Life With the Dice Bag DVD
Life With the Dice Bag is a documentary about Role-Playing Games and those who play them. Shot between 2002-2003, it is constructed almost entirely of interviews with actual game players, clumped together topically to give a rough overview of the hobby. For the role-playing gamer, this is an hour-and-a-half look in the mirror, warts and all.
Life With the Dice Bag (2004) - $15
by Mason Booker
Life With the Dice Bag is a documentary about Role-Playing Games and those who play them. Shot between 2002-2003, it is constructed almost entirely of interviews with actual game players, clumped together topically to give a rough overview of the hobby. A good portion of the material was shot at the final Wisconsin GenCon, allowing the filmmakers to add interviews with game creators and artists like Gary Gygax, Chris Clark, Brian Jelke, Peter Adkison, Brom, and Larry Elmore. Overall it's a solid effort, and although there are some rough spots (some questionable editing, a few typos, the somewhat jarring use of a handheld microphone for most of the interviews) it's a solid DVD.
This is the second documentary on RPGs that I've come across, the first being Uber Goober, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Both cover much of the same material, but LWtDB takes more of a "newbie" approach, adding more humor to the mix at the same time. Both documentaries consistently poke fun at gamers in a friendly way, but LWtDB's assault is a bit more pointed. At the same time, this DVD is far less defensive the Uber Goober on certain topics (most notably, Satanism), choosing to dwell more on lighter, less controversial topics like gamer stinkiness.
The DVD starts out with an 8-minute animated sequence. I use the term "animated" loosely; this is not a 24-frame-per-second cartoon, but more of a series of slides with a soundtrack. Imagine a sort of primitive South Park with a soundtrack ripped off from StrongBad from Homestarrunner.com. None of this is meant as an insult; though it provides a few groans, the animation is quite clever and funny (Ssss'hk the Lizardman, who eats only bugs, carries a spear anyway), while at the same time providing a good basic lesson on what role-playing is, including brief lessons on character stats, dice rolls, conventions, hack-and-slash and more.
From here we delve into the meat of the documentary, which, as mentioned earlier, consists almost entirely of "man-at-the-con" style interviews with gamers, creators and artists. Mixed in here and there are re-enactments of gaming situations (quite funny) and a few title cards (a few seemingly somewhat haphazardly and randomly placed). Overall, this gives the DVD a good pace; while a few segments run a bit long, particularly towards the end, the basic editing style keeps things moving along from one interview to the next in an easy-to-follow narrative. Throughout, the interviews are backed with musical pieces, some louder than others, some of better quality than others. While initially annoying, I found it easy enough to ignore the music, and found that it did help to tie the segments together.
Part 1 - The Gamers
The first chunk of the DVD (not counting the animated intro) looks at who gamers are, why they game and to what extremes some will go to in support of their hobby. Problems such as group scheduling, infighting and making crap up ("my father taught me how to use gunpowder, honest") are briefly discussed, followed by an exploration of the stereotypical gamer (socially inept, immature, antisocial, and maybe a bit stinky and overweight).
The general argument, made by the interviewees themselves, seems to be that gaming is merely an alternative hobby, much like playing baseball or going bowling with your buds. It encourages reading, writing, critical thought, creativity and imagination, and while somewhat escapist, is a useful tool for teaching cooperation and teamwork, and encouraging the continuation of the traditions of oral history and mythology.
While this all amounts to a defense of gaming, it's not as if this is meant to be a political or religious argument. Rather, this is the sort of argument you might make to friends who question your hobby, or parents who are uncertain whether or not to let you spend money on the latest D&D Hardcover. The segment does drag on a bit, but it has its funny points, as when it addresses issues like the stench at gaming conventions, and the fact that XXX and XXXXL t-shirts sell out the fastest. Gary Gygax admits that although many participate, even he can generally spot a gamer right away. The point being, I think, that the hobby is accepting even among those who might be outcast from other hobbies, taking people as they come.
There's also a shot of some girls gaming in a hot tub while wearing bikinis, so bonus.
Part 2 - Conventions
The disc's second segment, picking up about 40 minutes in, kicks off with a brief visit to the Milwaukee Summer Revel, demonstrating on a smaller scale the fact that the biggest challenge facing gaming cons is not a lack of interest, but too much interest. One gamer's visit to this con is nearly ruined due to a lack of judges and a plethora of players. This is apparently the same reason for another con's move from Milwaukee to Indianapolis -- GenCon, which is where most of this second portion was shot.
