Lives, or the Other Reason Why I Do It

So as I mentioned in the last post, preparing for my WFRP LARP I encountered one of the reasons I love games – the power of shifting realities and creating life. But as I also mentioned in the last post, WFRP is a game rife with racism, and it was down that road that I found an incredible moment in the LARP’s execution this Sunday.

Losing four players in short succession, we ran out of understudies and I had to step in as the Halfling. I had explained to the players that stereotyping and prejudice was as much a part of the WFRP as our own ugly world and indeed, they were happy to play it up. None so well then the fantastic actor playing his first LARP and taking the role of our highest ranked attendant, the noble Lord Dunkelhaus. He played his privilege to the hilt, treating everything with the nose-shrivelling disdain of a man who saw being in meagre surroundings as a personal insult – and delivered plenty of insults as he did so. And I, knowing my place, tugged my forelock and asked him for another.

And then at one point, he called me a racial slur. A fantastical one, to be sure, but it had the perfect cadence of a real one. And I had a moment. A moment of rage. Of burning embarrassment and aggrievance. I was cut to the bone, and I almost whipped my head around and told him off. But then I had that other part of the experience. The sense of fear, and the following sense of terrible, terrible shame, when you realize he’s allowed to do that. And in fact, everyone is, but him especially. I might be able to keep my job if I tell off a lowly boozehound for that word, but his lordship can beat me with a stick within an inch of my life if he wants, and he is certainly allowed to throw a slur at me, and smile as I welcome it. It’s okay, sir, I let him know with my smile. We understand each other. I know my place. And I’m complicit in my own oppression.

I’m not pretending I suddenly experienced the misery of apartheid, or that I for a moment thought I was a fantasy halfling, although I’m sure people will accuse me of madness since they always do when this topic comes up. But it was a real moment, and a real emotion. I recognized the shame I used to feel when I kowtowed to my school bullies, when I played their game and smiled to tell them I was okay with them hurting me. But for the first time ever, I felt a racial sting with it. The power of a slur. I finally get, actually really get why even hearing a word like the n-word, no matter the context, would sting like a blow to the face.

Don’t tell me I’m overstating it. Games have a power, through either immersion or submersion or the wonderful way they combine the two, to teach us things our own imagination can’t get to on its own. Even other kinds of creativity, interaction or immersion can’t get us quite the same way. We can imagine as much as we want what it is to be a Roman, or a Nazi Soldier, we can wear the clothes, we can walk the ruins and the battlefields – and I have done so, across the world, seeking kinship with the ghosts of the past, we can stand in a room perfectly recreated as it once was, filled with the light and life and people of the time….but until something is at stake, it won’t have an edge. That’s what gaming is: imagination, plus a stake.  And it’s the stake that sharpens the blade, and lets the imagination actually cut deep.

And that’s why games have always been political, and things like the boardgames Freedom or Train or RPGs like Steal Away Jordan or my own Daughters of Exile (hem hem) are much more than just fancy thought experiments. Games make it matter. Which is why games matter. They have a power to teach, and to teach true understanding, on a level beyond all our other art forms.

Every century has its own art form. The 21st century belongs to the game. For this and other reasons.

Alive, or Why I Do It

This Sunday I’m running my now world-famous WFRP LARP, Sunset Claws for the third time. Over the last two weeks I’ve been arranging things, assigning roles and updating folk using the wonders of social media. Yesterday I was explaining that Warhammer is a setting which does not pretend racism doesn’t exist, but rather puts the racism front and centre, but that the purpose of this is to satirize such attitudes, to reflect the smallness of human beings, not celebrate it as a good idea. Thus, I ended, while the game space is safe for all races, cultures, genders and sexualities, we encourage you to watch your purse around those thieving halflings and don’t talk to dwarves they’re all drunken louts who’ve never done a days work in their lives.

Then this happened:

Player 1: it is those poncey tree hugging elvish types to be looking out for, always with their nose in a scroll and you never see one drink a decent beer.

Player 2 (playing an Elf): I beg your pardon?

Player 3: he said “it is those poncey tree hugging elvish types to be looking out for”. I’m surprised you didn’t hear him, what with those big ears of yours.

And like that, it was alive. Like Dr Frankenstein, I laughed to see my creation stand and walk unassisted. And this was all just on Facebook, remember. The spark was lit already. The game had flared into life.

I write LARPs the same way I write table-top adventures: I create strong characters that lead to interesting conflicts. And I do it for this precise joy: to see those ideas come to life. For that moment when a character that was just an idea, in my head, steps out of that prison and walks across the room and talks to other people.

I write RPGs for the same reasons, too. One of my all-time favourite WFRP moments was when my then-GM was describing a village gutted by skaven and I realized he was drawing direct inspiration from my bit in the skaven sourcebook about how spooky said villages are. I also love, more than anything, seeing my art notes turned into art. Part of it is ego: to have ideas made concrete like that is such a wonderful way to reinforce the worth of those ideas. But part of it is also about the wonder of creating life.

All games have this same idea. I love that the scenarios I created for Betrayal at House on the Hill capture the player’s imagination and drive them to act in certain ways, taking simple mechanical concepts and bringing them to life. Many of my other hobbies line up along similar lines. I love the way improv humour can create a whole suite of ideas from nothing. The way theatre can turn a box on an empty stage into a mushroom in a forest, because you want to go there. It’s why I love cartooning, too, much more than other comics, because it’s just a bunch of squiggles, but it’s alive, because of the human ability to look for faces and identity and life wherever we can. I adore puppetry because of how it takes cloth and string and makes it alive. I prefer it to CGI because CGIs too smooth, because then I don’t have to work, and that means I don’t see the act of birth, the transformation into life. The moment when the rabbit becomes the duck.

I LOVE that moment. And that’s the thing, I don’t just love it being alive, I love it COMING alive, and I love things where the two points are close enough that you get to ride the line. And it’s why I love things which break the fourth wall, because then you constantly get to ride that line again. Theatre, even when it doesn’t directly break that line, is always like this too because the actors are right there, you can touch them, they are talking to you, yet they are also in space or Athens or whatever. Theatre lives in the space where the rabbit becomes the duck. So does cartoons, with its understanding that you’re not drawing the object but the idea of the object. So does puppetry where you can see the man working the puppet, even see his lips moving yet at the same time your mind perfectly accepts the idea that the puppet is autonomous. All these live in that same rabbit-duck change-space.

And so does gaming. It asks us – no, better, it FORCES US – to enter a false reality, to accept it totally because the mechanics make us, but at no time do we leave our seats. It takes my simple ideas, and people wear them over their own personalities, and create something new. And because the barrier between the two worlds is so thin and so easily breached, you get to cross it back and forth constantly. One minute you’re the character, then the author, then the audience, then the MST3K bots making fun; you can be yourself playing an actor who is playing a character in a TV show that only exists in the roleplaying game you’re playing. And you get to make this joke nigh-constantly:

A: Right, I think we should attack C, because he’s a treacherous bastard.

B: Me too – oh you mean in the game…

And that’s why I love and play and write games. Because why settle for seeing just one reality at a time when you can see a dozen all at once, and watch them flip back and forth as you move your point of view ever so slightly. A walk between worlds, where every picture isn’t just a rabbit or a duck, but both – and more. Talk about value. And what a rush. And that’s why I do it.