Big Reality: The Backstory

Map used in the author’s D&D campaign, 2009

It began at “In Real Life.” Curator Laurel Ptak brought several internet-based collectives to a Brooklyn gallery over the course of March 2009, and the exhibition ended with a reception where, while talking to a new acquaintance, I self-deprecatingly mentioned having played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. My words made her eyes light up. “I have a proposition for you,” she said. Once she was certain that our mutual friends were out of earshot, she told me that she and a friend had been talking about playing D&D for almost a year, ever since news of the death of Gary Gygax, the game’s inventor, put the idea in their heads. They needed at least one more person to start a game. Would I be that person?

I hadn’t rolled a twenty-sided die since 1994, and it had been nearly as long since I’d felt a desire to. But I immediately said yes. And once our campaign began, I immersed myself in the minutiae of D&D rules and lore, reading online forums on strategy and homebrew modifications to the game. It was nice to have a hobby. When writing about art is a freelance job, it sponges up your time. Days off from more lucrative professional pursuits are spent going to galleries, reading criticism, flipping through catalogues. D&D felt refreshing because it was unrelated to anything else I was doing.

Alas, that feeling didn’t last long. I discovered a book put out by MIT Press on role-playing games, which led to further academic reading on the subject. Furthermore, I had been involved with Rhizome, the organization at the New Museum supporting contemporary art that engages technology, since the fall of 2008. Through my work there I found that what united a diverse group of artists working online was a rejection of the idea of “virtual reality”—that what happened online was just as “real” as events that took place away from the keyboard, that the internet was not a hole in reality but an expansion of it. By a similar logic, I realized, one can reject the commonly held notion that fantasy is an “escape” from life and assert the contrary: Fantasy is a real part of life that affects it in profound and pervasive ways. I began to notice how such ideas about technology and imagination, about RPGs and life lived online, overlapped and intermingled in the work of a number of artists. The line that had separated art and RPGs for me faded.

My D&D campaign fizzled out. Our sessions became increasingly infrequent, then stopped altogether. The dungeonmaster got married and promoted. We players had to handle new commitments as well, and the challenge of finding three or four hours every few weeks when several busy adults were all free to play got to be too much. For six months I took up World of Warcraft as a substitute RPG but that, too, stopped when I started graduate school. Nevertheless, RPGs continued to occupy my thoughts as a key to understanding contemporary culture. Now this line of thinking has reached a culmination with “Big Reality.”

This is the preface to the “Big Reality” exhibition catalogue which includes texts by Brian Droitcour, Tavis Allison, Joanne McNeill and Kristin Lucas (in conversation), Gene McHugh, as well as artists’ texts by The Center of Tactical Magic, Nick Montfort, John Bruneau, and Andrej Ujhazy. It will be available for sale on starting March 12 and at 319 Scholes during the run of the exhibition.

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