Image by Justablink
Friends and brothers in arms,
Every morning, I wake up to a plethora of news about the wrongs in the world. The weight often seems overwhelming. What can we individuals do to contribute to fixings the ills of the world? The editorial page is rife with the words of concerned citizens calling us to action. Often, they inspire hope and motions that help us feel like we, given enough time, can overcome anything.
Yet no matter how many times I separate my cardboard into the little blue bin, no matter how often turn off the lights when I leave a room, no matter how much I let it mellow when it’s yellow, I still find a world in dire straits the following day. These actions are simply not cutting it. They give us perceived agency, but really they’re just chicken soup for the aware soul.
I tell you this not because I think we’re acting in futility. Even while we keep our eyes on the stars, we need to remember that our feet must remain firmly planted on the ground. Small steps can grant us agency, can allow us a sense of accomplishment, and can enable future generations to build from what we’re beginning.
That change can begin with pen and paper role playing games.
You may be rolling your eyes and wondering how this could be an answer to our problems. If RPGs are the answer, why haven’t we done this before?
On the surface, role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons may evoke images of Frodo prancing through a sea of orcs. However, digging deep, beyond geeky role playing games based on Doctor Who and Firefly, beyond dark literary games like Call of Cthulhu and Lord of the Rings, beyond otherworldly references to Asian mythology like Exalted or William Gibson’s Cyberpunk, role playing games offer us as great a range of experience as any medium combined with the truest sense of agency available. In role playing games, you make the choices, you face the moral decisions, and you have the infinite possibilities only available in that plane of true freedom known as the imagination.
Filling a room with all the manuals and editions available can cost a small fortune. It’s a huge surprise then that libraries simply choose not to carry guides and manuals, where such expensive references should be available to the public. Gizmodo, an online tech news outlet, states that libraries are still affected by the malicious attacks of fundamentalists that claimed role playing games led to satanism and witchcraft. They also point out the heinous rumor that guidebooks rank as the most “stolen books.”
These criticisms are easy to dismiss. Witchcraft and Satanism are no more encouraged by role playing games than ethnic genocide is caused by chess. Theft is unproven and a claim the authors of the Gizmodo article intend to study more fully, especially given the minimal number of copies kept by libraries to be stolen in the first place.
So far, we have recognized that we have serious problems in the world. We’ve also discussed the reasons for the lack of pen and paper role playing books in libraries and addressed their flaws. Yet it may still seem a mystery as to how these games can help.
When it comes to social issues, selfishness and lack of empathy have been at the heart of the discussion. From institutional racism to bigotry to ethnic genocide, the alienation of the other is where our dehumanization begins. In RPGs, not only are you provided the opportunity to play as even more extreme others, but RPGs give players the opportunity to experience both cognitive and emotional empathy. The social nature of RPGs demands learning to deal with rude, selfish players. They create a culture in which a Level 3 halfling thief and a Level 20 orc shaman can coexist and work together to rid the multiverse of evil. And RPGs grant players the skills needed to not only cultivate empathy in themselves, but spread it to their brethren.
RPGs, which require dice, reading, writing, and critical thinking, offer a perfect intersection to addressing our educational woes by encouraging literacy and math skills. Sessions often last for hours, addressing issues of attention deficit, and the mobility that pens, paper and an imagination offer allow us to move outside, addressing concerns of swaddling our youth in the trappings of technology and urbanization. The art of painting miniatures, making maps, acting, and improv offer a direct connection to the arts. Not to mention the possibility of LARPing in which great feats of agility and strategy have allowed even the most indoor of kids to practice physical fitness.
So what can you do? Donate your old DM guidebooks. Organize at your local gaming store. Make RPGs a regular part of life. Talk about your playing with friends so as to destigmatize RPG culture. Most importantly, write or speak to your librarian.
You may think that writing your librarian about RPGs is a strange and silly solution, but it can truly make a difference. Every day, your congressmen and senators get hundreds of calls and letters, most that must be ignored by sheer volume. Your librarian, on the other hand, spends their time cultivating our knowledge. They receive few if any letters, and will more readily hear your voice than any politician. Libraries are venues at which we can make ourselves heard, albeit quietly, and the difference can start there.
Now let me assure you that getting your local library to carry RPGs will not be an instant fix. It will take years of making RPGs a cultural norm to instill the values that will save us. Today, though, by taking action now, you can ensure a bright future for the children of the world, one where their imagination truly is the limit. Your small steps can prove that we do have agency and can enable our children in the quest to make real change.
