Understanding Yourself Through Games

Following some dice rolling and deep reflection, Elmo decided to play a were-human.
Following some dice rolling and deep reflection, Elmo decided to play a were-human.

I’m a big fan of games. Board games, card games, roleplay games, even the occasional computer game. Games are awesome.

I’ve long thought that games are an under-appreciated part of our culture. Even as fans, we sometimes talk about them as something childish or nerdy. In reality, games can be produced as skillfully and become as thought-provoking as any other part of human culture. Minecraft is a near-limitless tool for education. Profound Decisions create live roleplay of incredible immersion and complexity. The Battlestar Galactica board game captured the spirit of that show perfectly, with its atmosphere of boisterous paranoia.

I hadn’t thought much about how games let us explore our own personalities. That changed for me recently, when I attended Dungeons of Yendor, a one-day game run by Pennine Megagames. This was a sort of giant board game for a hundred or so players, involving diplomacy, war, trade, trickery, and ancient secrets hidden in the darkness beneath a fantasy world. It was an impressive achievement, and the people playing had a lot of fun.

Here’s the thing though – I played it wrong. Not wrong for the game, but wrong for me. I did what I often do in large multi-player games and took on a small leadership role, organising the vanguard of a military expedition. This left me organising supplies, trying to see to the needs of others, and generally doing a lot of stuff that, while potentially satisfying, was actually more stress than fun.

When I stopped to think about it afterwards, I realised that I often do this, and not just in games. I take on responsibilities because I feel like I ought to, rather than because I’ll enjoy them, and I don’t even notice that I’m doing it. It’s killed my enjoyment of hobbies and jobs on many occasions. The open systems of the megagame¬†gave me space to do that, and time afterwards let me see my mistake. I’d have had a lot more fun if I’d just thought about what I enjoy and done that.

Few other forms of culture engage us so actively as games. This makes me wonder if they create a unique opportunity for us to act out our subconscious impulses in a contained space, and so to gain insight into who we are. It certainly seems to work for me.