Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Escape Hatch Below My Bunk: How Board-, Card-, and Role-Playing Games Help Me Leave Prison Whenever I Want

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By Rosendo Rodriguez III

“Es-cap‘ism, n. the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or fantasy.”
-Webster's Dictionary

We humans are social creatures by nature, a characteristic that evolved within our ancestors when they were still living in trees, and refined later when they banded together to hunt woolly mammoths and fend off sabretooth tigers. It is deeply ingrained in our DNA, as well as our collective psyche. We would not be here today had traits in our primate forebears not been naturally selected: instinctive self- and group preservation, a deep seated desire to reproduce, and even aversion to ennui. When you are in a segregated environment in prison (such as Texas death row), where you spend 22 hours a day in your cell, similar instincts come into play, albeit in much different forms than when dealing with tigers, and mammoths. 

Physical survival here consists of merely having a healthy diet, good hygiene, and a daily fitness regimen of cardiovascular exercise. We are separated from one another no matter where we go and what we do, so it is rare to experience bodily harm. The struggle for mental and emotional survival and preservation however, is quite a different matter altogether. Some choose to escape the daily boredom by reading; others meditate and practice yoga.  Numerous gifted artists and writers create works of art on illustration art boards or through the written word. But if there is a ubiquitous hobby, one pastime everyone engages in to preserve their sanity and emotional well-being, it is board-, card-, and role-playing games.

"[Strategy] is more than a science: it is the application of knowledge to practical life, the development of thought capable of modifying the original guiding idea in the light of ever-changing situations; it is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions"
-Helmuth von Moltke

Also located deep within our hominid DNA is the sense of competition, going back to when the first ape punched the second ape over the right to eat at a termite mound in Africa. This competitive spirit exists on death row, though there is no eating of termites and only the occasional shouting match. The day-to-day monotony of isolated prison life can bring pressures to bear on a person‘s mind, and can make one's existence difficult. Game-playing and competition can alleviate stress through the use of strategy. Neuropsychologists employing fMRI equipment have recorded the effects of strategic activity in the brains of game players. The level of activation of "reward-related mesolimbic neural circuits" (areas of the brain responsible for experiencing reward and motivation) was significantly higher than that of those who simply observed the game and did not participate. According to a 2010 study by the Department of Defense, findings showed that gamers have a ten to twenty percent higher cognitive function than people who do not play any types of games.  In addition to an increase in cognitive skills, there are also marked improvements in other areas such as problem solving and critical thinking abilities.  These are all beneficial side effects that oftentimes, are unbeknownst to the player during a gaming session.

We employ strategic thinking during games of chess, dominoes, Monopoly, Scrabble, Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons. (Although there are other types of games that are played, these are the most popular and widespread). We can play in groups or in pairs, depending on the game, and physical proximity to one another. On death row you play games either in front of your opponant’s cell (if you are in the dayroom), or with a partition separating you (if you are outside in the recreation yard), or while standing at your cell door along with other players. We can buy dominoes and chess sets through the commissary, a prison-run store that sells foodstuffs, hygiene supplies, correspondence materials, and the like. Other games are fashioned from commissary purchased supplies (paper, pens, cardboard, etc.) and the rules and information are derived from rulebooks that we can either order from outside retailers, or have them printed out from internet sources such as wikipedia.

Most here are creatures of habit and stick to only chess and dominoes. Some will expand into Scrabble and Monopoly. Some like myself, that run the gamut up to and including Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons.

"A novice chess player soon learns that it is a good idea to control the center of the board. This recognition will recur, in novel disguises, far from the chessboard. It may help to seek the equivalent of the center of the board in any situation, or to see that the role of the center has migrated to the flanks, or to realize that there is no board and no singular topology .... "
-Carl von Clausewitz

Chess, in one form or another, has existed over the millennia, and countless variants continue to be developed. We do not have much to do on a daily basis, and since playing the same version of a game can become rather dull, we rely on ingenuity and innovation in order to make it more interesting. For example, Iraqi chess employs a standard board and pieces, but has a novel exception: One piece is, unbeknownst to the opposing player, equipped with a "suicide bomb", and can be detonated only on one‘s own turn by yelling "BOOM!", resulting in the destruction of the suicide bomber and its surrounding pieces. This variant of traditional chess is quite handy, especially considering the limited amount of time (2 hours) that we have to spend during our indoor and outdoor recreation periods, since it considerably shortens an otherwise long and drawn out normal game.

Since dominoes requires both math and loud noise (the repeated slamming of the pieces, as well as "washing" them), two things I do not particularly care for, I will not be discussing it in this article.