Gaming Aficionado and Caring Citizen of World
I wondered what percentage of the universe I could actually see from my perch beneath the yellow street lamp. One thousandth of a percent? One millionth? I could see a half-dozen stars and twice that many planes crossing the night sky. How is someone supposed to feel insignificant and alone when civilization keeps reminding them there’s no escape?
At least I had the bus stop to myself. “I want to hold your hand,” crooned the smooth Motown voice through my earbuds. I reached into my pocket and half-pulled my phone out, as if I’d be judged by the whole lot of nobody there. It was Al Green and, if the schedule was right, I could enjoy it in solitude for a whopping three minutes before I’d be collected by the bus. As I tucked my phone into my pocket, I spotted a figure marching up the street, glancing furtively over his shoulder.
“It’s 3-5 minutes out,” I wanted to tell him. He looked right through me as he approached, not quite meeting my gaze. He glanced again over his shoulder and stopped in the shadows beneath a tree maybe ten feet from the platform that extended from the sidewalk. Just come ask me, I thought, waiting for him to approach. The bus still wasn’t in view.
He pulled out his phone, slowly flicking his fingers across the screen. Every few moments, he’d glance back at the road for the bus, then back at his screen, waiting for the schedule to load. You could’ve just asked me, I thought. But the moment was past and the bus was approaching.
When I got on the bus, it was shockingly full for this time of night. “Everybody’s talkin’ at me. I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’,” sang Bill Withers as I surveyed the bus for a spot. “Only echoes of my mind.” Every set of seats save one had a person in it. I climbed into the empty row, pulling my loaded backpack on top of my lap. The other man from the stop slid awkwardly into a seat next to another gentleman and quickly fumbled in his lap trying to get his earbuds in.
When did we become so afraid of human interaction, I wondered. Of course, I was equally guilty. Two thirds of the bus had headphones or earbuds in, myself included. I tried to watch people in the lit reflections of the windows, constantly nervous that someone would see me and talk to me. I began listing the reasons I wanted to be away from people: I was tired, I was grody, I hadn’t showered that day, I couldn’t find a clean work shirt, so I grabbed one out of the laundry basket. I told myself I was working on homework in my head, writing essays, playing with words, but honestly, I was writing this and wondering what was wrong with me.
“Thank you,” I called as I slipped off the bus. We spilled out like a mob fleeing a disaster, bodies flowing quickly away from the oversized sardine can that delivered us. I scanned my wallet, escaping the plebeian station for the solitude of the enclosed bike parking thanks to the magic of RFID. I could hear chains rattling and see people passing outside my protective box.
But that’s the beauty of biking. I do it alone even when I do it with people. “I’m a lucky loser, yes I am,” hollered James Carr as I mounted my bike and began to weave through the Saturday night crowds, grateful I wasn’t among them.
I sped down the hill into the cold darkness of the bike path, finally feeling insignificant, lost in the hurtling speed of moment, considering that even at my fastest, I was moving slower than the slowest of stars. I vanished into the universe, just another speck.]]>
I woke up with my stomach in knots the next day, and it only got worse with time. Since then, I keep rewriting that email in my head. I keep wondering if I said everything correctly, if I slammed a door I meant to close gently or perhaps not close at all. In some ways, it got the desired result; it ended communication. That’s exactly what I felt I needed. But now I’m not so sure.
I spent the spring fighting with myself, fighting with her. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes extremely hard. Sometimes I felt as though my desires were winning, and others it was clear they lost. When I finally broke (and that’s the operative word as I was broken for weeks), I didn’t stop fighting. Instead of fighting for my desires, I began fighting against them. I spent months convincing myself that she was right, that I was wrong, inventing reasons for us not to be together.
When all else failed, I used the adage “fake it til you make it.” I chased other girls, but none seemed to do. I pretended to be happy, but if I let up, the misery came flooding back.
This fall, only a few weeks ago, I had the busiest week of my summer, and all thought of her seemed to fade for the first time in months. The constant bickering in my head, the disappointment in myself, the barrage of negative emotion faded. I felt, for the first time, like I could move on.
The sense of normalcy lasted a whopping three days.
Mid-morning, I received a message from her. For the first time in nearly four miserable months, she had reached out. It was brief and straight-forward. And yet, it split me open again.
My response was equally brief and straight-forward, and I figured that would be the end of it. But we started to talk, only for twenty minutes, all online. And it felt better than expected.
Immediately after I walked away to head back to my life, my mind was filled with questions of why. Why was she reaching out? What did she want? Was this a good idea?
I stumbled through my day, constantly distracted, constantly at odds. When I got home that night, felt the only thing to do was at least comment on my surprise and see what she said. “I’m surprised we’re talking at all,” I said.
