I had a revolution in my thinking when my life came to a screeching halt a couple of years ago. One simple question I asked myself over and over again that, when I realized I had no answer, turned my whole world on its head and made me look at my entire life in a way I never had before. The question was this:
“Why am I doing this?”
I have since moved on to asking myself that question about every major aspect of my life, and it has brought a new way of thinking, goal setting, and decision-making in my world that I want to share with you. No, I’m not trying to sell Amway or a Kirby Vacuum to you. I just want you to stop for a moment and ask yourself the same simple question I did. The answer you get– and your reaction TO that answer– might shock you.
I firmly believe that you should know WHY you, as a human being, are embarking on any particular major action. I’m not talking about, “Why am I drinking this cup of coffee at 0900 on a Tuesday?” but I am talking about, “Why am I choosing to sit at a table with 5 people and roll dice once a month when I go home wanting to cry every time?” or “Why am I choosing to play WoW for 15 hours a week?” or “Why am I in this romantic relationship?” And if we go back to the coffee, the question could be, “Why am I putting this into my body?”
What I’m really talking about are GOALS. One of the things I had seared into my soul during my two tours in Iraq was that our time on this planet is finite, and wasting that time–especially when you really don’t know when that time will end— is just plain DUMB. My entire “Why am I doing this?” philosophy comes based off of that platform. If you know that your time is limited, why in the world would you waste that time?
I firmly believe that no matter what you do in life, knowing WHY you are doing it will help you determine if it’s a worthwhile activity to pursue. For a solitary activity like working out in the gym or eating healthy, this requires a couple adjunct questions to gain additional information in order to give yourself an educated answer.
- What benefit am I getting from this activity? I want to be clear here–“Because I want to have fun!” is a totally acceptable answer to this question. But it’s important to have a concrete answer!
- What does this activity cost me? This, my friends, is the potentially ugly part of the process. Be as brutally honest with yourself as you can here. If the activity makes you unhappy in some way, take note of it. If you are receiving emotional, financial, or physical damage from an activity, DEFINITELY take note of it.
- Is the Benefit worth the Cost? Only you can answer that, but if you’re doing something that causes you physical or emotional damage, you might want to talk to someone outside the situation about it to make sure you have a clear-headed perspective. This is also where you can analyze whether decreasing the cost of an action is worth it in time and effort to you. Some things will be worth fighting for in order to change the suck/awesome ratio. For other things, walking away completely may be the best option.
Once you’ve got answers to all these questions, you should have enough data to answer the question, “Why am I doing this?” and make decisions based on that answer.
So that’s a lot of abstract psychobabble, so let’s break this down and give an example. Let’s say, for example, that I want to start up a new RPG game group when I come home to the United States for good. “Why am I doing this?” might seem like an easy question, but let’s break it down.
- Benefit? FUN, by criminy!! Also, for myself personally, being a GM for a tabletop is an intensely personal and connective experience for me, interacting with the players and their characters is a helluva rush. Telling stories about heroes in an interactive format is something I can honestly and without bragging say that I am VERY good at, and something I have spent a lot of time working on improving my skills at. It would be a shame for that effort to go to waste.
- Cost? Time, money, personal energy, and other activities. Being a good GM takes a lot of time–not as much as it did in 3.X, praise be to the gaming gods, but it does take an investment of time. Also the props, books, and materials involved do require an investment of cash. As for personal energy, when I am running a game I put just about everything I’ve t into making that game as awesome as I can. What that means in practical terms is that when I finish running a 3-4 hour game session, I am physically, mentally and emotionally WIPED and must rest and recover before doing it again. By “Other Activities” I mean that there are things I could be doing instead of prepping for game and gaming that I might like to do but I choose to game instead.
- Cost/Benefit Analysis? GAMING WINS (obviously). I–and my family– know the costs to my time and energy involved in gaming, and we consider those to be worth it for the amount of fun produced. However, going through this little exercise lets me know exactly where the issues for me might come up, if one of the elements changes in intensity. And here’s where we get to the decision-making process.
Making Active Choices
This is actually a writing/theatre term, meaning that you as the director/actor/writer need to be aware of the “why” of an action before you do it, or write someone into doing it. It’s just as applicable, if not moreso, to our real-world lives. If you go through your life wandering around just RE-acting to things, instead of making active choices and knowing WHY you are doing something, you’ll end up frustrated at life, bored with your existence, and have no idea how to get out of that predicament.
If you’re about to start something new, ask yourself why you’re contemplating that new course. Let’s say you go to an amusement park you’ve never been to before with friends (or go to a LARP, or a tabletop game, or a movie…). You are going there with a purpose– to have fun in a way you can’t outside the park. That’s your goal– and it’s an awesome one. Don’t let anybody tell you that having fun isn’t a worthwhile goal. they’re wrong, and you can probably look at their life and see that they have little to no fun themselves. DON’T LISTEN TO THEM!! All I’m saying is that you should KNOW that having fun is your goal. It helps put things in perspective.
So you pay to enter the park, pay for food, and sweat your ass of in the middle of July (COST)… and the park sucks. Half the rides are broken, the lines are an hour and a half long, the food is overpriced and gives you a stomachache, etc. At this point (or well before this point, frankly), you have an active choice to make– is the fun I am (not) having worth the cost? Sure you may have had a great day in mind and it blows that the day in your head isn’t happening, but is that worth the additional un-fun of staying at the park and having even LESS fun? And is there anything you can do to change the fun-to-suck ratio?
