Knowing: Adaptability.

Knowing: Adaptability. February 18, 2015
A D&D game session in progress
A D&D game session in progress (Photo credit: Wikipedia). It’s a gazebo, Eric.

When I say I’m a gamer, I mean I’m a tabletop roleplaying game enthusiast. I know, I know, console gamers and PC gamers may claim the title and that’s okay, but I’ll always qualify the term with an adjective. I’m a gamer, and that means dice, hex-or-grid-printed tablecloths, hardcover gaming books filled with charts, scribbled-in character sheets, pencils and colored pencils, way more graph paper than most math majors would stock, and maybe miniatures if we’re doing a battle scene–handpainted metal, of course, selected as carefully as a wedding gown from walls of blister-packaged miniatures sold by esoteric little independent shops all over the world. Also, I once paid rent for a summer by handpainting friends’ Warhammer armies in advance of a very big tournament, so I’m what you might term “dedicated” to the culture in general. (Yes, of course I ran a Wood Elf army. What did you expect, seriously?)

Several Dungeons & Dragons miniature figures. ...
Several Dungeons & Dragons miniature figures. The grid mat underneath uses one-inch squares. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Some of you are, right now as we speak, trying to name all the monsters.

Though a lot of Christians play these games (I’ve met all sorts of them through my blog, Roll to Disbelieve, which takes its name from a traditional gaming mechanic wherein players can roll dice to free their characters from a convincing illusion) and I was Catholic for a big chunk of my time in the culture, I paused when I became fundamentalist and then went back to gaming after I deconverted because it is a whale of a lot of fun. When I finally moved somewhere where it was hard to find a group, I got into online roleplaying games called MUDs and ended up adminning a couple of really large, established ones for, oh, 15ish years–which is where I was for the anecdote I’m about to share.

We’ve been talking about how to know what’s true and what’s false. Well, one big component of knowing how to do that is what to do with information that might, shall we say, challenge preconceptions and cherished ideas. We’re all going to have that happen, if we’re at all honest with ourselves. But there’s a huge gulf between how we’d ideally like to react to realizing we’re wrong and what actually happens when we start feeling challenged. You know how I was talking about scientists last time? Well, the same sentiment applies to other groups too. It applied to me doubly. I had no idea how to conduct an actual conversation until years after leaving Christianity. That’s not Christianity-as-a-whole’s fault (I don’t think it could be; a lot of socially-adept people exist in it), but the kind of Christianity I fell into definitely–just as gaming itself–became a substitute for good social skills. I learned eventually to a certain degree, but for a very long time I really had no idea how normal people handled having arguments, or making major life decisions, or knowing just how much to give in a relationship before things got too one-sided. That whole social contract was difficult for me; I’d come out of a religious worldview that didn’t balance individual needs with others’ needs very well, or even see a need to do so.

And, too, I really didn’t function well when challenged. That religious worldview also didn’t tolerate dissent or contradictions very gracefully. Leaving religion didn’t magically fix that problem for me. I can’t say I was very different after deconversion than I was before it. I stubbornly held onto a lot of ideas, mistakenly thinking that they weren’t based on religious indoctrination but rather were a product of my own discernment.

About three years after deconversion, I was working with a MUD owned by a super-smart coder we’ll call Ryan. We’d disagreed on more than a few occasions; I was one of the few people on his staff who actually had any gaming experience, while he had none at all on either side of the GM screen; he’d begun the game as a lark to screw around with game coding (as many implementors I knew had). As a consequence, my perspective about handling roleplay plots and scenarios was considerably different from his. Most MUDs’ staffs are boisterous groups who aren’t shy about expressing disagreement, and this one’s staff was no different! MUD owners have to be delicate about handling this disagreement–slam down on dissenters too hard, and they may well remember that they are volunteers and tell the game’s owners to fuck right off. They’ll quit if they feel slighted enough, like any volunteers would. Allow disagreements to fester unaddressed, though, and the game quickly devolves into chaos as all the admins head off to do whatever it is they think is best for the game and squabble endlessly. And you can’t just not have staff helping out on a large game, so one way or the other a balance must be struck. Most games never find it.

One day, Ryan wanted us to pursue a markedly different course from anything we’d ever done before. It was sweeping but not what I’d call earth-shattering–I think he just wanted to introduce the idea of wear and tear to weapons and armor, so that upkeep or replacement was required, or maybe temperature code so it mattered what characters wore outside. It’s funny that most of the big PC games involve something like those elements nowadays, but if either was what he wanted to do, then know that at the time nobody was doing that anywhere, not even in the majority of tabletop games. Thus, I didn’t like it. Most of the other staff didn’t like it either.