Her response came the next day in what felt like a quick dismissal. “fair enough,” it said plainly, no capitalization or punctuation. And I felt like shit.
It was as if we had broken up all over again. I felt the loss of her in my life, the fighting voices a raucous cacophony in my head. The one difference was that instead of happening slowly over a matter of weeks or months, it all poured out in a matter of hours.
I faked my way through my day, pretending it was all alright. And that brings us right back to the beginning, three apologies: one for not biting my tongue, one for all the things I didn’t get to apologize for before, and one for the future.
As I sat there, reading over the email, I thought it was as good as it could get. It cut things off in what I felt was an acceptable manner and made it clear that I needed a dialog if she wanted things to continue in any fashion.
There hasn’t been any contact since then. I’m not surprised, yet I am disappointed. Even though I suspected I wouldn’t hear from her, part of me was hopeful that we could talk and at least get the closure I’d been lacking for so long. Instead, I’m left slowly getting over her once more, wondering if I did the right thing in the right way.
I’m worried I’ll never know, but I guess that’s what I’ve been worried about all along.
I hate the fact that I have to start this that way, but I feel like an asshole again, so the only proper thing to do is to apologize again. I feel like an asshole for being confused, surprised, and, most of all, for expressing it honestly. I’ve never lied to you. In avoiding being blunt and upfront yesterday, I certainly hid the truth and came damn close to offering outright falsehoods to hide how I feel.
I haven’t been happy since we were last together. I spent the entirety of my spring arguing that we had no reason to end things and the entirety of my summer trying to convince myself that I was wrong and we had every reason. Apparently, I’m a stubborn jackass, because I still can’t convince myself there was a good reason to end things.
That being said, there are several things I have been able to convince myself of: 1) I was wrong to let my self-consciousness get to me, to wonder what you wanted and to question your motives. You have every right to not know what you wanted or want. 2) Some contact wouldn’t work. I was/am too attached, regardless of how you felt. You made it clear that it needed to be all or nothing and all wasn’t something you could do. 3) You may not have realized this, since I certainly didn’t, but in the tumultuous madness that is my life, I was holding on to you as the one point of stability. Given the way you felt exiting grad school and searching for what’s next, that wasn’t fair nor right.
In all those regards, I’m sorry.
The truth is that I’m not over you. No matter how hard I try, no matter how far I feel I’ve come, I’m still reminded of you every day, whether that’s at work, at school, at home, or on a date (which is likely why there haven’t been any second dates). And just when I thought I was at a point where things would get easier, you messaged me. I spent two hours walking around, formulating a response, trying to make it respectful, kind, appreciative, and not in any way encouraging of a response.
And yet you responded. Suddenly, we were talking, even for one brief moment, and I was shocked. I was shocked at myself, that the mass of anger and bitterness wasn’t pouring out. I was shocked that it felt so easy. And I was shocked that, when you disappeared for a moment and I had to leave, I felt pangs of loss like I hadn’t in weeks.
I don’t feel comfortable asking what you want anymore. I don’t think it’s right to request clarification on why we’re speaking or what you hope to gain by talking to me. But for me, unless you can say, “I just want a friend,” or, “I miss you and want to explore getting back together,” or even, “I don’t know but I’m willing to talk about it,” I don’t know that I can afford to continue to talk to you. I don’t know that I can emotionally handle having you back in my life and losing you again. And I don’t know that I can even give you an answer were you to say any of those things.
So here’s the tl;dr: You need to offer me at least the possibility of an answer before we speak again. And if you can’t do that, then I hope your move goes well, I hope you’re happy here, and I hope it’s not as awkward as I know it will be if and when our paths cross again.
And for that, and anything and everything else, I’m sorry.
“When you go to a museum,” he said, “you look at the painting, observe it, take it in. Then you look down and read the little plaque. Does the picture have meaning before you read the plaque? Does its meaning change because of the plaque?”
I wasn’t happy with this contemplation, thinking about how I consumed art and how that consumption was controlled by small plaques, tour guides, and everything but the art itself. In the context of my class deconstructing post-modernism, this was exactly the sort of uncomfortable feeling my professor wanted to instill. I soon found myself reading the plaque as a separate work when standing at galleries, wondering how my judgement of art worked, wondering if I could appreciate the art for itself without the context. I would wander through, staring at the art, actively ignoring he plaque, not caring about the context.
But often the plaque was a validation for me. That’s a Van Gogh, I’d think before glancing at the small brass trophy as if it were the backside of a Trivial Pursuit card. If I were right, I would get the endorphin rush of winning at Jeopardy; if I were wrong, I’d get the joy of learning and be able to look once more and try to spot why I thought it was Van Gogh instead of Cezanne or whomever. Regardless, no matter how hard I tried, the plaques remained a part of my art world experience.
