So this is a bit of a personal thing. Except I’m not sure how good I really am at personal things online. I mean, I try to be honest, and I try to not oversell myself because I typically don’t care for it when other people oversell to me. But this is something… a bit different than the usual.
September 5, 2014
A little while back, I had Robert E. Howard stuck in my head, and I pulled up the poem The Song of Belit that he wrote as part of the story “Queen of the Black Coast.” And I talked a little bit about Howard’s suicide, but with lots of lyrical obfuscation so as to avoid using that word, because that word scares me for reasons you’ll discover in short order.
I talked about the idea that fantasy provides a way out of the real world on some level, as every reader of fantasy literature and every player of fantasy RPGs knows. I said it like this:
Most gamers live their lives engaging in the broad wonder of fantasy, as a matter of course. As did Howard, obviously. Many gamers have histories of feeling socially isolated and closed off from the world, as did Howard. Many gamers have stories about moments in their lives when the pressure of being closed off from the world — of feeling different and distant, and of all the uncertainty and fragility that comes with that — opened up to a particular kind of darkness that has only one way out. As did Howard.
(Aside — I’m one of those gamers, but that’s not important to this line of thought.)
I tell myself that a lot. That I’m not important, that my experiences are pretty typical, that my life is a life anyone else could have lived. And I think that’s all generally true. But it’s also an excellent means of hiding from thinking about things I don’t like thinking about.
• • •
For a while now, I’ve wanted to write something about what happened to me in high school, at the beginning of grade 11. Junior year for my American friends. But I haven’t written it, because the idea of doing so felt weird. It felt self-indulgent, it felt like distraction. It’s my story, but I know it’s also a story shared by a lot of other people. So wanting to write it felt like me trying to make myself the center of attention, when there are always so many other things with a greater need for attention than me. But that’s all also an excellent means of hiding from thinking about what happened to me in high school. Or, more complexly, from hiding from thinking about one half of what happened to me in high school, even as the other half of what happened continues to be one of the central focuses of my life.
At the beginning of grade 11 in high school, I wasn’t a gamer, and was absolutely certain that I was going to die. Then RPGs in general — and Dungeons & Dragons in particular — saved my life.
That’s the short version.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about it more. How to dig into the long version. Trying to overcome the reluctance to talk about it. And then I remembered that way, way back when it happened, I went through exactly the same process of wanting to talk about it and not being able to. So rather than hitting myself in the head continuously trying to figure out how to talk about this now, I thought I’d share how I talked about it then.
This is from just about two years afterward. End of grade 12. I wrote this down because I used to keep a journal, which is like a blog that only the person writing it reads. (That might be an accurate description of this blog. Nothing really changes.) You’ll have to imagine this on yellowed paper, typed up with considerable strike-throughs on a Corona portable typewriter, which is like a laptop computer with a built-in printer, but no memory or screen. I’ve excised some personal details and some discussion of the specific traumas that precipitated everything else. But other than that, these are the thoughts of a seventeen-year-old white kid dealing with undiagnosed depression in a small town in Canada thirty-two years ago.
This is me talking to myself about a thing I don’t like talking about, as a means of talking about it to you.
• • •
In general, I think I’m a naive and romantic kind of person, so maybe this thing that I’ve been thinking about for the last little while will just boil down to being naive and romantic in the end.
When I think back over everything that’s happened in the past two years or so, I understand with total certainty that gaming saved my life.
This is a roundabout way of talking about things that I’m still having trouble talking about. I look back at the words that fill the pages before this one and I can’t see anything in them except the avoidance of the truth that lies under them. It’s like everything that I said and thought and committed to words is true, but it all hides the more important truth that I’m afraid to touch. It’s like one of Mr. Smith’s killer multiple choice tests — the point isn’t to find the one right answer, it’s to know which of all the right answers is the most right.
