This past weekend I made plans to attend a small local convention in my humble backyard of Harrisburg: the ninth annual Save Against Fear con. It wasn’t because there was a celebrity I really wanted to meet (the one that did show-up was pretty cool). It wasn’t just to support the lovely local geek culture circles with my patronage, though it did lead to me picking up some pretty nice swag. It wasn’t even about spending a weekend rolling dice and seeing what chaos unfolded from the results with brazen smiles worn all the while.
I was there because I truly believed in what it was about.
Save Against Fear (SAFe) was established by the Bodhana Group, a non-profit organization founded to promote the healing power of gaming. They use the inherently social and problem-solving nature of tabletop games to help not just build empathy and social skills but to help in more clinical applications such as a form of therapy for those dealing with trauma and disorders like Attention Deficit Disorder, Anger Management Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder. And they do this all by setting up some rulebooks and dice at hospitals, assisted living homes, and even social clubs.
It’s a potent source of strength that gaming has both as an activity and as a creative medium. Games can empower us, a part of a grand adventure where every opportunity is one for greatness. Games can make us feel powerful emotions, from something as linear as seeing characters fail or succeed to the visceral satisfaction or dismay of a plan going horribly right or horribly wrong. Games can even have powerful messages under their rules and mechanics like the horrors of war, third-world conflict, and revenge or all nazis must die.
But they can also be used to better understand ourselves. They can be used to better understand others. They can be used as a balm when life strikes us at our most vulnerable. And they can help us become better people.
This was a message I ultimately lived through while attending the convention. Due to multiple complications involving road work (I do live in Pennsylvania after all), heavy rain, several botched appointments with office supply stores, and a much needed trip to the mechanic that took days when it should have been hours that left me without a ride and my back-up being indisposed, when I finally stepped through the convention center to claim my weekend pass and began my gauntlet of shaking hands, rolling dice, and speaking with a controlled and affable demeanor, it was with a seething headache and a lot of tension. My outside problems only finally resolved themselves on the third and final day of the event.
Needless to say, SAFe had its work cut out for it.
Yet, once the three days of talking, laughing, crit-ing, fumbling, and looting were all over, I took from this modest convention a greater appreciation for the capacity for imagination and creativity from players and designers from all walks of life. I saw a community welcoming new players and swapping stories of great character beats and outlandish worlds by eclectic game masters. I saw a concerted effort to cut away decades of ingrained familiarity with complex charts, numbers, and pages upon pages of density in an attempt to bring new players into this experience with simplified but nonetheless powerful experiences.
Every module and scenario ran continued with a theme of facing the unknown or the horrific. One was an urban adventure set in the World of Darkness where the players work together to prevent an elaborate ritual from dooming an entire island to creatures borne of nightmares. A team of Ghostbusters dealt with the supernatural surge caused by the dawn of Halloween. A crew of Browncoats came under fire by Reavers in the world of Firefly. The list goes on and on with this exact same theme: with some friends and clever thinking, the monsters can be stopped.
And at a time of year where everyone is encouraged show off, skeletons, ghosts, vampires and werewolves, that is a comforting thought.