Teenage Wasteland

I fell into a black hole last week…  Friday evaporated in a frenzied quest to fulfill a list of school necessities for our kids, and to acquire a D&D 3rd edition Player’s Handbook… which eluded me.  Saturday had similar circumstances, and I had a lot on my mind last weekend but I never got around to sitting in front of the computer to put any of it down.  There’s work stuff, and personal stuff, and game stuff… you know, stuff.  We all have it — the brain clutter that becomes noise in our thoughts of the sort that doesn’t quite settle down when you lay down to sleep at night or when you find yourself with one of those quiet moments which become all too rare when you enter adulthood… particularly when you enter parenthood.  I had an odd one stuck in my craw.

A week ago yesterday (Thursday), I announced to my teens Dungeons & Dragons group (the one the meets at the library) that we would continue to play the current adventure until the end of August, and in September we would begin a new adventure: “The Lost Mines of Phandelver” which is included with the 5th edition Starter Set.  I told them we would only have four player spots open which meant that some of them wouldn’t get to play (I have six players in that group).  To incentivize (totally made up word…) the loss of two players, I offered the chance to win a D&D 5th edition Starter Set so that one lucky kid could strike up his/her own D&D game.  The reaction was less than enthusiastic.  In fact most of them… all of them were disappointed by the prospect.

It’s my program, right?  I mean: that means I get to run this thing the way I want to, don’t I?  This haunted my thoughts almost immediately after that Thursday’s game session was over.  I went away feeling like a heel.  This is a group of teens, and if you’ve never worked with teens before (either in a occupational or voluntary capacity) let me forewarn you that teens, for the most part, are easy to disappoint.  In fact, more than any other age group I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, teens are more susceptible to disappointment than anyone.  In my excitement and enthusiasm for the new edition, I totally forgot one of the most important components of working with teens… shit, of any group dynamic: I forgot to give them a choice.

When you’re a kid, your entire world feels directed… and for the most part, it is.  You don’t get a lot of say in matters, and you have to deal with adults always doing what they feel is best for you.  They tell you what to do, how to dress, where to go, how to act… adults run your life.  On the other side, it’s the parent’s responsibility and obligation to society is to civilize an otherwise wild creature.  You want to show the kid how to function in society and among other human beings.  You want them to absorb those kindergarten lessons and keep them close to their hearts for the rest of their lives because those are the fundamentals of being a decent human being — sharing, taking turns, being considerate of others, not cheating, listening to others, being respectful of others… you know, “the basics”… the shit adults tend to forget because we’re always in a hurry, and what we have to do is more important than anything anyone else has to do, because our needs take precedence over anyone else’s… the typical adult mindset that makes the overwhelming majority of us dicks.  I did the adult-thing of dictating to this bunch of young people the course of their game and I didn’t give them a say in the matter.  I call that a “fail.”

The worse thing you can do when working with young people is not give them a choice… to make them feel like their opinion doesn’t matter.  The world at large already disrespects them enough — hence why you get the rebellious demeanor, and why it’s particularly aimed at parents and other authority figures and institutions.  When I was a kid, I didn’t so much hate being told what to do… I hated not having my opinion count for shit.  Kids inherently want direction, and teens in particular seek authority but they also want to have a say in matters.  They want their ability to make a choice to be respected, they want to be heard, they want to be listened to, and they want attention paid to them.  I know all of this, and I still made the thick-headed, adult decision to take a leisure activity (of all things) and make something about which my players have no say.

I would never do this to a group of adult players, but I forgot myself in my enthusiasm for the new edition.  I came to the conclusion that I needed to make amends and present them with the choice they should have had all along: take option A (the one I dictated to them), or take option B.  “B” would mean we simply keep playing the adventure we are currently playing with the same characters and the same players.  “B” means we update the characters as soon as I get the 5th edition Player’s Handbook in my hands, and we go by those rules going forward.  I felt, very firmly, that this was the absolute right thing to do.  Lo and behold, the group overwhelmingly voted in favor of option B.  No big surprise there.  I asked only one more thing of them: that they devote their attention to the game and not behave in a manner that is disruptive and prevents the other players from enjoying themselves.

