Some friends and I recently played our first game of Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve never been into fantasy but I do like strategic board games, so I agreed to give it try.
D&D is a cooperative role-playing game where each player takes on a different persona. Together, you set out on a quest and are guided through the adventure by your Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master prepares the quest ahead of time by mapping out major plot points, but a large part of the narrative is determined through improvisation and dice rolling. The details of your character determine the probably when rolling the die – your rating in strength will determine how many dice you roll to deal a death blow, for example.
The brilliance of Dungeons and Dragons' game design is its framework for transforming narrative into a mathematical formula. It’s a system so flexible, it can be applied to many different scenarios and worlds. In fact, after we finished the game, I told my friends that I’d be much more interested in a Pride and Prejudice version. Our Dungeon Master replied, “You could definitely make that work!”
What we see in D&D is a “story assembled around the numbers,” a story created by quantifying identity. By turning personal characteristics and identity into statistics, D&D created a framework for measuring social impact and influence. In My Quantified Monster and Me, Jacob Brogan explains how D&D helped shape a world where we communicate who we are through numbers.
Because we believe that “numbers tell our stories,” sharing who we are with others requires that we collect some personal data. “When we measure our sleep cycles, count our steps, track our heart rates, and otherwise record the details of daily life," explains Brogan, "we effectively set out to assemble digital duplicates of ourselves. Numbers come to stand in for one’s whole person.”
Our obsession with personal inventories is not new: For centuries, humans have recorded their thoughts, routines and finances. But over the years, we've gained the capacity to collect data for nearly every part of our lives.
As the evidence pours in, we scrutinize the picture it paints and commit ourselves to optimization. “You can’t change what you don’t measure” seems to be the prevailing self-help mantra of our time, if only implicitly. In Improving Ourselves to Death, a review of several prominent self-help books, Alexandra Schwartz explains how “predatory optimism” and a “relentless economy” have kicked self-improvement into hyper-drive.
“It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts – then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.”
When we reduce ourselves to only what can be measured, recorded and shared through digital media, our conception of self changes. We discard our formless, unutterable parts in favour of concrete traits that give us a sense of certainty about who and what we are – and we lose those unproven parts of ourselves, the parts that have to be believed in. The sad paradox of our desire for self knowledge is that it often leads to a shrunken sense of self.
While Dungeons and Dragons may have laid the groundwork for quantified identity, it also shows us a way out. With an improvization as its foundation, players can go off book, invent new possibilities – in short, bring their humanity to the game. If we live in a world where numbers tell our stories, then, according to Brogan, “Dungeons and Dragons suggests a different possibility: that numbers are only as good as the stories we use them to tell them.”