D&D's Obsession With Phallic Desire

Before you get mad at me, I didn't come up with the title; Zedeck did! I have him to thank for that and also for inspiring me to revisit this topic by revising and expanding upon the article I had written before. Please read his article [1].

I am going to talk about Dungeons & Dragons from a psychoanalytic angle again (original version), but this time I will be integrating a more direct feminist critique of the original D&D base settings: the Underworld and the Wilderness. We will see how these settings interact with the phallic drive of D&D adventurers, and how they reflect real life intersections of sexism with colonial imagery. This involves an in-depth examination of the aesthetics of D&D, to understand what literary or social influences were being evoked in the text. This will contribute to a fuller reading and critique of D&D as a sexist text and game setting.

Shout-out to the Twitter discourse of which I got secondhand whiffs, but didn't read because I'm trying to be on Twitter less.

Introduction

Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons (1974-1983) is a series of fantasy role-playing games about adventurers who explore and loot so-called dungeons. As adventurers accumulate experience and wealth, they attain greater degrees of personal development and social power. The original D&D manual in particular sees adventurers out of the “Underworld” and into the “Wilderness”, where those characters proceed to conquer land on which to establish baronies or castles. Meanwhile, the adventurers are accosted at each step by fantastic monsters—such as goblins, zombies, or dragons—which threaten the characters’ progress as well as (non-monstrous) civilization itself.

D&D has long been read as a game with certain political overtones. A predominant reading is that it encodes modern visions of racism and colonialism in its fantasy, by reducing the typical antagonists of the setting to inhuman monsters that threaten human society. Although the monsters do not necessarily reflect racial stereotypes of any one group, their dehumanization is analogous to the racialization experienced by demographics deemed non-white, and it justifies within the game’s fiction a sort of colonial violence where the monsters and adventurers are the thin line between wilderness and civilization. This closely relates to readings of D&D as a Western, since the manual seems to presume a human world with the trappings of early modern society, set in a wild frontier inhabited and embodied by hostile monsters. Overall, it is fair to characterize D&D as a Western setting in a fantastic medieval veneer, the aesthetics of the latter serving to facilitate the symbolism of the former.

Building upon this previous understanding, this article will argue that D&D can be read as an expression of masculine or phallic fantasy. Specifically, the structure and symbolism of the D&D game align with certain structures and values of patriarchy. The game is designed to last infinitely by shifting goalposts of character experience in terms of increasing amounts of gold pieces acquired; this resembles the modus operandi of phallic desire which seeks out object after object (most typically, women) in order to quench a lack which always reasserts itself. The game in its totality, as classically considered, turns out to revolve entirely around the conquest and looting of dungeons, turning into an optimization problem; this resembles the totalizing tendency of phallic fantasy to reshape the subject’s world in its image, so that their whole subjectivity is oriented around their desire, or whom they want to fuck. Only having considered these can we discuss any implications of the game’s aesthetic, such as the imagery of the Underworld and Wilderness, since these images are not arbitrary but express their own significance with respect to the game and the situations in which the characters are located. Finally, we will be able to understand the presuppositions of Gary Gygax, the coauthor of D&D, in regarding his game as a masculine one, since his assertion is not without reason but its expression is grounded in sexism. D&D is a masculine game because it is, in many respects, a sexist one.

A feminist critique is or should be inseparable from a critique of capitalist and racist elements, both because of how they play into sexism and how sexism plays into them. This article particularly focuses on sexism because there are few if any treatments of the dungeon game as an expression of psychosexual “erotics” (as opposed to politics, that is, on the scale of society rather than individuals). Yet this approach must necessarily involve a discussion of how society shapes norms of personal desire and fantasy. This is all the more necessary when considering that D&D is a social phenomenon depicting political categories [2]. Therefore, rather than insisting that the Freudian lens is the only lens through which to view D&D, this article will argue that D&D exemplifies how erotics and politics inform and interact with each other.

Aspects of Symbolic Systems

There are two broad axes according to which we can characterize interactive systems such as games. The first axis is whether a system has a closed or open set of interactions: a closed system is self-contained and formal, containing no rules outside of itself; however, an open system relies upon language in order to interpret “input” and thus reconcile it with whatever formal rules it has.

The second axis is whether an interactive system is definite or indefinite: a definite system terminates after some goal or final state is reached; however, an indefinite system can handle an unlimited sequence of interactions by not imposing or expecting a terminal state of victory.

D&D is an open and indefinite system, and both of these qualities lend it to the phallic desire which I claim is constitutive of D&D.

Closed & Open Systems

A closed system has a finite number of strictly defined interactions from which a participant cannot deviate. For example, a video game is a closed system not only because there are limited ways by which the player can interact with the game, but because the rules of the game are literal instructions for how the computer ought to store and process data. The only way to deviate from a closed system is to somehow open it up to different interactions than were originally anticipated, similar to how hacking a computer program opens up new interactions between the user and the program. Otherwise, the set of rules is absolutely closed.

An open system has no such (obvious) limitations because it is located within the grand system of language itself. The difference between closed and open systems is perhaps best illustrated by the difference between D&D and David Megarry’s Dungeon!. Both games have the same written procedure for detecting a secret door: elves have a 4-in-6 chance, and everyone else has a 2-in-6 chance. Dungeon! is a board game because this interaction is the final word. Meanwhile, D&D expects the player to avoid this very interaction (at least in most modern readings). Instead, the player says how their character slides their hands across the wall, hoping to come across a hidden door. This interaction is interpreted by the dungeon master who then tells the player whether or not there is a door at that spot.

