by Kimberly Brumble
This time of year, when a lot of people are re-committing themselves to various fitness goals, the tabletop gaming community is also abuzz with discussions comparing fitness trackers, sneaker purchases, couch to 5k plans, and the elusive 10,000 steps. However, unlike a lot of January fitness adopters, the tabletop gamers are training to play a long game with goals cumulating out in mid summer and even early September. Why? That’s convention season, and suddenly thousands of people who are passionate about a hobby that involves sitting around a table for 4-6 hours at a stretch will need to also be able to walk 10,000 to 20,000 plus steps in a single day, probably also lugging bags full of games and gaming materials with them, for 12 to even 20-hour stretches at a time. These are folks, like me, who take their sedentary hobby so seriously they will begin training 6 and even 9 months out to get the most out of the Best Four Days in Gaming.
Hello, I’m Kimberly Brumble. I’m a philosopher of science. In my free time I hike, cycle, run, and lift heavy things. But also once a week for 5 hours I’m a dwarven fighter trying to save Golarion one axe swing at a time. Yep. And I live for it. And sitting around a table pretending to be a super-human elite who can do all sorts of things I can’t has changed how I experience fitness. Our journey begins…
Let me backtrack and give a little background on me and my hobby. Tabletop gaming centers around playing games on, you guessed it, a table rather than a screen. These games range from complex board games like the wildly popular Settlers of Catan and Arkham Horror to role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) or Vampire the Masquerade. Also popular are miniatures games like War Hammer, deck-building card games like Magic the Gathering, party card games like Werewolf, and so on. Basically, if you can play it on a table, it probably has a following which attends conventions like GenCon.
If you had caught me 2 years ago, I would have told you that my dalliances with board games began and ended with an ex-boyfriend trying to explain Catan to me, which I experienced much like this. And then at his suggestion observing his friends play the game, which went much like this. When the guys finally did let me play I was so bored I sabotaged my own budding civilization in the first hour so I could go do something else at the party. Much of my experience of board gaming was at first shaped by 1. the weird gendered dynamics involved with learning mechanics-heavy games and 2. playing the wrong games for me.
RPGs and card games and I didn’t fair much better. As a queer geek gal growing up in a yet-to-be-hip Portland, Oregon, of the 80’s and 90’s, I could never get invited to play DnD or Magic the Gathering for two reasons: 1. I was a girl and 2. I didn’t “look” geeky enough to seem “safe” to invite. A common trope in 90’s geek culture. Apparently it was scary enough to invite Cool Guys, let alone sporty girls. I mean I was also plenty geeky (I’ve read the Silmarillion…multiple times…which is something even among Tolkien dorks), but I was also sporty and artsy, and geek culture had yet to become so mainstream that people who looked like me got invited to the game table.
Fast forward to two years ago when a bunch of grad students in my philosophy department decided to start a game night. Our goal was two-fold: 1. have a good time in small-town Indiana without spending money and 2. try to build a better, cooperative climate in our hyper-competitive, socially-challenged cohort. A weekly gaming night morphed into a 2+ year DnD campaign–which I am still skyping into thousands of miles and two countries away–and passion for tabletop gaming.
DnD will change your life. There has been a lot written about the social and even professional benefits of RPGs in terms of team-building skills, empathy and community building, and even writing, but for this post I’m going to focus on how it changed my experience of fitness. That’s right: if you are still reading this, my fellow jocks, DnD changed how I experience fitness. Here’s how:
First the bad: Tabletop gaming lives up to some of the stereotypes. Committing to a long-running DnD campaign (Pathfinder, actually, for my fellow RPGers reading) meant committing to sit at a table for 4-6 hours a week, during my free time. That’s time that I used to spend hiking, cycling, and running. I now spend it sitting. That doesn’t mean I don’t still do those things, but I don’t do them on Saturday afternoons (when we currently game). It’s not more time spent sitting gaming than many people spend in a week watching TV, but there it is. Also, there are snacks. Lots of snacks. Which is great. And not.
