The War on Imagination
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  • The War on Imagination


    It all started on Star 99.9's Couple's Court: A husband and wife were having an argument on whether or not their nine-year-old daughter should be allowed to wear a superhero costume to school. The argument between them encapsulates a larger battle taking place in public discourse: When is role-playing no longer allowed in public?


    The Opening Volley

    The war on imagination has been going on for decades between adults and kids, parents and children, fears of anonymity over the right to self-expression. Star 99.9's Couple's Court is just one example of a national dialogue taking place in education, child-rearing, and gaming circles.

    At issue was concern for the girl avoiding embarrassment, but listening to the dialogue reveals that we're not really talking about the girl at all, but rather her father. You can listen to the discussion yourself here (scroll down to Honda of Westport Couple's Court: 5/13):

    My wife...encouraged her to basically pretend that it's Halloween every day, so when she's sent off to school she looks like she's Wonder Woman one day and Spider-Woman the next. I mean, she's going to school like this. Everybody kind of thinks she's a freak is what's going on, so I'm trying to gently nudge her back...if you want to play dress up when your friends are over and play crazy games that's all well-and-good, but at school you're kind of making an extreme impression and that's not necessarily the way I want her to go.

    If geekdom is fundamentally about continuing the fun of our childhood into adulthood, restricting what costumes you can wear is just a tactic in a long line of restrictions by those who prefer to keep imagination bottled up. Fortunately, role-playing has evolved into other forms like cosplay that now make dressing up in public a lot more acceptable.

    But there are still places that exercising your imagination can be a problem, and it starts in school.

    The Importance of Recess

    Linkages between creative children and successful adults have been well-documented (see my article, "From Recess to Red Teams" for a few examples). But it's becoming increasingly difficult to find the kind of creative outlets that lead to success due to a reduction in kids' opportunity for self-directed play: recess.

    Recess provides experiential learning through imagination, self-expression, and role-playing. It's a spiraling trend:

    Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement. A study from the University of Virginia released earlier this year found that, compared to 1998, children today are spending far less time on self-directed learning—moving freely and doing activities that they themselves chose—and measurably more time in a passive learning environment.

    The problem is that recess has been increasingly a target by politicians who are looking to get tougher on schools. Florida,for example:

    ...mandates elementary school children receive at least 150 minutes of physical education each week, but there are no regulations on recess. For many children, that means 3 days of PE in a given week, and two days with no physical activity at all.

    A bill pushed by concerned parents, called the Recess Bill, never passed. It seems governing and creative play don't mix, and that's particularly apparent when adults with creative hobbies become elected officials.

    Gaming & Governing

    Unfortunately the road to self-expression is littered with examples where society doesn't tolerate role-playing in any form. Three examples from Live Action Role-Playing (LARPing), Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) and tabletop role-playing games demonstrate just how far we have to go.

    Conservative Republican from Alachua, FL, Jake Rush. Rush, a 35-year-old attorney and former sheriff's deputy, was challenging Tea Party Representative Ted Yoho in Florida's 3rd Congressional District. Peter Schorsch at SaintPetersBlogouted Rush on April 1 as a gamer, including the characters he role-played as part of the Camarilla. Schorsch took pains to show that the kind of role-playing Rush participated in was not "kids stuff" that takes place in their "mom's basement."

    As Rush put it in his response to his attackers:

    ...I am deeply offended that the opposing campaign and their supporters would take a gaming and theatre hobby and mischaracterize it. The very definition of acting is expressing ideas and thoughts that are not your own, just like I don’t believe I am MacBeth, which I have played, I am none of the characters...Bottom line - There is nothing wrong with being a gamer.

    Gamer-turned-Democratic Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz, a Democratic challenger running for a Republican-held state Senate seat that encompasses the area between Lewiston and Bangor, was attacked by the opposition party bydredging up her World of Warcraft posts as evidence that she was unfit for office.

    The smear campaign backfired. Lachowicz rebutted the attacks on her web site:

    I think it’s weird that I’m being targeted for playing online games. Apparently I’m in good company since there are 183 million other Americans who also enjoy online games. What’s next? Will I be ostracized for playing Angry Birds or Words with Friends? If so, guilty as charged!

    Founder of role-playing game company Necromancer Games and state magistrate judge in Coeur d’Alene, Clark Peterson, came under scrutiny by two parties unhappy with his conduct in their civil cases. The invasive article by Scott Maben at The Spokesman-Review put role-playing on trial, trotting out claims that role-playing is "immature," that it caused Peterson's mind to be "somewhere else" and essentially made him unable to perform his day-to-day duties as a magistrate.

    Peterson defended himself:

    It’s classic good-versus-evil fantasy, no different than ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Lord of the Rings,’...I can honestly say it has never impacted my time. I don’t find it to be a distraction. And I’ve certainly not ever delayed a hearing or not done work as a result of that, that’s for sure.

    In the end, Peterson amended his posting practices, changing his avatar from Orcus (demon prince and lord of the undead), not posting during business hours, and being cautious about when he comments on products for Necromancer Games and his new company, Legendary Games.

    Society, it seems, is tolerant of creative play...until it involves an elected official.

    When is it Okay to Play?

    The increasing geekification of society has made dressing in costume and pretending to be someone else a more socially acceptable activity, as LARPs and cosplays have become more prevalent. But there are still significant barriers to adults carrying the imaginative play of their childhood into adulthood, and it begins when they're kids.

    The Couples Court public spat sums up the arguments on both sides for and against imaginative role-playing. It's worth noting that role-play is characterized as the girl "letting her freak flag fly." In other words, a child's decision to dress a certain way is being characterized as an intentional choice to "be a freak" vs. taking on an empowering role to express her imaginative self.

    In this case, the outcome was decidedly against the girl wearing any outfit that was different from "the norm" because it might be embarrassing for her or distracting to the students. The listeners all chimed in with something to the effect of "grow up." Note that at no point did anyone say the school complained or that anyone said the girl's superhero costumes were a problem. It was the adults who were calling her the freak.

    In the end, the girl's mother summed it up best:

    It's not about what you want her to be. At some point you have got to accept the child that you have and stop trying to make her into the child that you want.

    As geeks become adults we will all need to make the decision as to when and where it's appropriate to "play pretend" in the public eye.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
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