Yesterday, our camp went to the Denver Museum of Art. I haven’t been there in two years, the last time a camp at which I was working headed there on a field trip. In my previous trip, travelling through the museum with the oldest kids, grades 4-7, allowed me to have fascinating conversations, give them a bit more freedom, and really enjoy the experience. This time, however, I was with 2nd and 3rd graders; this time, I felt as though I was herding cats.
The kids ran from picture to picture, sculpture to sculpture, never pausing long enough to truly take it in, often spreading like a disease across each gallery, ducking around patrons and visitors. Whenever we reached an interactive portion, they would descend like wild hyenas, devouring whatever paper, stamps, scissors and pencils were there with which to grab, scribble and cut. To be honest, I preferred this to the alternative.
In many galleries, the Denver Museum of Art has moved with the times, installing ipads and interactive video screens in an attempt to offer more information and a touch of the modern day. These screens were like kid magnets. They didn’t care what was on them, often pounding buttons just to watch the flashing colors, never sitting through even a 10-second snippet of the videos they pulled up. They didn’t observe the art and wonder why these people were talking or what they were talking about.
“Where are the games?” they would ask.
“Where are the cartoons?” they’d whine.
These tablets are nouveaux plaques, adding context and meaning. But how much meaning can they add when the kids won’t actually look at the art with more than a passing glance.
And I, meanwhile, would be pulling one or two kids back in with cries of annoyance or worry as four others burned into the outer recesses of our group like a fire in the wind.
I was shocked to see a giant Land O’ Lakes box in the Native American gallery. A little further, the kids congregated around a ginormous pack of American Spirits.
I tried to grab the opportunity.
“Who do you think chose to put pictures of Native Americans on these things?” I asked.
“The Indians!” cried some.
“I dunno,” said a few.
“No, it wasn’t the Indians,” said a few others.
“Then who?” I asked. “Would you want your face plastered on a pack of cigarettes?”
“No!” they yelled.
“What about packs of butter?”
“I would,” said one boy with a mischievous grin.
“How would you feel if you image showed up on stuff and no one asked you if they could.”
“Bad,” I heard them say. “Angry.”
“So who has the right to decide what your picture is used for?” I didn’t even think of telling them that every time they’re out in public, anyone can snap their photo and use it in the press. I didn’t even think of telling them that the lines of ownership of one’s own image isn’t as black and white as we feel it to be. Instead, I basked in the singular moment in the entire day where the whole group, even the fast and loose troublemakers stood there, staring at artwork, thinking.
In the next gallery, they fought over a couch with ipods and headphones, playing music intended to enhance the African art. They chopped up cardboard and punched holes, using twist ties to create found art… or merely to chop up cardboard and punch holes. And soon, they were fighting over who got to stand closest to a panoply of screens in the shape of a man and trying to figure out a seven and a half-minute clip show of people from movies and TV on phones.
On the bus ride home, I was at once relieved I had survived the museum with them. No one had smeared a painting, no one had knocked over a sculpture, and no one had broken the elevator. Still, watching them ignore art, ignore history, and ignore myriad interesting things for small tablets locked into walls, comfy chairs intended for contemplation and rest, and abuse every interactive element they could find left me sad.
I wonder how much I have contributed to their screen addiction. When it’s late in the day and I’m tired, I’ve handed my phone to a kid with a game pulled up. When they can’t find a playmate and I don’t have time to play with them, or worse yet don’t want to, I’ve given in to the stopgap of technology as a quick fix. And when they ask me a question that a YouTube video, wiki page, or Google image search can answer better than I can, I’ve held the phone up like a holy grail and let them jockey and push for a better view.
On the bus ride home, I glanced around and saw five counselors, their heads buried in their phones beneath seats. Every once in a while one would look up and yell at a kid to sit down or pull their feet out of the aisle or stop sticking their hand out of the window. Slowly, I tucked my phone away, since I often used bus time to check in on texts and emails. I was left feeling guilty of the example we were setting.
As an arbiter of technology with the kids at work, I like to think I do a better job than mom or dad, who probably abuse it more often out of frustration and annoyance. Then again, given the way these kids gravitated toward screens and ignored the discussions I tried to initiate, perhaps I’m still contributing too much. When I see the other staff pulling out their phones and collecting at the staff table rather than integrating with the kids, it’s really started eating at me.
