Welcome back folks! This is the fifth entry in our series about the importance of play. If you're just joining us, this series starts here. It also refers from time to time to our series about games last year which you can find here.
I've already covered this topic to some degree in the post on games, sharing culture, and connecting people: games, by providing a framework for interaction, enable a connection between people that requires no other common experience - there's no need to share an age, class, culture, occupation, or anything else; even a common language can be optional.
What I didn't do in that post was call out the fact that this means games and play can not only strengthen bonds that are already there, but work to break down the barriers that artificially divide us - or, if you prefer, to regrow the bonds of our common humanity that have been artificially severed.
They can do this in two ways, which we might label the "active" and "passive" modes.
The active mode is by using the stakes-free experimentation of play and the many tools at games' disposal to explore and undermine the false rationales that justify the mistreatment and exclusion of individuals for things other than the actual consequences of their behaviour.
For instance, games can abstract the systems and dynamics that foster bigotry and division from the specifics of their circumstances. Done well, this can not only give us a certain critical distance and a chance to see them from outside, just as well-written fiction can do, but even to inhabit other positions in those pecking orders. Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyed" sessions can be taken as a relatively extreme, intentionally highly emotional, and not entirely unproblematic example of this.
(Two notes: First, to the extent that calling Elliot's necessarily unfun sessions of behaviour-according-to-arbitrary-rules "games" is a fair description - and before accusing me of trivialising them, bear in mind that I do not consider games any more inherently trivial, or slaves to entertainment, than books are - I would point out that they constitute another example of games tackling vital subjects in ways other media simply cannot.
Second, just as with fiction and other poetic ways to instil empathy or vicarious experience, there are limits on how much insight can be offered. After all, even if for the duration of the work the experience of persecution is simulated perfectly, the simple fact of knowing that it will end - and that you probably have control of when it will end - utterly transforms the experience. It's similar with any draining experience. Being a carer for an abusive invalid, having water drip on your forehead at irregular intervals, even the mild tedium of involuntary social isolation can drive you insane if you don't know when it will end. One of the strengths of Elliot's approach is that just as her blue-eyed audience are starting to refuse to take it any more, she takes that point - that they want to opt out of this arbitrary BS, but you don't get to do that with real-world oppression - and drills it home, by inviting people who have experienced ongoing racism to tell those stories at a time when their audience are primed to be receptive.)
Other games exist that seek to consciously explore these issues: Steal Away Jordan, dys4ia, Dog Eat Dog, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, This War of Mine, and many more. While all these work in different and fascinating ways, and are worth your time and attention, I'd actually argue that besides the value of addressing these divisions consciously and intellectually, play and games do a great job of overcoming them experientially.
This is what I mean by the "passive" mode. Whether or not a game sets out to make us think about these issues, simply by giving us a chance to spend time in the company of those different from us on a somewhat more equal footing - because a game doesn't care who's playing it - we start to break down those barriers. Having to rely on ideas and stereotypes for our understanding of whole groups of people inevitably results in us thinking of them, and relating to them, in those terms. Having experience of a range of specific individuals from those groups means we can relate to them as people, and start to see what they have in common with other people in our life, lessening the power of the group identifier in our reflexive, emotional thinking, and bringing individual humans back into focus.
Again, I'm not asserting that just having a good time together (assuming we can see past our prejudices enough to do so in the first place) is a substitute for actually reflecting on and consciously attempting to dismantle the systems, symbols and generalisations that shape our lives in destructive ways. The bigot who sincerely thinks that <almost all X are terrible people, just not the X he happens to know, who are actually really lovely (for X), which proves he's not a bigot> is a genuine phenomenon, as well as a joke.
But that experience of the humanity of others is an indispensible complement to that more analytic approach: we are emotional, instinctive creatures as well as intellectual ones, and moment-to-moment most of us live in (and react from) our emotions at least as much as we do our intellects. Just as much of a joke (and just as tragic a joke) as the bigot-despite-his-own-experience is the idealist who understands intellectually that we're all equal and decries discrimination in principle, but who somehow still can't quite get comfortable with Those People - or help them feel comfortable around her.
