Learning How Imaginative Play Kept Me Sane During 2020

Fellowship, one of the eight types of fun as described by Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek in their MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Described as “game as a social framework,” it is the type of fun hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As lockdowns came into effect, gamers sought to gather around a digital gaming table using products such as Roll20, Zoom, and everything in-between. When our game group moved online, I suddenly realized that the fellowship I got from our weekly sessions was missing something big.

Our weekly gaming sessions served as a way for me to disconnect from the technology I’ve tethered myself to and engage with people I felt open to. Playing games online and spending more time in front of a screen at night was hurting my mental health. When the weather warmed up, there was a brief stint of playing games in person outside, but this stirred up a whole other bag of social anxiety. Ultimately, in August, this led me to step away from the RPG hobby for the remainder of the year.

However, I didn’t exactly step away fully.

While I diverted a majority of my time away from roleplaying games and to miniature wargaming, I still spent some time doing what I’ll call “imaginative solo play”. This is doing things like drawing maps, writing down plot germs, reading about a game, and the likes. I’m sure almost everyone in the RPG hobby has participated in this, in some form or another.

For myself, I indulged in a lot of game design. I spent time on projects that I was previously had trouble working on. Projects where I was never sure of who the audience was or how to make others enthusiastic about the game. Alone, the audience of the game was only me and, luckily, I was the one enthusiastic about them. My notebook became full of design skeletons which were going to be left undeveloped. And this was ok because I already got a lot of fun out of them. The fun I got wasn’t from rolling dice, doing funny voices, or playing with friends, but rather imagining “what if…” about those things.

This fun of “what if…” was never something I realized held legitimate value until I read the article The Imaginary Hobbyist in Volume 3 of the quirky miniature wargaming online zine 28 (or sometimes know as 28 Mag). In Pierre Tolmer’s essay he states:

Maybe the value is simply that it feels good. My head is filled with things that will never be, and that is great. I get a lot of fun from picturing them, and I have way too little time to do them all. I would not want to do them all.

This last sentence helped me put into perspective a few really important items that have been weighing on me and open myself up to, well, myself.

At the start of the 2020 pandemic, Uncle Atom, from the popular YouTube channel Tabletop Minions, talked about using hobbing as a way to abate fears. He asked that when people post hobby related things on social media that they use the hashtag #ShelterInHobby. When I first heard this I thought it was irresponsible, and thought it was encouraging us to ignore the issues happening by surrounding ourselves in a make believe world. It wasn’t until recently, when Tolmer’s article helped put things into perspective, that I realized that hobby time, solo or otherwise, was not mutually exclusive to maturity and responsibility.

And this helped set me free from myself.