Weekly Geekout: Adventure Time

When I was a kid I used to love making forts with my best friend, carefully adding couch cushions, blankets, and pillows to make the biggest and coolest structure possible without making the whole thing fall over, kind of like a reverse game of Jenga.  As any dungeon master can tell you, World-building is a lot like that.  The bigger the world gets, the harder it is to keep the whole thing from spiraling out of control or collapsing in itself. The more I think about my own personal experience of geekdom, the more I think it has a lot to do with this pleasure of world-building, and one of my favorite worlds to watch unfold these days is Ooo, the post-apocalyptic science-fantasy version of Earth that Pendleton Ward and his band of merry world-builders play with in Adventure Time.

Image from “Puhoy.”

The first I heard of Adventure Time was through an discussion on a D&D forum where people were talking about how much it’s like D&D. Intrigued, I watched a few episodes, and didn’t really get what they were talking about at first. A twelve-year-old kid and his magic dog? That’s not in any of the sourcebooks I remember reading.  But that didn’t matter, because I was hooked from the moment the Gumball Guardians gave Finn a math test after he broke a “Royal Promise.  The more I watched, though, the more I understood.  There are some surface level connections, like the fact that Finn and Jake go on quests into dungeons and gather. There are also plenty of one-line references to gaming: “That’s just a rock.  A low-level enemy.” “Like on a scale of 1 to 100, how good are you at quietly throwing a tiny bit of fire at a rope 50 feet away?” But the gaming logics of Adventure Time go a lot deeper than that, down to the DNA of the entire show.

Pendleton Ward has described the writing process for the show as basically a free-form gaming session:

“What it is, is that we’re playing D&D while we’re writing it. We’re role-playing the characters as we’re writing them. So we’re having the same experience as you all are having as you’re watching it because we’re figuring it out as we go along.”

If you don’t think that’s awesome, it will probably take me a lot longer than these 500 words to show you why AT is so freaking cool. If you like that, though, then you’ll love this: “Continuity is important to me because I play D&D. I like having that loot. I want them to have that loot.” So watching Adventure Time is a lot like watching a D&D campaign unfold; one of the beautifully emergent sandbox-style games that, when in skilled hands, produce some amazingly inventive stuff. And P. Ward and company have the skills; the world has been developing steadily for six seasons now, and instead of collapsing in on itself or spiraling out of control, the fort just keeps getting, bigger, stranger and more Mathematical.

Haven’t seen it? The first two seasons are on Netflix. Go now!

About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

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