It's possible to change ourselves at those primitive levels by sheer force of reason, but it's extraordinarily hard and almost never produces any kind of social ease. The best and fastest way to shift those basic, primal levels of our thought is by direct experience: by simply spending time enjoying ourselves in the company of people who are, in some way that matters more than it should, unlike us. And games and play give us a framework for doing exactly that: somewhere to bond together over shared effort and experience, where nothing is really at stake to prime our fear and anxiety responses.
You can imagine how these sorts of positive shared experiences could be provided ancillary to other media (book clubs, art appreciation societies, or what have you), all of which are very much to be encouraged. But only in games and similar playful experiences are they innate - and indeed beneficial, because arbitrary social barriers restrict the pool of possible fellow-players - to the form. Games and play give us an inherent incentive to make room in our lives for others as they really are, not as we think of them or as they are represented by someone else. That's pretty amazing stuff.
This third installment in the series is pretty exciting for me - I have been a fan of Ms Ellingboe's ever since I first came across her indie RPGs, and in fact they were one of the early examples that helped wake me up to the possibility that games could, like fiction, tackle serious issues in ways that seemed likely to help people learn and deal with them constructively, while still being - in fact, because of being - engaging... and even, given a non-trivialising definition of the word, entertaining. But enough of me gushing - on with the interview!
Thanks so much for joining us, Julia! Can you give our readers a brief bio?
I'm a part-time freelance editor, writer, and roleplaying game designer. When not telling stories or writing, I am the human resources manager at my local food co-op. Having missed my chance to become an itinerant storyteller, my work draws on various folkloric traditions, such as African American slave narratives, Japanese kaidan stories, and the Francis J. Child Ballads. My work includes Steal Away Jordan: Stories from American’s Peculiar Institution, Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, and short fiction. I have a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Biblical Literature from Smith College (where I got almost all my library work experience). You can find my short stories in several anthologies from Stone Skin Press and Broken Eye Books.
[Quick editor's note: As you'd expect from the source material, both the games listed above potentially deal with mature themes. As is usually the case with story games, this will largely be the product of the group that plays them, and they are excellent, so don't hesitate to check them out - but if you still have a trace of that unconscious "games=kids" assumption, don't apply it here! These games were written by an adult for a mature audience.]
Thank you! What is your history with/past experience of libraries?
I started working in libraries when I was in college, and continued to work in academic libraries and a public library for about eight years after college. In my junior year, I was an art library assistant. After I graduated, I worked at our local public library for about a year and then got a job at my alma mater as a circulation assistant. I worked there for about five years. Then for two years I managed the college library's storage facility. When I worked at the college library, I was the chair of our library staff development group ("LSD"). My alma mater has a wonderful alumnae benefit that allows us to borrow from the college libraries and use online journal and ebook databases like JStor and Project Muse, which I've used fairly regularly in the 19 years since I finished college.
So it's fair to say you have a passing familiarity with the library world then! What is your current sense of where libraries are, both in general and in relation to games?
In my area of the country, libraries are one of the first town resources to be cut. We've seen the hours in my local city library reduced and nearby town libraries shut down completely. I think people assume that now that there's so much free stuff online, brick and mortar libraries are practically obsolete. What we forget is that libraries provide access to so much more than books. They provide free access to the internet to people who don't have computers, they offer educational programs to both adults and children, they are social hubs and safety zones.
I don't have a good sense of where libraries are with games. That said, a few years ago, a librarian friend of mine invited my neighbor (another game designer) and me to do a workshop for teens on creative writing and game design. This was part of her regular teen tabletop role-playing game group. I've seen my own game as well as others in public library collections. Game books and board games--heck, even video games--fit in just fine in libraries!
Where do you see this going, and where could it go?
I recently, finally came across a Little Free Library in my town. I'm going to put a copy of my game and a few others in it this weekend. [Ed: this was a week and a bit back, so some lucky person may already have found it!] Anything that offers access to books is awesome to me. Micro-libraries and Little Free Libraries have their limitations, though. You can bring the book home and never play it. On the other hand, library-sponsored game days and gaming clubs at brick and mortar libraries would be great ways to bring in new patrons and keep current patrons coming.
Thanks once again to Julia for her time!