Archive: September 1st, 2008

Gary Alan Fine: Shared Fantasy

[Readings] (09.01.08, 9:04 pm)


Fine’s book is one of the first seminal studies of the culture of roleplaying games. The work is conducted as an ethnography, and was probably the original study to examine roleplaying as a legitimate culture. The content of the investigation explores the social structure, the creation of meaning, the frames of interaction, and the types of people who enjoy these games. The study was conducted in the 1970s, and as a result, much of the culture seems very alien and peculiar, especially to one familiar with roleplaying only in relatively recent times (in my own experience, since the late 1990s). I find that much of the hidden potential that Fine hints at has come to some fruition, though not completely.


Fine is a sociologist and this work is an ethnography. Note the goals here: “First, to analyze and describe a contemporary urban leisure subculture. Second, to understand the the development and components of microcultural systems and explore their relationships to the structure of the groups in which they are embedded. Third, to understand the process by which people generate meanings and identities in social worlds.” (p. 1) This last point is the most remarkable about roleplaying, but to get at it, it is necessary to delve into the structure and form of the games and the culture that plays them.

From the preface, Fine describes an interesting conflict in the study: balancing work and play. One one hand, studying a leisure culture might be considered frivolous to those who consider themselves serious sociologists, and conversely, the culture itself may find that the formal study serves to sap the fun or lightness out of the play in question. The success of the study depends on the ability to navigate between these conflicting perspectives. The concern is also particularly relevant to those of us studying video games.

Fine also begins by looking at the history of roleplaying, specifically by investigating war games and the culture that surrounds them. War games connect to simulation games, which, in this context, are frequently used as educational or management tools. The role of simulation games is to encourage the players to see things in terms of positions, not persons. This distinction carries over to the abstract function of player versus character.

On exploring player culture and the role of violence and sublimated aggression within the games: Fine describes a number of situations where players partake and glorify violence in game, but these behaviors are also blanketed with excuses. Some excuse violence by arguing that the game allows the players to simulate and get their hostilities and aggression out within the context of the game. Gary Gygax argues (from an interview) that players, having played these games, know better what violence and war is about, and would thus consider real violence unacceptable. This thread is notable because it compares again to the arguments for and against violent video games.

There is a note on the common interests of the roleplaying community, and Fine describes these as the components of fantasy role-playing gaming. This resounds with Mackay’s findings as well. There is a list of bullet points of interests which are described as relevant: wargaming, fantasy literature, mythology, history, physical science, mysticism, Society for Creative Anachronism experience. A thing to note about these is that many of them are focused around the ideas of model-construction.

On reasons why people play games: there is a large category which is escapism. One of the special items in this category is the idea of escape from self. This idea connects to role-experimentation and identity play that is discussed by Turkle.

Fine also notes, with continuing discomfort, the notable absence of women from fantasy role-playing culture. One note is that women tend towards social settings in play, so, while role-playing would seem to be a natural passtime for female players, there is an emphasis that role-playing is a sublimation of aggressive physical play, which is a sterotypically male developmental pattern.

On the nature of the constructed fantasy in these worlds, Fine notes that there are several “folk ideas” or values that are present or embedded in game worlds:

  • Unlimited good. This goodness is in the sense of material or other rewards. There is always infinite possibility for reward in dungeons.
  • Oppositional nature of the world. The worlds are framed in the context of good versus evil in clear and stark terms.
  • Western morality and culture is identified as good, whereas anything else that is deviant or outside can be cast as evil.
  • Prevailing virtue of courage. Courageous behavior is met with increased rewards. Luck is seen as part of it, but success is rationalized with courage.

There is a paradox of reason and logic in fantasy worlds. Fine discusses several layers of logicality: there is realism, where the game is held to certain standards of realistic logic. The example given with this is in the portrayal of medieval worlds. Logic tends to relate to the coherence of the game according to its rules and logical flow. The primary issue at stake is consistency. As long as the realism and logic are consistent, then the game flows appropriately and is not frustrating to the players.

Description of the world setting: The Empire of the Petal Throne, by M. A. R. Barker. The appeal of this setting, as described by Fine seems to be the discovery of the exoticism of the alien world. The appeal of this seems like a social MMOG, where there is a whole culture to learn and be fascinated and surprised by.

Fine references Erving Goffman’s technique of Frame Analysis to examine the styles of interpersonal interaction within the roleplaying games. He also references Alfred Schutz. The essential aspect at stake in this analysis is the idea of engrossment. A frame is a level of interaction in which there is sufficient engrossment. However, the difference between Goffman’s frame analysis and what is conducted in role-playing games is that the engrossment is continually oscillating in the games.

Frames become relevant in managing knowledge. An example given is how game masters aim to keep things secret from the players, to enforce that their characters will remain ignorant, and the players will have the same knowledge as their characters according to a given scenario. Occasionally, GMs try to conceal the rules (specifically numeric probabilities and the statistics of monsters), so that players will not know what to expect. “Some referees extend their concern with the degree of players’ awareness and suggest that, as in ‘real life,’ characters should not know the probabilities in the game world (the rules of the game with their percentages of success). This secretiveness–keeping the player ignorant so that his character will be ignorant–adds to the verisimilitude of the simulation according to some referees.” (p. 191)

On playing characters, there is stress between role-playing and game-playing. This relates to immersion and motivation. When compared to later studies (especially Mackay), the position of pure game-playing seems much more accepted here. Game playing treats the experience as having concrete goals, so the play can be directed around achieving, sometimes even competitively, those goals. This ties back into the way that digital role-playing games, specifically MMORPGs function. In these contexts, the fantasy is a backdrop for the game itself.

Fantasy role-playing games involve a communal construction of culture. Symbolic interaction enables the construction of meaning. The worlds are socially constructed, which means that themes and values are shared by the culture. In personal fantasy, the themes may be idiosyncratic, but in a social construction, the values have been established and are enacted by the group, and the fantasy thus becomes a shared creation. Other social groups construct meaning, but in role-playing the value is fantastic, imaginary, and explicitly formed.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFine, Gary Alan
TitleShared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds
Tagsdigital media, games, roleplaying, specials, sociology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon