While this is by no means a complete look at the universe that constituted the M-Game, I was reminded of it by this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing the value of imaginative play. The article begins with two children, six and seven years of age, giving the author a guided tour of the box house they have made. These two children, hailing from New York City, New York, have outfitted their house with a flat-screen TV (in the form of a piece of black cloth) and a skylight, made the skylights usually are (which is to say, they ripped a hole in the roof and called it a skylight). They are not pleased by the author's interruption, because they have to clean the place up. I think they just moved in or something.
Regardless, I wonder what they'd come up with if they had been given the bountiful natural resources afforded by a childhood in rural south-central PA, which was my stomping ground when the M-Game came about. I was about eleven, maybe a little older, and all around me were the Appalachian mountains -- which looked, I noticed, a lot like the mountainous terrain that characterized the fantasy novels I was just beginning to read at the time.
I have two younger sisters, both of whom are, without doubt, more creative and interesting than I am. We were close friends with another set of sisters, who lived nearby. The two of them, plus the three of us, created the most interesting role-playing system I've ever encountered, in one of the best settings for it.
Okay, it should be noted here that we were all pretty distracted: The Lord of the Rings: The fellowship of the Ring was fresh in our minds; the edited versions of Yu Yu Hakusho and Rurouni Kenshin were playing on Cartoon Network; Chloe (the older of the two sisters we were friends with) and I were quite deeply engaged in Tamora Pierce; the five of us were Harry Potter fans of the the kind of rabidity that can only exist in the preadolescent. Also, Chloe and her sister tended to be allowed to watch more movies than my sisters and I: The Matrix was right up there with all the other stuff.
So one day, in Chloe's backyard, the M-Game -- or, more properly, the Medieval Journey Game -- began. It's difficult to say exactly how it happened, but suddenly, there's Chloe sitting on her front stoop, asking if you wanted the blue bean or the red bean. She had stepped out of character (usually, she was Cassandra, a witch) for a little encounter, and I, the witch Thidriel, was there with my hobbit pal (usually Cassandra's sidekick and, outside the M-Game, my youngest sister) and two elves named Thor and Loki (Chloe's little sister and my younger sister). Also, beans? Cinnamon mints from my mom's purse.
The game spiralled on for a long, long, long afternoon, until it was 5pm, we had to go, and Loki, it was revealed, was actually a ridiculously powerful evil... thing. It's a bit hazy, but I know what I was talking to Chloe about on the phone for the next two years: The Medieval Journey Game.
We put a lot of time into that game, a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a lot of energy. The game was, to a certain extent, another facet of our friendship. Sure, we were pals, and our letters (because the game began just before my interminable peregrinations to Europe did) were full of random jokes about monkeys and what was happening in the Dark Tournament. But we wrote them with dip pens on paper printed to look like parchment, and sealed them with sealing wax in ridiculous colors. We invested in nuts and bolts of various sizes to use as coinage; capes and boots became prized thrift store finds.
One summer day, we even took it on the road: Instead of Chloe's backyard in the rural suburbs, we played the game on my family's farm. Along a one-mile track that led over fields and hills, we rambled and chattered and looked for streams to ford, for encounters to... encounter. The hobbit took off her shoes; Cassandra and I found long sticks to mark our rank. (Witches are as strong as wizards, and by God, they have staves, too.) The elves carried bottles of flat 7-Up and pieces of lembas (potato bread, I think).
It was a beautiful place to be on a hot summer day. We rolled up our trousers and put our feet in the stream, and that was enough: By the time we were there, Chloe and I had slaked our desire for stick-fights, the elves had shared their 7-Up, and we were covered in sweat. The stream was, truly, something from the fantasy world we were in: Cool water, flowing over slightly silty stones in the hollow between two hills, surrounded by trees and bushes, black-raspberries bushes not yet in fruit, but soon, soon...
Later, we tried to do more formal roleplaying -- you know, with the dice and stuff -- but it never stacked up. Always, when we spend time together, we end up in some semi-formal playacting: Last time, it was an all-night game of Murder, in which the nature of the detectives and the characters was so heavily imbued with characters not our own (I, who have never even been properly drunk, was a twitching junky from North Carolina named Jake; Chloe was a hooker from New Jersey who pretended she was English) that the entire night might almost have been a film.
So, what does this mean? Well, it means that I'm still happy to sit up all night playacting, either with other people or all alone (witness the writerliness). It means, also, that with proper encouragement, the kind of imaginative play heralded as so important in the early years of a child's development can also be fostered in children beyond elementary-school age, which may explain the continuing popularity of speculative fiction for children, even now that Harry Potter is four years' done (as noted in Strange Horizons). But beyond that...
Beyond that is the stream between the hills, where fantasy and reality not only blend but cease entirely to matter.