Six teenagers is a difficult gaming group size to manage.  They’re teens, so they’re into their shit, each other’s shit, and themselves more than they are into anything else in the universe.  Our first gaming sessions were very disorderly, but they’ve come a long way… or so I thought.  I have two players in particular — I won’t name names… I can’t name names because they’re minors… but I’ll say this: one has the attention span of a gnat (and, I fear, the brains to match) and the other is a borderline narcissist… but then they’re all teens so they’re all borderline narcissists… the one I’m talking about is just particularly bad.  They have a lot of enthusiasm for the game, but it’s very hard to keep them focused.  They have a tendency to disrupt the game with their antics — and they basically want the spotlight to be on them and their characters all the time.  To make matters worse, I have a pair of lovebirds at my table who are all moon-eyed over each other and spend the two hour session cooing at each other and not necessarily engaged in the game.  I have no objections with the hook up (I suspect the girl’s mom might be none too pleased), but their attention is wobbly at best.  My last two players are there to play.  One is a hardcore WOW player, and a video gamer of extreme devotion; the other is a tabletop RPGamer who plays AD&D 2nd edition with his family.  They’re the ones I’m there for primarily… they’re my target audience.

Dungeons & Dragons is a social game.  In fact, that’s one of the key components of this game that’s missing from the world of online gaming.  Sure you can put on a headset and listen to some eleven year old griefer say unkind things about your mother right in your ear, but it’s just not the same as having eyeballs looking back at you from across the table.  I want these kids to engage with one another; to be social and form friendships that may well endure into adulthood and beyond. That’s the main idea anyway.  I spoke to my young people the session before last, about keeping their heads in the game and I thought the message was received.  I was wrong.

This last session was one of the worst since we started playing.  This was herding cats to the extreme… and they pretty much wound up getting on my nerves so much that I almost called the game and walked out.  I understand the shiftless nature of youth… at least I think I do… Perhaps I don’t understand it as much as I want think I do… especially not in it’s contemporary manifestation.  Saying that grants a nod to the bullshit notion that “this generation” is worse than the last… but every one says that about the succeeding generations.  It’s bullshit.  We’re humans… we have a propensity to fuck everything up; it doesn’t matter what generation you come from.

I can’t blame these kids for how they are… we made them this way.  If we don’t like the way our succeeding generations are going we have only ourselves to blame because our decisions have shaped their development.  I chose to have this program.  I chose to bring this game to them, and I’ve given them a lot of lead because I’m there to facilitate a game, not to be their parent or their teacher or their mentor… but then that’s not entirely true.  I do have a responsibility to them to set an example… one example… of one particular manifestation of adulthood.  I’m not obligated to do it, it’s incidental… but I feel it’s important for them because it can make a difference in the person they turn out to be in the end.  It takes a village to raise a child; I do believe that to be true.  It’s important to lead by example because children, especially teens, are impressionable and they will pattern their behavior after the adults to which they are exposed.  If they’re only ever exposed to shitheads, chances are the kid’s going to turn out to be a shithead.  I think it’s good for them to have options.

About the only thing I can do is just keep the game going as best possible.  There’s no use getting mad at them, they’re oblivious to their behavior because they’ve got those massive teen blinders on.  I plan to present the game for the ones that are there to play.  For the ones who are less engaged, well… if they miss out, they miss out.  The game is there, and they’re welcomed to participate if they want — I’m happy to run the adventure for them, but I refuse to play the role of a foster parent… that’s bullshit, and it’s not going to happen.  I felt bad for not giving them a choice in how the program would proceed, and certain members of the group paid me back by getting in the way of the enjoyment of the others.  That’s a separate issue I have to address with the specific individuals, but that would never take away from me doing what I feel is the right thing to do.  I’m largely guided by my own conscience and I don’t plan to change that for anyone.

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