At the beginning of grade 11, I was working under the assumption that I wouldn’t be alive to see the end of grade 11. I looked around my life and all I saw was darkness. All the places where I should have been able to see the future, all there was was the past staring back at me. Everywhere that should have made me happy reminded me of the sorrow I felt. Every friendship felt like the loneliness that had drawn me into those friendships in the first place. Everything that should have been beautiful turned to nothing as I watched, and the black dust of rot spread where I tried to touch it before the inevitable end.
This is still too roundabout. Even as long as it’s been, it’s still so hard to talk about all this. Maybe I’m afraid on some level that looking back on how I felt and what I thought then will bring those thoughts and feelings back in some way. Maybe that’s the whole idea behind our collective need to try to forget things as easily as we do. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but forgetting the past seems to be the most popular human past-time except maybe for sex. But then you could probably hypothesize that for most people, forgetting is the point of sex anyway. Sleep with someone you love to forget what it felt like to ever be alone. Sleep with someone you don’t love to forget about how afraid you are to be in love. Sleep with someone new to forget someone old. Sleep with someone old to forget how afraid you are to find someone new all over again.
The beginning of grade 11 was the darkest point in my life so far. Compared to the pain that came down on me then like the hand of some insane god, the feeling when my mom and dad split up was a full-body hot oil massage. Compared to the fear I felt then, all the various traumas of elementary and junior high were like the special effects in a third-rate horror film. Compared to how helpless and how hateful I felt then, this past year has been an ongoing birthday party.
It was a strange period that I don’t remember very much of. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I remember it at a distance, like I’m remembering remembering. It feels like longer ago than it was. I didn’t know what my life meant anymore, so I just stopped wanting to live it. It was a simple escape from the pain.
I thought about suicide but I never really planned it. I considered with a strange kind of detachment and logic all the different ways I might do it, and compared this method to that method, and made endless mental notes of what my own death might look like. I never looked for the moment, though. I just looked at my life from the point where I stood, and it just seemed to me that it was over then. I looked at the future and there was no future, like I might have had some terminal disease and was making my peace with the world. I knew that it was going to end and didn’t care. I wasn’t planning to die, but I simply knew that I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it.
I never planned on seeing the end of that year, grade 11. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I knew that it would happen with the same certainty that made me know the sun would rise the next day. It was an inevitable outcome. All the possible futures that I’d seen once were narrowing down to this one final point, because there was no point in trying to fight it. I think on some level, I expected that death would come to me in its own way and on its own terms, not mine. I felt like there was no point in me trying to plan the end because the end was already out there waiting for me. A sense of blind fate overwhelming me, expecting maybe that the darkness inside me would take control. One moment when something would click inside me and I’d know that it was time, and I’d do what I had to do. I would be forced to do what the darkness needed me to do, and then that would be that.
Way back at the beginning of this, I said that gaming saved my life. This is how I know. At the darkest point of the darkest time, the beginning of grade 11, the primary driving force behind the darkness was the feeling of helplessness that came from not being able to look away from the darkness I saw in myself. And I never bothered to look for other options or ways out of the darkness, because it seemed to me that any ways out would lead inevitably back to the same conclusions. I might be able to push myself past the things that had happened, but I understand with perfect clarity that they were going to happen again.
And I don’t remember the moment that what I saw and knew changed, or even if there was a single moment from out of the many moments. But in the opening months of grade 11, at the time when I’d set myself up to simply wait for the gap between not wanting to live and actually not living to slowly close, I started gaming. First, the weekend in Vancouver with Kev, then Dave saying he’d found this guy Mitch who owned a Player Handbook.
It’s hard now to put the memory of that period into words. Saying that gaming gave me something to live for would sound as ridiculous as it is wrong, because when it comes down to it, I don’t live these days only for gaming any more than I’d ever want to live for any single thing. Saying that gaming taught me something that made me want to live wouldn’t be accurate either, because I don’t think I learned anything in particular from or through gaming that I hadn’t already known before. Saying that gaming made me able to forget what had happened would be as wrong as it would be dishonest, because nothing that’s happened to me in the past two years changes what happened before that. Nothing undoes what was done.
