Photo courtesy Kandace Cromwell of Kandace Photography
Late last year, a role-playing game became a matter of real-world life or death for Fuller Northern California alum Joe Stroup (MDiv ’13) and a 30-year-old woman we'll call Nora – whose real name he didn’t know at the time, and whom he had never met face to face.
Tabletop role-playing games are interactive stories that take place in a fantastic world, and the players are the characters in the story. Unlike a board game or a card game where game play is externalized in physical objects, role-playing games happen conversationally. The game exists in the imaginations and interactions of the players.
Joe and Nora met as players in an online version of Dungeons and Dragons, the most famous tabletop role-playing game and the original on which all others are based. "Somebody set up a blog where we played against other players, and we were even on a team together at one point," Joe says. Their friendship developed as they interacted via Dungeons and Dragons – known to most players simply as “the game” – to the extent that "we began communicating by email,” recounts Joe, “and ultimately integrated into each others' general Twitter feeds."
And as they got to know each other, Joe observed that Nora displayed clear signs of depression. He also learned that she been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism in which a person has difficulty navigating social situations because of an inability to pick up on nonverbal cues.
The world of role-playing games can be a very hospitable place for people like Nora who struggle to interact with others in the real world. These imagined worlds feature clearly defined rules, controlled identities, and mediated social interactions, so they are easier to navigate. When things go wrong in the imagined world, however, people who feel most at home there can have nowhere left to turn.
One night last winter, Joe logged onto Twitter to find Nora tweeting in a moment of crisis. “Nora’s depression got really, really dark,” Joe recalls. He had noticed that in the weeks leading up to this night, Nora had been very vocal online about a lot of problems in her life – in both worlds. “A lot of the relationships that mattered to her within the world of the game were falling apart, along with real-life struggles in her relationship with her mom," Joe says. Because he had come to know Nora well and because he had developed an ongoing friendship with her, Joe knew to take these things very seriously.
Speaking the Language of Games
by Joe Stroup
It's a real miss for the church if we write off the outreach of game playing. If intentionally approached, this could be a strong movement of the gospel to reach people that have been almost totally ignored. READ MORE »
Joe watched in horror on Twitter as Nora attempted to take her own life. “She took a whole bunch of pills, started drinking heavily, and was tweeting about it the whole time,” Joe recalls.
It was her second suicide attempt. Her first attempt months earlier had yielded tweets from the hospital featuring the suturing skills of the nurses who had stitched up her arms.
Joe wasn't the only one following along. Others in her online community were also watching, and many were frantically sending messages trying to get her to stop what she was doing. She wasn't listening. Joe knew it was too late to reach out to Nora via phone. "I had to do something," he realized. Something in the real world.
Joe scrambled through her past tweets. "I remembered that she had sent an image from the last time she was in the hospital. It was a picture of her arm, because she had cut herself, and she was wearing a hospital bracelet. I hoped that it would show her real name," Joe recalls. It did.
Now that he had Nora’s real name, he also remembered a passing comment she had made about living in Tennessee. With that information, Joe was able to locate her and call her local police department. Because this was Nora’s second suicide attempt, the dispatch officer was able to quickly find Nora in their records and locate her current address.
When the police officers arrived at her apartment, Joe saw Nora tweet angrily about the “damn yellow pages” before the police could apprehend her and take her to the hospital. “She had her stomach pumped. She was in the hospital for a while, but it saved her life," Joe says.
Since then, Joe reports, Nora has moved out of her mother’s house and to the Pacific Northwest where, while still having trouble negotiating social situations, she does seem to be doing better. Joe and Nora maintain their online friendship.
To this day, Nora doesn’t know that Joe was responsible for the police officers’ intervention – and for saving her life.
A Portal for Connecting
When Joe first got into the game himself, he never expected to save a mortal life, though he did hope to save an eternal one.
During his college years, Joe was invited by a non-Christian roommate to a late-night Dungeons and Dragons game. Like many kids born in the 1980s to Christian parents, Joe was wary of such games, but—wanting to foster the friendship—he decided to go. There, he found an entire underground culture of men and women who didn't connect with others in large group environments, but who connected strongly with each other through the game. The discovery of the group, and the game, had a lasting impact on Joe.
How Does a Tabletop Role-Playing Game Work, Exactly?
A quick primer: In tabletop role-playing games, one player serves as the “gamemaster.” Her or his responsibility is to establish the world of the game, moderate player interactions, and ensure that players abide by the game’s rule. The other players decide collectively what actions to take, and, usually, a many-sided die is cast to determine their degree of success. The companies that make these games release manuals that determine the statistics and probabilities that give the games structure.
For example, during a game, the person serving as gamemaster might decide to tell the group of players that they are entering a cave. In that cave, they are told there is a huge spider. The player whose turn it is then must decide what to do – and perhaps she chooses to attack the spider with her axe. She rolls the dice to determine the probability that her attack is successful, and the gamemaster, using predetermined charts, reports on the efficacy of her attack.
After college, when Joe became a youth pastor, he was on the lookout for kids who were uncomfortable at the lock-ins and pizza parties typical of church youth programs. Noticing a small group of guys who didn't seem to fit in with their youth group, Joe and another volunteer with an interest in role-playing games started a “LAN” (Local Area Network) party ministry. LAN parties are temporary gatherings of people with computers or game systems who link their devices to one another so the games can be played in groups.
The high school kids involved in Joe's LAN party eventually decided to remove the electronic element and play a table-top game face to face. That group of teenagers met with Joe in his home weekly for a year and a half until the end of the summer after they graduated from high school.
"Some of them were involved in our church, but it didn't mean anything to them personally. The game gave me a chance to connect with them," Joe says. "I invited them into our house to take part in a game that would last for a couple of hours, and it gave us a common context to have conversations about real life."
Since then, while continuing to steward the relational context provided by the game, Joe has thought more about the content of his games – molding his worlds and characters to reflect such biblical values as finding strength in weakness and caring for the vulnerable.
"I see a lot of potential to reach an unreached people group who are right in our midst,” says Joe, “through the portal of game-playing.”