Rainy day recess, sunny day raincoats
It’s too late for a new year’s resolution, but my new goal is to write more posts to this blog that reflect my own personal experience as a game master, as opposed to re-posting articles about the state of gaming today.
I start with a story of failure and a story of triumph.Well I don’t know if it was failure or not. Perhaps putting it in writing will help me think it through. The job was a team building event for a group of drug counselors with a toxic workplace. Workers from different divisions or of different ethnic background treated one another with open hostility. Our event had to be moved indoors due to thunder showers, so we were crammed in a very tiny conference room with barely enough room for everyone to fit.
Greg and I got to the client’s workplace and spent an hour scouring nearby places of business to see if anyone had a space they would give us for free or cheap. Greg found a church who asked for $100 and I found a restaurant that would give us the room for free. The church was 2 mi away but I decided against moving the whole group by car for fear of losing momentum, and when I proposed the restaurant, which was across the street, the client told me he didn’t think he could get them to go out in the rain, since most of them didn’t bring umbrellas. In hindsight, I think I should have insisted we not do the event at the workplace. It wasn’t that the space was so small, although that certainly didn’t make it easy, but people would try to sneak out and go back to their offices - presumably to look at Facebook - and we’d have to pull them back in, and it became very bad for the morale in the room. “Hey where’s so-and-so? She left! She’s not allowed to leave, this is mandatory. If I have to be here…”
There was a participant who was griping so loudly that he was drowning me out, and this was in a tiny room. I paid him a lot of special attention and tried my hardest not to allow him to derail the momentum of the workshop, but he was pretty determined to be disruptive. The group in general was quite prone to chattiness and I was glad I had brought my train whistle, which I had to use several times. That’s a lesson I’ve learned from doing ComedySportz remotes in people’s homes for groups of teenagers.
I perspired a lot during this workshop and I didn’t leave feeling like it had been a few success. But at least once during the debrief for each exercise, someone offered a genuine comment that shed light on the larger purpose behind the games. And during every game we played, many people showed that they were committed to playing the game as best as they could. So I liked that part of it. But mostly I liked when it ended.
And then yesterday was our scheduled play test of Pickpocket Junction. It was a beautiful day, sunny but with a breeze. Greg and I began to set up our game in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, across from Union Station, fittingly enough.
The trouble began when we drew on the ground with chalk. A man came over and asked if we were going to clean the chalk when we were done. I told him honestly and in an attempt to have a fruitful discussion, “We hadn’t given it any thought.” He told us that the city had no budget for cleaning and if we, like some chalk artists who had come through, were going to draw on the ground with chalk we’d have to clean it up after. He showed us the faucet - no hose - and gave us his conditional blessing. Greg and I talked it over and decided we’d give it a go and figure out how to clean the chalk after the play test.
Then when I opened our suitcase and took out the trenchcoats, a security officer came over and told us we couldn’t do our performance.
What happened next made me really angry.
I told him there was no performance, that we were playing a game. He said we had to have a permit and I told him he was wrong, that you don’t need a permit to play a game. He said we were going to draw a crowd - I said no, that the game was for 6 people. He said we were going to take money - I told him no, that it was just a game, that we were in a park, and that parks are where people play games. We went round and round with him being completely deaf to anything I said to him. More security people came over and each was more piggish, cowardly, and and dense than the one before. It became clear that our attempt to play a game had become an act of civil disobedience and that to the people who worked for the security company it was a matter of ego. We decided to relocate, but not before I told them what I thought of their pitiful ignorance.
Perhaps I was naive not to expect such a confrontation. It left me so angry that I had to make the conscious choice to change the channel in my head or the whole day would have been spoiled.
But then the play test of Pickpocket Junction was so lovely, with a group of eager kids rowdily playing and squealing and having a good time. It made for a fantastic day.
Even though the drive home from downtown LA took me an hour and a half, I was happy, because the play test went well and I had bought lemon meringue and Mexican chocolate pie from The Pie Hole before driving home. Any real place named after a place in Pushing Daisies is okay by me. I wish Jim Dale had served my pie and said, “The facts are these: four dollars and nineteen cents is your change.”
And in my mind I’d pretty much decided that was the end of it. One game went badly, the other went well. You win some, you lose some. But do you know what happened today? The client from the difficult team building called me. He said that the feedback from the players was positive, that some people who had been in conflict had made up with each other afterwards, and that he thought the way I’d engaged and turned around the difficult player was really good. They want to hire us for another gig to continue the work. So I guess that game is going in to overtime.
Games exist in a finite, contained space and time: when you’re playing Monopoly, you can’t build houses and hotels on the table and chairs around you, they can only exist on the board. Likewise, if you show someone a Community Chest card hours after the game is over and expect to receive $25 for coming in second in a beauty contest, you will be sorely disappointed. The analogies in this paragraph demonstrate how Monopoly has much more value as a metaphor for all games than it is has as an actual game. Much like how Russian nesting dolls are better for purposes of rhetoric than they are as actual dolls.
Things that aren’t games, like businesses and interactions with people you know and don’t know, aren’t so easily contained. So the choices you make, which, if you were playing a game, would lead you to success or defeat and you could chart the reasons why in hindsight, will have consequences that unfold more like a waterfall. And like a real waterfall, there can be snakes who live behind it. I reached behind a waterfall when I was a kid in camp, maybe 11, when we were on a day hike, and a snake crawled out on my arm. When I told the other kids and the counselors, noobody believed me. There, that counts as a more personal blog post, doesn’t it?