Dungeons & Dragons and thus the initiators of our beloved hobby, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, had many differences of opinion about their respective contributions to the game and that there was significant bad blood between the two of them understates things considerably. Before many gamers were even born Gygax and Arneson had even contested these differences in court. The controversy is not new, it has been with us for decades. So why was a Kotaku article covering this all like it was a new revelation all over social media this week?

The latest piece, Dungeons & Deceptions: The First D&D Players Push Back on the Legend of Gary Gygax, is just the latest in a series of articles which are very negative about Gary Gygax written by Kotaku columnist Cecilia D’Anastasio. If it was taken by itself, I might think “Fine, a gaming website is revisiting an old controversy for its younger reader base”, but this is not the only article aimed at Gygax and his “legend”.

The first piece specifically about Gygax which I noticed in this series was entitled Graphic Novel About D&D’s Creator Is Enchanting, But Falls Into A Familiar Trap, and is a fairly benign review for the most part. Despite describing the graphic novel as “an enchanting history”, it seems to really bother the author. “And yet, perhaps Gygax has enjoyed enough time on D&D’s altar of hero worship.” the article declares. The article rails against the primacy of the Dungeon Master and asserts this diminishes the contributions of players, an argument which reminds me of my kids asking me “How come there’s a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day but no Kid’s Day?”. The author’s argument placing the contributions of Players vs DMs is ultimately made by asserting that the existence of the D&D community content platform tells us to whom D&D’s legacy really belongs (uh, yeah, Wizards of the Coast but I suspect that’s not what the article’s author meant), and ends with the quip, without source or reference offered, that “It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source.”

Now, since no specific instance, citation, hyperlink, or other evidence is provided for this statement, I am left to speculate. Certainly, Gygax fought to retain control over his IP. Gygax and Arneson fought over it in court. TSR was certainly diligent in protecting its IP against Gygax once he had been forced out of the company. If the author is arguing that Gygax was protective of the D&D IP I would certainly agree with her. But the article claims “It was Gygax who originally fought against making the ruleset open source” and this just doesn’t make sense to me. Gygax didn’t own the 3e ruleset, the ruleset which was actually made open source with the OGL. Gygax was not part of Wizards of the Coast to fight against the ruleset being made open source. I don’t know what Gygax made of the OGL upon its first release, but I do know that he published a good number of OGL supplements and products, and that by 2002, he was giving interviews which praised the concept: “The D20 OGL is a very clever move too, as it provides support for the core system, brings in more players to it, and expands the fantasy base into other fantasy environments as well as into whole new genres.” I cannot therefore think of any basis for the Kotaku article to include this idea that Gygax fought against the OGL for any other reason except to conceptually drive a divide between the vast community of hobbyists and publishers who have produced OGL supplements for D&D and D&D-inspired games and one of the game’s co-creators, and to deny Gygax any of that part of the D&D “legacy”.

The second major piece in this sequence was an article principally about Gail Gygax, Fantasy’s Widow: The Fight over the Legacy of Dungeons & Dragons. This article isn’t really a hit piece, but it does reveal the rift between Gail Gygax and some of Gary Gygax’s children from his first marriage, and paints a pretty tragic picture of the current state of Gail Gygax’s world all around. The size and scope of the article makes it clear that some significant effort was expended in gathering the story. I am not arguing that the author went out of her way to make anybody look bad, but it seems to me that such a detailed article on what would generally be a pretty esoteric topic to most of Kotaku’s readership can only be the product of a fixation on the topic of Gary Gygax and his legacy.

Before this sequence of articles started, however, Gygax was also the target of Cecilia D’Anastasio’s ire in articles not specifically related to D&D. Her article The Struggle To Bring More Women Into Game Development, opens with the following paragraph:

Gary Gygax, biological determinist and creator of Dungeons & Dragons, once told a reporter for Icon magazine that “gaming in general is a male thing… Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.”

https://kotaku.com/the-struggle-to-bring-more-women-into-game-development-1783683864

Gygax’s thinking certainly sounds sexist and outdated in the quotation (and indeed, this shouldn’t surprise us), but if you follow the link to the article from Icon magazine which the author provides, you find that the quotation has been selective so as to make Gygax appear worse. At least this statement, unlike the throwaway about Gygax fighting against the OGL, is supported with a link, albeit one which reveals the selective quoting. The full context from the 1998 interview is:

What about the strains of sex and violence throughout D&D? The fantasy women in the chain mail bikinis.
GG: It’s the same in comic books and on the front of the lurid covers of the old pulp magazines. Gaming in general is a male thing. It isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women. Everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women.

http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=3964

Note had D’Anastasio included the sentence deliberately omitted in the middle “It isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women.”, it would make using Gygax’s name as a proxy for chauvinists in the game industry awkward:

The women who contributed to the new essay compilation Women in Game Development, out July 1st by CRC Press, heard Gygax’s sentiments echoed both in their heads and in game publishes’ (sic) conference rooms. Many felt first-hand the effects of big gaming companies pushing their games to boys, a marketing tactic popularized around the mid-80s. But despite all the Gary Gygaxes who told them No, get out, they did it, and they’re helping others do it, too.

https://kotaku.com/the-struggle-to-bring-more-women-into-game-development-1783683864

And later on in the article, discussing that the female authors of the book found that “Myst, Monkey Island, Donkey Kong, and–against Gygax’s proclamation–Dungeons & Dragons, were not only fun ways to pass the time, but crucial parts of their identities.” (emphasis added), as if it is a given that Gygax wanted female players excluded from Dungeons & Dragons.

