This is the first installment in an ongoing series about my history with games: what I’ve played, when I’ve played, who and with whom I’ve played. As such, if all this prompts a question, please ask — it’ll help me figure out what to say in later episodes!
I’m a gamer girl. I have been for my whole life, in one way or another. And even on the nights when I’m home with the kids while my Darling Husband is gaming with his group, or working at a convention like Origins or Gen Con, I am decidedly NOT a gamer widow.
But things get complicated almost immediately after that statement of basic identity.
For one thing, I don’t play video games. I really don’t like them. Sure, they’re clever and shiny and all sorts of other great things, but similarly to my problem with Boo, video games give me all sorts of nervous system problems. I can’t play any game for more than about two minutes before my anxiety levels start rapidly ramping up, and before long, every muscle from my scalp to my waist is wound tight as a bowstring, and my stomach is churning out acid like the mother in Alien. No matter how good your game is, it just ain’t worth it for me.
But my gamer credentials run deep, starting with my mom and grandparents, whose favorite way to pass an evening was over a game board or a deck of cards. Aggravation, Yahtzee, and Uno were staples of my upbringing, but our real speciality were speed card games. To this day, we’ve got a strict “no rings and watches” policy around the card table, because we play so fast and furiously that people get cut. Trust me — it’s hardcore.
Part of why I’m such a fanatic for using games in the classroom is because I really started my adult gaming journey with my fifth and sixth grade teachers. Mr. Boisvert was a brilliant teacher, truly dedicated to the craft and vocation of teaching. His walls were covered with colorful, detailed maps for the games he employed as teaching tools. Wizard was a fantasy land through which you moved by doing spelling homework and tests, and each day brought a new Fate Card (beware the dreaded Booga Booga!). The Social Studies year was divided by three different roleplaying games: Discovery, in which you were a colonist trying to survive those first difficult months on the American continent; Pioneer, in which you were a homesteader headed for Oregon with your wagon train; and a cross-country car race game whose name escapes me entirely at the moment.
Sure, these games drove us to complete more work, more creatively, and work more cooperatively than you can imagine 10 year olds doing on their own, and that has had a huge influence on me as a teacher and a parent. But, for all that, what’s most remarkable is that I still know my pioneer character’s name and everything that happened to her. She was Sarah Hoskins, and her 11 year old daughter died of scarlet fever in Colorado. She tripped and fell into a campfire, burning her hand (I had to wear a sling for three class days). And when her wagon train got snowed into a mountain pass when winter came early, it was one miraculous shot with a whiffle ball — into a trash can at the front of the room, with my back against the chalkboard at the back of the room — that saved her life and let her cross into the Oregonian valley where she and her husband settled.
That, my friends, is what every game designer is trying to achieve — game immortality.
Mr. Held, my sixth grade teacher, deepened both my experience and love of gaming. He set up his copy of 221B Baker Street, a mystery-solving board game based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, when the high reading group finished its first unit, and we took to it with such passion that the space between those flimsy paperback readers grew longer and longer as we played more rounds of the game, then watched the Jeremy Brett episodes with a rapt attention 11 year olds don’t usually lavish on Victorian literature.
World History was punctuated with games, too. For Ancient Rome, we watched the chariot race in Ben-Hur, then played Circus Maximus — first for speed, followed by the mandatory heavy chariot round dubbed the “Hamburger Rally” for our gleeful overuse of the wheel spikes. For World War I, it was dogfighting airplanes over France with Fight In The Skies (later, Dawn Patrol). How many sixth graders do you know who can identify the silhouette of a Sopwith Camel, and know why pilots were more likely to have a brick in the cockpit than a parachute? Yeah, me neither.
By the time the guys in my church youth group invited me to join them on Sunday afternoons for AD&D, I was already a dedicated gamer. Sure, the only roleplaying I did for most of my teenage years was defending my female characters from unwanted sexual advances. But I was well-equipped for the future with the clear and certain knowledge of what games could do and be — a source for characters and stories to rival anything literature had to offer. The real revelation was finding those things in my own mind.