I want a Kid Gaming Revolution (KGR). Now, you may be wondering why/if we need a Kid Gaming Revolution. Well, KGR is my code word for a fictitious future time when role-playing is just as "cool" an activity as, say, rollerblading is today. It's accepted. Everyone knows about it. And it's OK. Not wildly popular. Not weird. Just "OK." It could happen.Heck, with a D&D movie, and D&D TV coming out soon, we're almost there. Maybe some people relish gaming's niche category. Maybe others would rebel against it (That's too trendy, man! I'm gonna play Parcheesi!).
Who knows? I figure, if I set my sights high, I'll at least nudge the ball in that direction.
So, what do we need to have happen to get a KGR going?
KGR Strategy #1: Foster "Buy-In" for kids
For me, "Buy-In" is the holy grail of getting gamers to play. Why is "buy-in" important? Because kids have a huge number of potential distractions crying out for their attention and mindshare. The tendency (in Georgia, at least) for public school teachers to assign more and more hours of gruelling, mind-numbing, make-work in the guise of homework for the spurious purpose of seeming "academically rigorous" means that kids have less and less leisure time to devote to play. Add to that the things that could conceivably distract a child: TV, video games, the Internet, books, sports, etc., and you really have a very small "time slice" that is left unassigned. So "buy-in" is needed - "buy-in" is when a child decides to forego one of her customary fun activities in favor of a higher priority activity.
How can RPGs compete with custom-designed video games and slick television shows? Well, for one thing, they're interactive and social. They're creative and imaginative. They're educational (in a sneaky, stealthy way). They encourage reading. All of these things are true, but they're not going to necessarily appeal to kids. What will appeal to kids is a sense of empowerment they feel when they play their characters. And the fact that they are participating in a compelling story. They will not necessarily immediately identify the social, interactive, and educational characteristics, but maybe they'll become important as you go along further.
But Parents can definitely do a lot to encourage "Buy-in." If Missy gets a lot of flak from Mom over how much TV she watches and how much time she spends playing her Playstation or chatting with friends on the Internet, but doesn't get a lot of flak from gaming, she might look more favorably upon gaming - especially if it's fun.
Ultimately, what causes "buy-in" is still a mystery to me. I know that some kids "buy-in", others don't. Mayhaps it's like art - I know it when I see it. But I can't tell you step-by-step how to get there. I think it's different for each kid. Of course, there's a few things you can do:
- Don't push gaming on kids.
You heard me. No matter how cool you think it is, or how much you love it, or even if, like me, you think it's the best thing for them, don't push it. I disciplined myself a long time ago to *not* try to cajol my kids into gaming. I knew that, the more I pushed them to game, the less they'd actually want to do it. So, instead, I just let them see how much fun I was having in my adult RPG sessions. I told them that the gaming stuff was "mine". All the gaming books had a special shelf. Everything had an air of adult mystery to it. Even after my kids gamed for the first time, I made certain that, if we played, it was because they *asked* for it. I never suggested it to them, never brought it up, never tried to convince them to play.
I have strong feelings against coercion, and against manipulation. And although this technique may seem to be a bit manipulative, I feel that it isn't. I am not a big fan of giving kids choices over areas of their life that could potentially harm them or be considered neglectful (like whether to play in traffic or skip breakfast, lunch, and dinner), but in the arena of recreation, I feel that it is important to let them have what choices they're capable of making. Kids get so few true choices that I feel it's important to let them have as many as they can handle.
Don't get me wrong, it was very frustrating to *not* bring it up all the time. But, in the end, I think everything worked out much better than I could possibly have hoped for. Because, when they did make the choice, they chose freely, willingly. And I'm always aware that they can always turn around and choose to no longer game again. And I'm OK with that, too.
- Read To Your Children
Read to them works of fantasy and science fiction. Introduce them to realms of wonder. Use different voices (if you can) for the different characters. Explain things as they go. Be dramatic!
- Have Storytelling Time
Make up stories with your kids and for them. Write them down. Read them aloud. Tell them off-the-cuff. They don't have to be great stories. Your child will appreciate the effort. I told bedtime stories to my kids when they were young, nearly every night. They had their favorites and they weren't always heavily plotted. After a while, I started to tell stories based in my old D&D campaign world. I introduced characters and situations from that world. I spun yarns having to do with Lady Fel and Brother Canis, a Katzen & a Wolfen. Fel was a wizard/rogue and Canis a cleric/warrior. Later on, my kids realized that they were playing in the same world as their bedtime stories!