Scrabble is an entertaining twofer: It is both fun and educational. By utilizing an extensive vocabulary (which you may not have had before), you can score the most points while confounding your opponents. Part of the appeal of Scrabble is the ability to bluff on the spelling of the word in question (and even the definition, if asked), and calling one‘s bluff by challenging the spelling (but not the definition). Bullshitting one's way to victory is cause for many a laugh; I once made up a word, "Junned" and it‘s definition, "v. the harvesting of summer vegetables in the month of June", to pull one over on my good friend Big Lou.

Monopoly, with it's ruthless seizures of real estate, massive amounts of money, territorial claims, detrimental and beneficial chance cards, and the ability to both go to and get out of jail, has a special appeal to those of us behind the walls. One variant, "Slumlord," takes place in an inner-city ghetto, and was, alternately, a sad and hilarious commentary on urban blight, crime, and gentrification that is for many here, all too real of an experience growing up.

Magic: The Gathering is a collectable card game that combines aspects of chess (forethought to plan several steps ahead), poker (the shuffle of cards, having the right combination in one‘s hand and on the table, as well as incorporating luck of the draw), baseball cards (the collectibility of over 7,000-plus cards, all varying in rarity, has not only an aesthetically pleasing value to hobbyists who collect for their stunning artwork, but also a monetary value ranging from just a few cents, up to tens of thousands of dollars), and fantasy (you represent a spell-caster that travels to different planes of existence, collecting creatures, spells, enchantments, artifacts and allies, all of which can be called forth at your command by utilizing "mana," the geomantic energy that resides within the lands of the worlds you travel to). Drawing from an infinite amount of card combinations and, players have endless amounts of opportunities to one-up their opponents, depending on how complexly or simply they want to customize their decks. I have played and won with one deck against an opponent, beating him soundly, only to lose minutes later using the same deck (and my opponent his) due to not being able to draw the cards I need. 

The element of chance is the great democratizer in Magic: The Gathering, because you can construct a deck of cards that (were we to buy the actual cards out in the world) would cost thousands of dollars, but it would all come to naught if you cannot get the right initial and/or subsequent draw. One of the most ingenious and fun mechanics of the game is that although there are a set number of rules that govern the game, there is the "golden rule"; i.e. if a card changes or even directly contravenes the rulebook, the card then takes precedent. New blocks of cards come out every year, create an ever-changing game that never lacks an appeal to any of us prisoners, from age 15 to 65 (which, incidentally, is the age range of the friends with whom I play).

"Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely. There is the science of the organization of armies in a nutshell"
-Colonel Ardant Du Pica

Dungeons & Dragons bears special mention here, since not only is it the game with the most comprehensive and complex rules we played on death row, but it is the way I have met fellow prisoners who have become my best friends here; men who I consider to no different than my own family. 

When I arrived here in 2008, I didn‘t know anyone. That quickly changed after being invited to be a part of a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaign. Although I had played strategic board- and card games such as Battletech, Warhammer 40,000, and Magic: The Gathering as a teenager, I had never played a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. 

D&D is a fantasy-based game that incorporates acting s a character you develop by interacting socially with others, all while following a storyline that takes place during both peacetime and war. Like in sports, the class of character you choose is vital to winning or losing contests and conflicts. Divided like football teams into offense and defense, both sides are further subdivided into specializations, sometimes having an overlap. 

Fighters are the main brawlers of any group, usually (but not always, especially when discretion is the better part of valor) charging into the fray with axes and swords swinging. Wizards employ arcane powers to cast fireballs and lightning, and even alter reality through the use of dusty spell books. Rogues are the thieves and spies, breaking into domiciles, gathering information and contacts within the underworld as well as high society, and are vital when disarming the myriad of traps that lay hidden in dungeons ruins. Clerics keep their fellow adventurers safe by praying to their deities for protection and healing, and should such measures fail, even bring them back from the dead. There are many other classes one can play, -- these are but a few D&D has to offer.

You also choose your character’s race, each with varying abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Orcs are big and very strong, but not very patient or intelligent. Dwarves are dour and standoffish, but are powerful in battle and are superb subterranean fighters. Humans are jacks-of-all-trades, easily adaptable to any group or situation, but possess no special traits. Halflings are small humanoids that are quick on their feet and have a natural affinity towards objects of value and as a result, make perfect rogues; Elves are dexterous and aloof, preferring to quickly strike with a sword or bow and arrow due to their frail bodies.

I created a multi-class character named "Samuel Elf Jackson" after one of my favorite actors, an amalgamation of his roles from "Pulp Fiction", "Snakes on a Plane", and "Jackie Brown". The character speaks, acts, and looks just him, as he portrays Catholic Monk/Cleric black elf that knows kung-fu and yells out lines such as "WHAT ARE THESE MUTHAFUCKIN' ORCS DOIN' IN THIS MUTHAFUCKIN‘ DUNGEON?!", and "HELL YES I KILLED THAT DRAGON, AND I HOPE HE BURNS IN HELL!!". Our adventuring group gets no small amount of commentary and laughs (as well as a few curse words of complaint and derision) from guards and neighbors here.

