Growing up, Strother Gaines was told that his voice and mannerisms were too girly. Eventually, he would get in touch with his masculine and feminine sides.
Growing up, Gaines was told that illusions were always lies. Eventually, illusions brought him closer to the truth.
Growing up, Gaines was told that video games would rot his brain. Eventually, he came to believe that they made him a more successful man.
Gaines, a motivational speaker and entrepreneur from Denver, was the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s Greater Reading Chamber Alliance Women2Women Evening of Empowerment. At the Reading Public Museum, businesswoman from across Berks county gathered to network, nosh on appetizers and listen to Gaines speak candidly about his personal life and unusual philosophy — that games like “Dungeons and Dragons” can make you better at business.
“Does anyone in the crowd consider themselves gamers?” he asked.
Three people, including Rachel Romig, raised their hands.
“He is extremely authentic,” said Romig, senior director of GRCA events and special programs. “He shared his story of coming out as a gay man while living in Kentucky and keeping himself hidden, and that is really the crux of what we are talking about, bringing the real you to the surface.”
“Even those of you who aren’t gamers play characters every day,” Gaines said. “You play roles, you play pretend.”
Gaines, a former Segway tour guide with a background in theater, design and event planning, is studying to become a therapist. He has his own coaching firm, “But I’m a Unicorn, Dammit!” The name sometimes makes potential partners afraid to work with him, but he doesn’t care what they think.
“A good brand should attract and repel,” he said. “People should know that they definitely want to work with you, or definitely not want to work with you. You have to impress just 0.001% of the world to be wildly successful.”
Gaines’ speech was called “Dungeons and Drag Queens.” He performs in drag under the stage name JoAnn Fabrics (“Rachel and I are wearing the same necklace today!”), one of many times when playing a character has helped Gaines gain confidence.
“JoAnn has helped me find parts of myself that I wouldn’t find otherwise,” he said. “If you’re an empathetic human, when you play those characters you learn something about that character and conversely, you learn things about yourself.”
Games like “Dungeons and Dragons” involve playing a character, something that requires a fluid sense of identity and understanding of social interaction.
“It’s still you,” Gaines said, “but something in your brain says ‘My ego is protected, I can do this.’ That’s why gaming is so powerful.”
Gaines practices what he calls “self-distancing,” putting yourself in a position beyond your typical scope and moving away from the ego. Even learning a new skill or playing pretend in a game are acts of self-distancing.
Growing up gay in a household that did not accept it (he is still estranged from his family), it was a skill Gaines had to learn.
“For most of us in places that don’t accept who we are, that’s important,” Gaines said. “(In games) I learned about people how who are brave, about how people who suffered but overcame it, behave.”
He hates the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it,” and prefers to say “behave as if.” If you’re an introvert, behave as if you’re great at conversation and networking.
He calls poet Walt Whitman a “silver daddy” and believes in his famous quote: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
He compares the evolution of his personality to how characters in the Pokémon video games become bigger and stronger as they evolve.
“What you are now is a beautiful amalgamation of the things you were,” he said.
Every identity a person takes on — mother, wife, teacher, student — involves taking on a different posture and set of relationships with the people around you, Gaines said. To him, all of these identities are characters that we play, but that doesn’t mean they are false.
He cites the work of psychotherapist Erving Goffman, whose wife was an actress. Goffman observed the roles that his wife played on stage and in her personal life.
“That’s OK,” Gaines said. “You don’t let anybody into the backstage area.”
Gaines got a theater scholarship after high school, a time when he was nervous and still in the closet. He kept his hands to himself, even when he was acting. Then, he discovered the commedia dell’arte, an Italian style of theater where performers wear masks representing stock characters. Behind the mask, he grew more confident.
“It wasn’t Strother,” he said, “it was Harlequin.”
Gaines argues that the same techniques present in a commedia dell’arte actor are present in the typical businessperson and the typical “Dungeons and Dragons” player.
To prove his theory, he asked those in attendance to make character sheets as if they were “Dungeons and Dragons” characters. Instead of being wizards and barbarians, they would be bankers and salon owners. He asked them to name their party members, (friends and coworkers) inventory (the things they have and need) and the skills they can summon on their quest.
He asked them to measure their proficiency in six skills: strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity, magic and charisma. And he asked that the sound technicians play music while the audience worked on his thought exercises. They played “Born This Way.”
“Oh, you went straight to Gaga for the gay guy?” he said. “I love it!”
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