The Evolution of Imaginative Play

My first exposure to Role Playing Games was laying on the floor underneath the table while my three older siblings hunched over Advanced D&D books, rolling dice to kill masses of Gnolls. I was six. When they started up a new campaign, I begged to play. They reluctantly allowed me to. So for me Role playing meant books, dice, hand drawn maps on graph paper, and many loose sheets of paper. Around age fourteen I gave up on Role Play. It was too socially complicated since the only people who would play with me were boys and the vast majority of my peers didn’t understand it at all.

When my children were young and I watched them play, I realized that their free form play was essentially a Role Play without dice, paper, and rules to give boundaries to the mutual story. I remembered my own imaginative games as a child. I was able to imagine so strongly that I could almost see the things I was pretending. I also remember the day that pretending stopped working for me. Two friends had come for a sleepover. We were in the opening negotiations of dressing up and beginning the story when one of my friends paused and said “This is silly.” In that moment I couldn’t see it as anything but silly. Self consciousness banished pretend play forever. I was twelve.

Interestingly, twelve was also when I began to focus more on writing stories. Pretending on paper was much more socially acceptable than putting on dress ups and waving pretend swords in the backyard. When I reached adulthood I recognized that one of the biggest values of D&D and the paper RPGs that followed was that they gave adults permission to play pretend again. I assumed I would see the same pattern with my own children, that around twelve they would swap over to structured play bounded by rules and paper.

I was wrong. Twelve faded into thirteen and then fourteen while my kids still ran about in the backyard with friends. They also took it online, not into the structured mmorpgs that adults gravitated to. Instead places like Minecraft or Roblocks became platforms for role play in the same free form mode that I saw in my backyard. Gradually, with no fanfare, the online role playing took the place of running around in the yard. My kids have participated in role play (which could also be called cooperative storytelling) on Mincraft, Roblocks, DeviantArt, Google Docs, Terraria, Skype, and probably two or three other places that I don’t know about. It seems as long as the program has a way to connect with friends and a chat function, it can be used for role play.

I’m happy to live in a world where imaginative play is not the sole province of children. Play is good for all of us, no matter what our age may be.