Shared Fantasy

Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds

Review - Shared Fantasy

Galen Fogarty is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, writing a dissertation on the place of discrete technological objects in Canadian science fiction. He has been playing RPGs for less than a year, but thinks he knows what to do with a d20. 

Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing as Social Worlds by Gary Alan Fine

At the time of Shared Fantasy’s publication, Dungeons and Dragons had not yet been on the market for ten years, and if the anecdotal evidence from Gary Alan Fine’s text is to be believed, the genesis of fantasy role playing itself had occurred only a few years earlier (14). When Fine researched this book, the fantasy role playing was in its very early stages, and it is this proximity to the origins of the genre that makes this an enduring text worth studying. Fine notes the origins of FRPGs in war games, simulation games, and folie-à-deux (shared delusion), and draws on existing scholarship for these precursors; Shared Fantasy is, however, the first academic study of fantasy role players as members of a distinct community.

Overview

Shared Fantasy is divided into eight chapters and a methodological appendix. The appendix is worth reading first to clarify the structures of the play groups that Fine immersed himself in for his research and gives a narrative to his movement through the community in general. There is no stated organization of chapters, but the chapter progression serves to offer an introduction to fantasy role playing, to give an overview of the fantasy role playing community, to examine the elements of fantasy in role playing games, and to define player actions and interactions in these games.

Chapter 1 outlines Fine’s focus on the shared culture of fantasy role players, and the ways in which they “enact an orderly gaming world” (6). Fine also offers a preliminary definition of fantasy role playing, suggesting that while it is a rule-governed voluntary activity where the end results are not known to the participants, both the rules and the outcomes are negotiable in ways not seen in other games.

In Chapter 2 Fine describes the characteristics of fantasy role players and the ways that they imagine themselves as a community. Some of the rhetoric of self-improvement, escapism, and sociality that players use to justify their interest in role playing is outlined in this chapter, though Fine concludes that these reasons are meant mostly to draw attention away from the genuine engrossment and enjoyment that these players experience. Finally, the gender imbalance in the fantasy role playing community is examined (Fine estimates that women make up between 5-10% of identifiable role players at the time of publication); and while sexual aggression seems to be a regular feature of the gaming groups in his study, and Fine does return to this theme in subsequent chapters, he does not offer much comment in this chapter.

The third and fourth chapters in the text both cover issues of fantasy and mythos. Chapter 3, on the nature of collective fantasy, takes up the shared ideas that players and referees have about a game’s fantasy world, and the way that they use these ideas to generate meaningful play. While Fine never enters into much detail about game mechanics, he does include a discussion about the ways that participants try to manipulate the rules and the random elements of these games (including a long discussion about the rituals surrounding dice rolling). Chapter 4 examines how players shift between levels of meaning, and represents the most sustained interaction in Shared Fantasy with fantasy mythos. Fantasy offers an avenue of engrossment for players, allowing them to engage according to their own shared interest in a particular mythos and according to their own goals. Fine offers this type of engagement as a parallel to the acquisition of culture in general, with the caveat that it is more selective than most cultural interactions because the parameters for participation are narrower.

The fifth and sixth chapters of Shared Fantasy focus on the social dynamics of games and player reactions to the events of a game. Chapter 5 deals with player status, which Fine concludes generally increases according to player age and experience. Also of note is the use of fantasy violence as a sublimated form of social control—the threat of in game violence is often used to moderate player behaviour. In Chapter 6, Fine applies Erving Goffman’s “frame analysis” to fantasy role playing, and expands on the Goffman by suggesting that shifting between frames of reference happens seamlessly despite the engrossment that role playing relies on.

The final two chapters examine players’ emotional and cognitive investment in roleplaying games. Chapter 7 makes distinctions between player goals and examines the ways in which players identify with their characters. Fine also lists the mechanisms that players use to preserve self-esteem in the face of character failures. Finally, in Chapter 8, Fine attempts to expand his research on this small subculture into larger contexts. This chapter has some implications for the defense of fantasy literature generally, as it takes fantasy out of the realm of introspection and individual escapism. Most importantly, perhaps, Fine suggests that the sexual violence he observed in previous chapters does have its origins in systemic aspects of the larger culture of “American males,” and is not limited to a particular subculture.

Critique

I should state here that I am not a games scholar, and have only a passing familiarity with current discussions in the field. I do play roleplaying games, and as a fan of the genre I found Shared Fantasy to be a fairly engaging history that offered a unique look into what it means to immerse oneself into a fantasy world. But the way that Fine focuses on immersion does intersect with my own academic interests in speculative literature and fantasy fiction. In literature and in games, fantasy seems tied to the necessity of giving oneself over to experiencing a setting or a narrative.

Shared Fantasy would remain a valuable resource by virtue of being the first study of its kind, and for the way it engages with the pioneers of fantasy role playing industry, and yet it is the insistence on play for play’s sake which proves to be Fine’s most lasting contribution. While members of the gaming community point to the salutary side-effects of playing FRPGs (53), and the complexity of the games might suggest a love of minutia, Fine asserts that it is the engrossment (read: fun) that players find in these games which drives participation. His focus on engrossment throughout the study bridges player motivation (why people play games) and the actual mechanics of gaming communities. And if FRPGs encourage players to lose themselves in play more explicitly than other games, engrossment is still a concept that is extensible to other gaming communities.

While only two of the four games played by the communities studied are still in print, the main indication that Shared Fantasy is of a different time is the way it reads like a defense of the fantasy genre as a whole. Like J.R.R. Tolkien in his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” Fine is committed to demonstrating the redeeming aspects of escapism and to pointing out that while fantasy worlds are not real, they do reflect reality and cannot be engaged with without undertaking some real activity. While this type of defense may have been necessary at the time of publication, few would now confuse the fantasy elements of an activity with the validity of a community practice.

Some of Fine’s discussions of play lack engagement with the actual rules that govern these games and clarity regarding which rules act as motivations for in-game actions. Even though the study concludes by suggesting that a loose interpretation of the rules governs fantasy role playing, and that fun remains the “sine qua non of games” (236), a position which is to be applauded, a more rigorous discussion of the complex systems that the players are interpreting would be useful. Since this study devotes considerable time to the ways that players become engrossed in game narratives, it seems short-sighted to overlook the codified rewards that oftentimes provide the motivation for the narrative in the first place.

Finally, by considering the rules of the games as written, Fine could put a finer point on his conclusions about the sexual violence that characterizes some of the groups in the study. He notes that “[w]hile fantasy gamers frame their beliefs in terms of ‘fantasy’ relationships, the content indicates basic conceptualizations of all male-female relationships” (238); and yet, the fact that some forms of violence (fighting monsters or NPCs) has a mechanical value in these games, while sexualized violence does not, is not mentioned in the study. Not only do the actions of his subjects speak to a general misogyny, they also demonstrate a real desire to see this misogyny acted out.

Conclusion

Shared Fantasy offers some useful tools for researchers interested in gaming communities and the use of fantasy as an element of play. By keeping his focus on the interpersonal dynamics of gaming, Fine does lose some opportunities to engage with the structure of games themselves, but he is able to come to some interesting conclusions about the nature of play. Readers are unlikely to find anything revolutionary or controversial in Shared Fantasy, but the research Fine has done should remain foundational to projects on gaming communities or fantasy role playing generally.