I was thinking a lot about the human imagination today. Prior to that I was thinking about Dungeons and Dragons, and after that, about what it would be like if you or your sister got shot in the face, and these considerations led me to the broader question of the range of possibilities a mind can consider.
We’ll start with Dungeons and Dragons. It’s fun. I haven’t been shot in the face, but it’s a safe bet that Dungeons and Dragons is better than being shot in any part of your body, especially the face. You can, in a completely imaginary fantasy setting, get shot in the face in Dungeons and Dragons (most likely with a crossbow bolt or an arrow, though it’s possible to get your imaginary hands on an imaginary gun, depending on the campaign setting), but if injuring and being injured are the only things going on in your game then it’s time to find a new dungeon master.
I hope that in the years that precede you reading this I will have gotten the opportunity to run a game for you and your friends, and I’ve committed myself to, hypothetically, making this a campaign in which you don’t get to kill other characters… But it might be a better life lesson to permit such a thing but levy heavy consequences.
Dungeons and Dragons is less a game and more a collaborative act of storytelling, and stories in which the characters’ actions don’t matter aren’t very good stories. A good storyteller is able to suspend your disbelief and make it so that you’re willing to accept the conditions of the world they’ve placed you in. You can get away with outrageous stuff in a story as long as it abides by its own rules.
So, a story in which the protagonists go around killing people and don’t get treated like murderers is a shitty story, and is also far too close to reality (and I consider our reality to be a disappointing story, although I am not certain how long the book is, so it might get better).
My friend Kevin is the best dungeon master. I haven’t played with many other people, but I am confident I am correct, and I think this is because he understands that it is necessary to make his players care about the game, to allow us to express our fears and aspirations through the characters we inhabit, and to play as though the imaginary events are important. .
I’ve really enjoyed being the people I’ve created for these games, and have gotten to live out aspirations and insecurities, pursue relationships and combat injustices with a dedication that would result in me being jailed in (what appears to be) the real world. My fantasy avatars have in fact been jailed several times, but prison sentences in fantasy roleplay pass very quickly.
In our current campaign, we’re ascending a mysterious agglomeration of universes contained in a tower ruled over by petty tyrants and grasping bureaucrats, with an austere and uncaring deity delegating power to them. It’s a place that should be an unbearable and ceaseless nightmare, but is in fact populated by fascinating people making the best they can out of a situation not of their own creation. It might not exactly be a paradise, but if all the shitheads in charge were gotten rid of, it might be moving in that direction, much like our own world.
I think adults need imaginative play, and that we don’t get enough of it. It sucks to be powerless and to have your actions not mean very much. We need more possibilities than we get, which brings me around to the second thing, this being the terrible fact that there is a non-zero probability that you or your sister will be shot to death while you’re at school.
I imagine that you know this is a thing that could happen to you. You’ve probably done drills at school to practice for the possibility that someone will show up during third period and start shooting. I have to say, it seems quite a bit more relevant than a fire drill. Fire safety is written into building codes, while there is very little legal infrastructure in American society in regard to keeping kids from getting shot.
And this is the point I want to make: When people are discouraged from imagining wonderful things they will become convinced that dark fantasies are models of reality.
The context of all of this is that a few weeks ago an 18 year-old white supremacist shot a bunch of people in a grocery store in Buffalo, and a week later another 18 year-old killed a bunch of elementary school kids in Uvalde, Texas.
This is not a new thing in American life. I don’t feel qualified to chart a history of it for you, but it’s pretty common, and as of this week in 2022, there hasn’t been any meaningful progress made toward addressing the problem, and the problem as I see it is that it is rather easy for people to access guns that are designed to be used for shooting at and killing large numbers of people in theaters of war. They accept magazines with lots of bullets in them, are designed to wound horribly, and while they are not ‘automatic’ weapons, you can pull the trigger over and over again until you’re out of ammunition.
So, what we call ‘the right-wing’ in America is adamantly opposed to any legislation that restricts people’s ability to purchase these weapons, and calls on a lot of silly arguments to insist that this is a thing that people need, and there’s only one thing these guns are good for (no one hunts with an AR-15) and that is, as stated above, killing people, and it’s not even the best gun for killing people who you might actually need to kill. Anyone who says that they need one of these guns to protect themselves in their home is either stupid or lying, and most likely both. If you need an AR-15 to fight off a home-invader then you’re a remarkably bad shot or there are zombies roaming the landscape, and even then, you’re probably an asshole. These bullets punch through many building materials, just like they punch through human bodies, so you run the risk of killing your neighbor if, for some reason, you keep one under your bed at night.
But I don’t think that’s what any of this is about. I think it’s about a lot of people with very active and very terrible imaginations, because when you drill down further into the rationale for owning these guns it isn’t long before you arrive at the realization that the people most devoted to them have a deeply rooted fantasy that they entertain, in which they will use their guns to fight against the United States federal government, or, they’re going to fight on behalf of a good part of the government against a bad part of the government, and I’m pretty sure that when they say ‘government’ they mean people that they don’t like.
This is a fantasy, and it would be a very silly one if it weren’t so dangerous. And it would be sad, if only it weren’t so hateful. Because they can’t imagine a future that is any better than the present, and they don’t have any vision of a better world. They have no sense of play, or a means to imagine themselves as someone else. And they have no capacity for collaborative storytelling- they’re so bad at improv that they can’t think straight.
I’ve never taken an acting class or been in a play, and so Dungeons and Dragons has been my only experience of pretending to be someone I’m not in front of other people. But, it is common knowledge that when improvising, you’re supposed to engage in a process of ‘yes and-ing’: You accept and agree to your partner’s premise and add an additional layer to it. You generate complexity.
When I think about this, I think about the Zapatistas (Note: The Zapatistas are armed revolutionaries, and I do not condemn their decision to fight… their struggle is far different than the weird murder junkies in the US who I am, absolutely and categorically condemning), who are their own thing and require explanation at greater length, but what is important here is that, in their struggle against the Mexican state and capitalism, they issue a statement of unity with other people trying to imagine a better of world, and that is a call for “one no, many yeses”, the argument being that there’s plenty of different ways of being in the future, all of them trying to crawl out from under the present.
And so, parting note: If all that you can imagine is darkness and violence then you’ve got a black hole in your mind and nothing good is going to come out of you. You’ll run the risk of sucking other people into that dark place inside of you. Limber up. Think about what the other possibilities are. We don’t need more black holes.
And I hope you don’t critically fail your ‘not getting shot at school’ roll, because that’s what we call a ‘total party kill’ and the game ends when that happens.