Our Misspent Youth

The following is a blog post written by Ben, one of our original hosts about the game misspent youth. You can find his blog here.

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There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem this year
I am going to make it through this year if it kills me

–The Mountain Goats, This Year
At GenCon, I played an amazing new role-playing game, Misspent Youth, by Robert Bohl.  For a host of reasons, I can’t imagine something more appropriate to talk about in the first real post on my resurrected blog.

I should warn you ahead of time though, caveat emptor, that this post isn’t about Misspent Youth.  It’s about my favorite topic, and the only one on a day like this I seem to know much about:  me.

Misspent Youth allows people to come together and tell stories about oppression and how young people carve out their own identities in the face of that oppression.  Before doing anything else, the players create a world together.  They start by discussing bullies, and the things bullies do that they all hate.  With that foundation, the group creates an oppressive authority and adolescent characters who will, in whatever limited way they can, resist that authority.

I could say a number of things about creating a game like this, how I think it has an interesting hook, how I think it’s nice to focus on the kinds of people (adolescents) and the kinds of issues (freedom and oppression) that don’t get enough play in the gaming world.  And I do think all those things, although I don’t know how interesting those observations are, and there are surely people here more qualified than me to comment on how Misspent Youth compares with other games out there.

But, I’ve already told you I’m going to talk about me instead.  For me, this game was not just an interesting, thought-provoking way to role play while exploring these issues.  For the past year and three months, I have worked with oppressed young people.  The young men who I serve are all poor, they all have special education needs, have all had friends die in acts of violence (about half of them have seen a friend murdered).  They also are all involved in the juvenile justice system.

These are the forgotten members of our society, people who have been dealt the shortest end of the shortest stick since conception, since Jim Crow, since the Middle Passage, since one man (I hate to use sexist language, but it almost certainly was a man in this case) decided to put his boot to another’s throat and keep pushing and pushing until he got what he wanted.

That’s what Misspent Youth forces us to confront, how much of our history and our present are wrapped up in oppression, in maintaining privilege, in making sure people know their place.  And, because the game takes place in the future, we also have to confront whether we’ll keep living this way, keep taking everything we can from anyone who can’t defend herself.

But it also reminds us of something else, something so simple and beautiful it takes your breath away:  when one person, especially someone young, throws her own little monkey wrench into the machinery of repression.  Because, I can tell you from my experience in my job that our society had basically one message for our misspent youth:  comply.  Don’t think too much, don’t step out of line, listen to your case workers and your teachers and your parents and the cops and do whatever they tell you to.  And, whatever you do, never question the authority.  If, while reading the last sentence, you have decided that this seems like a recipe for creating broken people who will see nothing for themselves but a life of crime, congratulations on a) not being an idiot and b) not bearing any responsibility for what we euphemistically call the “juvenile justice system.”

I guess after all this ranting, I might tell you a little bit about the game’s mechanics.  We chose to fight an authority that was using state-sponsored religion to destroy history, although we could have fought a corporation destroying freedom or some similar option.  Then we came up with a variety of character concepts and each chose two.  Mine were “needs to be in charge” and “tagalong.”

After you choose your concepts, you choose a means, motive, opportunity, and MO for your character.  These were all fairly easy.  But then I froze.  Because the final thing I was supposed to choose when I created my character was her dysfunction, her deepest secret, the thing that lets her fight the authority but will ultimately destroy her, a quick synopsis of her innocence in all its wonderful, tragic glory.

But the only dysfunction I could come up with was my own.  I had been thinking about it all week, because I was almost certain that I was about to lose my job (I did, this morning).  I started to tear up.  I had talked about the job a bit earlier with my new friends and fellow games, against my better judgment.  I guess I was feeling vulnerable.

So I wrote it down:  she thinks she can change the world.  Because, you see, one of the things you can do is sell out your personal traits if you need to do something desperate to defeat the authority.  In essence, if your own skills and convictions betray you, you can start to behave like your oppressor, giving up a bit of yourself you can never get back for short-term success, even if, in the end, the authority is still winning by co-opting your soul.  And your dysfunction is always the last thing you sell out, after the authority has consumed every last bit of your own identity.

I think I still have mine, wilted little thing though it is, although who knows for how long.  I have clung to it over the past year, even as it has dragged me across our ransacked urban frontier, littered with broken lives and the bodies of children.

Maybe someone will give me the chance to sell it out.  Maybe I’ll take it.  I’ve seen too many good people do too many horrible things to think that I’m above much of anything at this point.

But maybe I’ll hang on, just a bit more, fight one more fight before I slide into all the creature comforts you can enjoy once you’ve given everything else away to the authority.

I don’t know.  But I do know that I want to thank Rob Bohl for helping me think these thoughts, and my fellow gamers for taking this journey with me.

And I want to thank the guys I’ve worked for over the past few years, for putting up with me, for opening up my eyes, for listening to me and letting me in, even though they had no reason to trust a young white guy with no idea how to help anybody.

If I have any shred of my dysfunction left, hopefully I will honor that trust by taking my finger and sticking it in the authority’s eye every time I get the chance.  If enough people embrace that message, maybe we won’t have to worry so much about our own misspent youth.

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