“Miniaturized, A Bit Abstract, But Strangely Compelling”

A Review of Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach

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Alex Chalk is a PhD student in York and Ryerson Universities’ joint program in Communication and Culture in Toronto, Canada. His dissertation research focuses on the impact of streaming and “actual play” media on the tabletop roleplaying scene. He also identifies as a Professional Sissy, but hasn’t decided what he means by that. Lately he’s been playing a whole lot of Red Dead 2, but the way he’s doing it you might as well call it Animal Crossing With Swearing.

In the introduction to Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach, José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding call games “trusty little mirrors of social life . . . miniaturized, maybe a bit abstract, but strangely compelling” (1). The latter portion of that quote serves just as well to describe their book’s relation to its topic. Noting a lack of cohesion in the study of role-playing games (RPGs), Role-Playing Game Studies strives to integrate scholarly works dispersed across a variety of disciplines and locales, and to begin the work of establishing a canon of RPG scholarship. Indeed, in a space already so nebulous and uncentered as game studies, RPGs appear mostly as curiosities – blips scattered across journals, institutions, and conferences, with little sense of who else is studying them and why. The term “role-playing game” is itself somewhat nebulous, as I discuss below, but here applies broadly to a variety of media objects, including pen & paper RPGs, single-player computer role-playing games, MMORPGs, live-action role-playing games (LARPs), and more. Role-Playing Game Studies miniaturizes its subjects, boiling them down to basic definitions and concepts, and abstracts swaths of disparate work into coherent and comprehensible debates. As I discuss below, the result is multivocal, robust, and, indeed, compelling.

Canonizing is a fraught endeavor, and the authors and editors have gone to considerable lengths with this book to be as widely inclusive as possible. (The authors use the term “integrative” (viii)). The book is an anthology, with an impressive roster of over fifty contributing authors across its twenty-seven chapters. These cover a wide variety of topics ranging from describing and defining the RPG and its forms, to disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts in which RPGs are discussed. Most chapters have at least two authors, and a careful editorial hand is visible throughout. According to the foreword, the book’s creation process was highly cooperative, as is evidenced by thorough cross-referencing across its chapters and the general cohesion of the text (which is no small challenge with so many perspectives in play). Nevertheless, the book embraces its multivocality, discussing its topics in terms of past and ongoing debates, rather than attempting to privilege or discredit any one perspective. As such, it presents not as an authoritative theoretical work on RPGs, but a survey of how and why academics work with RPGs. These surveys are intended as starting points for research, and each helpfully ends off with a short list of further reading.

Role-Playing Game Studies is broken into four parts: Definitions, Forms, Disciplinary Perspectives, and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. An introductory chapter examines RPGs as a social phenomenon and object of study. Here, Deterding & Zagal identify four major phenomena that intersect in RPGs and underscore their academic appeal: play, games, roles, and media culture. These lay the groundwork for an overview of relevant knowledge areas and disciplinary interests. The chapter also includes some discussion on why RPGs are worth studying and a brief summary of the history of RPG scholarship. This latter section emphasizes the disparateness of these works, and makes the case for the kind of unifying project the book represents.

This pluralistic approach to theory is essential, as demonstrated in the book’s first part, consisting of a single chapter wherein Zagal & Deterding set out to establish a definition of RPGs. Through an empirical review of the settings and objects the term is used to describe, the authors arrive at a definition of RPGs as “a word used by multiple social groups to refer to multiple forms and styles of play activities and objects revolving around the rule-structured creation and enactment of characters in a fictional world” (46). They go into further detail, but this quote suffices to demonstrate descriptive character of their approach, while satisfying their criteria of broad applicability and disciplinary elasticity.