Over the years, I have had the honor and privilege of knowing guys who have had lives that are salvageable and worth knowing about. When the lights go out, and all is quiet, we all get together and grab the playing materials from under our bunks that qualify as an "escape hatch", enabling us to leave this place at the time of our choosing. How valuable is giving us a modicum of freedom in an otherwise infantile atmosphere, where actions, behaviors, food, and clothing are dictated on a daily basis. In the world of prison, where rules are fixed, the games we play afford us a chance to engage in world-building of our own design, giving us control of our own lives without interference from authorities. Games provide a rather wide latitude of choices and interactions that promote opportunities to leave the doldrums of real life, to obtain a reputation, and moments of recognition, and the chance to be a part of a community. The therapeutic value of playing games cannot be overestimated. Deep satisfaction and the resulting bonding experience that comes with overcoming a difficult mental and/or physical challenge is one of the main rewards. Friendly and even familial bonds are built here over the years and decades, and are often struck up over a game between strangers. 

I met a guy names of Arnold Prieto one night, during a D&D gaming session. We didn't know each other at all, but our characters were fighting alongside each other in a dungeon crawling with demons, undead, two chimeras, and a 7-headed hydra. There was an evil knight under a greater invisibility spell that kept giving our adventuring party hell. Samuel Elf Jackson pulled out a 2-pound bag of flour and threw it in the air, and immediately the knight's outline became visible. Prieto‘s character proceeded to whip the knight's ass six ways from Sunday. Afterwards, Arnold said, "The good news is, the knight is gone; the bad news is, no biscuits for breakfast." We all had a good laugh at that, and it is one of my fondest memories of him. Unfortunately, Arnold Prieto was executed by the state of Texas a few years ago. His writings can be seen here.

"While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way off. Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream... Insofar as death is always at one's door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly."
-Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo

When it comes to any group of people who have formed a deep and abiding bond, mental states and emotions are highly contagious, and more often than not, joyous and humorous ones spread like wildfire. Being sentenced to death, these bonds and feelings make numbered days feel more worthwhile, and they cannot be stolen. With each final move of a chess piece, or final draw from the deck, or with your last throw of the dice, whether it is a game of skill or the game of life, make it count no matter what situation you may find yourself in. If you have nothing to lose, you won't. 

Rosendo Rodriguez 999534
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. Aren't you writing a fantasy novel too about the condemned saving the world?

t said...

I really enjoyed this. Many thanks.

Joseph Key said...

OMG! I play MTG on a regular basis and have played D&D nearly all of my life, off and on. At 42, I usually tell my fellow gamers, the younger ones anyway, how good they have it. Being a "geek" now is so very mainstream. There are even plenty of female "geeks" around. In my day, I actually hid my interests in geeky things and games. I hope this comment reaches you, Rosendo. It is awesome to hear that such a thing exists even in your world and I'm thrilled that you find a bit of happiness in it.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Rosendo Rodriguez in response to the first comment: I appreciate your positive feedback Anonymous, and to answer your question, yes, I was writing a novel about we condemned on Death Row redeeming ourselves in a post-apocalyptic, zombie world but sadly, the genre became rather inundated with zombie-related books and show i.e. “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead,” “iZombie,” etc… and while they are all superb graphic novels and books that translated wonderfully to silver and TV screens, I feared that one more book about zombies would add to the zombie-like plague (See what I did there? Haha…I mean it in a good way though) of material that is out there already. A lot of great zombie literature and movies are there for your consumption (consumption of flesh that is…haha…I did it again) and I would suggest that you start with the late, great George Romero “Living Dead” movies (R.I.P. George!) and then branch out into “The Walking Dead.” I will be releasing an anthology of sci-fi, fantasy and general fiction stories in about 6 to 9 months however, and I will definitely announce it when I do. Thank you again for your comment.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Rosendo Rodriguez in response to Joseph: Dear Joseph, I am very glad that you liked the essay regarding the different games we plat here, namely D&D and MTG, to pass the time here on Death Row. It is refreshing that there are others like you and me that represent “geek” culture so proudly. My God, you are quite correct when you say that the younger kids these days have it so good in that they didn’t have to deal with all the haters who weren’t intelligent enough to understand (or so we geeks told ourselves…haha) how to play Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering and have to negotiate their labyrinthine rules (and labyrinthine dungeons too, haha) that they required. If you haven’t (or if anyone who is reading this comment hasn’t) read “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline, you have to, Joseph. It is as if the story was written for us geeks… also check out “Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering” by Titus Chalk. It is a heartwarming, informative and humorous look at how the game we love so much came about, and how much of a labor of love it was. In any event, I thank you for your fellow geek support and feedback…may you always roll nat 20s, may you always be able to cast Planeswalkers by your 3rd turn and May the Force Be With You Always… (damn that was hella geek!)