Playing in public

By now, I'm sure most of you are familiar with Last Call and tombstone poker. This has been kicking a lot of cogs to spinning in my head, because however respectfully it is done, this is making some people uneasy. I admit to being one of them.

I should note first off that this is nothing like an attack on Last Call, on 4orty2wo, or on the people who together are making and playing this game. I've got a lot of respect for the crew of Last Call; they're making some bold choices for the sake of furthering a cause that is meaningful to them. At the same time, I think that it's important to see what 4orty2wo is working at here, and examine it from a critical perspective.

So first: why poker in a cemetery? That one's not a tough solve. Just take a look at Jane McGonigal's manifesto on play in public places from August.

There should be more benevolent gameplay in public spaces.

Many people find public gameplay threatening. This is not a reason not to play games. It is a reason to play more. It is also a reason to make gameplay transparent, so others will not be confused or alarmed by what you are doing.

I agree with Jane in leaps and bounds about lots of things; not least is the importance of gaming as an art form, and the critical significance of our modes of play in transmitting meaningful experiences across our culture. Gaming has transformed into a way of telling stories, and stories are the most important element of being human. I also agree that more benevolent gameplay in public spaces is a laudable goal.

I just don't think that an aggressive stance on transforming public spaces into gaming environments is the right tactic.

The essence of my unease is this: What happens to the 80-year-old woman who is visiting her husband's grave, and discovers people running, laughing, and in general having a great time? Is it inappropriate for her to feel upset, afraid, or disrespected in this environment? As a player, what do you do if she starts crying and asks you to leave? As a puppetmaster, what do you do? I somehow don't think our fictitious yahrzeit widow will be in much condition to have her boundaries for use of public space widened, nor do I think she should be.

I know that consciously violating the grieving process is in no way what tombstone poker intends to do. I know nobody is trying to make an 80-year-old woman cry, and I know that a huge emphasis is being placed on behaving respectfully, and on honoring the dead.

All the same, I think this use of that particular public space for is inherently, if unintentionally, disrespectful and inappropriate.

As a society, we have over many centuries accreted a social contract that delineates appropriate behavior in public spaces. These conventions are stronger than law. There's nothing illegal or unethical about dancing while you're in line at the bank, or setting up a board game while you eat at a restaurant, or belting out a few Broadway tunes while you're waiting for the bus, but these actions go against the unwritten agreements for use of public space that we were all socialized into accepting practically from the day we were born.

It's true that different societies have different expectations -- as I understand it, in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, families as much as hold light-hearted picnics on the graves of their beloved deceased.

It's important, though, to remember that the social contract exists for a reason, and that you can't renegotiate it by yourself. If there's a cultural taboo on playing games in a cemetery, there's probably a justifiable reason for it; and in this case, it's protecting mourners who have a reasonable expectation of peace and solitude in which to tend their grief.

Now, all of this said: I expect it's a fabulous time when you're on the player side of it, and if I didn't have so many other commitments right now, I'd try to shake off the unease and go have a game myself. On the other hand, as a fledgling gaming community, I think it's important for us to open up these kinds of topics to wide debate and maybe decide what we want to do and how we want to get there. From dissent and discussion comes strength.

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