it doesn’t have to be this way

For a while this winter, I was Muriel Knickerbocker, a wind suit wearing, mall-walking retiree who, along with her mystery book club, solved a string of murders in their tiny bayside town. I loved being Muriel.

Muriel was part of Murder Mavens, an RPG based on the television show Murder, She Wrote. RPG = Role Playing Game. Until the last couple of years, I did not know that RPGs could be FUN. I knew the acronym, but thought that world was only for the Dungeons and Dragons people who liked to cosplay druids and monks. I think my social circles have always been gamer-adjacent: I remember friends’ early post-college apartments set up to include gaming corners, and the boys of my seminary circle would pull all-nighters playing Axis and Allies. But I never got into gaming, myself.

My friend Carynne invited me to play a game online in the early part of the pandemic, as a way to be connected and find some fun in those weird, chaotic months. Our first game was called Good Society – think Jane Austen, matchmaking, failures of manners. It was fun, and engrossing. Carynne’s husband Garrett ran the game, and the four of us players mostly tried to make each other laugh. We named our little village Endwithton (because, I think, I said that the place should probably be one of those names that ends with “ton”…). I was Beatrice Fernside, a widowed old money heiress who lives for matchmaking.

We liked Good Society, but I never learned the rules. There were too many traits and rumors and points to keep track of, and I was really in it for the story. And the jokes. But after Good Society, Garrett and Carynne suggested Murder Mavens, and I was all in. Muriel and her buds solved murder after murder, flirted with the local sheriff, ruined a televised baking competition, and made enemies of the book club across town. For two hours every other Thursday, the real world melted away and all that mattered was whether or not we solved the made-up mystery and how ridiculous we could make the story.

We played our way through Murder Mavens, and after a few months’ break for a baby to be born and his parents to catch up on their sleep, we started a brand new game that Garrett is WRITING himself. Think collaborative post-apocalyptic N.K. Jemisin. Or just imagine me as a skilled naturopathic healer in flowy clothes named Antigone. Our first mission involved convincing teenage nomadic goat herders to help us break into a decommissioned auto city. It’s fantastic.

This collaborative gaming has been so FUN, in a season when fun seems to be in short supply. Every time we play, one of us says something to the effect of “I was so tired this evening and thought about bailing, but then we got into the story and I’m so glad I came!” The world as it is feels like it is always breathing down our necks, and the world as it might be has to fight to get attention. Playing these silly games has reminded me of the power of imagination – not just its utilitarian uses that we have to rely on to keep things running the way they are, but the JOY and DELIGHT in imagining other possible worlds together.

That’s not a revelation to anyone who reads science fiction or ever played make-believe. Mr. Rogers and Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin have been telling us all along that our imaginations are the key to our survival. I guess I just…forgot. Adults don’t get to play very much, you know? The practices of make believe have been monetized and optimized and twisted into advertisements. Having dedicated time and space to play, create, roam around in another world of our own creation reminded me that there are other possibilities for how we live together. It doesn’t have to be THIS way. And that is something like the very foundation of hope.

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