At an amusement park, your options are slim: leave or stay. Chances are if you’re in the above scenario, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable time if you bail and go somewhere you KNOW fun is to be found. If you’re at a LARP or a tabletop game, however, the options become much wider- you can choose to get involved, help the folks running the game,talk to them in a POLITE AND CIVILIZED MANNER about your qualms and talk to them about solutions. (please note that internet flaming is nowhere listed in the compilation of acceptable tools for conflict resolution. Don’t Be A Dick.) Regardless, you have a choice to make– Should I Stay or Should I Go? In this scenario, you have asked yourself all the above questions, and you now have data to make an Active Choice from.
Communication and Goals
This section applies the upper commentary but I’m putting it in context of relationships because, let’s face it, a LARP or a tabletop game is a kind of relationship. You’re spending a lot of time and energy with someone or a group of someones and expending a lot of time and energy with them. Whether you like it or not, there is some kind of emotional investment there, even in a less-personal game like D&D Encounters or convention games.
I’m in a relationship now with the most amazing, stunning, and clever woman I’ve ever known. It’s freaking awesome in ways I can’t talk about without changing the ESRB of my blog, even when I’m in Afghanistan and she’s stateside. I think that one of the primary reasons our relationship is so solid is that we talk to each other about everything. Admittedly, from 7,00 miles away, talking is about ALL we can do, but that communication is what has built such a solid base for us to go from. We have talked about our goals, both short term and long term. We know what we want out of the relationship and we talked about how we see ourselves, both individually and as a couple, in 5 and ten year increments. We’ve set a lot of goals and we’ve talked about how we’re going to achieve them. We have a working, living, changing relationship, and it all is based out of constant, honest communication. Now that I’m done bragging, let me say this: your game is a relationship between you and the other players and the GM. If you neglect that relational aspect of the game, it will eventually crumble like bad romantic relationships.
I think that interpersonal maintenance requires two things: communication and goals. Without communication, you have no means of dealing openly with the other players at your table. Without community-agreed-upon goals, you have nothing to judge your successes or failures by, and no concrete means of determining how to fix problems that might arise.
I’m no communications major, but a simple fact of communication is that it’s SCARY. Opening your mouth and letting other people know what’s really, genuinely in there can be a terrifying experience for some folk. Because of this, and especially if your community isn’t used to this kind of open talk, start slow. I would recommend face-to-face at a coffee shop or at someone’s house with a couple frosty adult beverages. Electronic media is too prone to mis-interpretation for this stage. Also, make this conversation the ONLY thing on the agenda. Don’t put something else besides dinner on the schedule, or the quieter folk will be inclined to go along until the next event to avoid conflict. Then, start asking the questions above. Ask them from an individual perspective, and have everybody talk about their own personal reasons. Then, collectively as a group, talk about what you want to get out of the activities your group participates in. For a romantic relationship, this list could be lengthy. For a tabletop group, it could be a bullet-point list of what everybody can agree on in regards to table rules, campaign tone, maybe even experience progression or what kind of subjects the GM shouldn’t touch for plotlines. It’s up to you, and I guarantee that once you talk about WHY you’re doing something, the “what I want from this” factor follows naturally. A couple beers can help to get things started, though.
In a romantic relationship, the “community” consists of you and your partner. In a tabletop you’re looking at the entire table, but in a LARP or a club situation you might be talking about the Officers, Staff, or Plot… whatever. The decision-making, driving factors are hat we’re talking about here– and not just in name. If your LARP team has a Third Undersecretary of Hobbit Rules, they need to be present for this too. If you think their opinion is not important enough to have a say, they probably shouldn’t have a title in the first place.
So you’ve got your Community, and you’ve talked about “Why I’m Here” and “Why WE are Here”… now what? The answer is very simple– WRITE IT DOWN. Write down your group goals in such a way that you can use them as a yardstick for later decisions, and whether or not you’re achieving the things you want to achieve.
For example, let’s say I’m GMing a tabletop group and we have the aforementioned hangout/meeting. During that meeting we talk and discus and write down the following goals:
- Make the game a priority in our lives. Work hard to arrange schedules around the game, because everybody will be on the same page trying to do the same.
- At LEAST 1 game a month, preferably bi-weekly. Subject to #1, but we have lives and kids and other hobbies. But at LEAST once a month.
- If the game had an ESRB rating, it would be TV14. No Showtime or HBO blood and sex fests, please.
- No commentary on real-world politics or religion. These are dramatic enough in the real world. No need for that in our fantasy, please.
…etc etc. Priorities and goals for the group to look back on and see if they are meeting them, and to decide as a group what to do if they aren’t.
For a LARP group, it might be something entirely different, based around player immersion, keeping rules int he background, etc. For a romantic relationship, how to spend your money is a HUGE factor in happiness, etc etc. You need to talk about these things, because if someone is unhappy with the status quo, it’s important to have a gauge to figure out solutions to that unhappiness.
So there’s my public service announcement for you this time around. In short,
1) Ask yourself , “Why am I doing this?”
2) Split that up into the cost/benefit analysis of the action and BE HONEST with yourself about the costs.
3) Sit down and talk with others involved with the situation and figure out what they want out of the thing.
4) Write down, on paper, at least 4 goals for the community and use those goals to judge the success/failure of the community’s actions and choices.
DO IT. I promise, when you implement this for your life (ESPECIALLY community-based things like tabletop and LARP), you’ll be tons happier for it.