- Buy Them Their Own Books and Dice
It's important that, once a child expresses interest in playing and actually plays a game or two, that you buy them their own book and dice. This can get expensive, but think about it in terms of "hours of entertainment over cost of initial outlay." While there may be a certain mystique at using Mom or Dad's book, having their *own* book, with their name inside, means they can take ownership of their interest in the game. Encourage them to read the book...but once again, don't force it. There is too much everyday drudgery in the lives of children. Don't turn gaming into another thing they have to drudge through.
- Find Ways To Show Kids That Lots of People Do This, Too
Go to gaming conventions, go to game stores, etc., etc. and bring them along - just don't pressure them to play.
Ensuring "Buy-In": The First Few Games
The first few games are very important ones, because they will form lasting impressions in your children's minds. Here's soem considerations to promote buy-in during the first few games:
- Make sure your child has a character he or she truly loves. Not likes. Not thinks is OK. *Loves*. Sometimes you can't tell what a kid will like, but you can give it a good shot.
- Make sure that you provide the best referee you know, preferably someone who has had experience with kids in gaming, and who is a parent or caretaker of children.
- Make sure that you express interest in the child's reports and stories about her gaming experience. Compare and contrast your character with their character. Encourage the child to do some background development of the character.
- It is probably a good idea for you to encourage the child to *play* first, not *run* first. If you think about it, tabletop RPG's are essentially two "hobbies" in one: there is the Playing RPG hobby and the Running RPG hobby. One of the things that inhibits "buy-in" is that learning to be a good GM is a daunting task for any person, and if that's what a child needs to do to have fun, usually he will find something else that's more fun, and less work to do.
KGR Strategy #2: Self-Reliance & Long-Term Sustainability
Adults who already know how to GM can help kids get into RPGs. But, I feel it is part of the responsibility of a good Gaming Citizen to help young gamers grow out of dependency solely on adult GMs. When kids have the ability to run games for other kids, they have the power to entertain themselves. And this is what makes the whole of gaming grow in very real ways.
Think about it. For every storyteller, every referee, every game master, every Dungeon Master, how many players are created? If you run games for people regularly, how many people have you brought into gaming?
As a trend or fad, gaming is ill-suited: it has what is called a "high threshold" requirement for entry. You have to get dice, you have to buy a book, you have to find a group, you have to roll up a character and you have to meet regularly to play.
If you are a decent referee, you can teach a child to become one. I count myself as a decent referee, and I have been teaching both Kay (11) and Rafe (13) how to GM. So far, they've both run games from time to time. Rafe actually organized a regular kid's game to take place concurrently with our weekly grown-up's RPG session. Rafe has worked hard to create a campaign world, with a map and a culture and everything. Kay hasn't yet done that, but I'm sure she will eventually. As they mature as gamers, Kay and Rafe will become more confident in their abilities to run games.
I'm kind of an anomaly. I've always run games. Even my first D&D game, when I didn't understand "hit points" yet, I ran a game for two people, on the fly. Ever since then I've been hooked on game mastering. In fact, it's very hard for me to play in others' games - I've only run characters in other people's games a handful of times. But it took a lot of continuous gaming (and really bad ideas!) to get to the point where I could really have confidence in my abilities as a GM. I wonder what it would've been like if I had a mentor?
Sidebar: Lowering the Threshold:There are, of course, some situations which lower the entry threshold: conventions, gaming parties, game stores sponsoring game days, etc. But for the most part, it's *hard* to get into gaming, even if you really want to. I know this because many non-gamer parents have written to me because of my kids-rpg mailing list and asked me, "How can I find a game for my son or daughter?" It sounds quite lame, but I always do a Yellow Pages search for game stores and hobby shops in their area, and try to set them up that way. The thing of it is, there isn't a national network of such places. Although there are some gamer registries, so far none of them have managed to be very successful. Finding an RPG to play in can be difficult if not impossible. You'd think that some faceless corporate bookstore like Borders, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.Com would catch on and provide the platform from which to create such a thing, but it just ain't happenin'.
KGR Strategy #3: Create Places for Kids To Game That Parents' Won't Mind Them Going
I have a dream that one day soon there will be a wave of profitable businesses which open themselves to the teens and tweens, who make it possible for kids to get involved with RPGs by providing a clean, safe place for them to play, supervisory adults who can be trusted to keep an eye on them, and support services/products to keep them interested.
