I want to talk about the movie Airheads. Actually, I want to talk about one scene from the movie Airheads. That’s right, that fucking weirdo 1994 movie about idiot butt rockers taking a radio station hostage to play their shit song. Starring Brendan Fraser, Adam Sandler and creepy Steve Buscemi who I’m convinced has never actually looked young. And the reason I want to talk about this film is that it represents the real treatment of Dungeons and Dragons, which was around for me both in person, and in the media, that I had grown used too.
See unlike Key and Peele, or some of the other pieces of media I’ll cover, this movie made its jokes from a place of ridicule and not any sort of knowing self-deprecation. These were filmmakers who thought they knew what was cool, and D&D was not part of that club. The main scene I’m talking about involves Brendan Fraser’s character “Chazz” pouring his heart out to his cliché blond L.A. girlfriend and a whole mass of people who have shown up to tail gate the hostage situation. In an effort to bear his soul, Chazz admits to not always being the cool faux metal douche he has been playing, but that he used to be, gasp, not cool. Then he catalogs exactly what made him such a loser before he reinvented himself in the Sunset Strips shit bar metal scene and turned into the lovely butterfly he now was. It goes a little something like this:
Chazz: “Kayla, there is something I gotta tell you. I was a geek in school. I had really short hair. I played Dungeons and Dragons. I had a bug collection. I ate my boogers. My name’s not Chazz. It’s Chester. And I understand if you don’t love me anymore.”
So let’s unpack that a little bit. For this character, and in a way the expected audience, Dungeons and Dragons lives squarely in the world of disgusting traits one must shed. It sits alongside eating boogers and having a bug collection (sorry bug collectors). It made him a geek, and someone most ridiculously, unfit for his girlfriend’s love. Obviously there is some weird shit going on in this movies writing, because long hair, as we know, does not equal cool (even in 94), and in my experience probably is more closely correlated with D&D players than anything else in my expansive experience.
What happens next is also interesting and in some ways infuriating. The assembled crowd rallies behind Chazz/Chester. We get a call of solidarity about someone who played D&D too. Then Lemmy shows up saying he was editor of the school magazine. Someone wore corduroy pants etc… It’s a show of support, that even though they all seem like cool 90’s metal dudes now, they all had their own embarrassing past. It is a filmmaking statement that those trappings can, and should, be shed by everyone to become the beer drinking, radio station protesting bad asses that they should be. They’re saying it is actually okay you’re a big fake that has been running from who you are, because we all are.
And that is what the writer and director want to hammer home. Dungeons and Dragons is something to be ashamed of. Something to run from. Something to hide in a closet with your embarrassing childhood wardrobe and fucked up haircuts. And the fucked up thing is that is how it has been treated. This is the place Dungeons and Dragons lived for most of my life in popular culture and random people’s imaginations. It was a distraction of people’s nerdy youth, and to be playing it into your adult life was almost a form of deviant behavior. It didn’t belong and jarred the consciousness. The amount of puzzled looks I would get is astounding. It was sometimes like telling people I still played hopscotch or had an imaginary friend. This opinion has been slowly changing over the years. I’ve never been one to hide my nerd flag and while the years of aggressively trying to convince the world my hobby should be shared by all have been over for a while, I don’t shy away from telling people what I do. So I’ve seen the reaction change since I was young from “Loser” to “oh, kids at my school used to do that, they were weird” to “I used to do that, but I don’t now” to “I used to do that and I want to now” and finally “I’ve never played but want to.”
But this kinder and gentler treatment of the gaming nerd is new, and represents the highest tide in acceptance during my lifetime. It hasn’t been that way for long, and who knows that it will stick around. I think there are a lot of reasons it will, but we never know. This might not just be a stop on the upward trajectory of RPG acceptance, but a high water mark that won’t stick around. And I remember the days when it was just considered fucking weird and childish. So I think it is important to understand how the hobby was viewed for so long, and how that view translated into popular culture and imagination, so that we can, in our own ways, fight that perception. It is also entirely vital to recognize an outsider view (as we see in Airheads) compared to a more insider view, and how we as a culture shouldn’t be accepting shit from such out of touch dickhead outsiders. Dungeons and Dragons is weird, and funny, and sometimes childish, but it’s also startlingly great and inclusive and amazing. We can make fun of it for all the flaws and weirdos we know so well as insiders, but if you don’t know it, don’t pretend to, especially for your shit outsider jokes.