Guest Column: The Healing Power of Playing Make Believe

The healing power of children’s laughter is undisputed. I was reminded of this on a recent opportunity to escape my quarantine, since coronavirus shut down cities across the United States. I went to the beach and was moved to tears by my friend’s willingness to touch me, and because of the intensity of joy radiating from our youngest beach goer. I realized, amid the longing to be touched, I held residual historic trauma lingering from old beliefs of seeing black people as dirty animals.

I wonder where we lose this ability to tap into the well spring of joy that happens somewhere along to the way to adulthood. My father died when I was young. I am not alone in my struggle to tap joy the way children do, though. It cannot be tragedy alone that derails this access. The ironic positive outcome of my father’s death so young are the important lessons I learned, and have had a lifetime to practice. It may also have given me a heightened focus on death, and how adults interact with each other and children regarding the only thing that is certain in life.

Late To The Party

I was late to the gaming party. My first love was ballroom dancing. After an accident ended my competitive dancing career, I sought other creative hobbies and found improv. I have always adored a good story, from movies, to opera, to puppet shows to good old fashioned sit on the floor with the other children story time at the library. Stories were a way for me to connect to child-joy through adjacency. In our effort to educate children, we make stuff really fun that we shame adults from participating in. My grandfather was the storyteller of my family and I was immediately giddy when he would begin his characteristic entry into the stories we heard every year at holidays and family gatherings. I was always the first one on the floor at his feet. I didn’t know the seed was germinating, until it flowered when I stepped onto the improv stage.

Improv is make-believe wrapped in adult-approved packaging. It helped heal the gaping hole in my heart left by the absence of dancing. Then my improv partner introduced me to my gateway drug game, Fiasco from Jason Morningstar and Bully Pulpit Games. I found Fiasco easy to play, endlessly entertaining, and wildly addictive. By the end of my first game, I knew two things: I wanted to play again as soon as possible, and my Dungeons and Dragons so-called friends had lied to me! My D&D friends never told me RPG’s could be so relationship-narrative driven, or tell stories about more than wizards and powers and obliterating entire demon species that felt a little too close to racism. They never told me games could tell stories that included me, not just as the character I assumed, but the real life person I become anew each day.

Role playing games are instructions of the game’s goal, how many players it accommodates and what equipment you need, usually lots and lots of dice. Some RPGs include manufactured cards, maps or other mechanics around which you build your world and the characters who dwell within. Fiasco was a book. So, I went where I go for knowledge and books, my public library. No Fiasco. I searched for role playing games and found surprisingly little. I then turned to the sticky interwebs. Four hours later, Fiasco was on order, along with 14 other games I discovered through the online store’s filter identifying games developed by people of color, queer and non-binary folks. I was well out of the D&D woods into an equally mystical playground where characters play out slave narratives in Julia Ellingboe‘s Steal Away Jordan, love that goes beyond heteronormativity is explored in Alex Roberts‘ Star Crossed , and girls can be the protagonist in their own destinies. I could have been playing these games so long ago, had I known they existed.

My First and Second Cons

Seven months after playing Fiasco, I attended my first gaming convention. I never imagined my dance competition training would seamlessly transfer to endless hours of gaming. I signed up to run my beloved Fiasco and when encouraged to run a second game option, chose Steal Away Jordan, where I as the game master would be the slave master and the player characters are all slaves. The irony of this demographic role reversal was not lost on me. I knew I had found my people.

My games went very well. I loved what I later learned was a smaller slice of the convention run by Games on Demand, but outside of that tiny corner, people walked around in ways that seemed counter to dance events and conferences I have attended. I thought we had come together in a common goal, which usually creates camaraderie. Instead, I felt invisible in ways I experience in real life, when I thought we were here to play together. I was disillusioned and had no intention of ever crossing the threshold of another gaming convention.

I met L.A.-based con organizer Tomer Gurantz at the last socializing event of that convention. He lured me with promises of lots of gamers who also happened to be people of color because of intentional planning led by gamers of color. I ended up attending Big Bad Con on the other side of the country, glimpsing how a gaming convention can create community. This is where I saw more of the healing power of games.

At Big Bad Con, I met gamers from around the world, learned game mechanics and stories I never dreamed of, and laid the other myth of gaming (the other one being D&D=RPG) to rest: that Live Action Role Playing (LARP) is basically dressing up to play D&D in the literal woods. I had gotten a hint of what LARPing could be at my first convention. Todd Nicolas described Gone, his game where player characters embody objects left behind that speak with the one who remains. I didn’t play the game, but was immediately reminded of my father’s objects that I retain despite their disrepair.

I spent my first convention only running games, but I spent BBC only playing games. My top picks were both LARPS. The Viewing by Jackson Tegu, where player characters come together for the viewing of a deceased parent, and my favorite game of the weekend, Revived: a Support Group for the Partially Deceased by Kat Jones, where characters explore being partially deceased at a support group. These games were so much fun. It was also not lost on me that I spent many gaming hours being partially deceased and interacting with family while saying goodbye to the fully deceased father our player characters collectively created.

I never imagined gaming would help to heal the wounds of a family and culture that didn’t know what to do with a grieving child, silently heartbroken over her father’s premature death. I knew my character’s siblings were not my siblings. I knew our dead father was not my dead father. Yet it was enough like the truth to feel cathartic in being able to explore things I had never been able to. Maybe that distance allowed me process my own experiences concerning my father’s death. Just one more thing to love about gaming, and another reason to let the child within come out to play.

The best part of the convention was its ending. During my long flight home, my first game wrote itself. As promised, BBC centered people of color and helped me discover that I bring unique super powers to gaming. Sure, I have factory issued brown girl magic, but I also bring cartography skills I can offer the gaming community right now, even as I continue to grow as a game developer and player. Finding my place and empowerment to weave stories that reflect who I am and what I look like is a healing balm like no other.

Games Can Heal

Websites devoted to gamer health like CheckPoint, foundations geared to healing children through playing games like Child’s Play, and games that normalize adversity like The White Door, extend healing to communities that have often been marginalized, and are becoming more regular. The best part is there is room for so many more threads to the tapestry.

If you are new or old to gaming, come out, come out, wherever you are. Let’s play.

4 thoughts on “Guest Column: The Healing Power of Playing Make Believe”

  1. I’ve seen your impressive improv skills but didn’t expect they could be seamlessly woven into a wonderful essay

  2. Thank you for putting into words some of the emotion and heart and soul that is what so many of us find in RPGs and larps and games… and also sometimes what we struggle to find in those same communities. I hope others that read these words and are looking for their pocket of people and loved ones will eventually do so. Looking forward to more wonderfully crafted articles!

    1. Thank you for being of the RPG LARP world. Big Bad Con really showed me how much power we have as individuals to bring more healing into the world, and that there is room for us all.

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