Making Middle-Earth our own

I had a unique opportunity this month: I was paid to visit Middle-Earth.

I got to work for a week at Trackers Northwest’s “Welcome to Middle Earth” day camp for 8-10 year olds. The camp uses the trappings of Elves and Orcs and the One Ring to teach nature awareness and wilderness skills, by framing activities as a fantasy quest. I jumped at the chance to be involved.

I had a blast tromping through the woods with nine boys, practicing stealth, riddling with Gollum, finding clues, singing in Elvish. We journeyed to Rivendell (a cabin in the woods) for our last two days, met another group of adventurers and combined our quests–ours to destroy the One Ring, theirs to safeguard the Elven Ring Nenya.

I learned a lot about storytelling, group facilitation, and, well, kids. For instance, it was very important to establish that we were telling our own story, not recreating one from books or movies. This is especially hard when your story is based on a series of books and movies. People of all kinds are well versed in the use of knowledge for power and dominance–this is usually called “expertise.” With kids this is especially raw and potent: I’d say, “look, it’s a letter from Gandalf,” and a 10 year old would shout, “Gandalf’s dead!” this made it important to get all the kids on board with the concept that we’re all working together to tell our own story.

Next time I’ll lean hard on that right from the start. By the last day of camp, everyone was pretty focused and bought in to our “quest” and its fictional framework.  When I led the troop into the woods of Rivendell (our Rivendell) to find the Fires of Mt. Doom (our Mt. Doom) that had bubbled up there, that we might destroy the One Ring (our One Ring) and extinguish the flames from the land, nobody balked or heckled. In fact, I never saw so much focus. I’d been pleading in vain all week for these kids to practice moving quietly through the woods and watch for hand signs from the person in point. But this time, they did it. They crept in silence, the tension palpable. We moved as one, halting, crouching, looking and listening. As we neared the spot where foul Orcs guarded Mordor’s fire, the anticipation was nearly unbearable. Some kids whispered, “I know it’s just a story but I’m actually scared!” Then we fanned out with our foam arrows at clearing’s edge, and struck! When they were too much for our arrows, we drove them away with Elvish Song, and were victorious!

I think my young charges were slightly shocked that I was really going to let them throw my souvenir replica One Ring into a roaring fire, and not fish it back out. I saw the last vestiges of cynicism drain away as it sailed into the embers.

Imagine if I could get that buy-in right from the start. Imagine if, by the end of the first day, I had nine kids all committed, primed and ready to enter into a shared Dream together, to all shape that dream as equal partners. The emerging narrative of our week together was primarily shaped by me and my ideas and props, secondarily by the books and movies, and only tertiarily by the kids’ imaginations. I can only dream of what that would look like flipped on its head–children boldly and brilliantly seizing story in their hands, learning to break down and eventually ignore the constraints of popular culture and consumer entertainment they’ve been bred to. next year, I hope to see that firsthand.

That’s what I strive for, in all arenas, with Story by the Throat.



9 Responses to “Making Middle-Earth our own”

  1. 1 Hans Otterson
    August 26, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Whoa. Joel, this is so fucking cool. I especially like your vision at the end, there.

  2. 2 Willem
    August 26, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Well, frickin’ HEAR, HEAR!

  3. 3 storybythethroat
    August 30, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Glad you guys are into it. It’s always gratifying to inspire enthusiasm. :)

    My question to you now, is: how do we enact that vision? What procedures and tools can we use to facilitate fearless, invested creative collaboration in the moment, whether it’s in a roleplaying game, a summer camp, or just a party with friends? More to the point, what kind of social environment must we foster to bring this about?

  4. 4 Willem
    August 30, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Well, I see the issue as an ongoing flow process that bounces them between quiet focus and high energy all day long, with moments of rest, ending on an experience of telling their own story.

    If anybody has the energy to say “but Gandalf is dead!”, to me it means they have too much energy – enough to reflect and judge critically the situation. I don’t want to give them enough time to ruin their own fun, I want them to hit the ground running, running, running, with interspersed moments of needed focus, and ending on that note of “what the hell happened – the day went by so fast – tell us your story!”.

    Just like with the “pedagogy of play”, this means creating a watertight experience. I bet you can remember at that camp moments which felt a lot like “page-flipping” in a story game; moments where the staff didn’t quite have their act together, where the kids had time to step back from the experience to soon and judge it, logistical moments of travel, or of not quite have prepared for the next thing just yet.

    So really, it comes down to creating a pedagogy of play for the Middle Earth story that starts immediately, the moment they walk into camp, and only really ends when they’ve so filled up with their own experiences that they can’t help but tell their stories to each other at the end of the day.

  5. 5 storybythethroat
    August 31, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Hmm, yes. I did try to distribute warmup games like this–physically active, then mentally focused. I don’t think I ever hit that “energy expended, got thew wiggles out, ready to focus in” spot with the kids. 8-10 year olds have a LOT of energy!

    I definitely recognize the “page-flipping” moments, where I was like, “um, er ah,” and the kids would IMMEDIATELY swoop in to fill the vacuum: “Read us some more Hobbit!” “Hey, I’ve got a game we could play!” And of course the kids had NO idea what I was trying to accomplish with my games–draw them into the headspace of shared collaboration–so while they enjoyed just about every activity I set forth, the second I hesitated they had their own ideas of fun which sent the focus hurtling in a dozen different directions.