This is not to say that the presence of a master is what distinguishes open systems from closed systems. On the contrary, closed systems find their own strict 'master' in the closed set of possible interactions. The master of the open system is ultimately the demiurge of a greater master: the system of language which encompasses all other systems of interaction. Hacking a computer program expands the set of interactions from those sanctioned by the program to any possible interaction represented in code. Likewise, D&D expands the set of interactions found in Dungeon! to any possible interaction represented in language. This means that the dungeon master is not really a master at all. Instead the dungeon master takes whatever the players say, and transforms it into a representation which can be handled in the game-world through natural or formal language.

Definite & Indefinite Systems

A definite system only supports a finite sequence of terms, whether those terms are events or interactions or 'signifiers' (if you are familiar with semiotics). Games can be made definite by asserting a positive terminal state. This means that there is a goal you try to reach by playing the game, and by reaching the goal you win and the game is over. For example, in Dungeon! the goal is to get a certain amount of gold and then to enter the 'great hall' space before the other players do.

An indefinite game can last forever, not just by the players' own efforts but because it is structured to last indefinitely. The game accomplishes this by not having a positive terminal state. There might be a negative terminal state representing failure, e.g. when you die, but the goal is precisely to avoid that state. There might also be markers of progress, like experience levels in D&D, but these are not terminal states at all. Instead, they allow the player to endlessly pursue goal after goal. This structure is homologous to Lacan's notion of the plus-de jouir, the subject's drive: there is always something else for the subject to desire because nothing fully satisfies. This drive allows the subject to continue to exist, if we (like Lacan) define the subject as the desiring mechanism itself. Therefore, the aim of an indefinite game is not to win but to continue playing.

Drive is key to indefinite systems; after all, any game worthy of the moniker 'game' (indefinite or not) must transform the player into a subject by forcing them to desire, i.e. by telling them what they lack. In Hungry Hungry Hippos, the player becomes a hungry hungry hippo who desires to eat more marbles than the other hippos. The difference between Hungry Hungry Hippos and D&D is that the game terminates when there are no more marbles left [3]. One player wins and the satisfaction wears off. The friends might play another game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, or they might move onto something else entirely. In contrast, D&D offers one goalpost after another. It represents a wholly self-contained fantasy wherein the player-as-subject does not have to stop desiring, and they are driven toward treasure after treasure (and experience level after experience level) indefinitely.

Cooperation & Indefinite Games

Cooperation between agents also lends itself to indefinite systems. Really, the subject of D&D is not the individual character but the whole party [4]. Even though each character has their own level indicator and their own being in the gameworld, the true subject is the assembly of characters insofar as it represents the unity of the players' desires. Needless to say, this unity is unstable because of intrapersonal conflicts and so on, but the conceit of cooperation allows players to strive towards that unity for their mutual good. By principle, a game where characters compete must be definite because there exists a terminal state where one character overpowers the rest (lest that overpowering be inconclusive and dissatisfactory).

For example, consider a modification of Dungeon! where there is a dungeon master who represents the actions of each player character competing against each other, relocating the competitive drive underneath the open interface of D&D. Such a game is not impossible to imagine, especially because the role of objective referee originated in freeform war games (not to mention in physical sports, albeit with a lesser responsibility)—even more so because already when a player character dies in Dungeon! they simply start over. However, Dungeon! is not an indefinite game. It terminates when someone enters the great hall with the minimum treasure required to win. That is to say that goalposts cannot be shifted indefinitely for a competitive game, where in effect each competitor is a goalpost. The ultimate satisfaction is derived from besting one’s competitors for once and for all.

Phallocentrism

To say that D&D is a Freudian game would be silly. It suggests that something has to obviously correspond to (a vulgarization of) Freud's ideas on a superficial level in order for Freud's theory to become applicable there. To put it in a different way, it suggests that some things are “Freudian” and other things aren't, and that things which are Freudian are definitively and essentially Freudian. I am not going to tell you that D&D is “Freudian”.

Instead, I propose that psychoanalysis is a useful model with which to approach D&D as the fantasy of a desiring subject. We can use psychoanalysis to talk about D&D because it is the product of someone's brain, and the way in which anyone produces anything speaks to the unconscious processes which guide that person's behavior. At the same time, we are not concerned with any one individual, but with the consistent patterns which emerge in individuals who play D&D. These patterns speak to the persistent elements of the D&D game and, through them, the shared patterns of players’ desires.

In particular, the structure of D&D as an indefinite game is homologous to what Lacan calls the phallic drive. The phallic drive serves as a heuristic to guide an individual towards certain objects of desire; that is, the phallic drive determines someone’s desire. Alongside that, it is the impulse to constantly seek out objects which seem to have the ability to fulfill one's desire; in other words, the phallic drive is desire itself. Thus the phallic drive, combining heuristic with motivation, ensures that in the subject's imagination there is always another thing to desire; when one thing is acquired, another thing will become desirable in its stead. Lacan calls this the phallic drive because it directly relates to the subject's unconscious 'belief' that they have irrevocably lost something that once fulfilled them, and so they must grasp at straws to find something to replace what they have lost, each attempt satisfying for a short while but never lasting [5]. Lacan calls this castration since he argues that this is the actual root of Freud’s notion of castration anxiety. The subject acquires a so-called 'symbolic' phallus (the phallic drive) to replace the 'imaginary' phallus, the source of fulfillment, that they had originally lost. (Freud literalizes this as the Oedipus complex where the mother figure, as an original source of enjoyment, is "gatekept" from a boy-child by the father figure; so the child seeks out substitutes for the enjoyment he originally derived from their mother, by taking on the role of a father-substitute.) The phallic subject thus has no choice but to keep desiring and to keep new finding things to desire, always feeling like they lack something.

