The novel Ready Player One takes place in the year 2044, where virtual reality videogames are the everyday escape from global misery. Earth has become poverty-stricken, with a 1% billionaire class lording it over the rest of humanity, and the OASIS is the globally networked virtual reality where kids attend school online, people hook up in chat rooms, and everyone who is someone is a gamer. The OASIS basically allows people to live exciting lives as powerful avatars in another universe.
By this point in the world’s history tabletop RPGs are a thing of the past, and the main character has difficulty grasping how they even worked. Here’s how he reacts when browsing through the classic 1978 D&D module Tomb of Horrors.
Tomb of Horrors was a think booklet called a “module”. It contained detailed maps and room-by-room descriptions of an underground labyrinth infested with undead monsters. D&D players could explore the labyrinth with their characters as the dungeon master read from the module and guided them through the story it contained, describing everything they saw and encountered along the way.
As I learned more about how these early role-playing games worked, I realized that a D&D module was the equivalent of a quest in the OASIS. And D&D characters were just like avatars. In a way, these old role-playing games had been the first virtual reality simulations, created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself, using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice, and a few rule books. This realization kind of blew my mind.
One the one hand, I look forward to virtual reality becoming more real-life (the day perhaps is not far off), but frankly, no matter how sophisticated, video reality will never hold a candle to old-fashioned tabletop RPG play. It may be more labor intensive and demand shitloads of prep work and brain power, but that’s the point: nothing beats the power of human imagination.