Williams, Hendricks, Winkler: Gaming as Culture

[Readings] (08.14.08, 2:29 pm)


This book covers roleplaying as a social system. Of particular concern in this are the social interactions between players, and the relationships between person, player, and character. There are a great deal of essays and varying studies of gaming groups. A number of authors connect Erving Goffman’s notions of performance and frame analysis to understand the layers of interaction present in the games.



The editors introduce the idea that roleplaying is a form of simulation. Fantasy roleplaying is based on social situations that do not actually exist. This idea suggests that roleplaying can be used by players to explore ideas and identities in a safe environment, without consequences to actions performed in game.

Also mentioned is the connection to ludology. The study of games in this context is separated into three main areas of study: social reality, identity, and experience. Social reality is something that derives from Berger and Luckman (1966) and argues that common interpretation of reality is socially constructed. Social construction applies to game worlds, but also the culture of gaming itself. The breakdown of topics into these categories does not emphasize the fictional aspect of gaming, specifically the imaginary worlds that are created through the roleplaying. For more on this, see Mackay.

Also worth investigation: James Gee: “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.” (2003)

Dennis D. Waskul: The Role-Playing Game and the Game of Role-Playing

This interesting essay connects RPGs with Goffman and Huizinga. The connection is social construction of reality and performance. The essay specifically is using Goffman’s 1961 “Encounters”. Establishment of identity and play seems reflective of Goffman’s work on Frame Analysis, as well. Waskul also discusses Fine’s ethnography of roleplaying groups. The intention of this essay is to understand better the relationship between players characters and extend this to the relationship between individuals and their social roles in reality.

Over the course of gaming, there are several distinct sides to the players: Person, Player, and Persona. Normally these are managed as distinct and separate frames, and they are kept separate with a great deal of discipline and rigor. However, this is not always the case, many occasions these boundaries blur or rupture. The conflict occurs in negotiating the various aspects of self from other, and becoming the other. This idea derives from Herbert Mead (1934).

Waskul describes an interesting episode where one of the players in a game was experiencing guilt because he was not used to playing a character with a particular alignment. The character was doing things that were in character, but this was at odds with the player’s own ethics, and this was creating a sense of unease. So gradually, the player would act out of the alignment and this created a feeling of guilt.

“Because he ended up role-playing in ways that were out of moral alignment for his persona, ‘he’ felt guilty. The irony is that fantasy personas are purely fictional and thus cannot ‘feel’ guilt any more than the player who plays them. Does the persona have a ‘guilt complex’ or is the player merely guilty about how he has played him? Clearly the answer is an ambiguous both but neither; his persona has a ‘guilt complex’ and the player feels guilty about how he has played him — the guilt is real and exists in two simultaneous frames of reality.” (p. 32)

Realness and the porous nature of imaginary constructions are anchored together. Waskul gives examples of how with families created through anonymous sperm donors, the idea of fatherhood is constructed and made more real through the fragmentary descriptions given by the donors. Another example is with actors in theatrical performances, where the characters in the performance are created not only by the actors, but by the audience suspending its disbelief. The social construction of reality is something grounded in the tradition of symbolic sociology. Roleplaying is a game of self and fictional identity.

Sean Q. Hendricks: Incorporating Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Gaming

This paper discusses the way in which the participants in an RPG use discourse to construct the game world and simultaneously separate in-game activity from out of game activity. The underlying idea here is the idea that the participants maintain a single shared vision. The definition Hendricks uses derives from several authors, notably Fine, Goffman, and Lakoff and Johnson. The ideas developed seem to hinge most strongly on Goffman’s notion of framing and keying. That idea is that cues exist around the discourse (keys) that enables the frame wherein the underlying game takes place. The two frames that exist in roleplaying are the frame of the game itself, and the fantasy wherin the story takes place.

