What stops you from playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, or RuneQuest? Did you give these games a try back in the day and then move on from them as you got older? Did you, like so many people, find that more important things came along, filling up your life and leaving those games forgotten ever since?
The words of Worf, Son of Moag, from the television show “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, were words that deeply resonated with me when I first heard them. In a lot of ways, those words from a fictional character have become my words too.
“These are our stories. They tell us who we are.”Worf, Son of Moag
Stories of Imagination
I was playing way back in the early 1980s, when Dungeons & Dragons was the fastest selling adventure game in the world and before Apple created their first Macintosh computer. As a geeky high school student who was bullied by all the “cool” kids, I took shelter among a group of like-minded teenagers who liked to create heroic characters, explore forgotten dungeons, and roll funny-looking dice.
Since that time, I’ve kept playing. Even with a break when I went to University, I’ve been rolling those funny dice for more than 40 years and I’ve bought, read, and played more roleplaying game titles than I can list. To be honest, roleplaying games are the thing that have helped keep me broadly sane in the face of a busy career.
Here’s the thing that bugs me: over the years, I’ve watched dozens of friends and acquaintances drift away from the hobby they enjoyed because they simply couldn’t carve out the space it seemed to ask of them. This has left me with fewer players at my own gaming table, certainly, but it has also left me feeling really concerned about the whole situation. The truth is that we all need space for play. We all need to blow off steam and have a few laughs with friends. We are social animals, after all. So, I’ve been asking myself what to do about it.
Three Barriers To Play
There are three major barriers that I run into whenever I try to invite old gaming friends over for a game. There are certainly more than three in total – in fact, I have heard myriad reasons over the years – but for the purposes of getting us started, I want to start with just three.
I want to say up front, however, that I fully recognise that when a person invokes these reasons for leaving behind a game or a group, they are being honest. Their reasons for skipping a game will all seem sensible and their hearts are very much in the right place. But neither am I going to hold back when it comes to evaluating these barriers. I am going to tell you the truth, as far as I understand it. The way I see it, there are already plenty of voices out there who can tell you what you WANT to hear.
Remember: “These are our stories. They tell us who we are.”
1. People Who Don’t Understand
Has anyone out there got one or more significant others who, basically, don’t get it? For me, it started very early. My folks were complaining about my hobby almost from the moment it began, and certainly once I went to high school.
“If you put as much effort into your school work as you do in those silly games…”
“Are you playing games AGAIN? What is wrong with you?”
Later it got updated a little further. When I got a job with Games Workshop, the mantra became, “When are you going to get a PROPER job?”
Yeah, right. They just don’t get it. And that’s ok. I’m fairly convinced there’s an undiscovered gene for gaming. To be honest, I am pretty happy to be in the minority when comes to my interests.
Roleplaying games are a creative inspiration. From the moment my father brought home RuneQuest and, having looked through the boxed set, tossed it aside with disdain, I was drawn in. I squirreled that game away to my bedroom to investigate further.
What had grabbed my attention was the artwork on the cover. As I reverently took out the contents of the box, I was transfixed by the sense of something fantastic and raw and beautiful entering my life. While you might accuse me of mere nostalgia when I describe this, I vividly remember that opening that roleplaying game set felt like a spiritual experience to me. It was magical. It was wondrous. And I devoured the contents hungrily.
Do you remember feeling that way too? If you do, you’ll never be able to convince your parents or your partner, anyone who hasn’t experienced that wonder, that what you are doing is important. To them, it’s just a game.
“Why do you keep playing those silly games?”
“What is the fascination with those toys?”
And later, “How many of those books do you NEED?”
The litany of questions wears you down. Pressure from the significant others in our lives is bound to take a toll. I get it.
Did you find yourself wondering why you DO play these silly fantasy games? Did the voices all around you – from work, and family, and friends – did the voices cause you to second-guess yourself?
I have had plenty of moments where I’ve been looking at the tall stack of roleplaying games in my home and thought, “Why do I have all these?” After all, all my mates are grown up now. They have jobs and families and too many responsibilities to keep coming around here and playing hero.
But I won’t give in to self-doubt. Or guilt. Those games, the books that contain such wonder, are a source of inspiration and magic to me.
“These are our stories. They tell us who we are.”
2. Work, Rest, Crash
There is one big change that happens to most of us, when adults suddenly find they have some 40 to 80 hours less time every week. Yes, I’m talking about work.
I’m a high school teacher and, contrary to popular belief, we don’t just work from 9am until 3.30pm and then go home. According to research done by the NASUWT, the largest teaching Union in the UK, the average teacher works around 55 hours per week. I can remember times when, especially in my first year as a teacher, I was working nearer 80 hours. Judging from what my friends tell me, I reckon that there are very few working adults out there who don’t know what doing too many hours feels like.
So what’s the problem with work? Our bosses want us to meet the commitments outlined in our contract of employment. And they also want a few extra hours of effort on top of that. And then they want just a little bit more. You know, “any additional tasks required to fulfil your professional duties”.
If you’re lucky enough to enjoy your job then you probably don’t see this as a problem. Of course, and I know this from bitter experience in the past, if you hate your job then every moment is an exercise in will and determination. After all, we all need the pay cheque at the end of the week or month. So yeah. Work is going to suck up a big chunk of your time. We know that’s a given.
How does this impact our hobby? The story is simple: we find ourselves very active throughout the working day and, by the time we get home, we’re shattered – tired and worn-out. Be honest: how creative do you feel at the end of a busy working day?
Roleplaying games are a creative endeavour. They are also a social hobby. For me, running a game as the “Game Master” is very demanding of my mental energies. That is further compounded by my naturally introverted nature – the need I have to recharge my batteries on my own. But even if you are a rabid extrovert, you’ll probably admit that your energy levels are going to dip right after work.
The reality of 21st Century life, at least in Western Europe, is that we work far too many hours and far too hard. We end up crashing at the end of the working day. Our days off are spent recovering. That’s not a great recipe for being creative.
In fact, this imbalance between our working and personal lives is responsible for many of the wider ills in society – such as poor diet. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t have as much time as you know you SHOULD spend on cooking quality food and enjoying it at a sensible pace. I like to cook but, after work, I am drained and – frankly – curries and pizzas are really tempting. I’m not good with temptations like curry and pizza. You can tell just by looking at me.
And yet I need to call you out on this one: you are choosing this way of life. You have not said no to the demands being placed upon you at work and, consequently, you have little space left for anything else. We are all familiar with the stereotype of the working stiff who is never at home for the family. Most of us are far worse: we’re never at home with ourselves, let alone anyone else. Vegetating in front of the TV, drinking wine, and feeling sorry for ourselves instead of enjoying the finer experiences offered all around us.
The question I want to ask is this: When do you get to park all that responsibility and enjoy yourself?
There’s some pretty compelling science to suggest that human beings need time to play. On top of that, positive psychologists tell us that periods of joy have to be consciously created unless we want to live grey and boring lives.
You need to add colour to your days. If you truly do only live once, like so many people keep saying, then don’t you owe it to yourself to enjoy those days?
As Positive Psychology gurus Andy Cope and Andy Whittaker say in their excellent book, “The Art of Being Brilliant”:
“‘Busyness’ is a term that’s made it into the English language. In fact, it’s not just sneaked in quietly, it’s shoulder-barged in as a way of life.”
We live in an era of unprecedented busyness. We are all at it. All of the time.
If you’re old enough to remember memos then you’ll be reeling from the epidemic of email, social media posts, and texting that we deal with daily in the 21st Century. Frankly, it’s not sustainable and it’s no wonder that along with all the busyness we have an equal epidemic of mental illness.
Look, I don’t want to belittle anyone’s responsibilities. I just want to ask you whether carving out a couple of hours to play fantasy games doesn’t sound like a good break from running about like a blue-arsed fly?
When do you get to park all the responsibility and enjoy yourself?
3. Having Family
Full disclosure: I don’t have any kids. I just TEACH young people… and I always get to give them back afterwards! I realise that this fact will probably undermine my credibility with anyone who has children. I can’t do much about that.
I reckon the third big reason to stop gaming is because most people have kids to think about.
“Hey, sorry, but I have to stay home with the kids tonight.”
“Would love to come and game but it’s Little Johnny’s birthday.”
“Got to skip this weekend because we’re away with the family.”
