Google Labs just released a new tool called Ngram, which searches through 500 billion words in the 5.2 million books archived on Google’s digital library to references and correlations between words. It has some interesting things to say about role-playing games.
The phrase “Dungeons and Dragons” appears as early as 1864 in English. An Artist’s Proof by Alfred Austin, quips:
Twenty minutes’ dullness would have sufficed to outweigh her looks, if twenty months’ experience, her position, had not occurred to more than readjust the balance; and if the days of chivalry really have passed away, let us hope that it is more because dungeons and dragons have become rare than because swords and arms have become craven.
Google’s indexing is far from perfect. There’s a reference to the phrase again in 1919 in a book titled Beast of the Hawaii Bed & Breakfast. Appropriately enough the author conflates (in jest) a B&B with D&D. The phrase “roleplaying game” appears once in the 1920s, in a book titled Chemistry & Atomic Structure that references Twilight : 2000 – another error.
The phrase “Dungeons & Dragons” seems to return too many results, which leads me to believe Google is simply adding the two together. It peaks around the 1830s, dips in the 1840s, rises again in the 1850s and then there’s a steady decline in popular literature. It seems Ngram doesn’t use the full search capabilities of Google.
But you can have some fun pitting two phrases against each other. When it comes to races, dwarves far outstrip everybody else in terms of mentions, reaching the height of their popularity in the 1870s. Elves, in contrast, started out strong in the 1800s and gradually fell out of favor. Goblins trail a bit after that, oddly rising in popularity in the 1800s. Compared to the other races, orcs, halflings, and gnomes are barely in evidence.
Classes have a considerably more interesting history. The bard starts out strong in the 1800s (which I attribute to Shakespeare) but steadily decline. Thieves, on the other hand, are always a popular topic, although the term has become less so in the modern century. Fighter is the real surprise — presumably a phrase that reflects the state of the world during World War II.
Try it yourself at http://ngrams.googlelabs.com and let me know what you come up with!