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After hiding it for many years, I have a confession to make.

Throughout middle school and high school my friends and I would gather almost every weekend, spending hours using numbers, probability, and optimization to build models that we could use to simulate almost anything.

That’s right. My big secret is simple. I was a high school mathematical modeler.

Of course, our weekend mathematical models didn’t bear any direct relationship to the models we explored in our mathematics and science classes. You would probably not even recognize our regular gatherings as mathematical exercises. If you looked into the room, you’d see a group of us gathered around a table, scribbling on sheets of paper, rolling dice, eating pizza, and talking about dragons, magical spells, and sword fighting. So while I claim we were engaged in mathematical modeling, I suspect that very few math classes built models like ours. After all, how many math teachers have constructed or had their students construct a mathematical representation of a dragon, a magical spell, or a swordfight? And yet, our role-playing games (RPGs) were very much mathematical models of reality — certainly not the reality of our everyday experience, but a reality nonetheless, one intended to simulate a particular kind of world. Most often for us this was the medieval, high-fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), but we also played games with science fiction or modern-day espionage settings. We learned a lot about math, mythology, medieval history, teamwork, storytelling, and imagination in the process. And, when existing games were inadequate vehicles for our imagination, we modified them or created new ones. In doing so, we learned even more about math.

Now that I am a mathematics professor, I find myself reflecting on those days as a “fantasy modeler” and considering various questions. What is the relationship between my two interests of fantasy games and mathematics? Does having been a gamer make me a better mathematician or modeler? Does my mathematical experience make me a better gamer? These different aspects of my life may seem mostly unconnected; indeed, the “nerd” stereotype is associated with both activities, but despite public perception, the community of role-players includes many people who are not scientifically-minded. So we cannot say that role-players like math, or math-lovers role-play, because “that is simply what nerds do.” To get at the deeper question of how mathematics and role-playing are related, we first need to look at the processes of gaming, game designing, and modeling.


From Mathematics in Popular Culture: Essays on Appearances in Film, Fiction, Games, Television and Other Media © 2012 Edited by Jessica K. Sklar and Elizabeth S. Sklar by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.

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