Part 2 defines the different media forms and activities collectively referred to as RPGs. It leads off with a chapter on RPGs’ diverse precursors, including war games, assorted forms of “participatory stor[y]” play, including children’s pretend play, social practices emerging from growing fantasy and science fiction communities, and older carnivalesque traditions such as Renaissance faires. Chapters 4 through 8 discuss tabletop RPGs, live-action roleplaying, single-player computer RPGs, multiplayer online RPGs (abbreviated TRPGs, LARPs, CRPGs, and MORPGs, respectively), and online freeform role-playing. Each of these chapters describes the characteristics and core concepts of its form, provides a history including major titles and developments, as well as the practices and communities surrounding them, and finally closes with a statement of its current state. In keeping with the book’s general approach, these accounts tend not to be entirely linear, and are sensitive to the significance of particular moments and locales. These qualities are on full display in the chapter on LARPs, which is especially diverse and impressively detailed. Chapter 9 shifts the focus somewhat, considering the impacts of RPGs in a variety of cultural areas, including popular culture, fantasy fandom, geek culture, and moral panics.

Part 3 focuses on disciplinary perspectives. These chapters approach RPGs from a wide set of disciplinary frameworks (eg. sociology, economics, game design), outlining salient concepts and questions as they apply to RPGs. The discussions tend to start with a wide view, outlining the general concerns of the discipline to better contextualize sites where RPGs bear interest, before reviewing prominent works in the field and existing literature on RPGs. This approach is particularly helpful for readers unfamiliar with a given discipline, and these chapters serve as good springboards for analysis and more extensive literature reviews. Likewise, those with a disciplinary background will find this part useful in finding their bearings in RPGs. A notable inclusion is chapter 10’s focus on fan theorizing, which provides a scholarly overview of the diverse and extensive popular discussions on RPG play and design. Here, Evan Torner leads with a historical overview of fan theorizing, tracing the trajectory of these discussions from the pages of fanzines, to animated debates on a handful of web fora in the early aughts, and finally their dispersal across a variety of social networks, discussion boards, and web series. Next, Torner summarizes the content of the domain’s “perennial debates” (207), summarizing fan debates on such diverse matters as “realism versus playability; . . . gender, ethnicity, and sex; and, finally . . . player and system typologies” (207). Chapters 11 through 19 take similar approaches from the perspectives of performance studies, sociology, psychology, literary studies, learning, economics, science and technology studies, game design, and communication research, respectively.

Part 4 discusses interdisciplinary issues – “issues” being the key word, as these chapters focus on complex matters which have not yet been settled in the scholarship. Chapters 20 through 27 discuss world-building, RPG subculture and fandom, immersion, play-character relations, transgression, sexuality and eroticism, representation and discrimination, and power, respectively. At their best, these chapters break down difficult concepts which tend to have different meanings in different contexts. Sarah-Lynn Bowman’s chapter on immersion, for instance, provides an extensive review of the term’s diverse cultural roots, and catalogues the types of immersion that emerge in the literature (e.g. into activity, into environment, into narrative, etc.). Bowman’s chapter bears congratulating on the finesse, range, and nuance of its analysis, exhibiting diligence in the face of a concept the uses of which continue to fluctuate and sometimes contradict. Yet this chapter is merely the best in a set of equally complex discussions. Indeed, some chapters evidence the difficulty of the topics they discuss, reviewing debates and concerns with that remain unresolved. Such chapters are liable to feel incomplete – either because further discussion has yet to occur, or else because relevant works have been missed. Overall, these chapters serve best not as complete overviews of their subjects, but to set a foundation where there is further work to be done.

As I remarked earlier, Role-Playing Game Studies bills itself as a textbook. In this regard the book succeeds admirably. For the most part, discussions of the book’s many topics are wide-reaching, carefully laying out key concepts and pressing debates, and thoroughly researched and cited. The book reaches for accessibility, and specialized terms are defined in-bold, mid-text sidebars, and an extensive glossary at the end of the book. It is easy for a newcomer to acquaint oneself with the basics of a given subject, while researchers more familiar with a chapter’s topic will find a good overview of current scholarship to peruse, as well as articulate descriptions and definitions on which to build their writing. The index, however, comes in a bit slim at 4 pages, and could have used further referencing given the breadth of the book’s scope. The first chapter’s empirical approach to consolidating research is echoed throughout the book, making Role-Playing Game Studies a useful starting point for a wide range of research projects on RPGs.

