How Board Games Made Me a Better Advocate

It can be hard at times to find an activity at Amherst that doesn’t leave you thinking, “Well, I guess I’m just not good enough.” It doesn’t matter if its lab work, a cappella, or knitting – there will always be someone who’s done it longer, better, and more often than you have. Honestly, I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one here who didn’t spend their high school years in the former Soviet Union doing polio research on double amputee rescue pugs.

It’s bad enough when you realize how low you might be on the totem pole of your chosen hobby here, but when you try to enter something bigger, like the world of research or advocacy, that feeling of inadequacy can become a little overwhelming. As a freshman, I remember facing that flood of hesitance during weekly Pride Alliance meetings. I was just some kid trying to find my place in a movement, but I could articulate little beyond “yeah guys, homophobia sux lol amirite?” Meanwhile, it felt like everyone else could already cite translated volumes of international queer theory from memory. When I applied to be a Peer Advocate of Sexual Respect, I had similar worries. I wanted to do something meaningful, but so many of my peers were already advocating on such an elaborate, theoretical level that the world of advocacy felt more and more closed off to a seemingly have-not like me.

Still, I decided to go for it. I went to meetings and heard people talk and started picking up the requisite grammar for different campus groups. I thought of it like a chemistry class: flip to a random page in your new textbook and you’re totally lost, but sit through a few lectures and suddenly words like “cyclohexane” are old hat. I figured that becoming an important part of any campus group was simply somewhere between “fake it ‘til you make it” and “just gotta put in the man-hours.”

At first, this model of quietly assimilating into student groups seemed to work for me. I could hear myself starting to use the technical terms whose meanings I had to secretly google in the past. People just needed to be socialized into the culture of campus stuff, especially when it came to advocacy. Get the new kids on the same page and it’ll all be ok, I thought. Recently, however, I’m not so sure.

I’m questioning myself because I spent most of my winter break, my first month back from Japan, playing a lot of board games. See, over break I spent hours and hours playing Eldritch Horror, a board game spawned from the cosmic horror stories of American horror master H.P. Lovecraft. Players work together as “investigators” who, thrust suddenly into some unsettling narrative of indescribable terror, must search desperately for a last-chance solution. Usually, you’re charged with preventing some cult ritual meant to summon an eldritch monstrosity, or hunting for the artifact required to close an extra-dimensional gate, or trying frantically to put an end to the travelling play production that keeps driving its audience insane. Make a mistake or fail a dice roll and your investigator loses health or sanity points, slowly descending into irreparable madness or at the very least, a hospital bed.

I know this hardly seems connected to advocacy work, but it’s the cooperative nature of these games that got me thinking about how we work together on campus. If you take the time to look at the components of this theme-heavy board game, reading the backstories for the various characters, you’ll notice that there aren’t any demon-banishers for hire or professional cult activity stoppers available. That’s because the game focuses not on the monster-hunting elite, but on the average, random people who find themselves suddenly working towards a greater goal. There are no superheroes: everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses. The Gangster Michael McGlen may benefit from the brute force of his Tommy Gun, but his narrow-minded personality means that his character quickly loses sanity points when confronted with the unexplainable. Meanwhile, Sister Mary, the nun, finds deep strength in her faith, but rarely succeeds in hand-to-hand combat with a rosary. Hell, bootleggers, violinists, scientists, and even gravediggers find representations as investigators in the Lovecraft board games.

This, I’ve come to realize, is closer to my ideal model of advocacy on campus. Rather than worrying about shaping everyone into generic, blanket advocates we need to encourage everyone to investigate in their own way. So many of us are scared to join public conversations about issues on campus because we fear being publicly called out, shut down, and potentially humiliated for saying the wrong thing – no one wants to be slapped with that old scarlet letter, “problematic.” It can often feel like the important debates belong to some vaguely-defined group of intellectual elites. I think we need people to be fearless in saying “Well, I’ve never read Foucault” or “Yeah, I’m confused about what a microaggression is, but I’d love to hear a definition.” In other words, though we may need everyone to be working towards the same goal, it’s ok to be on slightly different pages. It seems like people are more willing to contribute to a movement when they feel themselves being valued as they are. That doesn’t mean we should skip the theory books and just listen to our feelings, or that people should abandon any impulse to self-educate, but I wish I had given myself more credit as a freshman member of campus groups to speak from my own experience. If we want to solve the problems facing our campus, then we need every dancer, athlete, photographer, librarian, and travelling magician we can get.