What Games Are Good For

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November 16, 2016 by dlnsctt

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what games are good for. I care a lot about games – I spent most of my energy as a child playing games, and I’ve spent much of my adult time and energy making games for other people. I went to a LARP camp as a kid called Wayfinder – I work there now as a staff member. I was introduced to roleplaying games through GURPS and 3.5, then came Scion and Pathfinder and DFRPG and Fiasco and 5e and all the rest of the games I love. I care about making games good, but more than that, I care about making GAMES, making sure they continue to exist. I think that some part of me is following a very childlike impulse, to share my fun with other people. “Check this out! Isn’t this fun?” For full effect, imagine a nasal-voiced bespectacled ragamuffin pulling back a bush to reveal a lost kingdom. “Isn’t this neat? Isn’t it just so cool? Now you try!”

In the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about fighting. I know that, going forward, me and people like me are going to be fighting a lot – dangerous government policies, dangerous ideas, dangerous people. Like many of you, I’m afraid for my safety and the safety of those I love. I cried when Obama was elected. He was the first person I voted for. I cried when my mothers’ marriage was legalized. I don’t want to go backward. I had hoped, foolishly, that we were “done” fighting for our rights. I see now how childish that idea is.  I’m afraid of this fight. I can’t even begin to imagine how scary it must be for people who aren’t cisgendered white men, like me.

Why then, do I find my mind going back to games? Habit? Maybe I’m just trying to escape reality.

I’ve been thinking about how much of my time I can spend on games. I’m Liam Neeson at the end of Schindler’s List, holding up his gold watch and wondering how many more Jews he could have saved if he had sold it. But I’m very small and weak, I can barely save anyone. Maybe one hour of calling Congress balances out the hour I spent coming up with fictional magical tomes. Maybe a signed petition or two, or five, or ten, can make up for the time I selfishly spent writing up monsters and plotlines. I don’t want to wake up one day and realize that I could have saved the world a little bit more, that I could have made the difference.

Given all of this, can I justify playing and making games anymore? Can any fantasist justify their profession? What good am I doing by doing this?

If you’re looking for a full-throated endorsement of fantasy right now, you’re looking in the wrong place. I went through the first stage of this in my teens, when I was trying to figure out if I could do what I loved and live up to my own moral expectations of myself. At the time, I decided that yes, it was worthwhile to create fantasy. GK Chesterton said “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten” or something close to it. I believe that. Books, theater, and criticism can and have changed the world, I thought. And even if they don’t, I believed (and still believe) that fiction is important regardless. Fiction is the deepest expression of our humanity – we can create people, places, entire worlds real enough that we care deeply about them, and in doing so we exercise the very thing that makes us people: the ability to simulate. In imagining the past, we simulate. In imagining possible futures, we simulate. In imagining that other people are real and have rich inner lives, we simulate, so well that it’s like our mind is reaching out to touch another. Our ability to understand anything depends on our ability to simulate, and the best way to practice simulation is fiction.

Games take that even further – you’re not only passively experiencing a story, you’re actively making one. All games do this, even non-narrative ones. Roleplaying games deserve special mention because they put you inside the mind of someone else. You cannot get into someone else’s head more thoroughly than when you’re confronted by a long series of difficult situations and forced to imagine what they would do. Further, play itself is good for you – in playing, we try new things in a safe environment, and we learn about the world, ourselves, and how to overcome difficulties. We learn how to solve problems. Play heals.

Even given all that, I don’t know if what I do is justified. What good are stories doing, right now? That’s where I’m at today. Is fiction, especially popular fiction, just a reflection of changing trends, or does it actually point the way toward a better future? Did Adventures of Huckleberry Finn help racist Southerners understand that black people are, before anything else, people? Did Inherit the Wind help McCarthyists see how ridiculous and dangerous their fear-mongering was? Or did these great works of fiction just hold up a mirror to a society that was already changing? Did they even give us a push?

What about games? What great social movements have games even supposedly shepherded into being?

I don’t have an easy answer to any of that right now. I still think fiction is necessary, and that play is very necessary, but I think we need to be acting on all levels simultaneously if we’re going to get anywhere. This includes the following: Make sure your fiction is good – I don’t mean well-written, I mean good like Superman does. Make stories about people who are very different from you, to help yourself and people like you understand them. Donate to good causes with the money you make from fiction, and pay attention to what fiction you’re spending your money on. Bring games and fiction to people who are spiritually impoverished – note that this doesn’t require you to forgive them for what they may have done, it just requires you to give them a chance to do better. Bring games and fiction to people who are literally impoverished, in any way. We can’t live a better future until we imagine it. Make fiction and games accessible to everyone, so we can all gain the benefits of play and simulation. Remember that everything is politics, even the solitary act of writing fiction, or the personal act of playing a game with someone. We don’t leave our morality at the door, and in fact, we have a moral obligation to do good with our games. Games are a powerful tool, if we let them be, if we use them for that purpose. If fiction just holds up a mirror, if you’re going to hold up a mirror, tilt it towards a better future. Sometimes we can only understand that we’re beautiful when someone shows us our good side.

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