As I was walking my children to school this morning, my daughter, as she so sometimes does, said, "Dad, can I ask you a weird question?" In her parlance, "weird" refers to something about which she's heard, typically from her friends, whose existence she doubts. Several of my daughter's friends are well known confabulators who regale their schoolmates with tales of this or that they heard from their "cousin's friend's uncle, who lives in Europe." Over the years, my daughter has developed a healthy skepticism of such tales, but, every so often, she hears a story that sounds plausible enough that she thinks it might be true but wants to confirm it. For good or for ill, I'm usually the person to whom she turns for such confirmation.
This morning, the weird question concerned a mysterious device known as a "walkman." Apparently, it was her teacher, not her friends, who mentioned this arcane piece of technology and my daughter had never heard of such a thing. After chuckling for a moment, I explained to her that a walkman was "the iPod of the 90s," explaining further that, in the decade before she was born, it was the stupid gadget to which people spent an inordinate amount of time attached. Back then, you couldn't walk down the street or ride the subway without looking around and noticing that everyone seemed to be wearing a headset attached to a walkman. After explaining a little more, my daughter correctly surmised that the walkman disappeared once MP3 players of various sorts arrived on the scene, since they were smaller, didn't need a cassette tape, and can store even more music on them.
There are a lot of once-popular technologies about which my daughter will only ever know through history books or the memories of older people, much in the same way she knows about, say, the Cold War. What's interesting to me is that, for all the differences between my parents' generation and my own, in most respects, the technological environments in which we both grew up is remarkably similar. True, television became widespread while my parents were still children but they were very young -- young enough that they remember radio dramas as "something only old people listened to." Conversely, personal computing, which became mainstream during my youth, only really took off in a big way near the end of my high school years, late enough that I can still clearly remember -- and occasionally pine for -- the days before it was expected that every home contained at least one, if not several, PCs. My daughter, on the other hand, can't even imagine a world before the widespread use of the Internet, let alone one without multiple computers in every home.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that, in thinking about my daughter's question, I began to wonder if perhaps the tabletop RPG is a lot like the walkman -- a transitional technology. A lot of the guys I grew up playing D&D with in the late 70s and early 80s are still interested in fantasy, but they get their fix nowadays through computer games. For people interested primarily in exciting combats in a fantasy environment, computer games can be quite compelling. Likewise, if what you're after is a well-crafted "choose your own adventure" story with your character as the star, there are plenty of electronic RPGs that fit the bill. Heck, Bioware has made themselves very successful by providing such things. Granted, both types of video games (generally) lack the interactivity of tabletop RPGs, but, judging by the success and mainstream acceptance of video games, one has to wonder whether that level of involvement is something that most people actually want of something calling itself a "roleplaying game."
I'm not sure how seriously I mean this, but the fact remains that video games today are both far more mainstream and exhibit far more staying power than RPGs ever did, even in the heyday. Video games aren't a fad; they're a permanent part of the entertainment landscape and they're getting better and better at providing the kinds of experiences most people seem to want from them. Sure, I find them largely unsatisfying compared to a face-to-face tabletop campaign, as I suspect most of the readers of this blog do too, but we're outliers. For most people, playing a tabletop RPG rather than a video game would be like still using a walkman when they can use a MP3 player: it's a superseded technology.
None of this is to suggest that tabletop RPGs are doomed. I've never believed that and nothing in recent years has changed my feelings on the matter. I do think, though, that anyone who dreams of a return to the glory days of the 80s is doing just that -- dreaming. It's always possible that we might catch another fad wave in the future, but all fad's have expiry dates and a year or two as the object of popular culture's fickle affections likely won't change the fact that tabletop roleplaying is an esoteric and peculiar hobby, one that will hold even less appeal to the mass market as the years wear on. I'm fine with that myself, but then I'm old enough to know what I like, mainstream popularity be damned. So long as I continue to derive pleasure from tabletop roleplaying, what difference does it makes if most people would rather do something else?