Imagine a group of people playing Dungeons & Dragons, or playing board games, or larping.
Now – take what you pictured and burn it … because unless you’re already in the club, you really don’t know a thing about games.
Please don’t take offense – I am very new to games myself and still crushing hard on them.
But, when I’m excited about a topic, I tend to go all in: I read all the books, find the blogs and podcasts to follow, and basically just learn as much as I can until I feel confident enough to claim my interest publicly. I suppose that I officially came out as a gamer this past weekend as I attended my first game convention – GameStorm of Portland, Oregon. From Thursday to Sunday I larped, played and told stories with new friends – so I’m filled with ideas, excitement, and a growing list of games I want to play.
I’ll shout it from the mountain tops that the best thing you can do to improve your communication, empathy, and confidence is to play analog games.
Basic Game Dictionary
First, some simple definitions. At its most basic, an analog game is an event where a group of people take turns taking actions towards a goal – though even the goal is negotiable and the players usually don’t all have the same one.
A board or card game is played with dice, cards, a board, miniature figures, and all sorts of apparatus from cranes worn on headbands to 3D trains to chopsticks. They can tell abstract stories like chess, or involve detailed backstories, history, economies, maps and game mechanics that reinforce the feeling of the game. They also do not need to be competitive, for instance a game where you fight to stop a pandemic, or explore a haunted house.
Dungeons & Dragons is a role-playing game or RPG – and it is just one of many in this genre of game where a group of people are building a world, creating characters, and telling a story collaboratively. The game master plays all the non-player characters and presents challenges that the players try to solve in whatever way they want! Each character usually has strengths and weaknesses that are defined numerically and when they propose doing an action they roll a dice or use some other way to randomly generate a number to see if they beat the threshold for success (set by the game master). That is about it. You can tell any type of story with those basics: epic fantasy yes – but it can also be a fantasy system based on fighting for your personal beliefs, or it can be about: urban fantasy, female fighter pilots, the verse, the effects of technology , horror, being punk rock stars, vampires, vampires spies, vampires at prom, tribal warriors, maids, rabbits … literally anything you can imagine.
Live action role-playing, or larp, often uses the same concepts as RPG to structure play, but everyone is moving around, fully embodying characters and interacting. You can participate in a fantasy larp – but also a zombie, post apocalypse, Hogwarts, caveman, or a vampire cocktail party larp. Then there are indie and nordic larps that are really art performances and explorations of human emotion – they can have themes like getting older, dealing with death, the fear of cancer in your family.
Are you intrigued? I hope so – here are five more reasons you should make analog games your newest hobby.
It’s easy to get started with Analog Gaming.
Games are not always easy to understand at first – but the best games allow you to scaffold your way to more complicated play or learn more about the world and playing as you go along. There is usually not a lot of cost or complicated machinery needed to play games.
For RPGs, you literally just need pen and paper (and an online random number generator if you don’t have dice). You don’t need to be in the same room – or even the same time zone! I play DnD every week with my brother across the country. Playing virtually isn’t ideal, but it is nice to be able to play with him every week, and online tools like roll20 help you both play online and find people to play with! Also – check meetup.com, or your friendly local game store to see if they have any groups that you could join for that in person experience.
Board games require – the game – which may be costly, but are the same as the cost of a movie date with 10x the hours of fun to be had. Also many bars and game stores (and game stores that have bars in them) offer game libraries so you can try out games.
Costuming for larps can be as simple or extensive as you want – what is more important is that you really try to play your character and participate to make sure the game develops in a fun way for all.
Mostly what analog games take are time and a willingness to be vulnerable – putting your ideas out there, asking people to play with you and taking risks.
You can learn. A lot.
If you followed any of the links above you saw the wide variety of themes that analog games cover – these are not always exactly accurate (the primary focus is often fun over fact) but they do allow you to see and experience things outside your norm. However the deeper things that analog games teach are the most valuable.
