Monday, April 7, 2014

The Red Box that Sealed my Doom

When I was 13 years old, my parents opted out of giving me the traditional chocolate egg [1] for Easter and instead decided to give me a gift that - without being melodramatic - changed my life.

What I received was a red box which, at first glance, appeared to have as its main content a collection of mysterious geometric solids.  On closer inspection, this box was my own personal Black Monolith. [2]

This was my formal introduction to role-playing, via the glossy new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and it was the beginning of the end. Or, rather, the end of the beginning.

Role-playing is by no means limited to obscure games played with strange-looking dice by spotty teenagers fueled mainly by chips and soda.  The reality is that we are all role-playing all the time, taking on different characters and functions throughout the day - the persona you use at home isn't the one you use at work, isn't the one you use when out with friends, isn't the one you project online.  They're all you but like the characters in Flatland not all of you can be projected into the world at the same time, so we pick and choose.  The result is that each aspect of our lives is populated by dramatis personae that are, by some standards, fictional.

With this in mind, it's easy to see why children love to act out tales of drama and adventure from a very early age: playing games like house or doctor is a natural way for them to practice for everyday life, and since the characters they encounter in fiction are often every bit as important to them as regular people it's hardly surprising that their role-play would extend to Tarzan rushing to find medicine to save someone from spider bite, royal tea parties with the king of the bears, and jedi fighting off an army of ogres, dragons and robots. [3] The benefit of games like D&D and the enormous range of RPG variants that have sprung up over the decades is two-fold:

First, while children [4] are quite happy to play out fantasies according to ad hoc rules [5] this can cause difficulties unless the child is playing alone (or with an indulgent [6] adult) - disputes over the rules are almost certain to arise. [7] Formal games have formal rules, however, which automatically provides third-party arbitration [8] even if the rule is as simple as "winner of rock-paper-scissors gets to decide the outcome."  The great thing about this is that it's good practice for the real world: no matter what we do, we're always forced to operate in environments made up of rules.  In some cases, the rules are inviolable so we have to think of ways to work with them [9] and in other cases we have to learn when we can break the rules and how to go about it. [10]

Second, by their very nature role-playing games practically force children to meet new people and to engage them in cooperative endeavours. [11] Learning social skills is tough, as we all know from being teenagers, so trying them out in a small, safe(ish) group of friends under conditions that encourage - nay, require! - that we practice putting on different roles and personalities is the introvert equivalent of pumping iron.  And on top of helping us try out new and exciting ways to interact with our friends in ways that don't cause them to ostracize us, gaming even offers a structured environment in which to meet new friends.

I have met people I consider to be friends through work, studies, and even by chance through random coincidences.  But many of the people in my circle of friends are there either because of a shared interest in gaming or because we have actually gamed together.  Indeed, I have met people who seemed interesting and then gamed with them, and through gaming learned enough about them to know that I didn't really want to be friends [12] - and the context of the game made it easy for me to disengage and move on without anyone feeling bad about it, because the short-term semi-regular gaming session served as a buffer!  During a session, it's pretty easy to get some personal distance and unless the problem is that one of you is actively an asshole [13] you can probably keep playing for a while at least without difficulty, then bow out of the game at a logical juncture.

So role-playing games are great for kids, but they're also good for adults.  For adults, they offer ways to get away from it all into a world of fantasy.  They offer opportunities to meet people, structured excuses to get together with friends or to meet potential new friends.  They offer relatively safe spaces in which to let parts of yourself out of the bag without needing to worry too much about them, which is a desperately important thing for adults in a world where we can sometimes feel like all our actions are constantly under surveillance.  And last, but not least in my opinion, they offer mental exercise and stimulation very different from the demands of every day life - and that's not even considering the added benefit that at least a few of your fellow gamers will almost certainly share your brain-hobby interests. [14]

For myself, except for a brief interlude when I had opportunity to return to my old stomping grounds from 2003 to 2007, and not counting 3 (count em) one-off sessions I've had since then, I haven't gamed since 1997.  This fact sometimes makes me dreadfully sad.

Gaming was very, very important to me as a teen and well into my twenties.  As a teen, gaming helped me get through some pretty rough social patches and as mentioned, many of my good friends I met specifically through gaming.  I don't think I will ever be able to devote the hours and days to gaming that I did when I was younger, but I miss that dimension of my life.  I miss the feeling of getting together with a small group of like-minded people and building something together, even if it could never be anything other than ephemeral - actually, maybe because it would be ephemeral, because the universes you build with other gamers are such personal things, in comparison to the other sorts of cooperative projects people work on in everyday life.

That part of me isn't gone, of course.  I still world-build, I just do it by myself, either by writing or just fantasizing.  And the gaming world hasn't been standing still while other things consumed my time: there are always new games, new versions of old games, new discussions and new gaming blogs.  I can't spend as much time exploring as I would like, but I refuse to give it up.

After all, if I don't keep going I'll never reach name level.


1. Which, in any case, I usually received from other relatives as well. One more iteration was by no means missed.

2. And yes, I both jumped up and down hooting and murmured under my breath: "My's full of stars..."

3.All games I have played with actual children. No ogres were harmed in the making of these fantasies.

4. Let's be honest - adults too.

5. As discussed in games, these rules can actually be quite rigorous.

6. And obviously favourite.

7. "Bang! you're dead!" - "No I'm not, I dodged." - "You can't dodge!" - "Can too." "Can't either!" Repeat as necessary until a ruling is agreed on.

8. At least until the players grow jaded enough to employ sophistry to manipulate the written rules into saying whatever they want them to.

9. Hello gravity!

10. In other words, we need to learn how to boldly split infinitives no one has split before.

11. Something I suspect my parents had in mind when they bought me that box.

12. I'm pretty sure that in every case the feeling was mutual. We've all experienced it: meeting someone who at first blush seems to be pretty cool, but on longer acquaintance turns out either to have pretty incompatible ideas or only seemed cool because of that one single point of congruence.  But in many situations, the two of you choosing no longer to waste time interacting (because you know you're not going to enjoy it, even if you don't actively despise it) can sometimes get weird.

13. Experienced that one for sure.

14. Even if no one in your gaming group shares your interest in reading about [X], the nature of the hobby is such that - provided you're not hijacking the game itself - they'll be quite happy to riff on the idea with you and provide an entertaining conversation about a topic you love.

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