Likewise, the player as an adventurer seeks treasure after treasure because that is the formal goal of the game: to acquire gold pieces is to acquire experience points, and to acquire experience points is to develop one's character. The adventurer acquires gold pieces while exploring dungeons, and the exploration is thus oriented by the adventurer's pursuit, as are other activities in the game such as combat (and, by extension, the referee can design locales and situations anticipating certain behavior from the players). Finally, the adventurers acquire enough gold pieces to level, and what happens next is key: the function of leveling up is to improve one's own treasure-extracting abilities. Then the adventurers are thrown back into the fray, seeking out more valuable treasure in more difficult dungeons in order to attain higher levels of experience. Overall, the game enables the player's fantasy by ensuring that there is always another dungeon to explore and pillage, or another experience level to attain, and the game never ends. For the Gygaxian adventurer, there is always another dungeon to loot. In the same way, the phallic drive always ensures that in the subject's imagination there is always another thing to desire. For the traditional male subject, there is always another woman to fuck.

This is where we meet with Gygax's comments on biological essentialism of the sexes: Gygax says that men normally find enjoyment according to the structures of the game, whereas women find enjoyment outside of the game structure itself by "LARPing" and "csocialization [sic]" and "theatrics" [6]. Gygax is partly correct to notice that this is "because of a difference in brain function", but this difference is not biological as much as it has to do with the (normal) determination of desire for girls and boys. Lacan distinguishes between masculine and feminine enjoyment along similar lines as Gygax: the male subject is basically enslaved to the phallic drive (“There is always another dungeon to fuck”), whereas the female subject may find enjoyment beyond this phallic cycle of failure. In this precise sense, Gygax is not incorrect in saying that D&D is a masculine game, especially in the context of how D&D was basically conceived (as an infinitely playable war game). Rather, D&D can be accurately characterized as a tabletop simulator for male desire.

Fucking Dungeons

The (phallic) structure of a fantasy does not necessarily inform its explicit content, but it helps us understand why the explicit content appears in the form that it does. By explicit content, I refer to the distinction Freud makes in The Interpretation of Dreams between the explicit and latent content of dreams: explicit content is the superficial images that appear in dreams, while latent content is the symbolism behind those images. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious originated to explain how dreams are structured according to the dreamer’s desire; Lacan would then rephrase Freud’s discovery in terms of the phallic drive which I’ve already described, as something owing not to biology but to our relationship to desire and language.

D&D is certainly phallic, and this relationship between the player and the game-loop structures the images which appear in the game. The players are adventurers in a pseudo-medieval world, and they loot dungeons or fight monsters to survive. As discussed, this fantasy is not grounded in medieval Europe at all, and it has more in common with Wild West fantasies about colonialism, freedom, and social escapism than anything to do with feudalism. The only reason that D&D is “medieval” is because Gary Gygax and David Arneson were medieval history buffs who liked sword-and-sorcery fiction (itself also a derivative of Wild West fiction). The weird imagery of swords and dungeons and borderlands is knitted together by the party’s desire to accumulate gold, which has nothing to do with its economic value but instead its being a signifier of victory for the players. The game relies on accumulation as a metaphor for victory, but it also rids accumulation of its own significance in capitalism. One persistent criticism of D&D is that adventurers accumulate so much gold throughout their exploits, and yet there is little to actually spend it on. In this way, phallic desire takes the wheel and appropriates gold as a symbol for itself. Gold comes not to signify economic value, but to signify play experience.

The images that appear in D&D are almost nonsensical unless you take them as the product of Gygax and Arneson's weird fantasies. Certainly their fantasies are products of the liberal capitalist world in which they lived, but criticizing D&D for being capitalist or colonialist doesn't give the full picture: the images were selected because they were already socially desirable, and it's in this precise dimension that they interface with real-life politics and we can thus criticize them.

There are even more interesting implications of the environments which adventurers are most likely to explore: dungeons below ground and the wilderness above. I will first discuss the immediate literary or social influences on these settings, and then I will discuss how they pertain to a feminist critique of D&D insofar as they import feminine associations which rely on the social denigration of women.

Underworld Adventures

The Underworld is a literary convention which D&D appropriates in order to import its symbolic associations into the game. The katabasis, or journey into the Underworld, is itself an ancient trope, having predecessors in the Gilgamesh epic, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, and others. Often the protagonist is seeking a shade among the dead, such as Odysseus seeking advice from the dead prophet Tiresias or Aeneas trying to find his lover Dido. The dead are often in the middle of being punished, like Dante exploring an imagined version of the Christian Hell. An interesting mix of these two tendencies is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Ceres’ daughter Proserpina is raped and forcibly married to Hades. The language Ovid uses to describe the capture of Proserpina seems to be a metaphor for sexual violence, as Hades pierces a hole into the Earth (Ceres and Proserpina being Earth goddesses) and creates an abyss into Tartarus through which he transports his ‘bride’. Another predecessor to D&D dungeons appears in The Metamorphoses, namely the Cretan labyrinth constructed by the inventor Daedalus to contain the Minotaur; unfortunately for Daedalus, King Minos of Crete would also imprison him and his son Icarus in the labyrinth because it would ultimately fail to protect the monster. The literary tradition out of which D&D emerges has therefore long understood the Underworld as a hostile and punitive landscape, as suggested by the word “dungeon” which prior to D&D referred often to underground prisons.

The punitive symbolism of the dungeon relates to the phallic structure of the game insofar as it imposes a ritual cycle of risk and reward onto the players’ characters. One of the most famous conventions of the Underworld is that shades are punished in a manner befitting their sin. Lucretius explains the symbolism of such depictions in his philosophical epic On the Nature of Things, where he says that Tityos whose insides are eaten continually by birds represents people afflicted with anxiety, and Sisyphus represents people who habitually seek but fail to acquire power. It is perhaps such characters we should consider when trying to find some connection between the dungeon as a prison versus the dungeon as a so-called “mythic Underworld”, since it seems that the adventurers of D&D are themselves trapped in a hell where they must keep searching for gold or else die—only to come back again in the form of other adventurers. In this sense, the phallic desire which animates the characters is redoubled onto them as game pieces that are replaced when killed. Hail, Player! We who are about to die salute you!