Right now, the feelings and the memories of who I was before are as sharp as anything could ever be. I remember the darkness with as much clarity as I felt it then, and if I closed my eyes and let myself forget how far the calendar’s gone, I could put myself back there in a moment. But I can see now that I feared the darkness that I’d felt in myself then because I feared that that darkness had cost me the humanity that I’d always hoped was in me. Now, I recognize the darkness as a part of what it means to be human. Now, I see being human as the process of keeping the darkness at bay.
Gaming showed me what it means to be human. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. At its most basic level, gaming is about the struggle of being human. Gaming is about the conflict that exists inside every one of us, the struggle for survival and understanding that either kills us or makes us stronger as it passes. I won’t say that gaming taught me that, but I think I can safely say that gaming let me look at it like I’d been afraid to look at it before. It’s like it was in me already but I couldn’t see it at first for the need that was crippling me, and then I couldn’t see it for the darkness that the need allowed to escape. And I would never claim that gaming is the only thing that could have let me see this thing or might let others see it in themselves, because I think the things that make gaming a place of focus for emotion and conflict and the understanding of what it means to be human are the same things that allow all fiction and history to contain a core of those same truths. A person might see these truths more easily in Hamlet or Plato as they ever would in the moral make-believe that gaming is. But at the beginning of grade 11, I didn’t read Shakespeare or take a philosophy class. I started gaming, and everything changed.
Before, my life had been detached from the world around me in a way that I had never seen or realized. Then I saw that detachment but couldn’t close the barrier that living apart from reality had created. Before, morality had seemed a separate thing from life, but then came the crippling fear that moral choice was impossible. Everything around me made me think that on some level, the desires that drive us will always be stronger than the morality that allows us to examine and name those desires. The need to conquer, to consume, to control.
In life, our moments of moral choice tend to be small moments. We reflect our choices within ourselves, but unless you’re a pope or a president, those choices hardly ever reflect into the larger world. Our choices so rarely affect the people around us that those times when people are affected by the choices we make become moments of maximum impact and uncertainty. These are the moments when we become aware of what it means to be human, but they come to us so slowly, and are so staggered that trying to see the pattern the moments make — the pattern that makes up the morality of your life — is like trying to pick out the melody of a piece of music played to you as individual notes an hour apart. But within the game (or at least the game the way we play it), morality is the fuel that drives the engine of imagination. Within the game, moral choice is constant, and the repercussions of those choices always extend beyond the confines of you and the character alone, because that’s what makes the game interesting. The challenge comes not in simply accomplishing things on the level that you might accomplish them in real life, but to accomplish the things that real life rarely offers. In everything we do in the game, there is the extension into the lives of other players, other characters, other people. The game becomes life in a way that people who simply see it from the outside — people who just watch the dice rolled and hear the narrative detached from the imagination and the life that creates it — can never see.
All around me, I hear the criticism that gaming is an escape from real life, and even if you could explain it to people, it would probably be impossible to get across to them that gaming is real life. Not in the sense that one should settle for what gaming offers and stop seeking relationships and beauty and involvement in the outside world, but in the sense that all the things that make life worth living make the game worth playing if it’s being played right. There are so few moments in life where we get to find out what we’re capable of. Gaming lets us see inside ourselves in a way that we’re afraid to look in the speed and the slowness of everyday. Gaming is about finding out what we’re capable of. And maybe on some level, gaming has even more potential to show us what we’re capable of being than the other forms that it descends from. Even in the best circumstances, with the closest reading or the best performance, we might think we can feel what it must be like to be Hamlet, but we’ll never really be Hamlet in the sense that what Hamlet does on stage can change depending on our own needs and interpretations. We’ll see the choices he makes and react to those choices, but we don’t get to make the choices ourselves. We don’t have the potential to learn what those choices say about us.
Two years ago, I fell under the weight of what was and lost sight of what could be. Gaming, like life, is about what could be.
(Archive post from the personal blog.)