Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My Forum And Its Place

While I believe that I've mentioned my forum in this blog before, it's a big enough part of my life that neglecting to explain its place in my life more thoroughly would probably give anyone an incomplete picture of what I'm doing with myself.  But though its effects can be somewhat subtle, I think that it's played a major role in a lot of the more obvious recent growth I've been experiencing lately and is helping me prepare for even more.

But let me start by explaining exactly what the forum is: it's a Batman-themed roleplaying forum.  And if that has you scratching your head, don't worry - I'll explain it more simply.  Usually I compare it to writing a book.  Except that this book has a very large number of authors, so each author is put in charge of one or more characters that they are solely responsible for.  The authors, called players, take turns adding to each scene by writing the actions, thoughts, and perspective of their character.  And while sometimes the players will get together and plan ahead portions of what will happen next, more often each player will only determine what their character's future plans are rather than deciding a firm storyline.  What actually happens is determined by each player describing what their character does, receiving replies from other players describing what their characters do, and back and forth until the entire scene is complete.

For example, in one scene I'm currently in the middle of the character I play, Poison Ivy (a major villainess), has stolen something from the Wayne Botanical Garden and is attempting to escape with it.  However, Nightwing (a vigilante trained by Batman), who is played by someone else, is attempting to capture her or at least not let her get away with what she stole.  So his player keeps on writing things about Nightwing dodging Poison Ivy's attacks, throwing various gadgets at her, and his determination not to let her get away.  And I keep on writing replies about Poison Ivy trying to keep Nightwing busy so that he can't attack her very effectively, attempting to deal with all the hurdles he's already put in her way, and how displeased she is by the fact that he's doing a much better job trying to stop her than he did the last time they ran into each other.

Now there's a lot of rules and customs we follow, especially when fighting is involved, making sure that we try to be fair to each other.  Especially since we haven't preplanned the ending: I'd like for Poison Ivy to get away with the loot, but I also wouldn't mind it if she was caught and sent to Arkham Asylum because I could have a lot of fun with that.  On the other hand, I'm not about to make her take a dive to Nightwing, so the ending is up in the air.  Which of them succeeds will depend on which of them manages to outmaneuver the other first as we write back and forth about what our characters are doing.  And this is a lot of fun - imagine reading a book or watching a TV show where you are able to tell one of the characters what to do rather than watching it all passively.

I first began to roleplay like this about 13 years ago, and have continued to do it off and on since.  Often I'd be an administrator as I really hate sites that are poorly run and it's difficult enough to find a good one with a theme I like that it's often easier for me to just make my own.  And I hear people say that I do a really good job of it, as I try very hard to both be nice but firm about enforcing the rules.  This particular site was not actually made by me, however.  I met Nat at a different place a few years ago.  She is an awesome player, but seems to have a hard time doing the same thing for more than a few months before something else catches her interest.  But she started the forum I now own just over a year and a half ago, but then she lost interest about a year ago as is her habit, so she offered the site to me since I was the only member of the staff left that was both able and willing to take it over.  And I've been running it ever since, with a few other players helping me with some of the details.

But pretty much everything I do on this site is helpful to me in some way.  Because, first of all, I'm not just a player on this site but the head administrator.  My duties include reviewing the applications of people wanting to join the site and accepting or rejecting them, enforcing the rules and altering them if I need to, maintaining the forum by clearing old accounts and archiving old threads, helping players come up with plot ideas if they're having trouble, and overall just making sure that everyone has a fun environment to roleplay in.  The number of individual players tends to hover around 20-30, with the number of characters usually in the area of 30-50.  And by being in charge of this site, I've learned and continue to learn a lot of leadership skills.  I know how to tell someone that their application is absolutely terrible without insulting them, for example.  I know how to tell the difference between someone whose complaints should be addressed and someone whose complaints should be ignored.  I know how to manage when two of my players decide that they hate each other and both refuse to change their minds.  Those and many other things I couldn't currently learn otherwise since I so rarely end up in any other situations where I'm in charge - though if I did then I'd have a much easier time of it from what I learned in my forum.

Secondly, while I interact with people a lot on my forum, my interactions because of my forum are definitely not limited to my forum.  Many of the people on my forum also use AIM, which is an instant messenger service, to chat with each other.  And while we do talk about my forum a lot, we often branch off into topics including life, the universe, and everything.  Or in other words, we socialize.  And I've gotten to know a lot of people this way.  While it would perhaps be even better if I could get to know more people in person, I find using AIM to be a lot less stressful than face to face interactions.  And some of these players I know well enough that I'd consider them to be my friends, never mind that I've never met them in person.  Even though I usually don't know their real names and faces, and for all I know that they're lying about details like their gender or age (even though it really isn't that difficult to tell after you get to know them for awhile...) does any of that really matter in a friendship?  Nope.  And I wouldn't have met any of them if it weren't for my forum.

