the Fairgame Archive

2005-10-11: When I was a child, I gamed as a child...
by Meguey

I started playing 'pretend' long before I came across role-playing games. We had world creation, conflict resolution (albeit not that great), and great adventures. When I discovered D&D at ~7 years old, I was really ready for the structure it provided.  Lately, this thread at the Forge has me thinking about how our/my play has changed over the years, and why.

When I was a child, all the role-playing I wanted was grand high adventure hack-n-slash-n-rescue the princess (Yes, there are things to talk about here as to gender, etc. Later). When I was a bit older, say 10, I began to want more sophistication in my games, villains that were not as cut and dried, characters with more dimension. Parallel this, we have the brain development patterns typical of children everywhere: magical thinking as a young child under 7 (beginning of teeth-change signifies a general shift out of magical thought), black/white highly dichotomized thinking as a 7-8-9 y.o, then a re-emergence of grayscale and case-by-case judgment as a pre-teen. Why is it that so many people have such an intense experience of games with minutely detailed, highly controlled worlds in their teens? I wonder if social-emotional-cognitive development isn't deeply involved.

Look at the life of a teen: teens have a high need to be in control, often expressing as 'out-of-control' behavior. Teens are constantly confronted with intense emotional stuff, both from within their own development, and from the society at large, which tells them also "This is cool, and you can't have it." So, we create worlds that are COOL and we are TOTALLY in control of every last piddling detail. This creates a feeling of power and focus where we are so often powerless (even over our own bodies) and without clear focus, thanks to the modern disconnect, generally, between teens and meaningful experience.

In the post I referenced, the starting point is the idea of 'railroading', hyper-controlling your players to follow exactly the path/plot you have planned for them. As adults, we see this for what it is - hyper-controlling - and we tend to dislike it. Mature minds don't bend as easily to peer-pressure, and we have more confidence in our own personhood and our own decision making abilities. As teens, we are so eager to maintain the social fabric that we are weaving for ourselves (independently for the first time, really) that we are more willing to go along with someone else's' plan for our character.

Add to this the time factors of playing as a teen: we could play all weekend, only stopping if we wanted. As adults, we are much more likely to have jobs, partners, kids, etc., and our gaming is more likely to be squeezed in where we can carve out a few hours, rather than being the default activity.  It's difficult to build the levels of immersion and intensity we had as teens in a few hours once every other week. So, we have this imbedded memory of the REALLY COOL games we used to play, and without being conscious of the changes in brain development, social network, and emotional maturity, we're doomed to disappointment in the games we play as adults. Trying to recapture that perfect feeling from playing RPGs as a teen is like trying to recapture that perfect feeling of being totally crushed out on someone when you were Xteen, and finding out they liked you back. 20 years later, it's a different bug.

2005-10-11 12:11:56 Matt Wilson

First: yes, absolutely. At 15-16 I was all about how this latest rolemaster supplement had even more rules! And I needed it.

Did you go through a phase in the immediate pre-teen years where you interpreted the rules kinda like you guys do for your Ars Magica game? I remember playing D&D with a group when I was about 12 where the DM would wing everything based on how high your d20 roll was. Casting fireball and you roll a 20? Mass destruction. Roll a 1? You singe the bad guy's eyebrows a bit.

In hindsight, I love it. I had dismissed it outright in the rolemaster years as immature, but it was so much more fun.

2005-10-11 14:27:33 Meguey

Yep. Gaming at 10 or 11 definitly had more room for expression , interpretation, and multi-player input than a few years later. It's great to see games that put that back in.

Another factor, I think, might be the emergence of writing/storytelling skills, and there began to be a group-recognized person who was a 'better' GM than the others. This led to the default setting of that person GMing for *years*. Not realy ideal, since that creates increasing levels of ownership(wanted or not)of the GM position.

2005-10-11 16:35:35 Chris

I definitely see the maturity aspect, especially since a lot of games seem to be very focused on adolescent wish-fulfillment...  "Outcast from society", "Free from family, law, school & obligations", "Super powers", "I'm secretly this cool being of ultimate power", "Fighting for an ideal" etc.

I also noticed personally- before I loved making setting.  Now it's like pulling teeth.  I don't want to make a whole world to escape into, I'd rather spend more time here, in this world.