KGR Strategy #4: Computer-Assisted Tabletop RPGs
My theory is that the Tablet PC will be the ultimate platform for computer-assisted-tabletop (CAT) RPGs. Already, I can sit with my Palm Pilot and pull up my d20 characters on PCGenView, a lovely open-source freetware. Let's say I need to roll a Spot check for Tarafear, technomom's character: *tap* I bring up Tarafear. *tap* I click the skills tab. *tap* I hit "Spot" and it immediately generates a random number and tells me what it was. I don't have to worry about whether she saw the die or not, and it automagically adds all her Spot bonuses.
My vision for CAT-RPGs takes this one step further. Image a large flat-panel (72" x 72") monitor tablet PC with a 3D graphics driver - call it the "Play Map PC." The characters are all loaded in to its RAM, with their custom-made 3D "figure" already in evidence on the map: the party has just descended a set of stairs and stand in a darkened corridor. The map shows a "fog of war" outside the range of the character's perception: a darkened area they cannot see on the map. Every "turn" of movement, the system automatically checks Spot for everyone who may see a particular creature Hiding in the corridor. If nobody Spots, then the monster 3D figure is unrevealed until it attacks. Meanwhile, on my smaller, notebook-sized tablet PC, I have an exact duplicate of the map in miniature, without the "fog of war", which shows me everything that is happening "in the background: dice rolls, etc." and with which I can direct a monster "figure" to wait, attack, or sneak past the party in the shadows.
As GM, I control whether a "Turn" goes by or not - I can slow the game down to a crawl to allow for more suspense while I'm describing what's going on (embellishing what can't be represented on the map), or I can quicken the pace by allowing several rounds to go by without delay. Let's say Tarafear wants to start using her Bardic Voice ability to sing and inspire courage in her party. She takes the stylus, taps her character twice, and a little sub-menu pops up: she chooses "Bardic Voice" and then a sub-sub menu pops up that says, "Inspire Courage." Tara's 3d figure animates and begins to sing and play her harp. The PCs are then granted the combat bonuses they are due because of this.
How is this different from playing a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online RPG) like Everquest? It's very different. First of all, the map PC is meant to be used by multiple people at once, seated in a living room where they can see. Second of all, the *control* of the game is still vested with the GM. Only the dice-rolling, stat-checking and record-keeping functions rest on the computer's responsibility.
Having CAT-RPGs would not only lower the threshold for playing RPGs, but it would also lower the threshold for running them. No longer would I have to study for hours to learn every spell in the book, when the rules for the spells are hard-coded into the Map, and all I have to do is click on my character, click a spell name, and cast it. The PC does everything else.
Already, we have seen how computer-assisted character generation has made it easy for people to get into D&D Third Edition. Until the Player's Handbook of D&D3E, nobody had ever bundled character generation software into a product before. The fact that my kids could sit at their PC and create their character by themselves was a big part of their "Buy-in" process. Think of what would happen if the entire game could be automated this way?
There are obvious drawbacks to the Map-PC concept, the first of which is that some people just like to roll dice. They like the feel of it, the sensation of the dice rolling and they don't tend to trust the pseudo-random numbers that a PC would generate. Plus, the cost for such a PC might be prohibitively expensive if it was a single-use object: there are many fewer gaming groups than there are gamers - it's conventional wisdom in the Game Industry that, if you make a product for players it will sell well, and if you make a product for GM's, it won't. (Hence, the reason why so many companies put out player-oriented supplements!)
Furthermore, GMs would also need special preparatory software for the purposes of running a game. I know from experience that laying out, digitally, a huge dungeon complex, for example, is difficult. Still, this would be an opportunity for game companies to create digital "Modules" which could be downloaded via the Internet. The miniatures companies could feature 3d digital versions of their figures. The perfect thing for the harried GM on the go: simply plug a module in and sit back and play.
The ultimate extension of the CAT-RPG concept would be an RPG that was designed and created completely digitally. In fact, the "rules" of the game could be sublimated in the programming for the Map and GM tablet programs. This could conceivably make for much more realistic gaming without the tremendous brain-work involved in calculating bullet trajectories, damage ratios, hit locations, movement and cover, and so forth.
But I digress. The important thing about CAT-RPGs for this post is that they could conceivably be used to get kids (especially kids who like videogames) interested in roleplaying in groups.
Sorry this one was so long - but it should hold you for a few days. I'm off on a little mini-vacation (actually going to be at home...but I planned this time off months ago and, although I've had to cancel my original plans due to financial reasons, I'm at least going to get a few days off!