Worth noting as well is the authors’ commitment to integrating fan theorists and popular debates. RPGs have a deeply participatory character, and their fan communities are host to lively debates and a cast of theorists whose work has been influential in design and study. Besides the chapter on fan theorizing, fan theory touches on many topics within the book and is duly discussed where relevant. Indeed, one of the great successes of the book’s integrative project is its willingness to engage with ideas from outside the academy, albeit with academic rigour.

While the book does a good job of bringing together a diverse body of work, there remain some notable gaps. It lacks chapters on gaming cultures, as well as queer, feminist, and/or intersectional perspectives on RPGs. These topics are discussed as part of other chapters, but not given enough attention given their current relevancy in both scholarship and fandom. Elsewhere, significant gaps presented where good research has already been done. The chapter on economics offers a somewhat light treatment of player labour given works on the subject by Taylor et al. (2016), Parker, Whiston, & Simon (2017), and Wu (2016). Likewise, the chapter on RPGs and learning does not offer much discussion on institutional obstacles, despite work on the subject by Jenson et al. (2016) and others. Therefore, researchers interested in these topics will find the need to supplement. I offer these criticisms not to needle the contributors, but rather to illustrate the challenges of bringing together a discipline that persist despite their best efforts. Given that work on the book began in 2013, it may be that these later works merely came too late. I also note that many of the authors mentioned above are Canadian, while most of the book’s contributors are American or Scandinavian; this could indicate certain geographical obstacles. In any case, it would be premature to declare the canonizing project complete – although these are excellent first steps.

Moreover, not all chapters are created equal, and a few are more argumentative than descriptive. The chapter on economics briefly reviews a handful of perspectives on the subject, but its latter half reads more as a polemic on the future of work in a world of MMORPGs. Citing research already a decade old, this section develops a theory of mass virtual migrations that history has simply not borne out. Moreover, it misses more recent work on the economics of MMORPGS which, as noted above, would lead to a more robust and nuanced discussion.

Despite these criticisms Role-Playing Game Studies stands, on balance, as a solid and useful reference book. It carefully leads readers through academic matters of increasing complexity, from basic definitions, to complex and unresolved questions. Its ensemble of authors represent a wide body of scholarship and are largely generous in their integration of works both from within the academy and without. While it preaches accessibility, it is largely academic in register and has limited appeal to more popular audiences. Nevertheless, it is rigorously researched and remarkably thorough, and more seasoned scholars will find benefit in its integrative reach. Role-Playing Game Studies is an excellent resource and starting point for a great many research projects touching on RPGs, and a welcome addition to the game studies literature.

References

Jenson, Jennifer, Susan de Castell, Kurt Thumlert, and Rachel Muehrer. “Deep Assessment: An exploratory study of game-based, multimodal learning in Epidemic.” Digital Culture & Education, vol. 8, no. 2 (2016): 21-40.

Parker, Felan, Jennifer R. Whitson, and Bart Simon. “Megabooth: The cultural intermediation of indie games.” New Media & Society, vol. 20, no. 5 (2017): 1935-1972.

Taylor, Nicholas, Kelly Bergstrom, Jennifer Jenson, and Suzanne de Castell. “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online.” Games and Culture, vol. 10, no. 4 (2015): 365-388.

Wu, Hong-An. “Video Game Prosumers: Case Study of a Minecraft Affinity Space.” Visual Arts Research, vol. 42, no. 1 (2016): 22-37.

Zagal, José P., and Sebastian Deterding, eds. Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach. New York and London: Routledge, 2018.