Wilderness Adventures

The Wilderness takes after the American myth of Manifest Destiny, representing terra nullius just waiting to be conquered and civilized by brave settlers. The brave settlers are none other than the adventurer characters who, after having acquired so many gold pieces' worth of treasure, have attained powerful capabilities and social status in proportion. The original D&D recommends the game board of Outdoor Survival as the basis for a regional map, a hostile landscape dotted sparingly by castles and towns. The castles are ruled by classed characters (i.e. fighting-men, magic-users, and clerics) who have attained an even greater level of experience than the players' characters. These non-player characters are thus worthy of becoming lords, wizards, and patriarchs respectively (i.e. by class), and have built castles from which to rule over the domain they have conquered.

As outlined in the introduction, the frontier setting and early modern economy is what characterizes D&D as a Western rather than a medieval fantasy setting. This is especially evident in the teleology of the adventurers' development. To summarize the author of Bag of Holding [7]: there is no noble class except perhaps one being eclipsed by a rising middle class (bourgeoisie) [8]; land is not granted by an overlord but freely seized from the Wilderness; wealth "is primarily in the form of coinage and jewels, not land and cattle"; transactional relationships between people are expressed in wages rather than in fealty. The characters are thus really Wild West cowboy-type figures, wandering the frontier until opportunity strikes. Like in the actual American West, they engage in a violent settler colonialism which 'cleanses' the land in order to claim and settle it for themselves.

The transplanting of Wild West social dynamics into medieval fantasy settings has precedent in American popular culture. Notably, Robert E. Howard depicts the Scottish Pict people as virtual (and stereotyped) American Indians in his Conan short story "Beyond the Black River", which itself takes place on a frontier settlement posing a threat to the 'wild' Picts; the story has thus been interpreted as a Western in the guise of a sword-and-sorcery romp. More broadly, the Western genre takes certain influence from medieval chivalric romance, locating the archetypal cowboy as a semi-contemporary knight errant who embodies ostensibly Christian values (which, of course, had changed from Catholic chivalry to Protestant work ethic over the centuries). The traditionally chivalric appeal of the 'American cowboy' functions in a similar way that Howard's story and D&D do: by drawing upon shared generic conventions, or by speaking those conventions into popularity, the literature fosters a sense of nostalgic timelessness. Whether pseudo-medieval or Western, the imagery has one ideological function: to normalize the social or political dynamics of the West with respect to a bygone, idealized era.

Monsters in D&D

An uninhabited frontier is incomplete without 'monsters' which actually inhabit it. Although monsters appear in the Underworld in literature and in D&D, their significance for the latter is most apparent once adventurers emerge from the dungeon to the surface: the monsters are monsters which oppose non-monsters that are not monsters. Duh!

To put it differently, the monsters are creatures or figures who have been determined by the game to be monsters. In doing so, the game designates monsters as appropriate adversaries for the adventurers by identifying them as the antagonists of normal society. It accomplishes this multiple ways. The beastly monsters are grotesque creatures or depictions of typical fantasy creatures, like dragons. The often-called 'goblinoid' monsters are primitive, such as the orcs who live in constant "inter-tribal hostility" (M&T, p. 7). The human monsters (how deep!) are either also primitive, such as cavemen, or they represent antisocial rejects of regular society: bandits, brigands, nomads, dervishes, buccaneers (M&T, pp. 6-7). Therefore there is no consistent characterization of monsters as a category except that they are monsters.

However, the very category of 'monster' itself is socially and politically significant because it is precisely a category often imposed onto the targets of (widespread, industrial, social) violence. There is perhaps nothing intuitively racist about pig-faced orcs, save for their tribal social organization which most often serves to ascribe to them savagery and barbarism. Many who identify that as 'problematic' may revise their orcs to be nothing but pure monstrosity, having no resemblance to any real culture or ethnicity. That is, however, the precise historical (and current) function of applied monstrosity in society: to identify appropriate targets of socially sanctioned violence by designating them as non-self (non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-cissexual, non-cisgender, or non-human; behold the taxonomy of non-"normality"!). This is the premise of the monstrous ‘humanoid’, that which is like a human but is certainly not one (to whom?).

As Siew discusses in his article, D&D's impulse to taxonomize monsters reflects the colonial impulse to do the same to indigenous people (and in other contexts): the goal is to thus quantify and standardize the world in order to possess the proper (i.e. determined-to-be-correct) knowledge of how to possess and act upon it [1]. I am quoted in the article as saying, "The connection between taxonomy and power, that nerds find it empowering to possess an abstract knowledge which they impose onto things, seems related to what has been identified as phallic desire." As we have discussed prior, phallic desire seeks desirable objects by objectifying things into standards or quantities understood best by itself; for example, the dungeon game is an optimization problem of value gained for time and value spent, where value is represented (and quantified) by gold pieces, and the time limit is limited by quantifiable resources and time for play. The same impulse underlies colonial taxonomy, to sort people (often quantifiably!) into ethnic or racial categories. As we will see, the phallic drive also plays into sexism, and more than phallic desire in sexism being a mere analog of phallicism in other contexts, sexist phallicism underlies phallic discourse in those contexts.

Yonic Adventures

What is the significance of the female body for patriarchy? First, apparently, it’s a fucking mystery. In one UK survey conducted by YouGov [9], 60% of men and 45% of women could not identify the vagina on a diagram, and 31% of men and 29% of women could not identify the clit. Irigaray argues in This Sex Which Is Not One that patriarchy is not only defined by men controlling women’s bodies, but also women being socialized to repress their own sexual impulses for the benefit of men (who need not repress anything they do not already know). Irigaray also argues that patriarchy, or phallocracy, reduces women into mere abstractions pertaining to their exchange-value as a virgin or their use-value as a wife-mother “consumed”; only whores straddle the line since they are considered valuable for exchange insofar as they are freely available to fuck. Woman’s body is thus mystified in order to become a vessel for relationships between men, especially fathers and husbands, or between themselves and money.

