Digital Monkey Shines

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Games on Film: The Dungeon Masters

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Since Digital Monkey Shines examines the intersection of film, games, and other media, it’s a natural consequence that a films that deal with gaming and gaming culture deserve a close look.  It’s the start of another themed series for DMS, which I’m calling Games on Film.

Today, we’ll start with the 2008 documentary The Dungeon Masters, released on DVD in 2010.  It is viewable on demand at FilmBuffOnDemand.

If you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a golden age for documentaries.  Thanks to improvements in technology and the corresponding decrease in prices for equipment, it’s now possible to assemble a professional-looking film for a very modest investment.  The cost of production has long been a difficult hurdle for documentary filmmakers, whose films have long struggled to make earn back their expenses as commercial products.

Documentary film makers are now, more than ever, able to put their lenses into the darkest, most obscure corners of everyday human experience.  The director of Dungeon Masters, Keven McAlester, presents a portrait of three game players in both their fantasy and real environments.

Everyone who’s ever crossed paths with the more enthusiastic elements of the roleplaying game participants will have to restrain their urge to groan in frustration.  To some degree, the roleplaying community deserves its stereotype of the socially marginalized but, just like any stereotype, there are plenty of people who don’t conform.  I understand why we get to follow these three particular representatives of the hobby–they’re more interesting than a normal guy who holds a normal job and knows how to get along well with all types of people.

This film’s rogue’s gallery consists of Richard Meeks, Scott Corum, and Elizabeth Reesman.  While each of their situations has a distinctive arc through the documentary, they share a common malaise of the lower-middle class.  One’s need for escape is the resonant theme throughout the film, although there is little follow-through on the idea.  The Dungeon Masters fails to communicate the enjoyment that playing games brings to these people, which means it fails to understand the role of gaming on more than a facile level.

Richard Meeks and Scott Corum are both solidly middle-aged, apparently coming into Dungeons and Dragons in its earliest hey-day.  By the time they are filmed, life seems to have passed them both by.  Meeks works in a mundane job for a local utility and is in the reserves while Corum works part-time as an apartment complex manager.  Very early on we get the feeling that Meeks may be a powerless man who uses his role as gaming referee to exert some kind of control over people.  What little we see of his wife hints at a power dynamic, that she treats his interests as juvenile.

And yet, Meeks is the most animated of the three subjects when shown in his element leading a game.  Unfortunately, the directors choose to follow his attempts to restart a game that had been played for years before with a group of friends in Florida.  The original game ended in a Total Party Kill (TPK), in which Meeks created a situation that led to the death of every player’s character.  The reunion returns to an old source of discontent for Meeks and he ends up writing a dramatic sermonizing I-quit-because-you-people-don’t-play-right letter.

Corum becomes the most accessible of the subjects because, despite his admitted failures at a few careers, he still strives to make a dream come true.  At this point in his life, he has chosen to work on publishing a fantasy novel.  Anyone who’s tried to write a novel sees the warning signs right away–his manuscript is far too long, his craft comes across as amateur, he relies on the opinions of partial readers like his father, and his agent doesn’t seem to have much of a record.  Along with the writing, he gets wrapped up in creating a cable-access television show based on the premise of a failed super-villain hosting a cable access show.  As bad as it sounds, you can actually see a glimmer of talent among all the obligatory shoddiness of the first episode of the show.

Reesman, only in her early twenties, is the would-be foil to these two dreamers.  We first see her in full convention gear: black body paint, elf ears, and platinum-blond wig.  Then she speaks, her voice a monotone drawl that seems to be terribly effective at making one’s thoughts wander.  Eventually we see her in natural state, and it’s surprising how anonymously she presents herself, a marked contrast from her Drow getup.  Then, as if to give us nothing but an excuse to arm-chair psychoanalyze, she proceeds to recount a series of failed relationships, miscarriages, slime-ball bosses, and other travails.  She complains about men liking her for what she does (i.e. gaming) and not who she is.

And therein the documentary raises a fundamental question.  What do roleplaying games do for these people?  As outside observers, we can only collect circumstantial evidence.  From what we see, the reality of each of the subjects presents qualities that one would wish to escape from–under-employment, the tension of relationships, specters of past failures and regrets, shoddy living arrangements, and general existential ambiguity.

What we can’t really measure the effect playing Dungeons and Dragons or other roleplaying games has on the inner lives of the subjects.  In my experience, roleplaying games had several aspects that I enjoyed–the social element of hanging out with friends; the excitement of learning something filled with minute detail; the activation of one’s imagination; the satisfaction of problem solving, the dissection of personalities, plots, and the arts of storytelling.  To its credit, a roleplaying game works for people because it engages them in an active way.

The Dungeon Master’s subjects clearly have an affinity for their hobby.  Perhaps their connection with “reality” is too tenuous at times.  Maybe they aren’t the perfect versions of themselves.  Their ideas of social norms can be different in the insignificant dimensions.  It doesn’t seem fair to somehow treat their particular spot of happiness any less respectfully than anything else that people use to mark and pass their time on this earth.

Written by Bill

March 24, 2011 at 3:28 am

Posted in Movies, RPGs

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