The Sociology of THAC0

At ASA this year I’ve had the opportunity to hear two amazing discussants (in addition to many amazing papers): Mark Granovetter and Howard Becker. Granovetter gave a great talk about Weber and Parsons and their relationship to the papers and many other things I don’t remember. Becker was a bit less on point, but he told some great stories, and he also made an interesting comment on a paper about business groups that got me thinking. The paper argued that business groups were as much about creating communities as gaining any kind of economic advantage, either for the industry as a whole or their members. Business groups gave out awards, sold esoteric merchandise, and in short helped create and propagate a shared language for members of various occupations. Becker focused on the shared language bit, arguing that it was a more general feature of communities and organizations that help create community.

This discussion of the community-reinforcing powers of language got me thinking about the community I identified most strongly with from age 10 to 18 or so: gamers. One of the strongest features of the gamer community, I would argue, is a shared vocabulary. It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever played Paranoia, but it helps to know that “The Computer is Your Friend”*. Etc.

Some of my favorite examples of community-building gamer discourse involve convoluted technical terms for what are, at their core, relatively simple concepts. By far the most classic of these terms is THAC0 (pronounced “tha-ko” with that midwestern eh sound), or “To Hit Armor Class Zero”. In D&D, Armor Class (“AC”) ranged from 10 (unarmored) to -10 (some sort of elder demon) and for whatever reason, the game based it’s calculations on what it took for you hit to something with an AC of 0. The system was counterintuitive – if you had a THAC0 of 19 and were trying to hit a monster with an AC of 3 you’d need a 16, arrived at by *subtracting* the AC from your THAC0. So, in 3rd edition (and now 4th) they replaced it with a much more rational (but mathematically equivalent) “Base Attack Bonus” – a number you added to your roll and compared against AC to see if you hit.

Ok, that’s way more explanation than was needed to get to this point: I think D&D might have been less successful at building community without all the clunky language to decipher. And the kids these days with their streamlined, World of Warcraft inspired D&D… well, who knows. But for me, I’m sticking with THAC0.

* Trust the Computer!


1 Comment

  1. Natalie

     /  August 12, 2009

    Jealous! Wish I could have heard Granovetter speak.

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