I am a role-player. There, I said it. ‘Oh no, a D&D nerd’ you might say, ‘I bet he wears a cloak while running around the woods with a plastic sword’. No to either of that. I have been playing role-playing games for 35 years and only in the last three years I have actually seriously played some Dungeons & Dragons – I’m just not that into the fantasy genre.
What on earth has this to do with a blog which is mostly about employability, enterprise, skills, and habitual Brexit bashing? Well, it is part of what has made me who I am, and I have decided that over the next few years, I will start sprinkling in some of the stuff that I have learnt from playing role-playing games. There was an interesting twitter exchange on that recently, in which I promised to respond in my blog – so here it is.
To get it out of the way: Dungeons and Dragons is a very popular and probably the most well-known role-playing game in the world. I have never been into fantasy that much, so early in my player career I have explored many other subjects. I was an avid player of the game Call of Cthulhu, and I’m delighted to see such a critical and aware adaptation of Lovecraft’s hideously racist writing in the brilliant Lovecraft Country. But since 1987 I have mostly been playing Star Trek related role-playing games – which reflects a lot of my values. There have been many iterations and versions of this game, normally because the licence was withdrawn every few years, and so there are tribes of players who use different incarnations of the game. I have never been really fixated on rules, as my gaming style has always been about the overall narrative.
What does that mean? I create a story and other people play characters in this story. Well, more exactly, I use the Star Trek universe cannon, but I recombine and I develop independent stories that are set against the vast historical background of the Star Trek universe. This probably puts me close to fan fiction, adding variations and subplots to already existing storylines for my players to enjoy. It’s my creative outlet and it has built decade-long friendships. A very dear friend once said that I was inclusive with whom I let into my group of friends, but very exclusive when it comes to choosing my players. I was flattered by that.
Since the pandemic struck, I have played more than I have ever in my life – including my teenage years. I am now like a little production studio creating about three Star Trek Adventures (the current iteration) episodes per month and one D&D episode. That means pretty much every weekend I get to play with friends using the Roll20 platform – but over many decades I have been playing mostly face-to-face, regularly travelling back to Germany where I have been playing with some of the same people I played with as a teenager.
My stories tend to go on for a very long time. The longest continuous campaign, with the same characters, and through multiple storylines over the years, took 16 years. In this time the characters aged roughly the same amount as in game time. This means long-term story planning, plotting story arcs, and improvising when the players come up with better ideas during the game, which then I incorporate.
This all has impacted on how I manage my life and my work. For example, when strategising for work, I develop an overarching theme (like a role-playing campaign), such as automation or embedding enterprise thinking into my service (themes in my current game are artificial intelligence, fake news, and diversity), and then I try different narratives to drive my project (or story) forward. I’ve only ever been motivated by the energy released when being playful – which is why school never worked for me, as all three school systems I experienced seemed to be designed to take the playfulness out of most things. Role-playing games help participants build social skills, as they are so focused on interpersonal relationships and influencing others.
Here is where games that are set against a very well worked-out and complex background are useful. You don’t have to sweat the small stuff and you can work with a clear set of values and guidelines on how characters should behave – very much as I hope in my workplace. Games like these, in my view, help us learn to navigate the complex and technological society that we are moving in – which is why I find the Star Trek setting so useful. Organisational hierarchies are played out in the chain of command, ethical conflicts emerge from the multicultural and multi-ethnic mix of societies in the Star Trek universe, and as it is a sci-fi setting, it is easy to map current real-life issues into the game, such as the integration of more diverse characters.
Recently, my games have covered topics such as disinformation, algorithmic manipulation of news, artificial intelligence, ethno-radicalism, xenophobia, and reproductive ethics. Not all of it goes well, and not all of it ends up being a deep exploration of the human condition, but as with all good science fiction, the secret lies in the mix of entertainment and the occasional aha moment. The usefulness of reflecting on deeper meaning in our mundane existence in the workplace, as in our game, is one of the most redeeming qualities of role-playing, as it literally allows us to take the perspective of someone we would never normally contemplate. If that does not help build the ambiguity tolerance to develop a career in a multicultural, International, and diverse workplace, I don’t know what does.
So, having had my coming out moment about what I would want to really spend all my time doing – but I do have to work for a living, too – I will start including the occasional post on on things related to role-playing. It might sometimes even be about Dungeons and Dragons.