Thirdly, the actual process of interacting with other players as a player myself (as opposed to my administrative duties) can require a lot of interaction that goes beyond idle conversation.  Sometimes I want one thing for my characters, someone else want something for theirs, and while sometimes those things are compatible there are times when they aren't.  Working with other players can require a lot of negotiation, compromise, standing your ground when you need to, or putting the needs of the group over your own.  All of these skills are absolutely vital when working with people in any situation, but are a lot easier for me to practice in my forum than they would be in person.

Fourthly, each and every one of my characters has taught me and continues to teach me things about people and life that I wouldn't have been able to learn so easily otherwise.  Of course, I probably knew all of these things logically already, but they helped to sort of cement these ideas as facts and helped me learn it on an emotional level too:
  • Poison Ivy has taught me what I don't want to be.  She's selfish, cruel, and has given up on people.  And though the other players tell me that I play her extremely well and it's fun to write for her, I know that I wouldn't want to be like her.  But she's also taught me that caring deeply about something can make a person more powerful.  And she's also taught me a lot about how to flirt - even if I don't think that I ever want to be as obnoxious about it as she can be.
  • Nina has taught me a lot about relationships - she was in a rather twisted one for a very long time and thus I learned a lot about what a healthy one isn't.  But she also taught me to be a lot more comfortable with the idea of being attracted to guys and have guys be attracted to me (haven't had a lot of real world experience with that one yet...), and about how to be a good person in very bad situations.  And she's also taught me a lot about remaining calm and stopping myself from becoming over-dramatic.
  • Hawkgirl has taught me a lot about what it is to be strong and bold, and that just because one is afraid or uncertain doesn't mean that you should let that stop you.  This touches right to the core of what my main struggles are so playing her didn't make more than a dent in that problem, but every little dent helps.
  • Force has helped me relearn innocence, but also that having certainty and security is not a matter of being able to control everything outside of you - it's in the inside.  She's also taught me the importance of being aware of all the gray areas in life and that black and white thinking can be extremely hazardous.  She's also taught me the difference between how a child and an adult think - which is a very important point given that most of the trauma that I've experienced happened when I was a child.
  • Heather has taught me that it's possible to be weak and vulnerable in even the worst situations and still be okay.  She's also taught me the power of words, the power of fun, and just how terrible Nina's relationship was.  And she's also taught me a lot about the role that fear and anxiety play in a person's life - how the emotion can be both harmful and helpful.
  • Iris hasn't taught me much yet since I haven't been able to use her very much yet.  But thus far she's been teaching me that you can learn an awful lot about a person if you simply pay close enough attention.
And that isn't anywhere near everything I've learned from my characters.  Yet I doubt I could have learned anywhere near that much from other things that I could be doing with all my free time.

Of course, even though I feel like my forum is hugely beneficial to me, I'm not explaining all of this because I think that everyone with Asperger's and anxiety should be in one like mine (even if the number of people I've met in such places is far higher than the number I've met elsewhere).  Actually, I have a completely different point to make with this post entirely.  Because though I've been roleplaying for quite a large portion of my life, it was never with the encouragement of my mom.  And this in spite of the fact that she wants nothing more than for me to grow and do better in my life, and has usually been the first one to encourage me to do anything that might help me.  To be fair, she has several good reasons to be extremely wary of the idea of roleplaying, but it's only been more recently that I've become braver about talking to her about why her fears aren't necessary in my case - especially given how extremely helpful roleplaying has been to me.  In fact, given that she has a link to this blog, this post is another big step in that direction.  But this whole roleplaying thing has always been my idea.

And it wasn't until I met my new therapist that I really started to realize just how important my forum is to me.  I've always kind of known that by writing about a character interacting another character I was practicing being social, but she was the one that helped me understand the full scope of it.  Before I started working with her I perhaps listened too much to what my mom had been saying: I had the idea that what I was doing was all fake, that the people I was interacting with weren't real friends but at best 'practice friends', and that in general it was nice but didn't really 'count' for anything in the 'real world'.  I did it somewhat apologetically, with disclaimers, feeling as if I ought to be doing something 'better' with my time.  It was my therapist that showed me that I was wrong to think so.  The internet is simply a buffer of sorts, making all the things I do online feel safer, and all I really need to do in order to translate all these skills I've developed online into my daily life is to learn that it's safe to do all those things without that buffer.  If I hadn't done all this roleplaying and other related interacting with other people, then I would not only have to learn that it's safe to do them, but also how to do them in the first place.  And that would have been a lot harder!  But since I don't need to take that extra step, that probably explains why I can make such rapid surges in progress sometimes.

But the point I want people reading this to get is that if someone has any sort of a problem that puts them outside of the norm and they find something that seems to help, then both they and anyone else around them should be very, very slow to argue with that idea.  Of course, there's some things that help some problems that are still probably bad ideas, but you want to be sure of that before you say so.  Because if my mom had ever succeeded in talking me out of roleplaying, I would be minus one very good tool for dealing with my problems.  And roleplaying being helpful seems far less of a stretch than Temple Grandin's squeeze machine, at least to me.

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