Why We Play

Political posts don’t normally appear in this space. But almost everybody I know has expressed fear about a Donald Trump presidency. That fear separates itself into a series of questions about RPGs and similar hobbies. I want to answer those questions for myself, plus an additional and important one: “Why do we play role-playing games?”

Why do we play role-playing games?

I’m going to ask and answer this question again at the end. For now, we’ll settle on the usual summary: “to have fun”.

Am I allowed to have fun right now?

I can’t give a voice to anyone else’s interior world, but in mine, the first question is this: "Am I allowed to have fun in a Trump presidency?" Am I betraying my principles, my friends, or my country if I have fun? Shouldn’t I be out being a political activist? Shouldn’t I be donating my time and attention to “real”, or at least more worthy, causes? Am I slacking off if I’m not out there on the streets being hosed down by the fuzz?

During World War 1, the Christmas truce of 1914 was a break from the fighting. Soldiers of opposing armies would stop firing. They did something out of character for wartime: they’d talk to the enemy. Some exchanged personal effects. There was even a football game. Of course the brass came down on them hard, and the horrors of war followed. But for that year of the war, humanity prevailed.

Historian Tony Ashworth gave this explanation: the system "gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence." We have to give ourselves the same control. We are what we surround ourselves with. We can’t let ourselves be defined by the opposition, even if our actions are in protest to it.

Will RPGs be fun?

Sometimes we play games for catharsis (“I just want to blow stuff up”). Other times we play for immersion (“I want to tell a happy story to get away from this depressing news”). Role-playing games often reflect our hopes and fears. If we spend time thinking about something, it’s natural that our hobbies will reflect that.

Our troubles often stay with us until we feel some resolution. We’re unlikely to experience that soon if our trouble is a four-year presidency. Different people have different solutions to that problem. But until it’s really something we’re over, it’ll stay with us, coloring our lives and experiences. Even if we play games to get away, Trump will still sit on our shoulder like an imp, whispering anxieties in our ears.

My answer for this is that having fun is a choice. The world is like a vast dark territory, and our attention is like a spotlight, illuminating parts of it. We can guide that spotlight to the areas we want. We don’t have to forget that Trump ever happened, but we can put it from our minds for a time.

Meditation is about mindfulness: focusing on one thing to the exclusion of outside distractions. Just sitting in one position, feeling yourself breathe, can be a meditation. So can focusing on one other activity, like a roleplaying game. The way to get a song out of your head is to let it finish. Until then, it’ll just keep playing. The way to get a problem out of your head is to pick up another problem. I want to play games to challenge and surprise myself, but also to pull myself away from my daily woes so I can get back to them fresh later on.

What RPGs will be fun for me?

At this point in my life, I want two types of games: light escapist fantasy fare, or character-centric narratives. There’s some overlap, but mostly I want to tell stories rather than kill orcs.

Grand Adventure is the game I most want to play. Or at least, it’s meant to embody the sort of play that I want. Characters moving forward, doing interesting things, facing challenges, making discoveries.

Why? Because it reinforces the feelings I have of hope and optimism. And I will need those feelings when I get back to dealing with America’s current political climate. If we are what we surround ourselves with, then I want to surround myself with good feelings and positive moods.

Visualization is powerful. We’ve found that even visualizing exercise can help build muscle, boost health, aid success, and enhance confidence. If I feel good in my mind, everything else will follow.

Why do we play role-playing games, redux?

I need to feel in control of my situation, at least in part. I can’t afford to be overwhelmed by my feelings about our current politics. I need not just a distraction, but a positive counter-experience. Finally, I need to choose a game that will help create that experience for me.

In short, not only do I play to have fun, but to remind myself that fun is possible. Yes, people are hurting, and I can’t ignore that. But I also can’t fix every instance of it that I find. I have to know what I can tackle, know how big a bite I can take off of the situation. Playing a game prepares me for that process. If I can conquer fear and hate in my mind, I’m preparing myself to beat it in the real world too.