    I think one solution is to, as you say, go GO GO with no chance to step back and criticize, and do so with the aim of getting them to a collaborative space EARLY in the experience, like the first day, which gives them a taste so they’ll want to come back the second day and get more of the same. After all, if the kids don’t even know what this amazing creative experience IS, why should they even want it?

    A final question: do you see this procedure as substantially altering when working with adults, or are we still operating on the same principles?


  6. September 1, 2009 at 6:44 am

    A final question: do you see this procedure as substantially altering when working with adults, or are we still operating on the same principles?

    If I may take a stab at this: Many, though by no means all, adults are conditioned to not play in public. It is perceived as a huge social risk, which it might well be. So, with adults, you would need to frame the situation in such a way that it gives the permission to play. Going by example might help.

    The Nordic research on larps and ritual might be worth a look. In the previous Ropecon (Finland’s largest rpg convention) J. Tuomas Harviainen lectured on rituals and roleplaying and I think it was at least somewhat related to getting people engaged and living in the game. Are you at all interested or familiar in the subject?

  7. 7 storybythethroat
    September 1, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    You raise an excellent point, Tommi. Willem and I have discussed at great length the sort of exercises that help lead players to that permission. His Pedagogy of Play that he developed (specifically for the game Polaris) aims at leading participants to a safe and free collaborative space through simple warmups that build on each other. So “Name Story” kicks it off by getting everyone comfortable speaking in the circle at all, by talking about their favorite subject: themselves. Firing Line and One Word at a Time get them building on each other’s input in little chunks, and Yes, And. . .expands that to bigger phrases. By the time they play “I don’t see it,” where they all add details to a spontaneously created character for as long as everyone can still “see” the fictional image, they hardly know they’ve been led by degrees into fearless shared storytelling! i’ve seen the process work wonders.

    Are there any techniques that you use for this, that you particularly like? You’ve already named one: leading by example. That is SO important, and and easy to forget, in the zeal to draw everyone in to participating–why should a shy person stick their creative neck out if the facilitator or leader isn’t willing to be so vulnerable?

    I’m only vaguely aware of the Nordic scene, to the extent that I have a fuzzy impression in my head that “those Nordic LARP folks seem to be doing something interesting and I should check it out some time.” So if you want to share some insights from that play culture, by all means do!


  8. September 3, 2009 at 1:26 am

    Evidently I’m way out of my league here; my relevant background is a casual interest in academic theories of play, about which a friend is writing his master’s thesis. I think there is much to learn in investigating play and many problems caused by play being repressed in modern society.

    I’ve mostly been using that and other material to give myself the permission to play and to get rid of my social anxiety, so I fear I can’t help much with giving the permission to others.

    Things that I have found useful is to have a ritual space: Limited in time and space with clear rules and purpose. In particular, all the people there should participate in the play, or otherwise I will have problems engaging (silly social anxiety). Knowing the people or having children of suitable age around helps, but is by no means necessary.

    As for the larp scene, there is large number of pretty normal, action- or immersion-oriented larps. Then there are a few people doing interesting things with rituals and political larps and pervasive games (where the difference between diegetic, in-game, truth and reality is purposefully blurred.

    I posted some rambling lecture notes about rituals and roleplaying in my blog, if you are interested: http://thanuir.wordpress.com/2009/08/04/ropecon-2009-lecture-notes/ .

    I’m not expert enough in the subject to give a good review, but I may be able to answer questions. Also, I am pretty much a tabletop roleplayer, so my interest in larping is pretty academic.

    The pedagogy of play – posts were interesting. Are the exercises of the first stage explained somewhere?

  9. September 15, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Great article Joel! That sounds like a great week of fun!

    When I used to teach Animal Forms (animal role-playing exercise) I noticed teens and adults to be very awkward. One time made them stop and raise their right hand and repeat after me saying something like, “I… state your name… give myself permission… to act like a child today… I give the other people… in this group… permission to act like a child.” It worked crazily! Right away the energy was different and people were into it. Everyone is given permission, everyone testifies that permission aloud and in the group, and everyone is basically agreeing to “go there”. Totally works.

    Once I was leading a group of kids on a “pygmy hippo” hunt at Tryon Creek. For some reason over the years of camp the pygmy hippo is a mythological creature that lives at Tryon Creek. Of course it doesn’t really exist, but here I was taking them on a hunt (at their demand). I had no props or anything. I just got them camouflaged with mud and black-berry war paint. As I showed them how to quietly stalk through the woods, I was worried that this whole experience would end like a deflating balloon; there was no pygmy hippo. We would come back empty handed and the whole thing would be forgot. I stopped on the trail for a second to think, when all of a sudden I saw the pygmy hippo. It was this weird thing where all of a sudden my brain was 8 years old again (kind of like that moment in HOOK when Peter Pan finally “sees” the food on the table) and I could see the pygmy hippo. So I took them there with me, “Look, there it is!” “Where???” they said. I thought… fuck what do I do now? But then it hit me, “Take out your bow and arrows” and I pretended to knock my invisible bow. At that point they realized it was an imaginary hippo, and they too brandished invisible weapons. Anyway we killed it and ate it and when we got back to camp all the kids were screaming with glee that we found and killed and ate the pygmy hippo. All the other kids were totally jealous. It was nuts.

    I love your story with the ring going into the fire at the end. I’ve got soooo many ideas on how to try and make that kind of belief in the story happen earlier on… but perhaps we should have that conversation at your house over drinks sometime! :-)

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