And what makes it worse is that a small part of me wishes I couldn’t care just as much.]]>
I remember this moment where I was standing on the edge of a car accident watching people be loaded and lifted into the ambulance, watching the tears streaming down the faces of uninjured bystanders and the stern glares of police and emergency workers as I darted back and forth trying to capture it all. I glanced over the viewfinder and took in the scene without the distance of the camera clutched in my hands. There was no focus on the lens, no technical details I needed to consider, no framing. I paused, I breathed, and I watched.
And then I ducked once more and began snapping anew.
There have been plenty of people who have argued that cameras allow distance from the experience. I know I became so focused on recording my experiences when traveling, I had to remind myself to actually have the experiences as well. I no longer travel with a camera because of that. Well, that and the fact that my camera is beat to hell and doesn’t even qualify as the trailing edge of technology at this point.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of escaping to Northern Colorado with a wonderful collection of friends. I’m only tertiarily related to the crew, as the main impetus was a reunion of a sort and I’m old friends with the spouse of one alum, yet I love spending time with these people.
Still, over the course of the few days we were there together, I was struck by how everyone, including myself, gravitated toward these moments of solitude together, staring at our phones, our thumbs flicking away. For me, it was primarily my obsession with Words with Friends, reading comics or checking email. For many of the others, it was the constant photos and maintenance of said photos.
I love the fact that my friends want to take photos and commemorate the moment. I also appreciate that all of us spent time attached to our screens. When we didn’t have our phones up, there was no question we were engaged with each other, enjoying jokes, stories, conversation, and the pleasant surroundings; yet I wonder if everyone else disengaged in the same way I do when my phone appears in my hand and that small glowing screen pulls me out of the moment.
My last relationship being long distance, I spent a great deal of moments sneaking my phone up at points when I likely shouldn’t. It wasn’t the same level of disengagement as I loved having her constant presence and even when my phone wasn’t open or up, I would consider our most recent messages and formulate replies and questions. It was a peppering of usage, one she often pointed out stating, “you’re much better at multitasking than I am.” To me, however, I never felt neglectful of those around me by pulling my phone out (but perhaps I’m wrong about that), and it was only when I could rationalize her being as much or greater a priority than the other tasks around me.
During our games, our conversations, our hikes, our meals this past weekend, phones would appear, snap a photo or two and disappear. Cries of “Oh my god! It’s so pretty!” would be immediately followed by glowing screens and tapping fingers. In the moment, this rarely perturbed me, but in retrospect, I wonder how things might feel different without the technology.
In the morning, I would wake long before the others, slap some earbuds in and make coffee, listening to podcasts while I drew or wrote. When the others finally rose, my earbuds and phone would be cast aside at my earliest convenience. And yet my hand would gravitate toward my pocket every time I saw someone else casually flicking their screen, scrolling through their email or social media. Sometimes, I consciously resisted; others, I pulled out my phone, unlocked my screen, and did a quick check of all that didn’t matter.
Every year on my birthday I turn off the world. This year, I failed at that. I had spent the previous day with friends and was slowly driving back and needed my phone for navigation. It was a good thing too, as 2/3rds of the way home, I realized I had forgotten things and was forced to turn around.
The reason I disconnect, as I’ve stated previously, is because the flood of contact wears on me. On most days of the year, I have a handful of messages and that’s all. On my birthday, every Facebook acquaintance, distant relative, and business seem to want my attention, and it’s overwhelming. This year, as I drove home, my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. I felt unadulterated anger and fear constantly, worried I had forgotten something else, only to find it was just another happy birthday wish. The moment I arrived at my final destination, I shut down my phone, but I still felt on edge for hours after. Despite several invites to join others for activities, I ended up staying in, neither seeing nor talking to anyone, happy to finally be left to my solitude.
It’s almost an irony that on my birthday, this shirking of technology allows me to be alone. Any other day of the year, pulling my phone out actually provides the same experience, only I’m disconnecting from the world around me, be it a loud and crowded bar or a virtual break from work.
One of the great ironies of my journey to the mountains was that my close high school friend through whom I know everyone was one of the last people I know who used his cell phone to text or connect. He remains one of the few people I know who isn’t on Facebook. I remember his bittersweet dismay at taking up texting when his relationship with his now wife got serious. In high school, we gamed heavily on the computer, and he still works in IT, yet he prefers to spend his free time free of screens and technology.
I, on the other hand, am glued to technology, and, outside of writing or gaming, it simply seems to frustrate and bother me. With my camera, the solution was giving it up. With my phone, it can’t be that easy. I don’t know of a good solution, as my phone is my connection to school, work, and friends. Perhaps scheduling times I can use it or leaving it behind more often or just turning it off.
Then again, the next time I find myself in a relationship, maybe I’ll feel the need to prioritize it in the same way, once more letting my emotions drag me into the gateway that is my phone.]]>