I say this without malice nor hyperbole: without Dungeons and Dragons, there would be no ‘geek’ culture. So much of what we know and love about videogames, high and low fantasy, roleplaying, and other aspects of ‘geek’ culture were popularized, refined, and in some ways, perfected, by DnD.
This isn’t to say that DnD created fantasy or roleplaying or videogames; however, the systems that DnD introduced –not to mention the lore and mythos it shaped –propelled elements of fantasy and roleplaying from dusty old books and weird Civil War re-enactors and into something more people can enjoy.
From Stranger Things’ use of the Demogorgon, Superhero movies, countless videogames (which have resulted in us spending a thousand dollars on a gaming pc), and more than a handful of TV shows, here are some of the ways Dungeons and Dragons have shaped modern pop culture.
Stranger Things and the Demogorgon
Netflix was already a respectable producer of content prior to 2016, but Stranger Things was one of the shows that quickly propelled Netflix from ‘streaming site’ into ‘TV show powerhouse’. If you’ve seen the show, then you know that while it’s not about DnD, the tabletop game plays a huge role in both the characterization of Will and the gang, but also plays a huge impact on the characters’ interaction with the Upside Down.
What set Stranger Things apart from the rest of the shows of that era was its heavy reliance on ‘80s sci-fi, horror, and coming-of-age tropes, not to mention shots, aesthetics, and soundtrack (the synthesizer-laden opening of Stranger Things even won an Emmy).
Elements of Dungeons and Dragons abound in the show as well; we’ve mentioned the Demogorgon, of course (which was a monster introduced in the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons back in ’74), but it can also be observed in the way the characters interact with one another: yes, they’re good friends on an adventure, but they’re also constructed as an adventurer’s party in a way.
Stranger Things and its use of DnD had such an impact that sales of D&D books shot up to a whopping 149% a month after the TV show’s release.
Critical Role and DnD’s Introduction to Gen Z
But prior to Stranger Things, DnD was already being introduced to Gen Z through Critical Role, an award-winning web series that followed professional voice actors as they played a few games of DnD. It was so successful that the web series, which was originally a stream on Twitch long before the rise of chatbots, spun off into its studio and company, with the cast and crew transitioning into an animated format on YouTube.
But why is this important? Well, understand that, prior to Critical Role and Stranger Things, Gen Z –and to some extent, even the Millennials –didn’t have a broad understanding of what DnD was. Sure, they had Baldur’s Gate, but not a lot of people knew that the videogame is based off of a popular DnD campaign. Gen Z and the Millennials also had the 2000 movie Dungeons and Dragons, but let’s not talk about that dumpster fire.
Here’s the thing: we Gen-Xers are getting old, and we need someone to carry the DnD torch for us, and frankly, Critical Role and its then-innovative use of Twitch to introduce tabletop gaming to a whole new generation of nerds was crucial to the continuation of DnD.
How Gen-X and DnD Changed Pop Culture Forever
Inb4 “what does Gen-X have to do with anything?” well, consider this: prior to the ‘90s and the ‘00s, mainstream media –from books and movies to videogames and comic books –relied heavily on the strong, stoic, male protagonist to lead his group into victory. Think Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, Rick O’Connell, Dick Tracy, Superman, Batman, etc.
It’s all for a very simple reason: many of the writers of those franchises were from the boomer generation, which valued and prized traditional modes of strength and masculinity. Now, I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether that’s right or wrong, I’m just calling it as I see it: boomer writers wrote “traditionally masculine” heroes simply because that’s what they were used to.
But here’s the thing: a lot of those boomer writers have retired, and it’s the Gen X folk who’ve taken over writing pop culture narratives, and guess what, a lot of those Gen X folk grew up as nerds and geeks, outcasts of popular society, denizens of that weird cafeteria table nobody wanted to sit in.
This is why a lot of our media’s protagonists now aren’t the traditional steely-eyed, rock-jawed protagonists of yore; heck, a lot of them aren’t even men anymore: Luke Skywalker gave way to Rey, Lara Croft transitioned from a gender-bent Indy into her own character that was more intellectual than swashbuckler, and heck, even Batman went from buff-daddy-will-kill-you-with-his-gravely-voice Christian Bale to lithe-really-wanting-to-get-out-of-the-Twilight-shadow Robert Pattison.
And it’s all thanks to Gen X’s experience with DnD. Remember kids, when we were growing up, DnD was the next best thing to Pong. That’s how starved we were for stimulation and excitement. And now, these geeks are the ones in charge, and while we don’t want to get rid of ‘traditional’ male protagonists like Kratos or Geralt, we want more people to see characters like Sheldon Cooper or even Will Byer and have them square off with a Demogorgon, and it’s all because we know 95% of our audience base are physically (and probably intellectually) closer to Sheldon and Will (the Kratos and the Geralts all have better things to do, I guess).
If you’re interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons, we suggest getting this Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition starter set from Amazon.