How ‘geek culture’ went from playing games in secret to mainstream popularity

Fans of the card game "Magic: The Gathering" play at one of the tables in Goblin Games' Manhattan mall location. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

“Dungeons & Dragons” was first published in 1974 as a tabletop roleplaying game where imaginative players can create medieval adventurers and play through fantastical quests for glory. It used to be an obscure part of so-called “geek culture,” but things are different today.

Today, “Dungeons & Dragons” — or “D&D” — is cool. It’s hip. It’s in box stores. Anne Higley, co-owner of Manhattan tabletop store Goblin Games, said that’s a good thing.

“That’s what’s so great because even when we were kids, parents weren’t approving, and it was something you didn’t really talk about,” Higley said.

Other products sold by Goblin Games include figures for various tabletop games, including "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Pathfinder." (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

For over three decades, thousands of self-proclaimed geeks and nerds would play “D&D” in tight-knit groups, keeping their gameplay secretive. The game is more complicated than most tabletop games, requiring multiple expensive rulebooks and one person acting as “Dungeon Master” to guide players through their adventures. It was often perceived as unpalatable for a mainstream audience.

The accusations from concerned religious groups in the 1980s that “Dungeons & Dragons” promoted satanism and witchcraft didn’t help it receive widespread acceptance, either.

Now, Higley and others say they believe “Dungeons & Dragons” and other tabletop games, such as board games and card games, are finally reaching mainstream acknowledgment.

“Over the holidays, Target had a front display of ‘D&D,’ and it’s referenced in ‘Stranger Things’ and other popular stuff,” Higley said.

Higley refers to numerous occasions where the main characters of the 2016 hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” sit down to play sessions of “Dungeons & Dragons.”

Seth Sagstetter, Goblin Games employee and Kansas State University alumnus, said he remembers playing “D&D” in high school.

“Most of geek culture was seen as a bad thing,” Sagstetter said. “We did it secretly in high school. All of my friends, we played — and none of our parents ever knew.”

Sagstetter runs multiple “Dungeons & Dragons” campaigns today, and he said he plays plenty of other tabletop games, too.

“Now, I don’t care,” Sagstetter said.

With board games like “Settlers of Catan,” card games like “Magic: The Gathering” and “Dungeons & Dragons” itself, the geek culture surrounding tabletop gaming has grown to mainstream popularity among younger demographics.

“We’re all nerds,” Sagstetter said.

Geek culture has also gained ground in movies and television. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has made billions of dollars off comic book superheroes, and shows like the aforementioned “Stranger Things” have found an audience that numbers in the millions.

Just like in “Stranger Things,” Goblin Games co-owner Joey Wyatt said he used to play “Dungeons & Dragons” in a friend’s basement.

“We would always play video games in basements, and one of my best friend’s dads would [dungeon master] for us who’s a professor at K-State, when we were, like, 12,” Wyatt said.

Co-owner Joey Wyatt talks with patrons of his store at the Goblin Games mall location. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

Now, Wyatt and Higley own a store where locals can find a table to play through a “D&D” campaign or play card games for keeps out in the open, growing an entire community.

“A lot of it is the stigma tied to it is gone,” Wyatt said.

Daithin Wycoff, Goblin Games employee and junior in open option, said he agrees that times have changed, but he doesn’t believe tabletop game fans are truly mainstream.

“It sort of just changed as I was growing up,” Wycoff said. “All of my friends were the same as me; that’s just kind of how we grew up. It’s still a sub-sect, but it’s much larger than it used to be.”

Many have credited the rise of geek culture to the internet and its enabling of people with specific interests to find each other and generate camaraderie. With technology always advancing, some wonder how tabletop games will evolve.

Sagstetter, however, said he thinks tabletop games like “Dungeons & Dragons” will largely remain the same.

“There’s no limit to push,” Sagstetter said. “You’re really pinned down by this medium of just whatever you can do in two, sometimes three dimensions, so I don’t think it’s going to change much.”