2005-10-11 17:48:28 Brand Robins


About the issue of GM ownership due to being better: Yes. That is almost exactly what happened to me. I always was a very verbal gerbil and had a knack for telling stories (not necessarily running games, though I wasn't bad at that either) and very soon got into the predetermined GM slot. I would run 85% of games that my whole extended circle played, and probably 95% of the games I was actually involved in. I got such a lock on the GM slot of games that even in the games I was not running, people would look to me for rulings and authority on game matters. (Even for systems and settings I had never GMed). This, rather understandably, lead to people not wanting to GM for me, and thus to me GMing all the time.

The funny thing is that it got so ingrained that even when I moved at the end of highschool, I still ended up in the GM-always slot in my new group in college. It was like we were able to read each others geek alphacode, and I had some kind of pheromonal marker that said "GM." Partly this was due to my own assurance and comfortability with the role, as well as my unwillingness to give it up because it gave me stability in a new and sometimes frightening situation. (Not that at the time I could admit that I was uncomfortable or scared, as I was A MAN, nor that I actually wanted to GM all the time, as like many in such a position I bitched about it endlessly.)

I also think it was somehow reassuring for the other guys in the group, setting some kind of social group-scale that let them have a place to fit in and the solidity of having someone that was comfortable doing something with a group of strangers that they themselves didn't want to be called on to do. After all we had all developed this mythos of the GM being the hardest job in RPing, of it requiring all these skills and all this control and all this knowledge and cool??? and who wants to do that, much less to do that with a new group where it might make you look like a dork?

It was only when I got to the point where I was investigating Nar play and starting to read the Forge, as well as independently examining my own motives and means for play, that I realized GMing was not all that, and that one of the reasons I was always in the GM seat is I always had to have control. When I started letting that go, using player-centered and driven plots, Nar tactics and kickers and such things, and in general started giving up the control seat, all of a sudden other people became willing to run for me.

And now I'm discovering that I'm a bad player. I know how to GM, but oddly enough, I don't know how to be a good player in anything other than a heavily Nar game. Guess I'm not quite grown up yet.

2005-10-11 19:16:23 Mo

Brand: (& Meg!)

'When I started letting that go' in general started giving up the control seat, all of a sudden other people became willing to run for me.

This is true, but it's more than that. The other thing that happened in the same period (also because of your delving over at the forge), you started to take a hard look at what GM'ing meant, what the job consisted of, what made one good at it, both from a GM and player perspective. That dialogue and negotiation did a couple of things.

For me, who had very limited experience as a GM, it started a process of de-mystification of the GM role. The obfuscated-ness of the role had, in many ways, been purposefully yet perhaps unconsciously encouraged by many of my past GM's in order to A.) help maintain their sense of worth and maintain a niche where they were socially needed, and B.) for some, helped to maintain an environment where a need for control over a social situation was always going to be met. While this last may be a dysfunctional reason, it does not necessarily lead to a dysfunctional behavior. Many GM's that have this need work very hard to provide for their players and produce very functional, excellent games.

This de-mystification led me to re-examine the role of the GM and made me realize that many of the skill requirements that I had either assumed or had been taught to believe I needed to have to GM were false, and that perhaps the role was something more accessible for me to fill than I had previously felt. This combined with a desire (and felt onus) to 'give back' (certainly something that is learned via a process of maturing) made it possible to try out some new ideas, re-edit some GM formulas and create at least one game (Unbreakable) where I could (might be) succeed(ing) as a GM. I think this is important. Maybe the reason that a lot of folks don't GM is because the dynamic in high school or college creates process to make GM's for those that fill it best at that time. That doesn't mean that later in life there isn't a whole new dynamic that demands a whole re-think of the process ... and maybe a whole, or part new set of the body of GM's. The problem is, because it takes a lot of effort to challenge that thinking, we rarely take the time or apply the focus to do it.

The other thing it did is to make looking at the process a lot easier for a lot of people. Putting names to ideas, processes and concepts can help a wider range of people participate in process evaluation and (re) mapping (as evidenced by the Forge). It made it possible to build deliberate social structures (contracts) to support a new GM. Those structures help mitigate anxiety or fear about taking on a new role, they provide all parties with a common language to re-evaluate expressively when something goes wrong - essentially providing a safety net. These last things are helpful factors to those adopting the role later in life, as while, as Meg says:

'Mature minds don't bend as easily to peer-pressure, and we have more confidence in our own personhood and our own decision making abilities',

it's also true that mature minds are less confident risk takers and have more difficulty donning new masks and being new people.

