Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Gather at the Table

Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest.”

Johan Huizinga

It’s that time of year again. We make plans to visit friends or family. Someone prepares a meal, others bring drinks and snacks. Hopefully we don’t have too much anxiety that everyone gets along and carefully laid plans come together. Time to clean the house and prepare the table as everyone gathers. We set up our rulebooks, scenario notes, gamemaster screen, favorite dice. Wait...are we here to celebrate Thanksgiving or play games?

The typical Thanksgiving holiday and gaming share many similar elements. We gather together around a table or similar shared space for a celebration, one of thankfulness and another of play and imagination. Each has a symbolic purpose grounded in some form of play: the recreation (to some degree) of the mythical first Thanksgiving, the immersion in an interactive game that mirrors some reality, however fantastic. One provides an opportunity for reflection, the other for entertainment, and both for taking a break from the normal, often tedious routine of our everyday lives. Both require some degree of preparation – of food, game material, cleaning the house for guests – sometimes fraught with anxiety: will we all get along, will the food be just right, have we forgotten anything, will the overall experience be satisfying? Often everyone brings something for the table, whether a main dish, a host of indulgent snacks, drinks, and dessert. Games even form part of the Thanksgiving tradition as many people sit down afterward to watch their favorite football teams compete...or those of us who aren’t into sports might actually break out some of their favorite adventure games to play or introduce to non-gamers (something I plan on indulging in during my Thanksgiving observance).

In Homo Ludens Johan Huizinga makes a case that one can find elements of the game in many settings, from the religious to the judicial and beyond, in that it involves people coming together in a defined space to engage in competition or play according to rituals, laws, rules, and other strictures of action. He posits that play is a core building block of culture, something unique that touches many aspects of human interaction and society. He might argue our adherence to certain rituals and traditions for Thanksgiving amount to a form of play as we each strive to successfully reach the goal of fulfilling the holiday in our own ways, a sort of cooperative game where all players win by everyone’s participation striving for the objective.

Years ago I moved to an area where my gaming friends all lived within about a 30 minute’s drive. We regularly gathered on the weekends for several hours of roleplaying, with different people hosting the location and running the games, everything from Castle Falkenstein, Star Wars, Legend of the Five Rings, and Dungeons & Dragons (among others I don’t recall). One of our friends loved to cook; he’d prepare the main course while each player would bring something else...drinks, snacks, dessert, side dishes. It was a nice way to break bread over gaming, to share two group activities that brought us together. Alas, those days are long gone, but I’m thankful for them and the happy memories of good food, friends, and gaming.

And that reminds me of a major difference between Thanksgiving and gaming. Those of us in the adventure gaming hobby play all the time. If we’re not gaming around the kitchen table, at the Friendly Local Game Store, public library, or elsewhere we’re busy preparing scenarios, painting figures, crafting terrain, even just reading rules and source material to fuel our imagination and inspire our next game session. As a hobby it’s something we engage in throughout the year. Thanksgiving, however, is just one day each year. We take time during that holiday to reflect on our blessings, give thanks for the good things in our lives, and then move back to our hectic daily lives (with an extra sheen of stress from the upcoming holiday season). It takes effort for the Thanksgiving message to persist beyond the holiday itself. We often get together to game, setting aside our worldly cares for a short while with friends and fun...why can’t we more often remember to take time to appreciate the good things in our lives? And more importantly, why don’t we always think to improve the lives of those less fortunate?

Somewhere I have an unfinished, unpublished missive on “Zero-Sum Games, Cooperative Games & How We View Our Fellow Humans.” It’s grounded in politics (rare for me) and for the most part rambles on pointlessly. Yet its central theme reminds me of gaming and Thanksgiving. Some people view life as a zero-sum game in which one person’s success comes at the expense of another’s loss. Others view positive advances in our individual lives as something we share with everyone as if we were playing a cooperative game, “a rising tide lifts all boats” kind of mentality. Rather than seek to score points over our adversaries in the game of life, I’d hope we’d strive cooperatively to advance the plight of all players. As we reflect on our blessings I encourage everyone to seek opportunities to express our gratitude by helping others, to give them as many reasons to be thankful as we have...maybe even more.

This Thanksgiving – and throughout the year – let us gather around the table to reflect, celebrate, give thanks, and play games.

Thank you, kind readers, for following Hobby Games Recce throughout the years and interacting with me on various subjects. Thank you for your support of my creative gaming endeavors through Griffon Publishing Studio. I am fortunate to have the support of friends and family.

For those more interested in my usual Thanksgiving missives, you can find the most recently recycled one at “Step Up & Give Thanks.”

And, as usual, I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes on the subject of thankfulness:

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer