Finding Meaning with Imagination

To imagine is to represent without aiming at things as they actually, presently, and subjectively are. One can use imagination to represent possibilities other than the actual, to represent times other than the present, and to represent perspectives other than one’s own. Unlike perceiving and believing, imagining something does not require one to consider that something to be the case. Unlike desiring or anticipating, imagining something does not require one to wish or expect that something to be the case. –Shen-yi Liao and Tamar Gendler, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2019)

Sometimes meaning comes from the weirdest of sources. For me, meaning hasn’t come from a religious awakening or even my career, but, instead, from the imagination….

Although I’m far from what you’d call a traditional Marxist or even a Neo-Marxist, I would argue that Karl Marx was right when he pointed out that the very economic system we hold dear — that is, capitalism — tends to alienate people not only from their labor but also from the very products they produce. If we develop this notion of alienation a bit further, we find that the current economic system we hold so dear strips our world down into calculations, transactions, and meaningless abstractions. Therefore, our economic dealings leave our world devoid of real meaning, something that presents a number of people with a dilemma: Do I go along with this meaningless (devoid) world and what it has to offer, or do I go somewhere else entirely?

Like I said above, I didn’t go along with the soul-numbing options offered by the world around us. Think: religion, business, untethered consumption, etc. Instead, I retreated into the imagination, looking for a place that I could call my own. The imagination, while largely insular in nature, offered a great deal of opportunities to connect people on a very personal (i.e., human) level. These connections have spanned decades, continents, and the tests only time can throw your way when you’re least expecting it. Moreover, the experiences I have from fandom, world-building, fan fiction, and gaming, have had the greatest impact on my life’s direction. Without my participation in the Star Frontiers community around 2007–2009, I would have missed out on opportunities in desktop publishing, honing my craft as a writer, and making lasting connections with people who were just like me. I would also argue these experiences allowed me to find meaning, to find a place in a world where that is becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish, and, lastly, to find my purpose.

Early on in life I was blessed — Is that the right word for it? — to see young and seasoned professionals struggling to find out the world didn’t care much about one’s dreams, or about one’s search for meaning, or even one’s need to be a part of something larger and greater. Around the time I was graduating high school, I was on track to becoming an IT technician, something I’d dreamed about. I’d developed a passion for computers and all forms of technology. However, I was approached, at separate times, by my old man and a good friend who worked with the same company I had. They both tried to convince me to maybe, just maybe, follow my other, wilder dreams. I, of course, scoffed at these suggestions, much like anyone in my position (and in my age group) would do. I thought, What do these people know about the world? What did they known about passions and finding meaning through one’s work? It turns out they were right to intervene.

For those who’ve worked IT, they know that IT, especially the customer service side of the equation, can become soul-deadening. On top of that, after the advent of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, many in the field, including my father and closest friends working in IT, became disillusioned. They’d once bought into the rather libertarian promise that information technology would bring about a freer and nobler society and/or world. In other words, they believed that their work in building Internet infrastructure, setting up servers, or working with clients had produced meaning. In the end, like much in our world, it failed to meet those expectations and those very human needs we all have. In the end, people like my father saw their job as nothing more than a bullshit job (see video above), something that produced very little.

Around the same time, I’d been dabbling in the Star Frontiers community, contributing various projects and wild ideas to the Star Frontiers universe. The Star Frontiers universe had been all abandoned by its owner — originally TSR, which was later bought out by Wizards of the Coast, which, in turn, was acquired by Hasbro—, and this abandoned universe provided a fertile breeding ground for collaboration, world-building, fan fiction, human connections, and gaming opportunities. Those who worked on revitalizing and expanding the Star Frontiers universe came from all backgrounds one could imagine, making this an eye-opening experience for a rural, small town kid like myself. The individuals I interacted with found meaning in a shared universe, one that had gobbled up much of their imaginings and their increasingly disappearing free time.

During much of my time in high school, I spent my days daydreaming, playing games, and contributing to various fandoms and world-building endeavors. Much of this delving into the insular could be blamed on my living situation. My parents, both fresh from their divorce, tackled my awkwardness and unwillingness to conform with different strategies. Father believed I was becoming like those D&D players he knew growing up, who amounted to nothing and still lived in their parents’ basements. His approach was utterly vicious, and it led to a good deal of head-on collisions, some ending in fist-fights. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t actively discourage this inwardness as much as my father had. Instead, she saw as a call for help, a need for a male role model. Fortunately for me, my mother enlisted the help of an older, wiser nerd, who introduced me to a man I’ll refer to here as Mr. Zed.

Itwas Mr. Zed, a wizened Gamemaster and storyteller extraordinaire, who suggested I ignore the poking and prodding by my folks. He offered that I play a simple game, every day I had time. Little did I know that I was delving into the world of role-playing games — an utterly head-first dive into the insular, the abyss that is the imagination. I had experienced role-playing games in numerous ways, but I didn’t have the friends or the connections to actually play the games themselves. I’d collected numerous RPG rulebooks from the Web. At one point, I became so obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons that I collected gigabytes of data on homebrew rules and adventures.

What most people don’t know is that high school is the testing ground for our adult selves. It’s a time of hormones, embarrassing acne, and going through the bureaucratic channels that make up public school education. For me, high school was where I found the power and the importance of imagination, where I delved into the farthest reaches of mind. In turn, I found what my adult self needed to survive and even to thrive.

When I started high school, I began school in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where I played Mage Knight, MechWarrior, and, on occasion, Warhammer tabletop wargames at the local community center or even at the high school. During the spring semester of my freshman year, however, I started attending Dulce, New Mexico. For the first few months, I had little to do to pass my time. To me, Dulce didn’t have much to offer — and was I wrong as ever.

Dulce, for the uninitiated, is located on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. It’s this little no-name place in northern New Mexico, where the Archuleta Mesa towers over a semi-arid mountain valley. The town is centered around tribal buildings and businesses, which hug Highway-64 like plaque on arterial walls. Outsiders know Dulce for the cattle mutilations and the hunting.

Taken from a 2014 HuffPost Article on the Dulce, NM Military Base

What I knew about Dulce came from two sources. Our neighbors, Pam and Tom, found their dog, Dulce, in Dulce, New Mexico. They always retold the story when we visited their B&B down the road from our house in Pagosa Springs. I also remember hearing about Dulce in relation to the cattle mutilations in the late-1970s. The cattle mutilations were Dulce’s claim to fame. The History Channel once aired a documentary on the cattle mutilations when I was younger, with the narrator pronouncing the town’s name as “Dulche, New Mexico.” Locals claimed UFOs or the government were responsible for cattle being surgically sliced and diced. Conspiracy theorists blamed it on the Dulce Military Base, a sort of Area 51 military base, rumored to be located under Archuleta Mesa.

Mr. Zed was an unusual character, who also happened to live in Dulce around the time I lived there. Mr. Zed worked for the Jicarilla Apache Department of Education (JADE), and he wore clothes more befitting a Mormon missionary spreading the Good News than a day-in, day-out tech guy. He filmed official tribal events and lectures for the tribal government. Mr. Zed occasionally worked on odd bits of computer and film equipment he stashed away in his JADE office. His office in the old JADE building was about the same square footage as a small dorm room, maybe even smaller now that I think about it. The office was filled to max capacity with computers, video equipment, shelves, and old milk crates housing Zed’s gaming books. There was no organizing principle behind the clutter of computers, cables, and cameras. It was like a squirrel’s stashed-away nut collection, with odd pieces shoved behind cabinets or stacked atop of bloating and listing shelves.

Mr. Zed belonged to the first generation of role-playing gamers. His generation started playing socially-conservative games like D&D, escalating their gaming fix to the hardcore, morally ambiguous stuff like Shadowrun, Vampire the Requiem, Werewolf, Paranoia, and Cthulhu.

