I’m among many other things, a gamer. Most people these days assume that I mean an online pvp game, but actually most of my games are run face-to-face over a kitchen table.
Dungeons and Dragons is one of the most well-known games of this kind; a tabletop role-playing game. But there’s a lot of systems and genres of games. On top of D&D fantasy I have played in Shadowrun’s cyberpunk setting, Paranoia’s satirical scifi nostalgia world, and 1920s horror/noir in the Call of Cthulu universe.
A lot of people don’t see gaming as an art. It’s certainly not a high art. But it has a deep and transformational value in my life.
A lot of childhood play is role-playing. Children try out adult behaviours and mimic them. Sometimes it comes out like a weird unintentional parody of our day to day lives. But that’s because we have a lot of secret social rules that don’t make a lot of sense until you have learned them.
A lot of role-playing I’ve done with children I’ve babysat, not gaming really, has centered around cooking, cleaning, going to school, going to the shops. The kids cast us all in roles: father, mother, policeman, and then we played to act out the roles and to discover how the kids felt about the boundaries between them. A lot of arguments came from disagreements between siblings or cousins over which roles should do which things in a scene. They were making the rules up together through collaboration. That’s how we form our group culture, by testing and agreeing on what is normal together.
To get back to gaming as an art, when a group of people – children or adults or a group of both – sit down to play Dungeons and Dragons, there is a set of rules that defines who our characters can be. What languages we know. How we can relate to the world and each other. And we then exploit the rules and push boundaries as we play.
There is usually one person who enforces the rules, sets the scene, and portrays the monsters and townsfolk. They’re known as the Dungeon Master or Game Master. The rest of the group are Players who take on one specific and personalised role. The GM tends to make sure there is something for each Player’s character to do in each session of the game.
Some groups will play a game that’s focused on fighting monsters and getting treasure. Others on diplomacy or subterfuge. It all depends on the group as a whole and how they guide the world and their characters actions inside it.
Hopefully you can see now, what I mean by how powerful gaming is. Between 2-7 people, sometimes more, build a story together that allows them to explore facets of themselves that they can only discover through role -playing. It’s a way that we can try on other identities and interact with our friends in new ways. Finally freeing ourselves from the roles that we studied as children. Sometimes we aren’t even human; we can try out what it feels like to be an elf or a Klingon!
When it’s time to tell anecdotes, a lot of the ones that stick with me are from RPGs. That time my character had no weapons, and threw a can of soda at the enemy. The can split open and spilled everywhere, but slipping in the puddle of soda helped her to dodge a bullet.
Or the time I was GM for a cyberpunk Shadowrun game where the three players spent 2 hours planning their choice of car and an alternate route to their safe house… avoiding a lot of the plot, but having a great time bonding as a team and testing the limits of the story and the world. I don’t think they’ll remember the epic fight at the end, as much as they’ll remember the conversations they had.
It’s no wonder that podcasts of Dungeons and Dragons games are popular. Even Judi Dench has played this game – Vin Diesel taught her how. Collaborative art often has a commercial goal, but gamers are simply for the mutual joy of adventuring together.
That’s why I’ll always find my solace in the art of tabletop role-playing games.
Thanks to the very talented Ros for this wonderful piece! Check out her other work here: https://rosness.wordpress.com/about/