I am not going to argue that Gary Gygax was not sexist, or that early D&D was not “biological determinist” (e.g. restrictions by race and gender in AD&D 1e), but both Gygax and his editions of the game came from a sexist age. Making Gygax the sole example of a male chauvinist voice seeking to exclude women in the Kotaku article about the struggle to bring in more women game developers is just ridiculous – especially when you consider that we’re talking primarily about the video game industry, and that the struggle is real and right now, years after Gygax’s death, not in a distant past where Gygax may have been personally influential in the matter. The article reports that, with respect to women in game development: “Incessant sexual and emotional harassment, along with imbalanced wages and constant doubt over their skill eroded these women’s mental health…” This harassment and wage inequality is not the fault of Gary Gygax, a dead man from another industry, but the fault of living people in the video game development industry right now. Perhaps Kotaku doesn’t want to name names in the video game industry, and thus prefers to use Gygax as a boogeyman to stand in for the actual bad actors? That doesn’t seem very fair to me, either to Gary Gygax or the actual victims of this harassment.

There are other, non-Kotaku articles by D’Anastasio about Gary Gygax as well. This review of “Empire of Imagination” has a pretty disgusting comment about Gary Gygax’s wife: “The thoroughly male world of wargaming, a world that, as Witwer chuckles, evaded the understanding of Gygax’s wife (whom, as rumor has it, he chose for her resemblance to a fantasy pinup girl in skintight armor)” (again, emphasis mine), and was written in 2015. I am guessing Gail Gygax didn’t see that before she agreed to be interviewed for D’Anastasio’s 2019 article Fantasy’s Widow.

For what it’s worth, not everything D’Anastasio has written for Kotaku about D&D is a hit piece on Gary Gygax. Dungeons & Dragons Wouldn’t Be What It Is Today Without These Women is very worth reading if you’ve an interest in the creation of some of the most iconic products of the “golden age” of TSR. D’Anastasio has also written some pieces praising 5th edition and it’s obvious she’s a keen gamer, since she’s also the author of a mini-supplement on DMSGuild (that’s an affiliate link).

Also for what it’s worth, every gamer with an interest in the history of the hobby (which probably describes most of the OSR), knows that Gary Gygax was far from perfect. Stories abound of drug and alcohol abuse, abusive parenting, infidelity, bullying, and obviously, fights over intellectual property. Even as a gamer, there probably is no “definitive Gygax philosophy” since his view of the game he co-created and the games inspired by it changed dramatically over time, and his advice to players and Dungeon Masters ranged from advocating almost “rules anarchy” to insisting that he personally was the definitive authority on all rules and everything between. Gygax wasn’t perfect, but he was the co-creator of a game which founded a hobby which millions of people love, including D’Anastasio herself. Reducing him to a click-bait caricature is unfair, as is using him as a stand-in for the sins and attitudes of others. This campaign to turn Gygax’s legacy into something dirty is unfair.

2 Comments on “What is Kotaku’s Problem with Gary Gygax?

  1. The evening before this article was published I was having a chat with some fellow gamers and the subject of Dave Arneson and hhis contribution cropped up. One of my friends said he felt Arneson’s contribution was undervalued by modern gamers; I agreed that was likely but pointed out that Arneson was the ideas man and Gygax one who’d execute those ideas. That is of course, a huge oversimplification, the kind one makes in general conversation.

    To anyone interested in the early history of the hobby, the story of how D&D came to be and who was involved is available. It’s covered in Designers & Dragons; it’s covered even more extensively in Playing at the World.

    The surprise to me in this article is how bitter Rob Kuntz appears. I’d thought he continued to be part of Gygax’s inner circle even through the Dangerous Journeys days.

    As to the article itself my main issue is that it claims to have the real story. It presents the traditional story (Arneson creates a way to use Gygax’s Chainmail rules to run individual characters on dungeon crawls, with levels and XP). It then proceeds to tell exactly the same story as the “real story”, with one addition – Arneson had done it before, with the Braunstein rules. Again, not news to anyone who’s read the early history of the game.

    Wasw Gygax or Arneson the creator of roleplaying? Why not both? Certainly, I have a t-shirt labelled Gygax-Arneson ’74. 😉

    The article misses one thing concerning early gaming: it was collaborative. Gamers and designers borrowed rules from here, there and everywhere, and they did so freely, in newsletters, magazines and even in published rules. OD&D advised gamers wishing to break out of the dungeon to get a copy of Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and gave advice on adapting it.

    Hell, if anyone’s contribution is overlooked, it’s probably David Wesley. Arneson credited him with the idea of roleplaying.

    • Yes, the narrative isn’t new – the invective is, and the headline is particularly aggressive… perhaps this is a product of the need to write clickbait headlines – not just for sites like Kotaku but even serious news outlets. But Kotaku does seem to have a particular editorial stance on Gygax!

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