In 1974, the game industry was forever changed with the release of Dungeons & Dragons. While not the first role-playing game in existence, D&D has defined role-playing ever since it’s introduction and has become synonymous with the term. Most games are merely played… others are lived. Obsessive sports fans memorize stats and live out their dreams as armchair quarterbacks or on the imagined field of the internet via fantasy football, but fans of dice-based role-playing games tend to take it a bit further. “The Dungeon Masters” follows three such fans and gives viewers an inside look at how a game can alter a life both for better and for worse.
Given the reputation of most gamers as bespectacled nerds with no social skills, it might seem easy to simply mock the subjects of this film, but director Kevin McAllester instead chooses to show them not as stereotypes, but as real human beings with real problems. Of course, the fact is that the subjects of this film happen to be bespectacled folks who showcase a genuine lack of social graces, which leads to something of a “chicken or the egg” dilemma. One of the gamers featured in the film comes from a broken home with an alcoholic father. Another has recently escaped an abusive relationship and has trouble finding love. All have trouble cementing real friendships and functioning in the world and wind up seeking solace in the fantasy realms offered by role-playing games.
On one hand, gaming offers these people an escape from the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. On the other, it becomes something of a trap, where feelings of helplessness translate into empowerment that eventually lead to further alienation. A meek sanitation worker becomes a power-hungry dungeon master on the weekends and winds up losing his circle of friends because of it. Most interesting is the case of Elizabeth, who can conjure up a spell of teleportation but can’t seem to conjure up a meaningful relationship. While most women complain that men are only interested in their bodies and don’t care at all about their minds, Elizabeth finds that the men she dates tend to be more attracted to her hobbies, and the fact that she can recite D&D rules and drop mad comic book knowledge, than her personality. It’s an odd twist on a universal theme that isn’t made any less sad by the fact that she’s wearing full face makeup and pointy ears as she recants the tale.
Being a pretty hardcore geek myself, I am fascinated with geek culture in every form it takes, from the fellows at the comic shop waxing philosophical about Silver Age comics to the people featured in this film. I’ve enjoyed other similar documentaries, such as “King of Kong”, “Trekkies” and “Darkon” (which also focuses on role-playing and is in many ways a superior bookend to “The Dungeon Masters”). I simply enjoy watching people be people and I especially enjoy making comparisons between my own geek tendencies and the folks in films such as this one and the others I’ve mentioned. If observing people is your bag, you oughtta check this movie out, because you’ll be hard pressed to find a more interesting bunch.
The strength of “The Dungeon Masters” is that it shows its subjects as human beings, struggling to overcome the challenges of their daily lives both through and despite their addiction to tabletop gaming. Its weakness is that it does not paint a broad enough picture of the phenomenon and it’s loyal devotees. While it doesn’t openly mock or seek to humiliate its subjects, the filmmakers didn’t take the opportunity to show us the atypical gamer. Are there any dedicated gamers who are successful in life and don’t lack the basic skills needed to form solid relationships? Are there any hardcore Dungeon Masters who aren’t overweight, don’t wear glasses and whose lives aren’t wrought with tragedy? Further, “The Dungeon Masters”, as fascinating as it may be, tends to gloss over a lot of the interesting questions that are brought up throughout the telling of the tales. Whether this is a failing on the part of the filmmakers or simply the effect of dealing with tight-lipped subjects, I felt like there was a lot of stones left unturned and a lot of questions left unanswered.
Regardless of my nitpicking, I enjoyed “The Dungeon Masters” thoroughly and would recommend it to fans of both documentaries and geek/nerd culture. While not as indepth as the aforementioned “Darkon”, it is definitely more entertaining and paints an interesting picture of a small group of fanatics and the problems that ensue when fantasy and real life meet.