Something broke in my brain at age ten. After dinner, my dad and younger siblings would play games of make-believe, complete with ongoing characters and storylines. Up to a point, I could join in. But then I couldn’t anymore.
I kept trying, but losing myself in a character had become impossible. I was stuck outside the imaginative world the rest of my family was having the time of their lives. And without a world to respond to, I didn’t know what to do in the game.
But why couldn’t I get in, anymore? It felt like something was wrong with me. “You were just growing up; kids age out of things,” you might say. But my dad could still throw himself into make-believe without reservation, and he was a full-grown adult.
So, it was just preteen self-consciousness. After all, I didn’t lose the ability to lose myself in a daydream. But to make-believe with others now felt like letting someone in on something embarrassing.
Or maybe my problem was faking it. To make-believe, you have to pretend you’re someone, something, or somewhere you’re not. I could never bear to lie—I still panic whenever a movie’s plot hinges on characters hiding things from each other. So perhaps a teenager’s insistence on authenticity had just struck me a few years early.
But I wonder. I really enjoyed playing rock shows. Granted, I wouldn’t discover that for another six years, but it turns out I like being on stage and performing. And doesn’t that mean acting a part? I grew my hair out, but I never was a rock star. I just played one on stage.
In college, I would also discover I loved public speaking. I could get in front of people and put on a different kind of show, but this time pretending to be much wittier and more cheerful than I was. Ask me to act in a play and I would panic; ask me to act cooler than I am—via music or speechifying—however, and I have a grand old time.
A few years later still, I became a teacher. Teaching too was a performance art, and I loved it. I taught at a Catholic university, even though I wasn’t Catholic. I like to think I gave my students a solid Catholic philosophical education. I knew my role, and I enjoyed playing it.
But don’t ask me to try a role playing game (an “RPG”). Everyone’s heard of Dungeons & Dragons, but that was just the beginning of what is now an entire genre of games. People love RPGs. My wife and her friends would have game days, for which some friends would drive hours. They were clearly having as much or more fun than my siblings had had, playing make-believe with our dad. But once again I couldn’t join in. Eventually I realized why: role playing games are collective make-believe sessions — just with more explicit rules.
The presence of rules made RPGs more attractive to me than free-form make-believe games. But even with the rules, you’re still having to act. It’s not as involved as a “LARP” (a live-action role playing game), where everyone dresses up as their characters instead of sitting around a table with notepads, dice, and beers. Even without the trappings of a stage play, however, there are still stage directions. “You walk into the room and see a body lying in the corner. It’s your best friend from elementary school. What do you do?” And you have to say, “Well, after that last encounter, I’m feeling pretty paranoid”—even though you’re having a great time with friends—”so I don’t believe it’s really him”—even though your GM (“game master”) is a reliable narrator—“and I distract myself by checking the room for traps”—even though you’re actually in the middle of eating a sandwich.
The existence and popularity of role-playing games tells me that I was right that my problem wasn’t just that I was growing up. Normal peple graduate from free-form make-believe to structured, rule-governed make-believe. They continue making stories together, and playing their way through them. They take make-believe to the next level—making it a collaborative, narrative artform.
But the closest I will ever get to playing an RPG is video games. Dungeon’s & Dragons inspired a plethora of video games that all came to be called RPGs. On computers there were text-based “adventure games” like Zork, which came out the year I was born. The next year, the graphical RPG Ultima arrived. Then came the Nintendo Entertainment System—or the Famicom, as it was known in Japan—and its menu-based RPGs like Dragon Quest (1986) and Final Fantasy (1987).
I played none of them. I was too young for the first generation of RPGs on computer, and when we got a Nintendo, I primarily played Super Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Tecmo Bowl, RBI Baseball,and The Legend of Zelda. Among those, only Zelda could be loosely called an RPG. In Zelda games, you fight monsters in dungeons, like you would expect in Dungeons & Dragons. But you don’t methodically (and strategically) choose your actions from a list of possibilities. You move and strike and block and run as fast as you can.
But when playing video games, I wasn’t actually doing any of those things. Link—whose job it is to save Princess Zelda—was the one swinging the sword and throwing the boomerang. I just pressed the buttons that made him do that. Nevertheless, it feels natural to speak of what your character does in a video game using the words “I,” “me,” and “my.” When Link sets a tree on fire, revealing a hidden door, you say, “I found a secret!” When you navigate your running back into the endzone, you say, “I scored a touchdown!” And when Mario falls into the lava, you say, “I died.”
So, whether you’re playing make-believe or a video game, you take on the identity of an imaginary character navigating an imaginary world and interacting with imaginary people. You’d think, therefore, that I would respond the same way to both. And yet! I could play RBI Baseball with my dad, or Tecmo Bowl with my brother, but couldn’t play pretend with either. Why?
About that same age—around ten years or so—I picked up the flute. In English, we would say I “played” the flute. While that isn’t true in all languages, I think there’s something to it. Think of Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. Whether “play” is the correct term for that, the accusation is that he wasn’t taking the situation seriously. While Nero may not have skipped and kicked his heels, furthermore, music and dance go together—and dance is a form of play. You only have to watch a bunch of preschoolers to see that.
I suspect, for reasons we’ll discuss later, that all music making boils down to pretending to sing. It is a kind of make-believe. And perhaps that explains why I hated practicing my flute. But our weekly rehearsals as a full “wind band” were a blast. I could play music with my friends, but not make-believe.
Nor could I dance. Well, I could if I were being deliberately silly. At rock shows, my siblings and I would do a number of dances like “The Shopping Cart” or “The Car Dance.” In one, we pretended to be putting items into a cart, while the latter involves pretending to jog in place, but without moving your legs. (When done in a car, the forward motion makes it seem like you really are running.)
And our silly dances aren’t all. Think of ballet, tango, or salsa. Or think of music videos, where the choreography involves pretending to be much more “turned on” than any human being has ever been. To dance well, you have to act well.
In English, furthermore, we use the same word for acting that we do for games and for music. You play a character, a part, or a role. The very thought of acting on stage terrifies me, and I hate “role playing” during training sessions at work. But if you ask me to play the role of teacher in real life, or engaging speaker, or rock guitarist, I’m all enthusiasm.
I am, therefore, a mass of contradictions. To this point I have called make-believe, video games, music, dance, acting, and other types of performance, “play.” And as we will see later, I will add most forms of art to that list as well. Even more troubling, I will argue that play is the point of everything we do. So, you might imagine I would have the same reaction to all forms thereof. But I don’t. I am broken. This series, therefore, will have two goals: one a kind of self-therapy, and the other a kind of social commentary. I want to understand play more deeply, and thereby to understand—and hopefully heal—myself more fully. But I also want to convince us all that a life spent playing is a life well-lived. The calling of the athlete, musician, video game designer, and dancer is as noble as that of the doctor, the engineer, or the teacher. And next time, I will begin by examining a book about a grasshopper.