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Playing at the crossroads: How games with friends can thaw the Seattle Freeze

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Stacks of board games, a Dungeons & Dragons group beyond — Photo by Daniel Lindsley
Stacks of board games, a Dungeons & Dragons group beyond — Photo by Daniel Lindsley

Delve at all into urban planning discourse and you'll soon encounter the concept of the "third place," a space away from one's home or work where people socialize across boundaries of profession and social class, a kind of crossroads for all walks of life.

A third place could be a bar, a park, a town square, a café, or a barber shop. More recently, scholars have begun exploring the idea that certain digital spaces count, since the events of the last few years have made it necessary for online games, chat rooms, Discord servers, and the like to fulfill our social needs in similar ways.

Strict definitions will differ depending on who you ask, but it is generally agreed that a third place should be inclusive, wholesome, and quite importantly, playful.

A playful atmosphere lacks hostility; it might even be considered an antidote to such tensions. It replaces with curiosity the wariness with which we might regard an approaching stranger, and it helps us open up to friends and acquaintances about the troubles of the world beyond.

Some advocates worry that third places are slowly disappearing. They blame suburban sprawl, Airbnb, inflated rent prices, the decline of shopping malls, and social media. Downtown Seattle has suffered from such erosion, as the pandemic saw restaurants, bars, and other third places close, to say nothing of tech companies buying up spaces that were once public.

Yet one of the most resilient of these third places, especially in Seattle, has been the local game store (shortened to "LGS" in the tabletop gaming community). Each LGS acts as an independent hub for board games, roleplaying games, war games, and trading card games. It's one of the few places where you can sit for hours without paying a cent, and never be bothered for it.

The restaurant portion of Meeples Games on a quiet evening — Photo by Daniel Lindsley  

At a bar or café, you drink something. At an LGS, you have the choice to play something, and most stores will have ways to find people willing to do that, like a calendar or corkboard for clubs, tournaments, and Dungeons & Dragons campaigns looking for players.

It will often have a games library as well, to let patrons check out board games before they decide to buy them. Like seasoned bartenders, the more veteran LGS staff will know their stock well enough to give recommendations based on taste.

As if that weren't enough, some stores, like the local chain Meeples Games, have food and drinks — not popcorn and sweets like a movie theater but sandwiches, pizza, coffee, and even a full restaurant and bar, in the case of Mox Boarding House.

Thawing the freeze
But what do third places and the LGS have to do with Queer love? The receding pandemic has had many of us in the community searching for ways to connect with new people, and reconnect with friends and acquaintances — and when it comes to creating a playful atmosphere, there are few things that do it better than games.

Think of the air of camaraderie that can form around rooting for a team in a sports bar, for instance. Or if sports aren't your thing, think about a Queer bar with RuPaul's Drag Race on. Any two people there could have never seen each other before, but all the same, they will cheer and holler together.

Playing a game does demand more effort than watching one, which is fairly passive (and it's easy enough to ignore the other people in a bar). To play one has to know the rules, pay attention to the other players, and think ahead about strategy, execution, and even narrative.

Patrons of Meeples Games play Magic the Gathering on a Tuesday night — Photo by Daniel Lindsley  

That's a big ask for a Friday night, some might say, but keeping close track of the rules or the story of a game can divert focus away from oneself and toward an engaging, collective task. Self-consciousness gives way to a softer frame of mind, and with everyone there dropping pretense, they can relax enough to both witness and become more authentic versions of themselves.

In other words, games break the ice, and they can tell you more about the people involved than shouting in a sports bar ever could. The infamous Seattle Freeze might thaw under the warmth of a good-natured round of Settlers of Catan, or during an exciting moment in a Dungeons & Dragons adventure.

Such things happen again and again at any thriving LGS. And they often happen between Queer people, because Queer gaming groups in Seattle have deemed a few such places safe enough to meet.

Queer Geek! Seattle, for instance, has monthly meetups at Phoenix Comics and Games, which also carries comic books by local Queer artists. The more games-focused Seattle Gaymers bring games beyond the LGS, holding a weekly board game night at Optimism Brewing Co., and a video gaming night at CC's. The famous Raygun Lounge on Capitol Hill, with its pinball machines and board game library, hosts voting for the Emperor and Empress of Seattle each year.

Making worlds together
But enough about meeting new people. What about the friends we already have?

"In a way that is very difficult to come by in any other sort of environment or situation, gaming allows you to open up in a very personal and intimate way toward your friends and the people you're gaming with," said Anna Goldberg, cofounder of 6 String Games.

Goldberg was referring specifically to the more narrative-focused tabletop genre of roleplaying games (TTRPGs) — the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, Burning Wheel, and Lancer. Before 6 String, Goldberg wrote for Zweihander, a gritty gothic horror system, and she has taken that expertise onward to forge a new path in a growing industry.

She has been playing TTRPGs since college, and she had this to say about what they offer: "Exploring very emotional and personal topics through the lens of these characters is not really something you do very much in your life — except maybe, you know, when you're in college and you're really wasted, doing the 'I love you so much!' kind of thing."

But unlike getting drunk, when you play TTRPGs, "you still remember those stories like they really happened," she said.

"It takes an incredible amount of trust to have that kind of buy-in with a group of people, and just be like, 'Okay, we're all getting together to tell this story," she said. "There aren't really any other activities that, you know, form that group collective in that way. It's like, 'We're gonna make a world and share it for a while, together.'"

In addition to gaming with old friends, Emma continues to meet new ones through games; that's even how she met her business partner, Colin McNamara, in a digital third place.

"Before we were in that same 'friend Discord' together, lockdown happened — which, you know, really happened here," Goldberg said. "You weren't supposed to leave your place. "

The two of them ended up on the same "actual play" Twitch stream, she said, although in separate campaigns. "We actually met because I watched one of the games he was in. I started a group chat with the people I was becoming friends with who were in that game. And from there, we realized we had a lot more in common outside of liking tabletop games."

Only a year later did Goldberg and McNamara finally meet up in real life, for a "tight, spine-cracking hug" in the latter's home state of New York. They've visited each other a few more times since.

As for other friends, Goldberg has seen relationships come and go. "Both in character and out of character, I have seen them blossom, I have seen them fall apart, I have seen them strengthened — basically, anything that can happen to a romantic relationship outside of a game can happen around a game table."

You can find out more about 6 String Games at https://www.6stringgames.com/. Its solo journaling game The Secret Ingredient Is Love guides players through the experience of making old family recipes while exploring fond memories.