Sunday, April 10, 2011

When Worlds Collide: Confessions from the Liberal Environmentalist Subculture

I run in some pretty leftist circles. Yeah, that's right. I'm that hippie tree-hugging chick, wondering why you're poisoning your body with diet soda and conventionally grown vegetables. I'm that crazy lady surrounded by dogs (not all my own) who's excited about growing her own food. I'm that pain in the butt who keeps writing to her congressional representatives, the ones who are supposed to represent her views, her wishes, her hopes for our nation, and demanding that they actually do so. I'm also that odd girl who aspires to go to church during all of Holy Week (and all of Bright Week as well) if it wasn't for the fact that gas is just so darned expensive and she's too new to the community to know anyone to carpool with. Oh, right, and I'm that annoying girl on Facebook who keeps getting on the soapbox about how terrified she is about the bees dying, the possibility of food shortages, the criminal abuses of government agencies like the FDA, and wondering how in the world we're going to have a peaceful revolution.

I'm kind of active in these circles, and I believe in the changes we all want to make, both on a large scale within the culture, and in small doses in our individual lives. But there's something most of them don't know about me. It's my dirty little secret.

I... am a gamer.

Yes, that's right. A gamer. I play Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy/science fiction role-playing games, using my imagination and a handful of dice. I also play computer games and console games, although without a console system, I limit those games to when I visit friends. I have played MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games; my game of choice was Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning) with people I've never met, typing in my comments or coordinating with other players using Ventrilo, a voice-over internet protocol software widely used by gamers. I like board games and card games too, especially when they have a science fiction theme.

I have heard gaming vilified in my more hippie-type communities (think all the social change without the drugs and the indiscriminate sex), and I usually end up keeping my mouth shut. I'm new in my community, and alienating people right off the bat is not my intention. But I just feel like they are speaking out of turn, not out of experience but from the outside looking in.

So I want to set some things straight about gaming, about the myths surrounding it, and also about its benefits.

Gaming, both tabletop (D&D) and video, does not simply attract introverted nerds lacking in social graces. While some people meeting this description also happen to game, they also happen to practice law and medicine and run businesses, perhaps even run for political office. Gamers are actually quite often open, fun people who also happen to be creative and intelligent, who enjoy engaging in play-based problem solving sessions.

Gaming also does not lead to violence. While some people who become violent may game, it is not necessarily a causal relationship. It's kind of like saying "All these violent people ate pickles, therefore pickles must make people violent." The pickle isn't the culprit, and the explanation of course doesn't explain the millions of pickle-eaters (and gamers) who don't turn out to be violent.

(What is far more frightening is that a lot of the teens and young adults who have become violent in public places like schools have been on psychotropic medications such as antidepressants, which are known to change brain chemistry, but which were not tested on adolescent patients to determine their effect. Interestingly, those medications have been subsequently found to make young subjects more violent to themselves and others. But Heaven forbid we anger the monstrosity that is Big Pharma by calling attention to these side effects they think should remain in obscurity.)

What I propose is that gaming is more of a psychological exercise that allows people to explore patterns of behavior in a safe context. Tabletop RPGs (role-playing games) are particularly good at this. One plays a character and behaves as that character would in all sorts of situations, from diplomatic discussion to combat. Does this character have loyalty as a core value, and in that case, how will she behave in a combat situation where one of her comrades falls? Because actual people inhabit and play the characters, it permits the player to experience these ethical situations in proxy. In D&D, a chaotic neutral character will act only in his own interest and will only take others into consideration if he profits from it. Lawful evil characters will work toward destruction, domination, and oppression, but they will at least follow a code of conduct. (Chaotic evil will not - think Blackwater, or the Bush administration). From a Jungian psychological standpoint, it is an excellent time to encounter and familiarize ourselves with aspects of our psyche that may be hidden or suppressed, or that may be just beginning to grow and develop. It would even be a good chance to explore some of the dynamics of a very familiar archetypal pattern, and to maybe play out and bring to light the reasons why this pattern so attracts us.

(Incidentally, I know few people who have played an evil character in D&D, except for DMs - dungeon masters - who had evil characters interacting with the players in his/her game. People are generally pretty decent and want to play decent, if flawed, characters.)

Even video games can help us experience things we would not have encountered in our daily lives. Console games (and their PC versions) give us visceral feelings of empathy and involvement in the worlds they create for us. Jane McGonigal gave a TEDtalk recently where she talked about gamers being a huge human resource for problem-solving skills. The problem, and McGonigal seems to agree, is that gamers (and not just gamers but lots of other people too) find this world rather meaningless.

See, we are completely alienated from any feeling of agency in our world. We can work our buns off, go into debt, pay off some debt (maybe), go to school, have families, and still not feel as if our lives have had an impact on the world. No matter how hard we work, most of us still see our politicians ignoring our needs, our government becoming ever more corrupt, and the social fabric of our lives deteriorate. And where many would try to find solace, in their religious institutions, they so often find more corruption, and hateful rhetoric that discourages us from hope, from connection with others, from love. (I am grateful that my Church does not do this, but I have been in churches where hateful speech is used frequently, and the news is full of the transgressions of religious leaders.) Is it any wonder that people retreat into gaming worlds?

Gamers are amazing in that they will engage in, and even create, worlds that have meaning for them. I am happily one of them. I am happy to play a character who, like myself, wants to change his or her world but, unlike myself, has a particular skill set which allows him or her to actually do so.

As Jane McGonigal suggests, what we need to do now, is reintroduce all that talent, hope, creativity, innovation, and meaning back into the "real" world.

In other posts, I may talk about specific games I play and enjoy, because I want people to understand the possibilities of gaming. But for right now, I'm just going to disclose this dirty little secret of mine. I love gaming, and I'm proud of it. I have the ability to use my imagination to inhabit characters who can positively impact their worlds. I have the motivation to remain with a quest that might help the world and the people around me, as long as I have the hope that I can have an impact.

Wouldn't anyone do the same?

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