While looking at books in games in general at the library, I stumbled across two on RPGs: “Shared Fantasy” by Gary Alan Fine (1983), and “The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art” by Daniel Mackay (2001). Fine is a sociologist who has also done studies of other small groups/subcultures, while Mackay looks at RPGs from a performing arts criticism kind of perspective. I found both of them very thought-provoking, albeit in completely different ways.
For the purposes of writing Shared Fantasy, Gary Alan Fine observed and participated in the Golden Brigade gaming club, going from novice to expert himself, and taking many interviews with the gamers there. The book was published in 1983, and the picture it paints of the hobby is very different from now, but also includes some things that remain universal.
- There was still a heck of a lot of crossover between FRP and wargames back then, and for a while there were wargamers who resented this new-fangled D&D thing’s entrance into their hobby.
- The four games of note were D&D, Chivalry & Sorcery, Empire of the Petal Throne, and Traveller. In the case of EPT, Fine interviewed and even played with Dr. Barker himself, and the ways in which the players related to a world as complicated as Tekumel were interesting.
- The entire section on “Women in Gaming” is just plain scary. The older players in particular used RPGs as a form of stress relief, and had no problem with running around raping female NPCs, so they felt a bit “restrained” when there was a woman in the room, much less at the table. On the other hand, the idea that RPGs back then were mostly male-oriented power fantasies goes some way to explain the other reasons the hobby was about 95% male.
- “Dice animism” is apparently at least as old as RPGs.
- For a long time it was the norm for gamers to spend an inordinate amount of time arguing over the rules of the game, to the point where it was a metagame and some groups spent as much time arguing as actually playing.
- At the time, Fine found very, very few instances of players actually speaking in character.
- Gaming groups, and especially GMs create a distinct underlying logic (“folk beliefs”) for their worlds. Many GMs create a world where life is relatively fair — where risk and reward are in roughly equal balance — and where good and evil are clear-cut.
- RPGs as a subsociety still had a sense of hierarchy, based on age and prestige within the games. Some players were ostracized — albeit due to their bizarre behavior — and when the club saw an influx of younger players (thanks to a newspaper article), the older ones avoided having noobs in their games.
- In an RPG people switch between acting as an actual person, the player of a game, and a character within the game, intuitively and seamlessly. People do this in other contexts — and to a certain extent role-taking is a basic part of human society — but for example an actor can’t afford to do it to the degree that gamers do. Not only that, but gamers tend to dizzyingly switch around who they’re talking to. If someone at the table addresses Rob they might be talking to him, or addressing his character Thor, or vice versa.
- In any game of any kind, the rules have a certain amount of plasticity depending on the social context. This is extremely apparent in RPGs, but it also shows up in more rigid games like chess (can you take back a move you’ve made?)
Although published in 2001, the references in Mackay’s book only go through 1998 or so, and where Fine studied observed gamers in the Twin Cities area, Mackay is mainly doing research and drawing on his own experiences, particularly with regard to his own long-running Forgotten Realms campaign. He also uses a massive amount of performing arts criticism type stuff, to the point where I found some passages incomprehensible.
- The rise in D&D’s popularity in the late 70s and early 80s can in part be attributed to fantasy being a big genre in movies at the time, where there had been virtually none before. It also played into the cultural landscape of the time.
- D&D in particular created what he calls “imaginary-entertainment environments,” overall worlds/settings that went across several different media, and changed over time. Dragonlance, which had a reciprocal relationship between the game and accompanying literature, is a prime example.
- He discusses Everway in detail, noting that it creates and stores character information in a more narrative form.
- RPGs are unusual in that the “end product” is a narrative that exists mainly in the minds of the participants, and can’t be found directly in either the rulebooks or transcripts of game sessions. For games in general, narrative is “ergodic,” an emergent property. In a sense the player takes the events of a game — any game — and arranges them into stories, much like how we do in real life.
- Gamers have a common geeky culture. Sometimes this can interfere with the game (Simpsons and Monty Python quotes), but it also forms a common starting point, and gamers take bits and pieces of it and recontextualize them in order to better communicate with each other.
I think I’ll have to do a similar write-up about Lawrence Shick’s Heroic Worlds (1991) and Rick Swan’s The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games (1990), both of which try to explain the hobby and then present a catalog of published games. Both are about 15 years old, though Shick’s is particularly exhaustive.