Maybe (I'm with you here, Meg) as we move forward, the REALLY COOL games can continue, for while REALLY COOL meant something very different to me in my teens/early 20's it's not like REALLY COOL doesn't exist anymore, it just isn't written in all caps; It's more subtle, and more enduring. Really cool doesn't mean all night marathon sessions that move the world any more ... that's actually just really nauseating in the morning. Really cool means experiencing moments of terrible pathos for my character or feeling the last, perfect link of a story snap into place. It means (for me) orchestrating terror and wonder in communion with my closest friends.

Great post Meg, Thanks. :)

2005-10-12 17:48:45 ScottM

Good article that'll have me thinking.  I like it, but I'm not sure how much of that is being flattered (that I've matured).

2005-10-11 19:16:48 Mo.


Not sure what happened to my apostrophes and quotations there. It didn't work out that way in the preview.


2005-10-13 16:38:15 Mike Holmes

Hmm. People do evolve, of course, over time. I won't deny that. And as such it seems obvious that their needs change to match. And to the extent that people are just talking about their own changes, and their preferences, this is all true stuff.


OK, I just deleted a really long rant that was kinda defensive sounding. But, quite simply, I think that "maturity" or the like is simply not an effective part of the equation. That is, we like what we like, and that will suffice. I think that discussing it in terms like this is just about validation, and that's not neccessary. All functional RPG play should be considered valid for whoever participates.

I agree that nostalgia is a complete waste of time. For people who have changed, and are looking for something that they're not going to get back, they're making themselves maudlin for no reason. But it should suffice to say to them to look forward, not back.

I have always despised the quote from which the title of this thread is excerpted. I'm with Ray Bradbury that to lose your childish sense of wonder is to die. I think that all RPG play is "childish" in some ways, and that's just fine. For example, Bradbury says, "touch a scientist, and you touch a child." Effective adulthood is just responsible childhood, not putting anything down.


P.S. Every once in a while I post to a blog, but it's rare. So I always forget to follow up. Other than the RSS feed, is there some way to be informed when a response comes in? Email notification by chance? Sorry to crash...

2005-10-13 17:54:45 Emily

Hi Mike!

Thanks for dropping by. I don't think there's another way to keep track, I feel all fancy just having the feed there.

But to respond to your post, it's a good point that it may be laying on a judgement to call someone else's preferred form of play "immature."  It's very easy to make generalizations about play styles & gns is out there to help make it clear when clashes are caused by different goals.

But, I think the salient point here is that certain styles of play may be more popular with people at different times in their lives.  That rail-roading & illusionism may resonate more with persons specifically in their teens because some of the social dynamics that those practices bring up are on the money with respect to how a teen feels about their ability to control their lives, their need to feel accepted by their peers & perhaps to be perceived as able when they feel out of their depth in other areas of their life.

This doesn't necessarily put a judgement on the kinds of gaming a teen might be drawn to, but it certainly might not fit the needs & tastes of someone at a very different point in their lives.  On the other hand, there might be different aspects to the same type of play that are extremely appealling later in life. I can completely see married-with-kids aged folk being very into having a dedicated gm who provides an adventure that they respond to. It could give them a fun ride with a low time investment required on their part. Perfect for tight schedules and high stress.



2005-10-13 18:02:18 Brand Robins


Good call on the married couple thing. I have at least two sets of married friends who recently had babies that are in a position just like that. There is also a little more to it than that, I think. Much as it is good to break down some of the walls around the GM and illusionism and such, I think we can also go too far in dismissing things as valid adult modes of play.

Even since I've gone all Nar and other people in my group are trying Nar GMing and exploring social contracts and such, a lot of the people I play with still want a good escapist participationist scenario where they can just sail on and have adventures. I did a post about this on Yud's dice awhile back were I asked for input from people I'd GMed in both styles for, and most of them said the liked both styles equally. They wanted explicit social contracts to stick around, but they also wanted occasional dedicated GM with Godlike Powers participationist plots of doom in which to rock and roll.