Woman’s body, as understood by men, has much in common with the Underworld as something which traps its victims in punitive rituals. This is not out of nowhere. The figure of Pandora by name originates from Hesiod’s didactic epic Works and Days, where the poet seems to have combined a tradition of an Earth goddess named Pandora with a tradition of the origin of the first woman (who, in The Theogony which is also attributed to Hesiod, has no name and no jar of spirits). When Pandora opens her jar, releases the evil spirits, and traps the spirit of hope inside, Hesiod mythologizes in one swoop the origin of marriage and also that of agriculture: both being avenues for Zeus to control men by imposing strife. The jar which entraps hope is understood to be both a symbol of Earth and a symbol of the womb, both requiring a man to plow in order to reap the benefits of crops or children therefrom. Thus agriculture and sex, or more broadly marriage, have been understood by Hesiod and other men as inconvenient rituals (“the old ball and chain”) which they must still perform in order to survive in the world. This instrumental view of women aligns with the goal of the dungeon crawl, to squeeze as much value as one can from penetrating into it before wanting to explore another hole instead.

The Wilderness has more immediate associations with woman’s body for those familiar with the American imperial doctrine of Manifest Destiny, or more broadly with the discourse of colonial conquest in the New World. Virgin land is one idiom that exists in many contexts: for agriculture, it refers to soil that has not yet been cultivated by farmers (like Pandora!); for colonization, it refers to land that has ostensibly not yet been settled. It is this lack of civilization that often justifies the settling of those lands, by casting them as ripe for the taking on one hand, but also untamed and requiring work on the other, being full of “monsters” and “darkness”; the virginal feminization of colonized lands gives the impression that the colonizer is meant to marry (or, really, fuck) them. This aligns well with patriarchy’s view of women as professed by Hesiod and analyzed by Irigaray, that women are only good to be fucked and that their own body is virtually an obstacle in the way of that. It is thus no wonder that myths of Earth mothers and Earth maidens emerge in different agricultural societies; however benevolent the myth may occasionally appear, its social function is to naturalize the belief that woman’s body is a ground meant for cultivation, while eroticizing agriculture as a marriage to the Earth. Likewise, for colonial ideology, the frontier is female—and she's a virgin!

Conclusion

The truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a businessman causes money to circulate; the way the bourgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on. And there is no need to resort to metaphors, any more than for the libido to go by way of metamorphoses. Hitler got the fascists sexually aroused. Flags, nations, armies, banks get a lot of people aroused. A revolutionary machine is nothing if it does not acquire at least as much force as these coercive machines have for producing breaks and mobilizing flows.

Deleuze & Guattari, 1972: p. 293.

Is D&D a metaphor for phallic desire, or is phallic desire something which operates on the same logic as D&D? Obviously, if phallic desire in the strictest sense (i.e. of erotics) were considered a basis of D&D, it would have to be alongside other social systems such as capitalism and racism whose symbolic structures permeate all aspects of social and personal fantasy. Yet at the same time, sexism or patriarchy do not exist on a lower level than these other factors, not only in existing beside them but also informing the language we use to discuss them, as we have seen in how colonial language evokes patriarchal symbolism in order to justify some aspects of colonial conquest. These systems all interact with and often reinforce each other if deemed beneficial, so better understanding one helps understand the language and logic of another.

The political is erotic just as the erotic is political, and D&D is not exempt from the social implications of phallic discourse even if it is not unique or as explicit in encoding them (though, with characters being lords and patriarchs, and with dungeons inhabited by “scantily clad” medusae, how could it not be explicit?). Rather, if Gygax’s comments are to be taken seriously, or if the literary or social conventions behind D&D are to be explored, D&D is as much a male sexist fantasy as it is a racist or a capitalist one. Yet these fantasies, being so prevalent in society, are difficult to escape even for the people they target. They cannot be bypassed by just calling for more female adventurers, for example. They are features of the dungeon game insofar as the latter is an expression of all those real-life symbolic systems.

Endnotes

[1] Siew, Zedeck. 2022-08-23. "D&D's Obsession With Taxonomy", Zedeck Siew's Writing Hours.

... this blogpost should really be titled D&D’s Obsession With Phallic Desire , for maximum clickbait ...

[2] Compare D&D to F.A.T.A.L., a game manual infamous for its graphic depictions of sex and violence.

[3] Another difference is that Hungry Hungry Hippos has a closed interface that has not been opened up by language like D&D has.

[4] L., Gus. 2013-04-09. "Thoughts Regarding Character Mortality and Old School Dungeons and Dragons", Dungeon of Signs.

[5] In particular, the normative 'neurotic' or 'obsessive' subject has this relationship to desire. The pervert and the psychotic do not, and the hysteric only partly has this relationship. Obsessive neuroticism is equivalent to sole phallicism.

[6] Gygax, Gary. 2002-05-20. "Q&A With Gary Gygax, Part III", Dragonsfoot.

See also: Gygax, Gary. 2004-01-25. "Q&A with Gary Gygax", ENWorld.

Here i thought that most everybody knew that the first two play-testers for the D&D game were my son Ernie and my daughter Elise. They played the first dungeon adventurte, were joined the next day by Don Kaye and Rob Kuntz.

Elise played for a few months, then lost interest. Her younger sisters, Heidi and Cindy, got into D&D later on. those two used to make Luke DM for them when he was very young, tell him what treasure that they found. When he complained to me about that I set him straight, and shortly after that his sisters quit playing, the greedy power gamers :D

As I have often said, I am a biological determinist, and there is no question that male and female brains are different. It is apparent to me that by and large females do not derrive the same inner satisfaction from playing games as a hobby that males do. It isn't that females can't play games well, it is just that it isn't a compelling activity to them as is the case for males.

[7] Hughes, Paul. 2016-11-02. "d&d is anti-medieval", Bag of Holding.

[8] I have previously written about the class dynamics of D&D with respect to lords, wizards, and patriarchs: "On Thieves: A Trifunctional Analysis of OD&D" (2022-07-05).

[9] Waldersee, Victoria. 2019-03-08. "Half of Brits don't know where the vagina is - and it's not just the men", YouGov.

Bibliography

Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. 1972. Anti-Oedipus. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane in 1983.

Freud, Sigmund. 1920. Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

Gygax, Gary & David Arneson. 1974. Dungeons & Dragons (Volumes I-III: Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.).

Irigaray, Luce. 1979. This Sex Which Is Not One.

Knoll, Fred. 1978. Hungry Hungry Hippos.

Lacan, Jacques. 1966. Écrits.

Megarry, David R. 1975. Dungeon!

Comments

  1. Really interesting analysis. As a minor point of confusion, I found there to be a lot of theoretical voices at play here that were not always easy to separate out--for example, D&G and Lacan are not exactly allies. I do think there's something specific to dungeons and dungeon 'crawling' that you've definitely captured here, although I don't think it's quite reducible to the infinite play loop or gold accumulation. Maybe a useful point of comparison could be "victory points" in board games. Which is not to say that D&D isn't capitalist fantasy at the core, but that I don't think the critique is quite yet specific enough--that is, what specific form of capitalism is envisioned by Gygax's work? It's very different than, say, capitalism in Traveller.

    I do think it's also worth separating out the 'heroic' colonialism of 5e from the picaresque capitalism of earlier editions. If 5e takes the players to be heroically 'solving' the world's problems (characters take on the role of police of the world), then it's less the case for older editions. Monsters include vagabonds, outlaws, etc., but these categories overlap with the players as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. hi! my point is precisely that gold piece accumulation is not reducible to capitalist fantasy, because the gold pieces are just representative of something socially desirable (they could be replaced with any number of things, really). rather, it’s the indefinite playability that distinguishes d&d from definite games. many games that have victory points, like dungeon! (which i talk about directly, but is not the only game with a point system), do not last indefinitely. being able to play the game forever is the point.

      i’m not interested in 5e, so it wasn’t a consideration for me in writing this. strictly speaking, though, the classed characters of od&d are not bandits (at least, not all), and slaying monsters is as much a factor of the game as it has been since. just because 5e locates player characters as police officers does not mean that od&d does not do something similar; the only difference is the one between wandering cowboys versus marvel-style superheroes, but both are ultimately concerned with advancing or maintaining some modern vision of social order via dehumanization.

      i just included the d&g quote for fun and because it pertained to my larger point! i didn’t intend on actually citing them as part of a larger argument or anything, but it is a nice quote to point out the interplay of personal and social desire (which is the larger point of the conclusion).

      Delete
    2. thanks! That makes sense re: capitalist fantasy, I understand your point better now. Although I do think there's some sense in which D&D isn't quite without end--e.g., there's a clear arc that starts as low adventurers and ends as managing strongholds. One can always create a new character in the same game, I guess? So it's endless in that sense.

      In terms of the considering the od&d genre as a western, I do think it's maybe worth considering the picaresque as an alternative. For example, a lot of pulp fantasy like Fritz Leiber's work seems much closer to that than a western, precisely because the protagonists aren't assumed to be moral Christian champions in the way that you describe westerns. There's an article in the recent Knock issue arguing for d&d as picarquesque, and I'd be curious to know how you'd respond to it. Anyway, which is not to say that d&d isn't western and colonialist (most obviously in modules such as B2), but that I think it's a mesh of that with some other genres as well. I do also definitely agree that it's not medieval aside from the setting.

      Re: "both are ultimately considered with advancing or maintaining some modern vision of social order via dehumnization"--I'm just curious how this squares with character options for alignment being Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic? That seems to not assume that characters are on the side of social order and expansion (e.g., represented by Law), even though much of the other aspects seem to suggest society and colonial expansion as default.

      With respect to Lacan, I think my confusion was that I was originally expecting more of an explicit Lacanian analysis, whereas your approach was more focused on feminist uptakes. For instance (and without knowing him very well), it might be misleading to characterize the phallic desire for Lacan as male desire, since it corresponds to both male and female subjects. And ""phallocentrism" (as I understand it) emerges as later as a critique of Lacan through Derrida and others. I don't know Irigaray enough to say how exactly she reads Lacan, but the work you described seemed to situate well with those criticisms of Lacan.

      Completely agree with your takes on monsters--as I imagine there's a lot of different lit theory discourse on monsters and so I'd be curious to hear more about it.

      Delete
    3. i agree that there is ultimately a character arc in od&d! on one hand, it’s true that the player can simply create a new character and start over. however, the rules state that characters should not stop being played even after attaining high levels of experience (and examples are given of increasingly high character levels, after domain play had already been attained; M&M p. 18-9). the referee is expected to heighten the stakes and find new sources of conflict, such as barons being challenged by “some character like Conan” (U&WA p. 24).

      i also agree that picaresque literature was a big influence on d&d and that the characters are not (necessarily) supposed to be moral exemplars! however, in the context of wilderness adventures, the campaign arc seems to take specific influence from westerns where characters are engaged in overcoming the wilderness and fighting disorder. i believe that this in itself encodes values considered christian! the characters might not be john wayne, but boomers still love and relate to clint eastwood’s character as an expression of down-to-earth american individualism. it’s not christian in the biblical sense, but it is in the american cultural sense. wayne and eastwood have or had (in real life) similar culture and politics after all, and i think their choice to identify with their cowboy personae however distinct speaks to shared cultural imagery and values.