We start out with some amusing interviews of GenCon-goers, who helpfully describe the three basic body types seen at the con (overweight unwashed 35-year old men, skinny guys with ponytails and goatees, and booth babes) before astutely noting that perhaps the reason only experienced gamers come to cons is because only experienced gamers are invited. Can someone just stroll in off the street and play a pick-up game to learn the hobby? Unlikely at best; one has a better chance of scoring with a booth babe.
It's here that the editing of the disc seems a bit uneven.
We jump to a series of interviews with some well-known artists -- Brom, Larry Elmore, Robert A. Krause -- who describe their experiences entering the field of RPG artwork, Krause pointing out that the game market provides a better place for novice artists to get started.
The DVD then moves back to the big picture of the people of GenCon, looking at their costumes, before moving back to the issue of GenCon's flight to Indy. Peter Adkison himself insists that the move was based solely on the issue of space, with GenCon growing from 180K to 300K of square footage, but one of the other interviewees suggests that the hotel industry may have been involved; if you owned a hotel, would you rather put a single lawyer in a room who's going to run up phone calls and dine in the hotel restaurant, or a room full of 10 gamers who are eating nothing but McDonald's all weekend?
We then jump quickly to discuss some of the best sellers at the Con (Fuzzy Heroes, Knights of the Dinner Table), before moving briefly to an exploration of life at GenCon ($10 fees to use the ATM?), and then returning to the issue of costumes, with a segment about Gamer Girls. This is one of the more interesting topics on the disc, and I wish it was covered more fully (perhaps a good topic for another documentary?) The segment discusses the psychology of the gamer girl (repressed, emotional, living out a fantasy) and the gamer guys who hit on them (polite and courteous for the most part, but slightly desperate to hook up as quickly as possible). And lest you lambaste me or the documentarian for such stereotypes, keep in mind that this DVD is constructed of interviews with gamers; these are their opinions, not mine! Certainly there's some Michael Moore-esque editing going on here to make a case, but there's really little editorializing.
The highlight of this segment: the latex-wearing dominatrix nun.
Part 3 - Tools of the Trade
The final segment (and the shortest) takes a look at the mechanics of role-playing. First is an amusing look at the psychology of dice-gatherers, including one chap who has a dice bag for home, a car dice bag, an emergency backup dice bag, and a girlfriend dice bag. We also learn about Gamer Girl dice (20-siders with two 20s and no 1s), dice bags with belt clips, and why you should never touch someone else's dice.
Next is a brief exploration of the cost of the hobby. Why does the regular Handbook cost $40 and the Special Edition cost $65 if there's no difference between them except for the cover? If the hobby is supposedly cheaper than console gaming (compare three rulebooks for $90, versus a $300 game console plus $70 games), what of those who own hundreds of books across dozens of game systems? No answers are given, but the questions raised are amusing, if not particularly insightful. After a brief look at miniatures, we finish up with a look at a gamer's sanctum, complete with a custom table, medieval chairs, sound effects, music, a fridge and more.
The disc them wraps up with the question "Why Game?", understandably last on the disc yet seemingly out of place since much the same material was covered in the DVD's first segment. Gary Gygax's two closing comments are quite appropriate, however. First, he points out that gaming seems to give the gamers an opportunity to be heroic where they otherwise might not be able to be. Secondly, he adds that game designers are generally not in the business to get rich. It's hard to say who's more heroic -- the player characters, or the game designers themselves.
The disc has its downsides. First, the cover art is quite amateurish, albeit intentionally, as is the disc menu and the introductory animation. The only extras include three short "movie trailers" which contain some interview material not found in the actual documentary. Contentwise, the disc seems a bit out of order, and could have used some additional editing and some reshuffling of content.
However, as a documentary the disc stands on its own. It makes no bold assertions, but neither does it set out to do so. It's a 90-minute film composed of interviews with actual gamers and game designers giving their opinions on the hobby, and for what it's worth it's an entertaining film. The animation and reenactments provide some laugh-out-loud moments, and the no-holds-barred opinions on gamer guys, gamer girls and the overall geekiness of the hobby are quite funny, especially when one considers that they're coming from the gamers themselves.
For the non-gamer, this is an opportunity to understand that while your average gaming group might resemble the Island of Misfit Toys, those involved are having a better time than the guy sitting on the couch watching football, remote in one hand, beer in the other. For the role-playing gamer, this is an hour-and-a-half look in the mirror, warts and all. And in the end, it's worth a look, if only to remind ourselves what we all look like to each other, and the rest of the world.