Gaming As Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity And Experience in Fantasy Games
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Review of Gaming As Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity And Experience in Fantasy Games
Gaming as Culture is a recent, welcome addition to the field of role-playing / fantasy gaming research. Unfortunately it suffers from several very serious flaws that make it far less valuable as a resource than it should. Most of these are minor (very inconvenient typos in reference names, an incredibly ugly cover), but one huge problem exists: it appears as if the book had been produced in a theory vacuum. Its too often a re-invention of the wheel, not something that builds upon already-existing works. Two actively referenced exceptions of course exist: Fine (esp. 1983) and Mackay (2001), both of which are seminal works, yes, but not exactly representative of the field as it is now.
In general, it seems that the authors have relied upon resources such as rpgstudies.net, a site that hasnt been updated since 2002 (meaning that all material from both the Forge and the so-called Nordic theory circles is completely absent). This is especially inconvenient because the editors speak of an explosion of popular and academic interest in fantasy games, then go on to blatantly ignore most of the latter. On the bright side, they do offer a good overview of earlier critical material, making the introduction quite useful for people making literature surveys on negative portrayal of fantasy gaming.
Most of the authors of the book come from either a computer science or language studies background, which is heavily reflected in the contents of their work. Many of them have at least a doctoral degree. They are, however, usually just avid gamers applying outside theory on fantasy gaming, not experts on fantasy gaming theory.
Waskul: The Role-Playing Game and the Game of Role-Playing
Subtitled The Ludic Self and Everyday Life, this article examines roles in tabletop rpg, in a way best described as an updated version of Fines approach. Key areas include separation between persona, player and person, social structure of games and the border areas they touch on. Waskuls views on game authority and continuity is a bit too linear and reflects only one culture of play, though, so the article wont be exactly applicable beyond certain classic styles of play. It can be adapted further, though, so that is not a major flaw. A welcome, concise piece on one style of play.
Hendricks: Incorporative Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming
Hendricks presents an analysis on how the shared reality of an rpg is constructed through discourse. There are plenty of examples and a good deconstruction through examples, making the article quite illustrative even for laymen. Unfortunately it is also the piece that most suffers form the isolation mentioned above: in addition to a Fine-based shared vision, the author should have looked into material written on rpg diegeses (such as Montola, 2003) and Shared Imagined Space (available all over the Forge), and a note on the impact of shared storytelling popular in indie role-playing games would have been extremely welcome. Nevertheless, such an insightful look at game discourse as this one is very valuable for both research and game design, especially if used together with Kellomäki, 2004.
Weninger: Social Events and Roles in Magic
Weningers geosemiotic analysis on M:tG play is based on a videotaping of one 60 minute gaming session, played by herself and her husband. She excellently analyses the play as several layers of elements, noting how the participants interact on each level. The only problem I have with her texts is that of reliability: While the author does explain her choice of material, I really would have wanted at least one comparison pair included as well. That would have eliminated problems such as the possibility of considering traits of typical social play family events. A very good piece, despite its limitations.
Williams: Consumption and Authenticity in Collectible Strategy Games Subculture
Through two example games (Magic and Mage Knight), Williams analyzes the slightly differing types of games included in the broad category of CSGs. He looks at the subculture of play, the playing itself and different ways of playing. Included is especially good analysis on the differences and implications of competitive and expressive play, including game enjoyment. In my opinion, Williams article is the best piece written on CSGs thus far, making it an excellent reference point for people studying similar or connected phenomena. It is also the by far best article in this book.
Schut: Desktop Conquistadors
The first of the books two gender theory articles, this one contains a well-functioning look at how three facets of American masculinity (basically respectable manhood, rough manhood and eternal boy) are reflected in digital FRPGs and how those games cater to such impulses. Schuts analysis is thorough, and even though this article doesnt really provide information that hasnt been seen before, it is a good look at the phenomenon. Personally I would have liked to see a commentary on the games escapist function as well, though.
Nephew: Playing with Identity
Nephews piece, based on her doctoral dissertation (Playing with Power, 2003), is the books big problem piece. It is basically a description on gender issues in role-playing, centered on troublesome issues and conflict points. At some point (most of the sources used are at least a decade old), in some places (mainly USA), it may have been accurate. But as a person coming from a gender-equal gaming culture where women may often be the actual majority, I find the authors generalizations on role-playing as often implicitly misogynous rather slanderous. I do agree with her on the fact that several games are indeed innately hostile towards women, but to use those as a basis for a general statement of objectification and gender misrepresentation in gaming is in my opinion quite biased. While there may still be gaming communities severely suffering from the problems Nephew describes, for the general role-playing audience this article may well do more harm than good by misrepresenting the already much more evolved and gender-conscious scene.
Winkler: The Business and Culture of Gaming
Winkler, an insider on marketing and manufacture of fantasy games, presents a short, good look on the reality of making and selling such games. Included is an excellent analysis on how this particular market subculture differs from other similar groups. I found the article very interesting and useful as a resource, even if it does make some strange selections (video games are included, board games are mostly not) and concentrates on only one style of production (indie games are not at all discussed). I must also note that having such a text in a book on fantasy game culture is a very good move.
Chee, Vieta & Smith: Online Gaming and the Interactional Self
This article was the big surprise for me. It is basically a look at engrossment and identity in context to EverQuest. The methodology used is a combination of participant observation and interviews, resulting in a good multiple perspective result. What is interesting, though, is that the authors approach the subject from a media communications point of view, not the usual game studies one. As a result, the explanations and descriptions are built upon the theory of intersubjectivity, not that of flow. Therefore this article will provide a nice counterpoint or a secondary viewpoint for many ludological texts.
Mello: Invoking the Avatar
Mellos article is a look at the acquisition and use of real-world skills through fantasy gaming. Much of the theory used is drawn from digital game theory, but the data she uses it on is from surveys and interviews at a sci-fi/fantasy/gaming convention in 2004. In one sense, she has created a very good base for analyzing the ways and content of learning through role-playing. On the other, her work would be far more valuable if shed taken into account what material already exists on the subject, especially Henriksens works (2003-). Futhermore, some of what she states on the nature of players views on true role-playing stands in clear contrast to recent data gathered on such issues (such as Harviainen, 2006c and Hopeametsä, 2006). Yet, despite my criticism, I find Mellos data a very important addition to our pool of actual knowledge about what game participants learn by playing.
Marsh: Vicarious Experience
The final article deals with the creation of vicarious experiences in digital and mediated environments. It contains descriptions on a very good-seeming test created by the author, used to test empathic reactions and self-image during digital game play. There are several questions left unanswered, though, such as the impact of confusion between social roles, system roles and potentially character-immersive roles. Marshs work seems promising enough on that regard, so the article is best read as an introduction to a developing methodology, not as an end report or summary.
The layout is very good, and the texts are, as far as academic material goes, very easy to read. So style gets a lot of points, with the exception of the horrible cover.
This is of course an important book. It could, however, have been a much more important one, had the authors used the works of other fantasy game researchers in addition to the classics and what applicable material exists within their own particular fields of expertise. Therefore Im reluctantly giving the book just a 3 out of 5. Had there even been a single note of acknowledgement towards other works, something to denote that the isolation is due to choice and not ignorance, the rating would be significantly higher.