During RPGs and larps one of the first things you learn is how to work together – both in the story and as players. People have different things they want out of a game, and in order for it to continue you have to talk thru issues, agree on rules and generally support each other through the story. Working through problems with others improve your critical thinking and problem solving because you are truly getting the chance to view the problem through the multiple lenses of your fellow players and your own characters.
Playing RPGs or larps you also improve as a storyteller, which is good for your brain. Playing as another character helps improve your empathy – particularly in indie RPG systems like Burning wheel or Apocalypse World where you are asked to really work with your characters beliefs and emotions. Two things I overheard at GameStorm pretty well exemplify this.
“I spend all year waiting for the con so I can be different people.”
“For me it’s (playing) the mayor – its the one time people listen to me. I have people deferring to me who had no reason to out of game.”
Personal growth is not limited to RPGs however – board games also have a lot to teach as Geek and Sundry point out with gems like these: being behind doesn’t always mean that you’re losing, taking a different path sometimes gives you the best results, and the dice can roll either way, don’t blame yourself. Larps and particularly nordic larp are pushing the boundaries by incorporating ways to play romance, sex, and physical touch – this not only keeps larps innovative – but also allows them to address some very serious topics safely and respectfully. Often larps are actually trying to create ‘bleed’ or experiences that stay with you and effect your life.
There are new and exciting things coming out all the time.
As you can tell from the examples I gave above, the field of what is out there is wide and diverse. No matter what your interest we can find a game that tickles your fancy. One of the premier sources of information is Board Game Geek – though it is a little overwhelming at first – I normally go right for the video reviews that they list because then you can actually see the game and how it is played. There is a growing field of reviewers, both on podcast and youtube so you can get a taste of anything before you commit to buying it or playing it for a few hours! In particular, Will Wheaton’s tabletop is a popular video show.
There is room for everyone in the community.
At GameStorm, there were people of ages, genders and abilities. I felt very comfortable there and I appreciated their forethought by offering both approachability bracelets and pronoun stickers for name tags! While the community is still dominated by men – in my forays into gaming I have never felt discouraged or alienated because of my gender. If you’re worried watch these ladies kick butt in dnd or read about all the reasons that tabletop games are great for everyone.
Particularly in the indie RPG community people are working to be inclusive of all people and types of play, it definitely isn’t all macho hack and slash. The community is working to establish structures that allow people to safely push the envelop – with hand signals to help make sure everyone gets a chance to speak and table signs that people can tap if they are ok or getting uncomfortable with a topic. At Game storm I played Night Witches as a member of the real life female bombing regiment of the soviet army in WWII. I also played a relaxing and gentle game where we stated our personal intention for spring and then rolled and stacked dice taking turns describing what we would add to our own imaginary garden or how nature was affecting it depending on our roll. Maybe that sounds boring to you, but everyone at my table left with such a pleasant and relaxed feeling.
There are a lot of people interested in analog games “ICv2, a consulting firm, reckons it is worth $880 million a year in America and Canada alone.” The video above is from the largest game convention in the world that is held every year in Germany.
This is a hobby with a growing and diverse community that you can’t participate in alone. You need to get out there, talk with and meet new people. And as I mentioned above the community is diverse – what I like best about analog gaming is that you can’t predict beforehand who will enrich the game the most. The shy person may be able to do the best accent and never break character, elevating the experience for everyone – or that loud mouth guy you were worried about may surprise you with his concern for the party’s well fare and helpfulness in telling other people’s stories. The whole experience is dependent on acts of social kindness from individuals to the group – the sort of ‘yes and’ mentality that makes an improv skit work. You’re building something together that you couldn’t alone.
And as I said I’m really excited about games and their possibilities – so much so that I’m also planning to make some of my own! When the cost of developing a board game or RPG is just time and your willingness to get people to play-test it because all you need is pen and paper – barriers to entry are really low.
So even if you can’t find the game for you – make it!
This article was originally posted on the Everyday Ambassador blog on March 25, 2016.