But here is the good (and maybe surprising): plenty of us gamers are still really active people during the rest of our lives. What’s more, I have found that gaming and gaming culture has some nice benefits for people, and particularly femme-type people, who are also into fitness. First of all, DnD campaigns in general involve a lot of action. Even if the players are sitting, they are imagining fighting, swimming, climbing, and doing so, so, so much walking. Ever read or watched Lord of the Rings? Yeah, it’s like that. And actually, you can just walk into Mordor. It’s pretty much the only way to do it (eagles aside). So even if you play a very squishy (that’s DnD speak for non-athletic and easy to hurt) wizard, your character is probably pretty fit and occasionally making climb, swim, acrobatics, and wilderness survival checks and, generally…hopefully…dice permitting, passing most of them. On top of that you can choose to play a character who uses physical abilities rather than magic primarily to get shit done. In our game I play a fighter–and I don’t use magic, just a lot of strength and agility and stamina. Which is nice, actually, because it kind of motivates me to think about and maintain those physical abilities IRL as well. Characters “level up” and improve their abilities, which makes them better at doing more stuff, and I have gone from thinking about fitness as maintenance, or beauty, or a duty, to “leveling up” with regard to my IRL physical stats. Charisma (charm, social skills, beauty) after all, is its own stat. Strength, agility, and constitution have nothing to do with how you look in the world of DnD, and that’s kind of liberating, especially I think for women and femme-type folks.
Speaking of gender and stats, in DnD the gender of a character does not determine their base stats or how stats progress. Men, women, and every other gender imaginable start with the same base stats available to them. That means your average human in DnD has a strength of 10, dexterity 10, and constitution (hardiness) of 10. It’s up to you to change those scores as you build your character and play the game. For me, a gender-fluid woman who has struggled my whole life with gendered norms and expectations about fitness, that was a revelation. If I didn’t have to go into DnD with gendered expectations about my own abilities, maybe I didn’t need to bring those to the gym/mountains/cycle track either. And what I can imagine has a big impact on what I find myself able to do and be.
Finally, I want to say something about the world of DnD and gender with regards to the DnD races. If you have consumed any high fantasy media you are probably aware that much high fantasy post-Tolkien comes stocked with some standard-issue (and often less standard-issue) fantasy “races.” It’s important to note that these “humanoid” races do not and probably should not track real-world human concepts of race: we are talking elves, humans, dwarves, gnomes, haflings, orcs, and the like. While they do come preloaded as tropes with their own set of representational problems, others have also argued that thinking about these issues in fantasy can also open dialogue about issues in media representation of real racism, cis-sexism, hetero-sexism, and ableism. One thing which fantasy races have done for fans of the genre is to provide us with a multitude of alternate images of different genders as strong, agile, and beautiful people. In my own experience as a stocky, muscular woman standing 5’2’’, I have found myself drawn to characters with similar builds; thick legs and powerful arms can be beautiful too. Or not. Because beauty is not compulsory for effectiveness. Not even for bards. Body diversity matters. Even in fiction. And especially in a genre in which men and women have so often been made to look like this:
It’s powerful to see them depicted in a range of bodies. Like this:
And the same has been true increasingly for men as well:
Feels good to go post-human, yeah?
So to sum up, tabletop gaming has brought new perspectives on fitness for me as it has slowly taken over my non-academic life: I think about my fitness in terms of being able to do things I want to do (like walk around a convention all day lugging heavy gaming manuals, something my DnD fighter would consider par for the course), or improving my ability scores (rather than punishing myself or maintaining or striving for some abstract appearance-related goal). What’s more, it’s expanded how I and many gamers imagine strong, capable, competent, optionally beautiful, and powerful bodies- both ours and those we inhabit in our dream-lives saving imaginary worlds, one Saturday afternoon at a time.
Kimberly “Berly” Brumble is a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on how uncertainty in climate modeling effects decision-making and how decision-making under “deep uncertainty” involves both scientists and policy-makers in the environmental sciences and geophysics. She enjoys hiking, camping, cycling, cycle camping, running, canoeing and kayaking, lifting heavy things, and pretending that the Canadian Rockies are the Misty Mountains on weekends. She is also pretty serious about illustrating and painting. She has recently discovered playing in, writing, and running rpgs. Catch her next year at GenCon on her recurring panel “Philosophers Play Pathfinder.”