Make Believe… For Adults

A post about why you should still be playing make-believe…

Last weekend I played a game with my niece. It was a simple game, each of us had a piece of bread, cucumber, or carrot – which was filled with deadly poison…  but! Of course we were both immune to the poison in our own food. We would take turns eating some of our food and trying to convince the other to take a bite.

I’d take a bite of my carrot and say, “See this carrot is really okay! It is sooo delicious! You have to try some!”

Eventually my poor, unsuspecting niece would take a bite of the carrot. “Oke, nu ga ik echt dood!” She would exclaim. Rough translation from Dutch: “Okay, now I am really dying!”

Then she would fall on the table, dead, and it was my job to revive her with a bunch of kisses. Once she had risen from the dead it was her turn to trick me into eating a piece of her bread.

As we played the game evolved – it soon took tickles to raise someone from the dead, then whispering secrets, and then a single kiss from grandma (because grandma’s kisses are the strongest in the world of course!) We played this game for a good 45 minutes as the rules changed, the food changed, and the script we’d use to convince each other to eat the poisonous food mutated. Each person freely added different aspects to the game to create a unique mutable narrative.

It was awesome.

Once Upon a Time

A few days later I had some (grownup) friends over and we played a couple of rounds of Once Upon a Time. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, the basics are: Every person gets a hand of cards with different story elements on them – characters, aspects, events, etc. and they also get one ending card with something along the lines of , “They killed the witch and lived happily ever after.” The goal of the game is to tell a collaborative story and steer the story towards your end card.

There are a few rules in Once Upon a Time. When you get to your end card to ‘win’ you must have an empty hand. To empty your hand you interrupt the story a person is telling with one of your cards matching what they just said and you take over the story. For example, if the person mentions a princess and you have a card with a princess on it, you can put it down and take over the story. Then, the person must draw a card and wait until the next moment they can interrupt the story and take over. Also, it’s important to note that the rules of ‘good improv’ apply in this game – you couldn’t erase what someone said or say, “no that didn’t happen.”

Cards from Once Upon a Time

Playing Once Upon a Time with my friends was a lot of fun – we were together, we were laughing, we were joking, but it was fundamentally different than playing the poison game with my niece. While this was a game meant to be all about telling a good story there was less freedom and less acceptance of every new story element. And I would argue that as a pure gaming experience, the game I played with my niece was more valuable, more honest, and a more creative gaming experience compared to the games of Once Upon a Time.

Saying No

As we grow up we learn to say no. This is a good thing. It helps us to communicate what we like and don’t like, what we want and what we don’t want. The ability to communicate well is integral to our relationship with others and therefore saying ‘no’ is utterly important.

However, as we grow up we  also learn new ways to express unhappiness in something – we ignore, we question, or in worse cases we mock. Again, useful ways to communicate, but sometimes when it comes to games this learned behavior can destroy the whole meaning of playing a game.

Another thing we learn as adults is that games have winners and losers. In role play games this is less defined, for example in many games just surviving is a ‘win’. However, the condition is there. And even in story games there is a goal, a point, a condition for us to say, “this was successful” – even is successful means you did everything to create a meaningful story.

Sometimes these modifiers ruin the fun you can have of pure discovery–the joy of acceptance you have when you let go of what your preconceived notions are of what a game should be and accept a game for what it is. As adults we are less willing to accept what others put forward, to work with their ideas, build upon them, and accept when they change. We want to influence with our own ideas, shape concepts, in essence – we are less selfless.

Now, I am sure every parent who has pried their crying child off shopping mall floor is going to remind me – kids are far from selfless and they sure as heck know how to say “no”. True, fair point. And, as adults, it is ultimately amazing that we feel the need to build, shape, and influence. Plus, skepticism keeps us out of danger.

A Point

However, I urge you once in a while in your role play games to try and go back to when you were a child and playing make believe. Feel the true wonder and excitement when your friend comes up with an idea. Instead of putting your own stamp on it – run with their idea. Cheer them on and explore what it feels like to totally just accept what someone else says. Make it your reality. Live in the moment, rather than thinking about your character’s next step, or to put it better – worrying about your character’s next steps.

I’m definitely not saying throw out all rules in all games and just run around doing whatever you want all the time. But sometimes, it’s good to challenge yourself as a gamer. Challenge means growth and acceptance of that brings a lot of fun to a game.

Go back to a time when you were four years old, your aunt just poisoned you, and kiss from your grandma is the only thing that would wake you up.

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