      od&d on paper does offer players a choice of alignment, but this does not ultimately impact the prescribed course of the campaign (except for clerics who become either patriarchs or evil high priests). besides that, the text itself and its literary influences all import the same cultural associations w.r.t. the symbolism of the underworld and wilderness. playing a chaotic character, then, seems to involve at most role-playing a caricature of how the player views forces already described as evil and chaotic (and in my experience, this is how players treat it in practice). to me, it seems like turtles all the way down!

      w.r.t. lacan, phallic desire is common to (normally socialized) men and women, but the difference is that men’s desire is wholly mediated through phallicism, unlike women considered by lacan to only be “partly castrated” and thus having other (non-mediated) avenues of enjoyment. lacan’s choice of the word “phallic” is to distinguish the symbolic nature of desire from the notion that desire has a biological or literal basis (represented by, freud thought, the penis). it’s not a denigrative term by him or, really, by those who ran with his view; however, it is considered to be constitutive of male desire (hence the word choice).

      i am using the term “phallocentrism” in light of irigaray, which is not as a critique of lacan per se, but as a description of patriarchal society as it is oriented around phallic desire (irigaray herself tends to say “phallocracy” instead, which is more apt). many feminists have viewed freud and lacan as having a basically correct analysis of male desire from the vantage of male desire, but the goal is to figure out how to create space for women when all of society is oriented around men (as per the analyses of freud and lacan).

      i'd have to do more research on monsters, but i just read a fascinating paper by charles w mills about the implications of racial divisions in LOTR called "the wretched of middle earth: an orkish manifesto". it seems to mischaracterize some individual passages, but i found the broad strokes very convincing!

      Delete
    4. Thanks, that theory context is helpful. With respect to alignment, your points about playing evil characters as a caricature makes sense. I ask because one of the things I've been trying to think through is to what extent open systems like OD&D present a colonialist setting while also providing the tools (and even, in some cases, implicit encouragement) to subvert those premises. As a contrast example, the board game Puerto Rico presents a colonial vision and premise, but as a closed system (as far as I know) doesn't provide too much in the way of challenging that premise.

      With respect to something like B2 (which I reference because it's the most obvious example of this to me), it's very possible for the players to side with the Caves of Chaos and start war against the keep. It's well-known, for example, that most of the good treasure is already in the keep (which is also meticulously described), and so it isn't even relatively uncommon for players to turn against the keep in this way. While it's not an official module, other D&D games I've been a part of have turned dungeons into trenches that we were fighting through in order to take down some equivalent to the French revolution. I have less familiarity with the Underworld, but wouldn't be surprised if something along those lines is possible. (That said, whether real-life players do in fact take those means of resistance isn't my focus here, though, just only what the system allows for or precludes.) Anyway, I bring this up not to save OD&D, but just to suggest certain aspects D&D (paradoxically) present a colonial vision along with the tools to complicate it, i.e. there's not one without the other.

      Delete
    5. B2 is such an interesting example for all the reasons you give! something i think is important to consider, though, is that the open nature of d&d's rulesets and adventures means that it's hard to talk about what it does based on what others can do with it. it's kind of like how, in negative theology, you can only describe god based on what god is not. that being said, the extent to which treasure is listed for the keep implies that the text really does consider the keep a potential and desirable target for players! i'd just be worried about extrapolating other conclusions from applications of the text, beyond the text itself.

      but d&d as the activity in general, i think, is not bounded in that way and we are more free to discuss how people interface with texts or change them for their needs :)

      Delete
  2. When I click the "Home" button on your page, I'm directed to your old url, chiquitafajita, not traversefantasy. The link is incorrect both on the sidebar of your articles and the header bar of your homepage.

    I did not like this article, I'm afraid. I think it's confused. As EvilTables says, you bring in too many voices and ideas, and these voices and ideas do not all mesh well. Nor are the individual sections sufficiently developed. I don't have a blog of my own, so I don't have a place to make a real long-form criticism, so I'll just list some stuff that stuck with me.

    Closed vs open systems: a red herring. If you think taxonomy is an important aspect of D&D's phallic nature, isn't it notable that only closed, definite games can be fully categorized? While an open, indefinite game might be a space of free play. If phallic desire occurs on multiple parts of the graph, a game's place on the graph doesn't make it phallic. Also, a closed system is shot through with language as well; there is no "system" without language.

    Phallocentrism: Found it very readable, which surprised me, because Lacan is not particularly readable. It does assumes the reader is somewhat familiar with Lacan and cares what Lacan thinks about anything. Outside of 1970s France, I don't think this standpoint should be simply assumed. Also, the link between phallic desire and masculinity is extremely tenuous and barely even asserted.

    Fucking dungeons intro: I agree and found it ineresting. GP is desire and the mark of play, not an economic unit.

    Underworld adventures: I agree and found it interesting but it's ultimately flattened in your later analysis. When Hades takes women to the Underworld, surely the underground isn't functioning as a feminine symbol? Adventurers are not trapped in a hell in which they must search for gold or perish. If they search for gold, they may perish; if they do not search for gold, the adventure is over, in which case the adventurer is not replaced.

    Wilderness adventures: I agree

    Monsters: the phrase "monsters are monsters..." says obscurely what you immediately say plainly. Better to just say it plainly. I think you are too quick to dismiss attempts to further dehumanize orcs. "Non-people" are usually dehumanized to the point of animality, imo, whereas people trying to dehumanize orcs will usually try to go far past animality until orcs are no longer even part of nature.

