It’s Black Friday, and the season of consumerism will be upon us, and the race to Christmas Day will dominate our lives. The holidays are a time of giving, a time of faith and tradition, a time of family and togetherness and celebration. But with the mad shopping dash to buy Christmas gifts, it’ll also be a season of stress, financial anxiety, and even debt. It’ll be the most significant contribution of the year to the coffers of huge retail conglomerates who hoard wealth, monopolize markets, and prey on consumers and their workers.
This line of thinking is nothing novel or new, but it’s especially on my mind with my involvement with the OccupyMovement. And whether you’re bothered by billionaires or not, I hope there’s something we can all more or less agree on, which is:
Sam Adams, the Mayor of Portland, had given the Occupy Portland encampment at Chapman and Lownsdale parks three days’ notice of eviction. “At 12:01 am on Sunday, November 13, all persons and property in Lownsdale and Chapman Squares will again be subject to enforcement of all laws including the laws against being in a park after midnight (PCC 20.12.210), and erecting structures in a park (PCC 20.12.080),” Adams said, and added that “on or after November 13″ the parks would close for repair.
Occupy Portland was torn. Some seemed to agree with Adams’ reasons—that the camp had become unsafe, unsanitary, a mire of squabbles and drug use. They advocated abandoning the camp and leaving camps behind, to focus on other strategies. Others thought the eviction would at least be an opportunity to “clean house” and make a fresh start with a new encampment. And many were determined to hold the camp at all costs, seeing eviction as a quashing of the movement.
As I studied all these viewpoints, I was torn myself. Processing with my head and not my heart, I could see logic in all perspectives, and having only slight, surface experience with the encampments I didn’t have a lot of hard data on how well it functioned and whether or not it served a purpose for the movement. Occupy Portland put out a call for all citizens of Portland, as well as brother and sister protesters in Seattle, to come rally at the midnight deadline to stand together against the eviction. My head was torn, but my heart was telling me to be there.
Ever since my initial exposure to Occupy Wall Street, I’ve longed to participate. The Occupy Portland branch has been thriving, but living outside the city on a St Helens farm, and temporarily without transportation, there was little I could do but watch.
So watch I did! I followed the #OccupyPortland and #OccupyWallStreet Twitter streams, read dozens of articles as they popped up daily, viewed scores of Youtube clips, and watched demonstrations on Livestream when I could. When protesters chose to sit down and be arrested in Portland’s Jamison Square, my heart longed to be with them. So I held vigil, watching until the last protester was arrested at 3:30 in the morning, livetweeting quotes from the Occupy Portland Livestream. I spread links across Twitter, Facebook and Google+. I traded thoughtful Tweets with Portland Mayor Sam Adams. But I had not set foot in the Occupy Portland encampment, or walked bodily among them in their numerous marches.
When I was young my brothers and I had a Commodore 64 Personal Computer. We all three of us sat enthralled for many hours by the vast trove of video games available for the machine, but I wanted more. I wanted to create. I wanted to get under the hood of this 64K, 16 color processor that could display 8 sprites—8! onscreen at any given time. I wanted to unlock its secrets and make games myself.
I had no teacher. I didn’t know any computer programmers, and there was no school curriculum for it. All I had to guide me was my Commodore 64 User Manual and my own determination. I started writing simple programs in BASIC, gradually increasing the complexity until I could build something that almost resembled a playable computer game.
But there was always an obstacle. The documentation was spotty; there were several BASIC commands in the manual that simply did not work when I input them as shown. I checked out books from the library, but they were unclear on some key concepts; I could input a mass of command lines and they would function as the book described, but I couldn’t pluck out the principle behind them that would enable me to use the techniques myself, spontaneously.
Regular readers, if any remain, no doubt have noticed that there have been no posts on Story by the Throat! in a long, long time. There are a number of reasons for this. There are a lot of things pulling on my mental and physical resources that make it difficult to do such a simple thing as write blog posts.
I’m going to be real with you for a moment. My life is not what I want. like, really, truly deeply falling short of what I dream and yearn for. Oh yes, I have many pleasures, many wonderful, enriching friends, many creative and fulfilling pursuits available to me. And of course I live a life of incredible privilege compared to most of the world. But still somehow I find myself beaten down by life until I can barely even remember my dreams, much less pursue them. I drive many miles to work long hours at a job I hate, for a world machine designed to chew me up and spit out the bones. The joyous work I dream of doing–celebrating story, poetry, music–is unsupported in society outside of a corporate-sponsored celebrity system. The precious work that awaits me at home–husband, father, simple liver off the land–increasingly declines as the job exacts its toll. It takes the best wine from my cup and leaves me with dregs.
It’s like I’m running a deficit on spiritual resources; everything I do, everything I attempt, requires a loan against a soul reserve I can’t back up. And acts of love, of creativity, of joy, are the most draining, so it’s much easier to sit and anesthetize the ache with entertainment and frivolity. My time and energy are drained away until I have none left for the pursuits I care most deeply about.
And I’m not alone. I think many of us, maybe all of us, are suffering in one degree or another from this soul disease. Someone I love has found themselves stuck, trapped in a life that looks far different from what they planned, hemmed in with debt and workload and isolation until even the ability to hope for more is numbed.
So my friend Willem Larsen has developed this method for learning and playing story games which I’m in love with. We’ve struggled with finding a name that does justice to the process, until suddenly it hit me:
With respect to Willem, I’d like call this play method “Fluency Play.”
This cuts right to the heart of the method: basically instead of trying to assimilate an entire body of RPG procedures and put them into action from the get-go, you start at the most basic level and work your way up. The aim is to have a game experience with maximum creative flow, where the shared dreamspace is as unbroken as possible. So you only play at the level you’re fluent at.
See, the thing about fluency isn’t that you’re an “expert” in something. People say “I speak fluent French,” meaning they have a high level of mastery with complex vocabulary and grammar. But really, fluency means you’re comfortable and fluid in performing a skill. My baby girl is fluent in crawling but not in walking. You can be fluent in asking “Where is the bathroom” (i.e. you can say it without thinking or flipping in a phrasebook) without being fluent in discussing the social impact of human sanitation practices throughout history. You wait until you can perform the current level effortlessly, without a moment’s thought, to move to the next level.
So applying this to games? You don’t introduce all the rules at once. You don’t even introduce all the rules “as you need them.” (“Oh, you moved across a threatened square? Time to read the Attacks of Opportunity rules…”) You introduce new levels only when the group is FLUENT in the previous level. For instance, you might first do an intro scene for each character, with no conflict, getting comfortable with description and dialogue. Then do simple conflict scenes, with a simple card draw or die roll. Then run conflicts adding bonuses for traits. And so on.
The payoff, in a word, is FLOW: a seamless experience where collaboration is natural and effortless and that creative bubble isn’t “popped” by head-scratching confusion, flipping through a rulebook, or the sheer overload of trying to hold a dozen interlocking concepts in your head at once. This is largely–not entirely–uncharted territory in game design. We accept page-flipping and headscratching in our games, the way someone might accept knotted back muscles and chronic neck pain, little imagining that some proper massage therapy might release the tension and free up their body to perform fluidly, joyfully.
I wrote once about traction–about procedures having just enough granularity to give your feet purchase and your fingers a handhold, that your choices are meaningful in the game. So how does friction relate to fluency? Simply: fluency is the path to playing with teeth. Fluency encompasses all the steps from sitting in the car and turning the key, through putting it in gear and pressing the accelerator, to steering deftly along roadways and around obstacles–until at last you’re feeling the tires grip the blacktop as you swing around the corners of a winding road in a daring mountain race. That’s the sweet spot we’re aiming for. Not puttering around the parking lot forever, but also not falling into a trap like “Whoa, there’s a sharp turn coming up and another car ahead of me hugging the inside–now WHAT to the instructions say, again, about applying gas and brake to glide safely past him?” Flow and traction are two complimentary opposites.
So in the end I lose nothing–I can enjoy all the richness of robust mechanisms and sophisticated procedures that bolster my story and my play, without the jarring disconnect of breaking flow to learn. Learning shouldn’t be work, learning is play. And play is good.
On December 10, at almost midnight, Niamh Shempert was born. My daughter. It was a harrowing day and a half for Annie and I, her especially, as our home birthing stalled out from dehydration and we finally checked into the Birthing Center at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital after 24 hours of labor. At the hospital Annie was able to receive just enough anesthesia to rest and recover her wits and strength, and when she finally started pushing the process was swift and intense.
Annie smiled in her labor pains, proud and triumphant to be delivering her child at last–to the awe of nurses and midwives, and of me. She proved every person in that room wrong, with their thoughts of shoulder dystocia and C-sections and gestational diabetes, as Niamh (“neev”) came quickly and gloriously out to meet the world in perfect health. Then, while the nurses treated Annie’s hemorrhaging, I was Niamh’s guardian in the wee hours, holding her in comfort and love through Nurses’ tests and warding off invasive procedures. Our birth wasn’t what we planned, but we had it on our terms in as natural and nurturing a setting as possible.
I knew as I held Annie’s hand in pride and awe that I was in the midst of a great story, one that would be a joy to tell and retell–all the more for its factual truth. Now as last week’s events seep into my skin and stir about in my soul, I wonder things. I wonder about the place and value of story in our lives. I wonder about the virtue of seeking out such adventures versus letting them come to us. If our birth had gone as planned, I wouldn’t have such an amazing story to tell. I would have a much simpler and everyday tale that would elicit a few “aww, that’s nice” ‘s, not hold them in wonderment. But would I ever, ever willingly put my wife and my daughter through such danger and trauma just to add an epic to my repertoire? Not on your life!
So, I ask: what IS story in our lives? Is “adventure” something, as they say, that you hate while it’s happening, but love in the telling? Is there a way to pursue storied life without inviting needless sorrow and pain? I look at my daughter in the paradoxical knowledge that I want her to have adventures, but would never wish her danger or harm.
But for now, it is enough to glory in the epic of her arrival, and take joy in her present peace.