Solidarity on the Brooklyn Bridge

I’m sitting in my farmhouse home in Warren, Oregon, and watching live feed of the Occupy Wall Street protesters facing off against police on the Brooklyn Bridge. They’re crammed onto the bridge shoulder to shoulder, calling out slogans and standing peacefully, and the police are arresting them…one by one. One by one they’re cuffing the protesters and walking them over to a paddy wagon. Someone is filming all this from above, and I can see it all clearly. There’s no struggle, just an endless parade of quiet, unresisting arrests, while the crowd chants “Let us move!” and “We’re fighting for your pensions!”

The citizen media crew call out to each detainee, Hey you, guy being arrested, what’s your name?” Some respond, some don’t, some can be heard clearly, some can’t.  A man named Michael Burton takes his arrest calmly, his eyes seeming to meet mine as the camera zooms in, radiating quiet determination and strength. A young woman wearing an Invader Zim “GIR” hat, just a teenager by the look of her, is arrested, and someone shouts “How old is she, officer?” and “Oh, sure, arrest a child; see how THAT goes!”

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Guest Post: Taking Stories Back

Last week at the Portland Zine Symposium, my friend Mike Sugarbaker showed up at my table with a tiny pamphlet he’d just made, called “Taking Stories Back: A Mini-Festo.” He put them out on the table as a freebie, and folks grabbed them up as fast as he could staple them! It was incredibly inspiring, and I knew we had something special on our hands. So I asked Mike to do a guest post on the blog based on the original pamphlet. Here it is, adapted and condensed down to the essentials:

Serial fiction is important. Characters are important, and other worlds are important. There’s something magical about visiting another place, a place that might or might not even be possible, time and time again, and seeing how the people who live there are doing.

We knew this generations ago, when we gathered around fires to listen to the storyteller. Now, the fact that there even was a storyteller suggests that different people do get different amounts of skill at telling stories. But that’s not the only reason we gave up responsibility for telling stories to somebody else. We like to be surprised by our stories; we like to feel like they come from someplace else; we like to get them passively instead of working hard at them; and we like to have our senses dazzled. All that is understandable.

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The lesson of the genial Vikings

McBride - friendly norwegiansLast time I talked about the idea that roleplaying or storyjamming can profoundly change your life by allowing you to rewrite your soul pathways into new (hopefully healthier) patterns. But how’s that look in actual play? I offer myself as example:

I’ve been playing for a few months in a game of Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel, set in Medieval Ireland in the era of Viking settlement. We’re playing three denizens of a small fishing village north of  Dubh Linn, caught in the creep up the coast of Norse settlement and rule. Matthew’s playing a prince, coming home after being fostered by Norsemen, who wants there to be peace between everyone. David’s playing a vengeful raid victim, seducing and killing her way through the clan who violated her and took her son. And I’m playing a young tough who fought the Norse over in Caledonia with his uncle, and comes home to find the same Viking dogs infesting his hometown!

Now, I made this character with the full-on expectation of rising up in bloody and righteous revolt against some oppressive foreign bastards. Period, the end. I might succeed, I might fail. But a brave stand against vile oppressors was pretty much my only thought.

But this is the Burning Wheel. Our characters are defined by their Beliefs and Instincts. But it’s then Jim’s job as Gamemaster to challenge those beliefs through the events of play, creating situations with no easy choices. And that’s what happened.

When young Gabhrán returned home he was shocked to find the Northerners ruling in place of the hereditary chieftan, but even more shocked to find everyone pretty OK with it. His Ma and Da as well as the slain chieftan’s son all insisted that they’ve been well and fairly treated, and the village is prosperous and content. There was a rebellious faction stirring, but as time went on it became clear that they and Gabhrán have little basis for revolt beyond sheer bloody-mindedness. And when Gabhrán undertook to champion the cause of a grievously wronged woman–sexually assaulted and accused of murder–in truth this was the aforementioned vengeful seductress, truly guilty of the murder and not assaulted at all. This culminated in Gabhrán fighting a duel in defense of her innocence which ended in the death of a guiltless Viking dupe.

It began to dawn on me that I entered the game with some unexamined assumptions. When I considered playing a righteous revolutionary, I was unconsciously equating “righteous” with “revolt.” In other words, “”ruler” and “oppressor” were synonymous in my mind, and I was assuming that all that was needed for a righteous cause was someone, especially someone foreign, in power. That told me something startling about my attitude toward the world, and just how much of it is based on unconscious bias. Am I really that reactionary and unthinkingly contrarian?

I’ve been forced to reevaluate how I view the world. I’m examining how my principles–love, peace, justice–actually work themselves out in my personal universe. Answers aren’t easy, but I’d say they’re worth the work.

I want to point out that this wasn’t a hiccup or defect in gameplay–“Whoops, sorry guys, my personal biases mucked up the story, won’t happen again!”–but rather the game’s purpose in action. I did exactly right in choosing Beliefs that I care about, and Jim and the other players did exactly right in providing meaningful friction to those Beliefs. You play Burning Wheel to be challenged, and challenged hard, on a personal level. But at the same time, we weren’t playing for personal life lessons, as a substitute for therapy or something. We were playing to create a story with courageous honesty, and in so doing, told ourselves some of our own story.

The game is still in progress. The ultimate fate of the village of Tiráth is undecided. Gabhrán certainly hasn’t become an enlightened paragon of tolerance and understanding. But his revolutionary forays have become more and more troubled, and his incitement of the people less and less in his control. He is confronted at every turn by the humanity of his opponents. Will he become a fanatical monster, or will his Beliefs be strained to the breaking point?

We play to find out. We play to tell our story.

Peace,

-Joel