    Yonic adventures: the final and substantial argument that D&D is sexist/based in a sexist worldview. (Have you ever read Imperial Leather by Anne McClintock? I think you'd like it.) While I agree with this argument I want to note that it has about nothing to do the discussion of psychoanalysis and the phallic drive preceding it. As I understand it the argument is: both the wilderness and the underworld are (coded as) feminine, D&D is about penetrating and mastering these things, therefore D&D is sexist. No need to bring in questionable psychology.

    Conclusion: Your prose becomes really obscure here. Only the latter two-thirds of the last paragraph are really legible to me, though I quite liked those.

    I hope these comments are helpful for someone, or at least not too dismissive.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. hi, thanks for pointing out that the links were broke!

      closed vs open systems: the discussion would have benefited from a comparison of od&d and ad&d, where gygax tries to totalize and formalize the entirely of the game (whereas od&d is loosey goosey). but my goal was to distinguish between d&d’s open-endedness on the level of interaction, versus on the level of duration. it is also to point out that an open system depends on a referee function to make sense of input; this is phallic insofar as the referee is the lynchpin of the game as a formal system.

      phallocentrism: lacan pertains to my analysis because the central drive of d&d has a phallic structure as understood by lacan, and lacan attributes phallic desire to normally socialized men. by extension, masculinity in general is characterized by phallicism as per freud, lacan, irigaray, butler, et al. since phallicism is considered the driving force of ‘normal’ (male) desire. you’re right that i assume the reader is familiar with this to some extent, but my hope was that ‘phallic’ was clear enough in its associations to not spell it out.

      underworld adventures: i was not taking the proserpina myth as an example of the underworld serving as a feminine symbol, but of the typical underworld tropes of searching for someone among the dead or being imprisoned with them. that being said, there is a clear female association and depiction of sexual violence with how hades pierces the ground to take proserpina down with him (earth goddess etc.), and it is not insignificant that hades rules over a domain that is gendered female (especially if a comparison is drawn between his domain and his unwilling wife as both being his property).

      within the fictional d&d world, adventurers certainly die and don’t come back. however, as i discuss, i’m talking about the player-characters as game pieces which are replaced when eliminated in the game. this is a well-understood aspect of classic play, and it demonstrates that the desire to accumulate GP is not really the adventurer’s (except as fictional premise) but the player’s.

      monsters: animality is not the only avenue of dehumanizing people, since just as well human beings have been dehumanized as literal demons or otherworldly monsters (certain antisemitic caricatures come to mind, such as the wandering jew, the lizardman, or the alien conspiracy). besides, the point of treating humans like animals is not because there’s anything inherent about animals, but strictly because animals have the association of non-humanness.

      yonic adventures: the discussion of men’s obstacles being gendered female relates intimately to phallic desire. this is why i brought up hesiod: the pandora myth is about how marriage is cosmically homologous to agriculture, since both are avenues for the gods to oppress men via women (whether literal or as the Earth). hesiod’s myth is thus about how men have no choice but to engage in these things in order to attain a significant and enjoyable life. when the underworld and wilderness are gendered as female, it is because they are also the unwilling objects of a desire to conquer and extract value from them.

      by the way, the above is an example of why phallic desire (as exemplified by hesiod) is considered classically masculine. men are socially predisposed to view women as well-guarded deposits of value (something desired), whether of children or of sex or whatever else. you can disagree whether all men are like this (no one thinks this), but even freud and lacan being conservative men understood male desire in this way.

      conclusion: let me rephrase. d&d represents sexist ideology in the same way that it represents racist and capitalist ideology. the sexist ideology represented is not secondary to the others, but it is just as present, and it even informs the language of the others. d&d is a game about personal desire as much as it is about social desire.

      Delete
  3. This is a wonderful culmination of many of your posts over the last couple years. I'm grateful that you've been taking this lens to the hobby and sharing the results with us all :D

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wonderful analysis. I especially love the parallels of the underworld in mythos to the play loop.

    With D&D representing the phallic desire, colonization, and massive economic and ability disparity, I've been struggling to find how to engage with the system. A few solutions I've pondered include:
    >Changing the society to a socialist one, and what that means for the player's property and engagement with said community. This means either adjusting the context of gold (perhaps as a resource that benefits society) or changing the context of player level-up (via milestones, for example).
    >Framing Player level-up as a negative. Dark Souls is a significant influence in this idea. For example, very high level Adventurers becoming monsters, and having a mechanical or narrative thread of questioning the Character's sanity/morality/etc. Perhaps this phenomenon of "leveling-up" to superhero levels is the very thing that fractured civilization so, and is tied to the existence of monsters (perhaps, even, ALL monsters were once human, or are born of human society in some way).
    >Flipping the script, tying lawfulness to liberal/conservative/colonialist/facist, and chaos to leftist/socialist/communist/queer.

    The trouble I find with these changes is that they require a LOT of work, and invite an infinite level of tinkering (D&D is, after all, an astoundingly well made work born of much trial and error). Additionally, this fails to explore the historical play-style.

    Of course, one can also perform the system close to its intention of rules, and find their own context during play.

    I'm curious how you approach this conundrum at your table.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. hi, thank you on all accounts! :) i think those are all interesting counterbalances to the character arc typically explored in d&d. when i play games, though, (and i am less of a referee than i am a player, tbh), my friends and i are just not interested in the sword-and-sorcery adventures that inspired d&d. for many of us, it is just about playing imaginative characters; others of us like the puzzle or investigative aspect; and others of us just enjoy having company.

      i love the idea of replacing the alignments with political categories, especially with how it could relate to alignment languages! the liberal/fascist/communist trifecta of the 20th century might even be more compelling than lawful/chaotic/neutral, since they're considered three properly mutually exclusive categories (regardless of how they actually are, on closer inspection). luke gearing's "the country" seems to do something like this! https://lukegearing.blot.im/the-country

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The OSR Should Die

About Fantastic Medieval Campaigns

Steps to Demonetize the TTRPG Hobby