This logical separation makes a lot of sense for roleplaying, but it can also be extended beyond that, to other occasions, such as electronic games. These are notably different in that the game and story are fully developed artifacts in electronic games: they are not co-constructed, so the fantasy aspect in electronic games must be presented to the player, and the player can only view it. There is an oppositional nature inherent in that, even when in tabletop gaming the GM is responsible for developing the world. In tabletop, the world does not exist without the involvement, and witness of the players.

On discourse strategies: when players enter and exit the frame of the game, there is a period of transition wherein the players come to get used to their characters, and essentially come to inhabit them. This connects to many traditions present in improv.

Discourse in games tends to fall under two primary categories: description and action. Actions consistent with goals have the effect in games of unifying: they connect the player to the character. Description does the opposite, it asks the player to visualize a world where the character is present, but this makes distinct the difference between player and character. This is common knowledge in GMing practice: a gamemaster should end a first game session with a battle to make the players feel invested and connected with their characters through a common goal: don’t let the character die! Again, this emphasizes the difference between tabletop and electronic games. Electronic games can not do anything but describe, and their representation of worlds might be characterized as opening a window, but that still emphasizes that the player is on the other side. It is difficult to have games where the player and character are acting with mutual and synchronous goals.

Discussing language: In discourse in tabletop games (and also in MMOGs), language becomes a hybrid of in-world language, colloquial or regular language, and meta language. This must also be accomodated in other adaptation targets, where in-world ideas are represented with different media affordances.

Michelle Nephew: Playing with Identity

This essay discusses unconscious desire and sublimation in roleplaying games. Nephew uses a Freudian psychology in the tradition of Larua Mulvey, to analyze a particular roleplaying group’s positions towards masculinity and morality. Aspects of roleplaying have been studied by Keith Hurley in terms of therapy and learning to adopt and work with roles. Developmental psychology has used the idea of role-taking towards social function. Accustoming oneself to a role is a form of “systematic desenitization”, that can be used in therapy.

Nephew’s finding is that roleplaying enables players to act out their subconscious desires safely through their character’s actions. Characters can be used to explore latent desires that would not be socially acceptable, but these fantasies can be enacted in a social setting through roleplay. “In this chapter I develop the argument that role-playing’s use as a medical therapy underscores the supposition that during an RPG session a player’s character acts as a latent aspect of himself, played out publicly; the role-playing game is a text shaped by unconscious desire.”

Part of this assessment is absolutely true, but the character’s behavior in a game does not need to be necessarily subconscious: Therapy requires a sort of conscious roleplay, and Sherry Turkle would argue that these games allow for an experimentation of identity, where the player may “try-out” roles to incorporate into their own identity. It has been my experience that players who are less-aware of their character’s motivations are generally much less mature, either as players or as people.

Nephew spends more time focusing on the D&D alignment system, expressing that the appeal of such a system reflects the desire for a world where moral dilemmas are much simpler, and can easily be made into black and white. Additionally, in a game with this system, the label of “good” can give a moral blank check to a player, allowing them to commit atrocities and have this be excused through the work of the alignment system.

Additionally, Nephew finds that the standard misogynist portrayal of female characters in fantasy are also used in roleplaying games. Performance and gender relate to the scopophilic desire to objectify others. Playing a female character is not “experiencing as” so much as “posessing”. There are also attempts to defeminize characters, in order to take away the feminine elements that are so objectionable.

Nephew’s research is extremely valuable, and her findings address trends of distressing misogyny that are extremely prevalent through fantasy, gaming, and the geek culture from which roleplaying emerged. However, I am finding myself very defensive, as, while these problems belong to the larger culture of gaming, this does not imply that all gaming must ascribe to these values. In Turkle’s studies of chatroom culture, she found that gender play was about experimentation and not posession. In the age of Second Life and visual representations of characters, the posessive scopophilic desire becomes more pronounced. Roleplaying exists in between these extremes.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorWilliams, Hendricks, Winkler
TitleGaming as Culture
Tagsspecials, roleplaying, sociology, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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