The New Nostalgic Impulse of Dungeons & Dragons and Tabletop Gaming

Curator's Note

In 2016, headlines began proclaiming the resurgence of the tabletop roll-playing-game Dungeons & Dragons. A phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s, its popularity, recorded in such pop cultural texts as ET, faded some by the 1990s. Recent years have not only seen a renewed interest in the game, but also a broadening acceptance of it within mainstream cultures. Once considered the pastime of misfits, it is now celebrated as cool.

Its new-found acceptance has been attributed to multiple factors: recognition of the game’s value in therapy and skills-building, simplified gameplay, Internet-enabled networking with players, widespread popularity of fantasy and adventure, and exposure through mainstream mass media. This final component points to another element in renewed tabletop gaming interest: nostalgia.

The resurgence of D&D has been called part of a “nerd renaissance,” the evidence for which exists not only in the proliferation of games and gaming venues, but also in a burgeoning literary tradition inspired by fan conventions. Nostalgia plays a key role in the success of the inter-related industries of genre cinema, comics, and gaming. Shows like Stranger Things and Riverdale are part of this milieu. The former banks on 1980s nostalgia, making shopping malls, The Ghostbusters, New Coke, comic books, and D&D as much a part of the plot as of the aesthetic. Riverdale employs not only the vintage aesthetic of Archie Comics, with soda shops and speakeasies, but also the stars of yesteryear: Luke Perry, Molly Ringwald, Madchen Amick, and Anthony Michael Hall. Riverdale’s version of D&D, Gryphons & Gargoyles (see video), exploits the nostalgia industry; its Midnight Club alludes to The Breakfast Club, and its G&G season three story arc recalls the “satanic panic” that surrounded D&D in the 1980s.

Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future argues that such retro-styled media express not only audience desire for the cultural products of their past, but also a yearning for the socio-temporal experiences of/with those products. Tabletop gaming is driven, in part, by a need to return to “simpler” times by disconnecting from digital work and isolation and interacting, live, with family and friends. 


What say you, scholars?  Are TTRPGs to be considered 'Classics'?  Will they persist popularly past this wave of nostalgia?  Do you believe there is something necessary in them? What need(s) do you see them fulfilling? I see the fulfilling of a human need for story-telling and for identity construction, group interaction, drama, entertainment, and imagination.

I believe there is more than nostalgia happening when people play these TTRPGs. What say you?

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