The thing is, though, I didn’t like his proposal because tabletop games didn’t do it so therefore the whole idea was foul sorcery.

But I began noticing something in the way my fellow admins–who, remember, had never played tabletop roleplaying games before in their lives, much less run any–reacted to the suggestion. They hated the idea too, but their reasons for hating it were not only completely different from my reasons for hating it, but their reasons sounded kind of nonsensical to me. I don’t remember what their objections were, only that those objections were so ludicrous that even I was jolted out of my own resistance to the idea. They were acting like our game owner had suggested adding in code to let players kick virtual-puppies ingame or something. At the time I joked to a fellow staffer that it really looked like they were running around with their hair on fire and their hands waving in the air.

And then I abruptly wondered: Is this what I must seem like as well?

I felt like I was trying to wade through a deep swamp. Though it was difficult, I knew what I needed to do.

First, I asked Ryan if we could talk privately about the idea. This proved to be a very wise thing to ask, because it got Ryan away from feeling like he was being mobbed and attacked by the entire group and allowed us to communicate in a way that felt safer for us both.

Then, I shared that I felt resistant to the idea but I was trying hard to work on being more open to change. (I’d already extensively discussed my objections, so I didn’t need to go over that again.) I didn’t feel like I was wrong, but I conceded that he’d really made his case very well for his idea. I might be wrong and just didn’t realize it. Ryan was hugely relieved that I at least was willing to think about the possibility.

And then, I asked him for a moratorium on discussion so I could think about it and mull it over. I needed him to not talk to me about it for a day or two. I would come to him by the weekend to share if I still had objections or not. Could he let it go for a day or two and let me think about it on my own? This request was important, because I’d begun feeling pretty attacked as well by then. Ryan was happy to let me have that–it’s not like he’d be able to do the coding till the weekend anyway, and if he got me behind the plan the rest of the staffers would likely go along with it as I was one of his lead admins. (By the way, the time limit is important here–don’t just leave someone hanging or use the moratorium as an excuse to avoid thinking about the topic; it comes off as dishonest.)

So we let it go and studiously didn’t talk about it for a couple of days.

At the end of it, I really couldn’t see any real reason why we shouldn’t at least try his idea. It might not work, but I was willing to try it, and if it didn’t work, Ryan could always rip out the new code. He said that he deeply respected that I’d at least given the idea time to percolate in my head.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember how the code change worked out.

It doesn’t really matter either way, does it?

I’d been willing to change my mind, willing to be wrong, willing to alter course, and the sky hadn’t fallen one bit. That was one of the first times I consciously struggled through my fear of change and opened myself up to another person’s suggestions without just knee-jerk rejecting the new idea entirely out of habit. That’s when a lot of my other opinions began to change as well.

When someone deconverts, chances are that a lot of opinions are going to change.

You may discover, as I did, that the social stances* commonly embraced by huge swathes of Christianity are based on discredited or misapplied science, faulty interpretations of history, and a downright evil negation of both your own and other people’s boundaries and liberties. Even if it doesn’t seem like a social stance may be purely a product of religious indoctrination, you may find as I did that actually, yeah, it was. Combine those remnants of pre-deconversion indoctrination with an inability to handle new information that contradicts our opinions, and it can be hard to struggle with facts that challenge our old ideas.

I know the feeling of resistance–as my own opinions got dismantled and reformed over time, I got more and more demoralized and annoyed with myself. Surely I hadn’t wasted every single bit of my time, right? Surely I hadn’t been wrong about everything, right?

It was no fun to finally recognize that pretty much everything I’d ever thought about the world, society, and people themselves was actually wrong.

Be ready for it, is all, because you might find yourself in the same place to one extent or another.

And that’s okay.

It’s okay to be wrong, as long as you catch it and fix it.

Personal growth is a long process of learning and refining the way we look at the world. I’d way rather change my mind about something than stay mired in wrongness. It’s more important to me to base my opinions on the truth than on something credibly shown to be untrue–even if the truth is uncomfortable, even if the truth entails personal change, or challenges strongly-held opinions. Maybe especially.

We’re going to talk next time about critical thinking skills. See you Friday!


* By this term I’m talking about not just the big hot-button culture war topics like LGBTQ rights and women’s rights, but also all the other stuff, especially opinions regarding how men and women ought to be behave and interact, how people should properly indulge in sexual expression, how important consent is, how people should make healthcare decisions and educate their kids, even how countries should make war and administer justice. The more all-encompassing the religious ideology, the more far-reaching its claims to authority and dominance over adherents, the further its tentacles seem to reach into other parts of adherents’ lives.

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