I look at the news about once a week. I try to avoid it because lately its been depressing and it’s personally far too easy for me to slip into a negative thought spiral and end up feeling hopeless about the country I’ve lately been ashamed to live in. Senseless violence, ineffectual political leadership, and tragic societal decay. Shit is fucked up here in the un-United States.
The best way for me to face these inescapable truths has been for me to focus not on people or situations I’m too far removed from to directly affect, and instead focus on living the best life I can and being the best compassionate and helpful human I can strive to be. Voting, making charitable donations to causes, and treating everyone I meet with respect and seeking my best to understand rather than to be understood.
For me, gaming is an essential part of living the best life and seeking to understand others.
Human beings are the only creatures (that I’m aware of) that play games with their minds according to complex rules. Cops and Robbers. Football. Chess. Dungeons & Dragons. We don’t play games for survival. If we did, we wouldn’t create obstacles in the forms of rules to make it harder to “survive.”
In 1978 Bernard Suits wrote a book called The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia where he defines the playing of a game as
“the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.
A game is interactive, goal oriented, and involves other agents who can interfere with and/or influence each other. According to this definition, real life itself is a game. You’re the Player Character and everyone else is an Non Playable Character. But you’re also a Non Player Character to everyone else’s Player Character. A Massive Multiplayer Offline Role Playing Game.
The problem with this game of life is that choices we make and the actions we choose to take do not offer immediate feedback or seemingly none at all. Was it a good idea for me to transfer to a different high-school than the one in my hometown? I wasn’t sure until years later when I could look back and be contented by the life lessons I learned while I was there.
In life the rules are infinitely complex, the goals are unclear, and the methods for achieving these goals are often unknown or unique for every person. So in light of the dizzying possibilities, inconsistencies, and contradictions of life it’s obvious why humans invented games.
Games offer us a chance to understand and master clear rules, move towards achievable and concrete goals, using methods that give us immediate feedback of their efficacy. When I catch the Robber, when I score a goal, when my queen takes another pawn, when my warlock does 16 force damage, I know what consequences my actions had and I know where to go from there.
About a month ago my coworker asked me a seemingly simple question “Why do all these games have to be so violent?” I immediately had flashbacks to justifying Mature rated video games to my mother. Of politicians blaming videogames for violence in schools. Of kids getting into fist fights over holographic Pokemon Cards. The short answer: we cannot escape violence or darkness or fear. Human beings are part of this planet and this planet and its plants and animals function first and foremost on a simple principle. Life needs to kill to live. A tree climbing closer towards the sun, thereby stunting the growth of a smaller plant that now cannot soak up as much of the life giving rays. An herbivore masticating the leaves of that tree. A carnivore hunting and killing that herbivore. A human killing and eating those leaves and/or that carnivore and/or that herbivore. Tribes seeking dominance over other tribes. Towns competing for the best market goods. Cities conquering other cities. Nations waging war on one another for land and resources. Violence is an inescapable part of life. Conflict is unavoidable. Life destroys life to live.
Whether we wage actual war on each other, or we play simulated wars through sports or miniatures, violence is part of being alive, of being human. What or who we wage war on and how or why we do is what defines us, unites us and also divides us.
Personally, I believe there is such a huge new renaissance in tabletop role-playing games because there is such a confusing real world out there. Is that person a terrorist? Where will the next school shooting be? Will justice prevail against sexual predators? Can we find a way towards a kinder, gentler world? Maybe. I hope so. The future is still unwritten.
That’s why it’s so comforting to play a game where I know what the stakes are, I know where the Lich’s lair is, I know how to destroy his phylactery. I can find empathy in playing a half-elf who’s never really felt at home among humans or elves. I can choose to spare the goblin children lest I become the monsters I hunt. I can take down evil tyrants who stand as proxies for the tyrants I wish I could take down in the real world. I can feel the satisfaction of saving a village from a Red Dragon.
Tabletop role-playing games offer us the chance to be heroes, to be something we love and we wish we could be. They offer us the chance to play villains, to be something we hate and we wish weren’t real. They offer us a safe arena to get out all the frustrations of our primal mind that tell us to strangle our coworkers even though our cognitive mind tells us we simply cannot do that. They offer us the chance to feel confident and powerful in a world that is consistent and understandable.
And these experiences aren’t merely imaginary, locked in our minds and fruitless. These experiences lead to very real friendships, practice with creative problem solving, and a feeling of agency that inevitably overflows into our day to day interactions. After I finish a really good D&D Session, I feel energized and enthusiastic, ready to take on the real dragons that loom on the horizon of my real life.
So next time someone tries to say to you “Why do you waste your time on that? It’s just a game. Why don’t you get a life?” Tell them “Why don’t you try a different game? You’re not very good at this one.” Walk away and just blame this blog post.