There’s nothing wrong with those as reasons to skip a game. Who wouldn’t prioritise their family and time with their children over a game? But let’s be honest about what this is – this is you choosing to give up your hobby time in the name of family. Why do we assume that there’s a trade-off to be made between having fun and having a family?
Most people know how to schedule a meeting in their diary. They know how to put aside time for things that they perceive to be important. When you don’t schedule time for your roleplaying hobby, you are making it very clear that it’s not a priority anymore. And I think that’s an insidious, dangerous decision from a creative point of view.
Remember the first barrier? The voices around you telling you to grow up, be responsible, and get a proper job? When you choose a partner, and perhaps get married, our society expects you to say goodbye to the things of childhood and welcome in the new responsibilities of adulthood. Most people seem to accept this with little thought.
Who is to say that playing games is a thing of childhood? Yes, play is a thing that children do. But play is also a thing that all adults, especially healthy and creative adults, need to maintain. Even the psychologists have woken up to this need to play and are finally starting to be heard.
Look, you don’t need me to tell you that family is important. If you’re like my Dad, you believe that family is THE reason to be alive in the first place. And even if you don’t believe that, well, family is going to be a big responsibility in anyone’s life.
Let me ask you: Do we have to accept a societal expectation that tells us to give up our friends and hobbies once a child enters the picture? Aren’t you allowed to have your own space, a place of creativity and escape, even within the context of a big family?
Fast-forward to the time when your child enters the classroom of a teacher like me. My students arrive at eleven years of age. They are excited, nervous, and curious creatures who still have an active imagination. Despite the best efforts of our education system to beat their imagination out of them, if you give a bunch of teenagers a game like Dungeons & Dragons, you will see them pour their hearts into playing. Children are hungry, not to be consumers of product but to become creators of experience.
What kind of a parent do you want to be? A Dad who comes home from work, drinks a beer, and collapses in front of the TV? A Mum who works, pulls the second shift doing the housework, and doesn’t have time or energy for anything else? What kind of a role model is that for your son or daughter?
Once the baby arrives, it’s a game changer for the new family. We all understand that, at least in the short term. Even work gets put on hold for at least a week or two once you have a new child. New parents are tired and ragged and grumpy. The last thing they want to do is roll funny-looking dice. And that’s natural. It’s right and proper. We do understand if that’s your situation.
And yet my experience tells me that once the fun and games stop, those parents never take it up again. Most families don’t stop at one kid. By the time the first child is a year or two old, they’ve had a second. The habits of the past are broken and their fantasy stories are long-forgotten.
“These are our stories. They tell us who we are.”
More Than Silly Games
Roleplaying games are not just a minor creative outlet or mere silly games. They are a foundational creative endeavour through which people can escape the mundane experience of life and enter a wonderland of possibilities.
Whether you choose to create a pretty detailed and earnest simulation, with intricate characterisation and interactions, or you choose a light-hearted action romp through a dungeon, it doesn’t much matter. The roleplaying game is all about the choices you make. It can be just about as personal and expansive as you choose.
As a friend said to me, as soon as you think about running a game it’s time to start drawing maps, writing story lines, and imagining characters. These are the avenues of creativity which have, for 40 or more years, inspired me and many around me. It seems very wrong for us to let that all fade away because we didn’t make time in our diaries.
I want to explore the routes back to the table with you. While it was certainly worthwhile to talk about some of the barriers to gaming, I want instead to turn the focus towards overcoming those barriers. To learn to hurdle them.
We don’t need to believe it when people tell us that our passionate imaginations are childish. We can slowly take back the time that bosses have tried to steal from us. And we can certainly honour our children by sharing the rich heritage of fantasy and science fiction that inspires us.
Let’s come back to the table. Pick up the funny-looking dice. Imagine again.
Truthfully, until recently, gaming felt like it ate up too much of my personal time. But then something shifted in my psyche. Just as I was ready to give up – and I really did put all my gaming on hiatus at one point. But just as I was ready to give up, some different perspectives filtered their way into my life.
I’ve got a lot of great ideas that I’ve picked up from around the hobby community to share with you. Can you make a space in your life for some hobby? If you can carve out a couple of hours once a month, I’ll show you how to fill it.
Sound like that might be fun? Is it even a little tempting to jump back in and take a look at roleplaying games in a new way?