I’m a nerd. A huge nerd. Possibly a dork. Definitely a geek. So…negork? Nah, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Whatever, I’m into some really nerdy shit and I’m smart, so I wear various labels proudly. I slap ’em on and parade around. I embrace it. I become it. I choose to identify because that identity speaks to me. I mean, why not, right? Might as well be honest about the things I like.
I’m a gamer specifically, and a tabletop gamer to be even more specific. From angry German board games to basically playing with dolls to lesser-known indie RPG’s, I’m a sucker for a good game. Gimme a dank dark basement, strangely spangled dice (or lots of cardboard and plastic chits), and some cheesy background music, and I’m good to go.
From an early age, story games of all kinds (especially AD&D, on which I cut my RPG teeth) held a particular appeal. Perhaps it was my experience with Grandpa Bjarne telling us kids outrageous tales, or dad doing the same – or maybe it was rooted in that all-too-familiar adolescent angst that made me want to be the Big Damn Hero and fix all the things that I could not. Escapism and dreaming, perhaps.
Games of this sort often get a bad rap from those who don’t understand their utility. I was fortunate enough to be at PAX East when the brilliant Jane McGonigal gave her keynote regarding her research into games as life improvement. She’s given a few notable talks on this topic, and the gist is this: when applied correctly, games do not serve as distraction from life, but rather practice for it.
Any game is a test of skill, and applying those skills in the “world” of the game results in “real-life” testing of that skill. We learn in grow in the context of the game, and then take our improved skills out of the game and into the world. The attitude associated with those games goes as well; the pride we feel in accomplishing something in a game does in fact result in a feeling of accomplishment and positivity that we can spread to others. This all is true if you approach the game with that mentality – those who have a negative experience in a game, those who cheat, those who don’t “buy in” to the game don’t get as much out of it.
This is hardly a surprise – war games have been used for ages to train military commanders in real-life battle-winning tactics and strategies.
So then, roleplaying games are not necessarily escapism at all – they’re emulation. We set up a parallel world, and create stories and heroes from what we know. We set up obstacles with which we are familiar, and then we find inventive ways to tackle those obstacles. Our characters grow and learn, and so we can too. By pretending to be the Big Damn Hero, we can learn how to approach our life problems with confidence rather than meekness.
What are some of the lessons that these games are teaching us? Let’s look at the components of most RPG characters:
A Name: That is, an identity. Who you are, where you come from, what you do – so much is wrapped up in a simple name. Most of us don’t pick our own names, but the things with which that name will be associated are ours to decide. Make your name your own, and own your identity. If you choose to identify in some other manner? Awesome! But own it the same. Take pride in being someone.
Names can say a lot about a person, but the way in which you present your name – your identity – will tell people even more. Taking pride in yourself will make your name stick out in people’s minds. They’ll remember you – and that is a powerful thing.
A Class, Role, or Skillset: D&D is the classic class-based RPG – distilled story roles given stats. Not all games are necessarily class-based, but most still work around the concept of a role. Roles are really shorthand for themes and stories for the character – the kinds of things you’re interested in doing, and thus the kinds of stories you’re interested in crafting for yourself. Your character does stuff and learns stuff, and it’s all well-identified.
So too should we strive to do and learn stuff, and identify those things. Know the things we do well, the things we don’t do well, and the things we want to learn and adopt. If you’re really good at something, admit it! If you’re not, admit it! Putting your skills out there lets other people know what you like to do, what you want to do, and how you can help them (or they can help you).
An Inventory: Or taken another way, the resources at your disposal. This isn’t just material goods – though we negorks do have a habit of collecting material things – but also your opportunities and your social circles. Know what you’re bringing to the table, what you’ve got at your disposal, and what you need to acquire. Keep track of your resources, because they can be depleted, and you can be stuck in a tight spot.
Even if you don’t own something or have an ability, you often know someone who does – you can tap such a resource to help you accomplish your ends. Know where your resources are and keep track of them. Tend to them well, and invest in them – because you may need to call on them some day, and you will want them available for that. Socially, the phenomenon can be understood at a basic level as reciprocal altruism, though human motivation can be much more complicated. Still, a system of “tit-for-tat” will help you far beyond what you could manage alone.
A Party: Ah, this is the most important one. Sure, not all games have a party in the traditional sense – maybe it’s just you and the GM – but even with two people, you can get the point of it.
The neat thing about story games (and really, all games) is that they require other people in order to work. I mean, who just wants to sit around playing with themselves all day?
