Playing With Mortality

By Meguey Baker

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Playing With Mortality
I had the privilege of speaking at Wesleyan University on Friday, October 13th. What a lovely thing! I love talking about game design and play and language, and the students correctly anticipated a conversation with some lecture segments. In preparation, the class had read 1001 Nights and Playing Nature’s Year, and were familiar with Apocalypse World and Under Hollow Hills. Over the course of the class, we discussed many things – some of which I may expand on here later –  and the students had several great questions, but one really stood out.

A student said that my game design seemed generally to come from a very personal place, and to be fairly dark – was drawing on trauma part of my design process?

Friends, I was floored! I thought of all the bright and joyful and hope-filled spaces in the games listed above and wondered, for a moment, what they had somehow missed! Because I don’t see any of those games as dark or trauma-based! The intro to 1001 Nights aside, I don’t even talk about anything I would consider personal pain in those games! So what was going on here?

In digging down a bit, it came clear: they didn’t want to play games where people (PCs or NPCs) died as a matter of course. That’s FINE! Also informative!

Did you ever make up stories, by yourself or with friends, when you were under 10? Because I’ll bet you a coffee that, if you did, people died. There is no one so ready to poison everyone than an 8 year old kid. “Pretend we’re orphans…” is a whole entire type of replaying stories aimed at children, a well-established genre, which includes Aladdin and Cinderella through the Boxcar Children and Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Why do children seem to gravitate to roleplaying death and loss and revenge? I have a theory.

It’s mortality. They are wrestling with being mortal, it’s very real, very immediate, very grim stuff. After the first 5 years of magical thinking, when all that is still a little nebulous, kids hit 6-7-8 and BAM! Mortality. A grand- or great-grandparent dies. A pet dies. A family friend dies. They have had enough time to get really sick, or have a family member get really sick. Maybe they have a new younger sibling, and birth also brings up the question of death. Because those things are the certainty of all living things.

A drawing of an arc like a rainbow, with a smiling face — "born" — at the start and a resting face — "die" — at the end.

In this first wrestling with mortality, our play is raw and visceral and real. We are using play to practice Very Big Things from a slantwise angle, because facing them head-on would be too devastating. We don’t really want to lose our support system, but we know it’s possible, and it sure feels good to imagine ourselves resilient and capable in an imaginary world where that happened!  

There’s also a neurological brain development stage around age 6-7-8, where the world becomes very very clear-cut. Heroes are heroes, villains are bad, the world should be fair but isn’t, and that paradox is infuriating. Playing pretend makes things as simple or complex as we want them to be, and as ethically clear or confusing as we want to and are ready to address.

The arc from birth to death, with a person marked out on the rising quarter, 7 years old. They're concentrating, and surrounded by ideas. An arrow points to the end: "designing from mortality awareness."

Once we move out of that stage, into the “everything is weird and uncertain” of adolescence and teen years to early adulthood, we are not quite in the same place with regard to playing with mortality. We’ve dealt with it enough to focus on other things, like gaining new skills and making friends and figuring out who the heck we are and who we want to be. As our brains shift to allow gray areas and nuance and complicating factors, our roleplaying is an entirely different type of practice. We may still want to bash bad guys, but it’s different. We’re also trying on emotional responses, how to be more charming or relaxed or cool under pressure or effective in general.

The arc from birth to death, with two people together marked out on the apex, 21 years old. They're talking and thinking about other things.

Then we hit full adulthood, and we wrestle with mortality all over again. Everyone does, but if there are little kids in our lives, or aging parents, it can be so much more intense – what if something happened to us? What if something happened to them?? So we design and play games that deal with that, with intense emotional stakes and adrenaline rushes, or games that allow us to think about anything else, and just have fun solving problems and getting into imaginary trouble with friends. (We also start playing characters younger than ourselves more often, I note!) 

The arc from birth to death, with 3 people marked out on the falling quarter, 42 years old. They're more sober and worried than they were at 21.

Here’s where playing with mortality gets really strange. We adults start getting really concerned that children (however old they are) have enough soft, sweet, comforting games to play. Because we want that world for them, honestly and earnestly. And we want that for ourselves. There’s a reason Animal Crossing was the runaway hit in the onset of the global pandemic, when we had no vaccines and were still disinfecting our groceries, concerned on some level that we might soon die alone.

The arc from birth to death, with people marked out on the rising quarter, 7 years old, and the falling quarter, 42 years old.  An arrow points from the adult to the child: "designing from mortality anxiety."

The problem lies in failing to recognise the ways children roleplay around mortality as being different from the  ways adults roleplay around mortality. It’s extremely easy to design down to children, to infantilize them, and thereby infantilize ourselves. Like books and poems and movies and any other kind of storytelling, we need, at all ages, games with a variety of intensities to look at our lives and try to make sense of our mortal existence. We must, at all ages, be able to calibrate our own focus on this, and how head-on we look and for how long, as we do our own wrestling. It’s fine to not want to look too close, but denying it serves us very poorly. 

Living is traumatic. From the moment we’re born, we have to sort out being uncomfortable, having needs, suffering disappointment and loss of various sorts. We wrestle with our own mortality and the mortality of everything we love over and over and over again. Roleplaying offers a way to process that terrible certainty, the cessation of our physical existence in the form we are most familiar. Roleplaying also offers an escape from that reality, to focus on other things, on the wonder and beauty and just incredible gift of being alive and connected to other living beings on this fantastic little planet of mostly water circling a kind of minor star in a corner of one galaxy.

So am I drawing from my own trauma in my game design? Probably, yes, absolutely. Do I view my life as traumatic? No, not really. I’ve had my share of hardship and struggle and mild PTSD that took time to heal. In this current phase of my life, as I walk through cancer treatment and am therefore faced unequivocally with my own mortality yet again, I’m grateful for the years I spent exploring mortality and loss and death in my childhood and young adulthood, and as a parent. I look forward to many, many more years of this work.

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