The first game I played with Mr. Zed and his coworker, D, was a homebrew version of Shadowrun. The game was a blank spot in my mind. I’d never heard of it, nor had I heard about things like cyberpunks and corporatocracies that filled the game’s rulebook. I wasn’t used to the game mechanics either. I spent the better part of two and a half hours creating my character from scratch, rolling dice, answering questions, and choosing traits, quirks, flaws, etc. This was not due to some overly elaborate character creation system imposed by the game’s rulebook. Zed liked modifying his role-playing games, adding bits here and there and stealing from online forums and fan Websites. The final character sheet consisted of intricate formulas, lists, and spreadsheets that Mr. Zed used in his role as Gamemaster, a sort of storyteller with god-like authority over the game world.

There are two types of Gamemasters. There are those Gamemasters who take pity on their players and offer a helping hand. Story, all round fun, and leisurely gameplay are key to these Gamemasters’ modus operandi. Then there are those Gamemasters who view their players as mere mortal playthings, who are to be bound and beaten in every imaginable way. Mr. Zed belonged to the second Gamemaster archetype. Zed’s gamemastering technique took a page from the “Monkey’s Paw.” Be careful what you wish for. He had a way of making fate, gravity, and the dice come crashing down on our party. His thugs were better equipped. The police were always a step ahead of us. Bullets hurt and so did explosions. Being captured or arrested meant brutal interrogations bordering on torture. Every roll of the dice brought silent prayers and paranoia-induced mutterings. High rolls were met with hollering — all around jubilation and high-fiving. Low rolls brought pale faces and globs of sweat and hopes that our characters hadn’t stumbled into the starry beyond.

Icouldn’t wait to play the game. To fill my time, I explored the Web for new role-playing game experiences, world-building endeavors, and fandom. Sites like Wookiepedia and Star Frontiers US were my stomping grounds, when I should have been working on homework or focusing on things outside of the imagination. Instead, I couldn’t leave my skull kingdom. I couldn’t just leave behind something that provided entertainment, but also so (so) much more. I began writing again, for the first time since I was younger. I developed my own games, my own stories, my own worlds and universes. Mr. Zed released something that I didn’t know existed. It all sounds like your cliché Jedi awakening, but there it is.

The summer following my high school graduation put a damper on the daily game sessions at JADE. I knew was I going to start college in August. The college I was attending was some four-hundred miles away, making it too far for regular gaming commutes. Something told me that the group needed to end the game with a bang — a campaign to end all gaming campaigns. I wanted a campaign that ended in a total party kill (TPK).

Itold Mr. Zed about my idea. A TPK was in line with Zed’s sadistic gamemastering sensibilities. Thus, he agreed to ending the campaign with a real blowout of a TPK. He began plotting out the new campaign’s general structure. What Zed’s new campaign taught me was that imagination has no real beginning or ending. Instead, our campaign, although ending in our characters’ deaths, was merely a beginning of something new.

When I started college in August, I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to satisfy my gaming fix. I was in a new town and hundreds of miles away from the cramped JADE office, where I had spent countless hours gaming. However, I was surprised to find that others had the same interests. Others wanted to retreat into the imagination, but not for the sake of escape. These individuals, people I now call friends, wanted a stimulation that only came from the inward retreat into the imagination. We later started a gaming group in our dorm hall, using the empty commons area as our meeting spot. Four gamers turned out to the first gaming sessions. We were traveling across the galaxy, fighting the Wrath in our homebrew Stargate roleplaying game. We fought as guerrillas in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The dice clattered on top of tables, with silent prayers or mutterings under the breath of each player. I was transported back to that day when I came to Mr. Zed’s office in JADE. It was a euphoria I didn’t understand, nor did I care to at the time.

Thinking back on it now, I find that it is the retreat into the imagination that gave me something to do. It gave me a sense of purpose, while the world struggled to figure out the why of the ’08-’09 financial fiasco. The imagination gave me a sense of belonging, to a world or universe not necessarily of my own creation, although I had a hand in fashioning these places. My imagination gave me satisfaction when everyone around me, particularly those so-called adults in the room, couldn’t find satisfaction. Years later, now getting comfortable in my career, I find that my imagination has helped me find a sense of purpose and fulfillment that the dog-eat-dog system of capitalism couldn’t offer me. Funny enough, those people who were skeptical of my inwardness are now looking inward themselves, seeking answers, seeking meaning, seeking something larger than themselves, in their imaginations.

Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico