"What is it really like to play a game like D&D?"
Let's start by getting the obvious myths out of the way. The game has drawn people of high intelligence and creativity to it for as long as it has existed. We all know that people who are above average in the brain department have a reputation for being... well let's just say not as popular as the kids playing sports.
The "Freaks and Geeks"
This leads to the early misconception that all D&D style players are either Nerds in Junior High/High school or Geeks who are 30+, single, overweight and live in their mothers basement sucking down Hot-pockets and Mountain Dew. The satisfying part of this unfortunately common belief is that those bright minded adolescent people are honing their brain to function on a higher level and will almost always be more successful in life than the "Jocks" who bully them.
Admittedly, when I was younger I did play with a group or two that meets the stereotype of hormone driven acne covered Dorks. But the majority of the groups I have played with, are actually made up of highly successful, average adults. Here is a picture of a few famous folks who either played growing up, or still play D&D today. From Tech-Heads and Game Designers to Marine Biologists and Business Owners, I have only found a handful of RPG Tabletop Gamers who are not at least above average in their chosen career. I won't go into why I believe D&D or similar games played a huge roll in their success as I have already written a blog on the benefits of Tabletop RPG Gaming.While that blog was focusing on children, the added skill sets are ageless and always available to learn.
When you get together with a group of close-knit friends on a regular basis, over time you truly get to know the people you hangout with. Playing with the same people regularly allows the seeds of friendship to grow and the roots of companionship take hold. You actually get close to the group. This is no different than the "hangin' with my Peeps" kind of stuff that you are familiar with.
The rules can be a bit intense depending on the system you choose to play. There are rules-light Tabletop RPGs out there if you don't want to do too much math or reading ...however, it is good for the brain! ;)
The system itself is not of consequence. The idea of stepping out of reality, taking part in something bigger than yourself, these are the very concepts of an RPG. You and your group of close friends get to remove the stress of the daily grind. Leave all of your worries about what you need to do at work tomorrow behind you. Forget that you have five finals to study for. You get to actually stop thinking about anything that exists in the real word and take a moment to create something all of your own. You get to become something that never would have existed without you, you are being a part of the creative process. I think of it as a very important thing for a consistent and sane me.
Sometimes you just need a mental reboot. Take a moment to let your brain stop hammering away at the current issue an give it a distraction. Most of the time when I return to the problem I was trying to solve it is much less daunting. This is a side effect of allowing yourself the freedom of creative thinking. You are not you. You are not confined to the same situations and solutions that you have had set in front of you every day.
Getting to the point
To attempt an explanation of the freedom of mind involved in playing an RPG is to try to explain why Pablo Picasso painted the way he did. It is trying to tell you how Jimmy Hendrix wrote his music. It is giving detailed reasons behind the acting choices made by Johnny Depp as he plays his roles.
What I am attempting to explain is the true freedom that comes with dropping everything that binds you to this reality and allowing yourself to roam in the dream worlds.
So you (the editorial you) have asked what it is really like to play a game like D&D? I am not sure if I will ever have an answer that will satisfy the part of your brain that needs everything quantified.
What I can say is this: there is no other experience in the world short of being an artist that will come close to the experience of cognitive independence. I have said in the past that everyone should try playing an RPG at least once in their life. I lay that down as a truth right next to everyone should try to play an instrument at least once. Everyone should try their hand at drawing or painting at least once. Everyone should take to the stage at least once. If you have been searching your entire life for the proper creative outlet, maybe it has been sitting right in front of you this whole time.
If you ask me ...yes.
The Wrap Up
As I have pointed out earlier there are many famous people who have openly endorsed the game. Many who have sung their praises of the Dork Side. Are you going to call Vin Diesel a pencil-neck geek because he loves to roll the dice? I seriously doubt that.
...at least not to his face.
I for one have claimed my place in the social arena. I don't care if you think you are above me. I sure hope you don't see yourself as below me. I am just like you. I am human. The only difference?
I am proud to be a Dork.