If there is an evolution due to age, it may be more that we lose patience with the social-game angle of RPGs rather than get tired of the RPG-game angle of any one style. The growing popularity of Forge-style coherent play and Nar play, for example, may have more to do with the fact that they make social contracts explicit than with the types of stories or mechanics that they create. As Mo pointed out to highlight the flaw of my previous post, people didn't start GMing for me because we went Nar, they did it because we broke down social barriers and made social contracts of support and inclusion.

2005-10-13 18:28:57 JBR

I'm going to make one of those comments that I hate, where I say, "That's a great post, and great comments, and nothing I might say hasn't already been covered."  Thanks, all.

2005-10-14 01:04:08 Meguey

I'm not sure I intended (ok, I know I didn't intend) to call anyone's play 'immature', especially if they are having fun. I know people who still totally dig the style of play outlined in Luke's original post (linked in my post above), with the intense attention to detail. Certainly, as Mike says, people like what they like, and all RPGs have some sense of childhood or at least the childlike. I'm not suggesting that how you game is a measure of your maturity, and can be quantified, I'm saying that understanding the other factors (cognitive and social development, etc.) can help shed light on why we liked what we liked, what we were getting out of it, and how to help our games and play adjust as we shift, instead of being disappointing because, as Mike puts it, nostalgia is a waste of time.

Also, the title of this thread is meant to be ironic. (Yeah, I know, irony's lost on-line.) If I can't enter into wonder and loose myself in imagination, then I am soulless and a shell of a being. Life without our childlike side is no life I want.

2005-10-17 18:27:49 Mike Holmes

Hey Em. An RSS feed would work just fine for me, too, if I could use one. But I only have access to email where I normally do most of my posting.

I think that largely you're pointing out that Forge games are good, and that's why they sell. I'm not seeing how this makes it particularly attractive to married people, or any particular demographic so much as attractive to everyone. That is, I find as many non-married young folks coming over to playing Forge games as married or with any other qualification.

I'm tempted to say that Forge games have subject matter that's geared more for older people, but that might just be my biases. That is, when I was young, I couldn't have played "Breaking the Ice," simply because I'd have been too embarrassed by the subject matter (I handwaved anything remotley sexual or romantic in my games until I was well into my 20s). So there may, in fact, be a corrolation between the subject matter and who's playing. But, again that seems to run counter to my experience, and sounds to me like I'm projecting.

I can't imagine trying to sneak a copy of "Kill Puppies for Satan" past my very Catholic mother. Or, heck, rather Catholic me even reading it.

Meg, I'm not saying that you're saying that anyone is immature. I'm saying that I think that your observation isn't true. That is, I think that the success of Forge games has to do with quality rather than them being aimed at some dissaffected aging game populace. I think we tend to think of the Forge, and the gaming community around it in making these observations, and, really, that's a small portion of the total community. The Forge community is aging, we play narrativism, so therefore it must be that older people need narrativism. That's simply too small a sample to wash. Especially when I know of large segments of our demographics that are playing other ways.

Yes, they're converting (slowly, oh so slowly), but again that's about the quality of the games, I believe, rather than the stle they're built to support. Here's a test. Vincent, make a gamist game (I know you've thought about it), and sell it. I'll bet it does even better than Dogs. And even in the Forge community, to say nothing of the gaming community at large.

Now, I can't disprove what you're saying, either, Meg. You may have hit on some decisive demographic observation. But I'll believe it when I see the old guys at the game store buying something like "My Life With Master" rather than updating their D&D collection with the latest edition. Who's to say that they're deluding themselves? Maybe D&D does have the proper style for them. I argue more with it's quality as a product than with the style of play it produces.


2005-10-17 19:54:32 Meguey


"I think that the success of Forge games has to do with quality rather than them being aimed at some dissaffected aging game populace"

Actually, I wasn't even thinking of the Forge at all. I was thinking about teenage socio-emotional developement and what happens (generally, broadly) as we grow through adolesence and come out the other side.  Also, how what we play/ed may reflect or solidify what happened in formative socio-emotional years. I totally agree with your above statement. I'm not at all interested in even suggesting the causality of "The Forge community is aging, we play narrativism, so therefore it must be that older people need narrativism", because that's crap.

Back to ToC