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.