The greatest lesson that any game can teach us is that almost everything is better when it’s done with other people. No man is an island and all that – we all bring things with us in life, but none of us has everything we need to succeed on our own. People around us have value, and games teach us to recognize that value. Whether we draw on them as a resource or draw inspiration from them as a challenger, we need other people in our gaming environment. D&D does this by having niche exclusion in roles – a fighter needs support from other roles, or else they can’t succeed. Party dynamics become crucial, as the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Further, most story games focus on collaborative storytelling; that is, the story that is built is not the vision of one person that forces it on everyone else, but rather the amalgamation of everyone’s views for everyone’s character. Very often, games encourage us to surrender a part of our authorship to the rest of the group, so that they can write their vision of your character. Likewise, they give you a little purchase with their character, and you get to craft that part of their story. This circle of shared authorship creates a unique and compelling experience that simply cannot be generated by doing it all yourself. If you don’t want to play in the group – if you don’t want to actually write together – then just go write a book or some ludicrously self-indulgent blog article.
And so now we arrive at the point of it all – what I’ve been prattling on about for roughly 1300 words: shared authorship in life.
Games are practice for life, and life is really a story that you’re actively writing. You make decisions about what you want to do every single day, and those decisions have consequences for others. You don’t necessarily have control over every party of your life, but you’ve got a hell of a lot of control. And while you’re off being the protagonist of your story, other people are being the protagonists of their stories in the same universe as you. Kinda trippy if you think about it way too long.
There is an important step in respecting other people in your life, in being party of an adventuring party: the recognition that your perspective on your story is not the only one with value. Certainly your outlook and opinions on your life are the most important – but you’re also in the lives of the people around you, and they’re writing their story with you as a character. If we’re really being good and noble to each other, we’ll give the people we care about some degree of authorship over our own stories – give them some very precious space in our lives so that they can flesh out their own lives just as we’re trying to do with ours.
You have the final say, but we need to recognize that other people’s say still has value. We draw inspiration from other people’s perspectives, and we can try to apply those lessons to our own lives. In this way, we engage in a cycle of reciprocal altruism – give space to them, and they give space to you. Give and take perspective and inspiration.
Sometimes, this is a painful thing. It means that you might set aside some of your own wants for the sake of someone else’s. Relationships of all sorts are hard – but we can draw far more from them than we need to invest in them. It creates a resource that can be tapped. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And sometimes, that means that you’ll have to accept the place that someone else gives you in their story, because they’ve accepted their fate in yours. That can hurt, but it’s necessary in order to have productive relationships – and we need those because we are not all-powerful. The alternative is to retreat into your lonely fortress, pretending you don’t need anyone else.
It’s just like the RPG party – other people bring things to the table that you don’t. Work together, and you can achieve more for each other than any of you could alone. In order to really work, you have to put forth honest effort and look at long-term cooperation – you can make incremental progress in the short term, but if you have disparate end goals, you will inevitably come to blows. Getting on the same page – “buying in” to the idea – is crucial.
Those other people have their own names, skillsets, and resources – and they’re a member of your party. You help them write their story as they help you write your own. That means someone may cast you in a light that you never intended for yourself – but if you can learn to give up that little part of your own authorship, you can find tremendous value there.
Beowulf probably never slew a troll or dragon, but people wanted to believe that he did. Being the Big Damn Hero is hard, and carries a lot of responsibility. The pressure! The expectations! It would be easier to withdraw and be nobody, to wield total power over a tiny world! If you step out of that bubble, other people may start expecting things of you, and then you’ll have to do things that you didn’t plan on doing! Acknowledge other people and their weird squishy emotions and shit! That’s hard, and we don’t have the energy for that – it’s hard enough just taking care of our own crap.
But that is not how legends are born. If you extend yourself to others as I’ve talked about above, they’ll remember your name and tell their stories of you. You will be immortalized in a way. Cattle die and kinsmen die – but word-fame lives forever.
Letting someone write a part of your life story is a great gift to them – it helps their story take shape. Make your decisions – play your character the way you choose – but remember that you are not the only one writing your story. There are other authors, and they may write differently than you – reveal to you something profound that you’d never know otherwise. They may thank you for it by casting you in a light greater than you’d thought – writing you as the hero they needed.
As you play your game and craft your story with the people around you, interacting out of necessity and desire, keep this in the back of your mind:
What will be said of you?