A little while ago, I went home to visit my parents and my 4-year-old adopted brother Teddy. (I only clarify that he is adopted because, as a 31 year old, when I tell people I have a 4 year old brother they give me funny looks like they’re doing math in their heads about my parents’ ages.) Teddy had been watching “How to Train Your Dragon” obsessively, and was absolutely in love with anything related to vikings or dragons. So one afternoon he wanted to take me dragon hunting with him.
The first thing to do was to properly equip ourselves. Being a little boy, my brother collects sticks, and he had claimed the very best stick in the whole yard as his own. It was about an inch and a half thick and shaped like a question mark. It was his dragon-slaying axe. I wanted to use a whiffle-bat, but Teddy did not approve of that weapon, and I was handed a stick. He wasn’t quite satisfied with my stick, and kept finding me new ones as we went along. “Here,” he would say. “This is a better sword.”
My parents own a small farm in East Tennessee, so there were a lot places to look for dragons. We went down by the creek, to the big tree by the back porch, and fought a few dragons in each place. (By which I mean we hit tree branches and bushes with our sticks and yelled a lot.) We stopped by Teddy’s “house ” (a pile of logs), went into the “dark woods” (a strip of trees and brush above the garden), got on a “boat” (the filbert tree, which is really more like a giant bush than a tree), and into a “sea cave” (under the same tree, we just went around it once to change locations!). In each location there were new dragons to fight.
I don’t live in Tennessee anymore, so I don’t get to spend much time with my brother, so that afternoon was really special. To be honest, I probably had as much fun as he did. And my parents encourage Teddy to use his imagination, but I don’t know how much they actually join him in games of pretend. I’d like to think he was thrilled to have somebody around who knew how to play!
It got me thinking about the real roots of gaming. We all learn at a very early age how to create imaginary worlds around us, and if we are lucky enough to have playmates, how to bring them into our imaginary world or go into theirs. I have been told that one phrase RPG designers use for this is “Shared Imaginary Space.” It is how a group of people at a gaming table can all be imagining the same thing (or close enough to the same thing that they can interact with the imagined world and still understand each other). As adult RPG players we use a lot of verbal descriptions to make this functional. So we may not be so aware of all the nonverbal cues that we also use. This covers everything from pantomime and hand gestures, to the voices we use as our characters, to subtle things like posture and eye movement. For example, one of my characters was a shy teenager, so I would hunch when I played her and avoid eye-contact when speaking in character. Another example: Jason, the GM, is introducing an NPC to us and he says “so this really big guy walks up to you, and wow, he’s really tall!” and he looks up, as if he’s looking at the guy. And we’re all looking up too, because Jason has just told us, not nearly so much with his words as with his eyes, exactly how tall this guy is and where we must look to make eye-contact with this giant of a dude who exists only in our shared imaginary space. Favorite example of shared imaginary space: We’re gaming, and our characters have found this widget (I can’t remember now what it was, or in fact, what we were playing – Earthdawn maybe). So Jason’s character has it and Myles wants his character to hold it so he can make some kind of roll to get more information about it, so he says, “Here, give me that.” So Jason pantomimes passing it to Myles. But the thing is, they are on opposite ends of the table and can’t physically reach each other, so Chris, who is in between them, without missing a beat and just as instinctively as if there had been a real object there, pantomimes passing the widget from Myles to Jason. At this point, our GM (who shall be spared by remaining nameless) flips his wig. He swears he has never seen anything like that. He’s been gaming for years, but not with us, and I guess his other gaming group wasn’t as comfortable with shared imaginary space as we were!
I’ve done a fair amount of LARPing (that’s Live Action Roleplay if you don’t know), where interacting physically in a shared imaginary space is how you play the game. How much of your environment is real and how much is imaginary depends mostly on what kind of locations your group has access to and how much money, time, and talent they are able to dedicate to setting, props, and costumes. I’ve played in the Camarilla (a White Wolf / World of Darkness LARP), where we played pretty much anywhere they would let us, including various University buildings, parks, bars, and for a short time, an aparment lobby. Some of us had costumes and some didn’t, and weapon-like props, no matter how unrealistic, were banned. The GM’s pretty much had to describe everything that was happening around us. I have also played in the Shadowmoor LARP (SOLAR), where costumes are mandatory and the plot team really goes all out on settings and props. We take over part of a state park, and run around in the woods whacking each other with foamy “weapons” (some of which look really cool!). In a way LARPing requires less imagination than table-top roleplaying, since you are really acting out what your character is doing and its not just all in your head. But in a way, it takes more, since you really have to know what is going on all the time and everyone will see if you don’t as you do something completely inappropriate. You can’t zone out, look up unrelated info in a rulebook, or (gasp!) play with your phone under the table.
Teddy is only four, and while he communicates pretty well for a little kid, he just doesn’t have the vocabulary to properly describe the things in his imagination. So we had to fall back on all those nonverbal cues. I found myself, without really thinking about it, following his movements, his hands, his eyes (and his stick!) to tell me where the dragons were, and I know he was watching me in the same way. It made me realize something else. The most important element of roleplaying is trust. Teddy didn’t ask me if I saw the dragons he was imagining. He didn’t ask me if I believed that the filbert tree was a boat, and he didn’t ask me if I understood that my stick was a sword for stabbing dragons. He just trusted that I was playing in the same imaginary space as he was. As adult roleplayers, we do the same whether we realize the importance of it or not. We trust that we are all imagining the same things, and that everyone will accept what you say your character is doing as valid. You have to trust that everyone is playing the same game. It’s when players stop trusting each other that things break down. Little kids know that. Why have some grown-ups forgotten?
So at the end of our adventure, Teddy was talking about the movie. (If you haven’t seen “How to Train Your Dragon” I highly recommend it!) “Hiccup had to make a choice,” he said. “He had to choose what side he was on.”
This is actually a pretty important turning point in the plot of the movie, and I was impressed that Teddy was paying attention to the plot and not just watching the dragons. “And what side did he choose to be on?” I asked him.
“The right side,” Teddy said proudly.
Wow. He was paying attention. So I tried to challenge him, to see how far I could push our little game of make-believe. “So what about us, Teddy? What side are we on?”
“The left side.”
Oh well. I love my baby brother. He makes me laugh.