The RPG Course – Lecture Five

I’m catching up! Lectures six and seven are tomorrow and the day after, though, and then it’s a wrap. I expect to post about the Praedor session I ran sometime next week, and will be wrapping up with a post about the games of the course.

This lecture was about the history of RPGs, and probably held the least new material for me. I’ve written one myself, and know the legends in greater detail than they had time to present us. They also gave us a history of Dungeons & Dragons as a case study. I’ve written one of those as well (Neither one of these was listed as a source, likely for many reasons including that they are not very well sourced. I would have laughed for a week.). It’s the old yarn, Arneson, Gygax, Chainmail, Dungeons & Dragons, woodgrain box, and so forth. Look it up on Wikipedia, they’ve got a decent article (indeed, apparently that one was used as a source).

Of course, it is not an entirely accurate one. I don’t think anyone has conducted a rigorous historical study of the topic, and then there’s all that stuff that came before Dungeons & Dragons. The lecturers gave us examples such as Pharaoh Senusret III’s games at Abydos, and the naumachiae of Ancient Rome. I could add certain religious rituals in some tribal cultures, where members of standing in the tribe took on the roles of the tribe’s gods. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart depicts several such rituals among the Ibo people.

Then they pointed out that the act of taking on a role, pretending to be someone else, is universal among human beings and children learn it at an early age.

We also went over the 1980’s moral panic about Dungeons & Dragons, with Pat Pulling and Mazes & Monsters, of which clips were shown. Yeah, Mazes & Monsters as lecture material. I ordered the DVD from the very next day, and expect it to be magnificently hideous. Interestingly, my fellow RPG blogger Sami Koponen over at Mythopoeia recently started dissecting Pulling’s book, making surprising finds and casting doubt on the generally accepted view that she was a fanatic. Unfortunately, he posts in Finnish, and is apparently using a Finnish translation that is not entirely faithful to the original, The Devil’s Web. The Finnish version also includes a chapter on Satan-worship in Finland, which is less than objective. Might be an interesting read, that. Especially when compared with The Pulling Report, by Michael Stackpole. I’d also be interested in comparing the translation with the original.

Following these was the brief history of virtual roleplaying games, from MUDs to Second Life.

We were also given a brief glimpse of the Czechoslovakian LARP scene, which had evolved behind the Iron Curtain with little to no influence from the west. The government considered larping subversive, and the games were more or less secret, out of the way, and little documented. What documentation there is is in Czech, which makes the researcher’s job a bit difficult.

We also got a history of roleplaying games in Finland. I’ve written one of these as well, though it’s admittedly not very good.

Possibly the most interesting part of the lecture was the development of gamers’ self-understanding. The development of terminology and slang, the switch from mere dungeon crawling to playing the role, and so forth. Here they also trotted out the gamer typologies such as the GNS, though neglecting to mention Real Men, Real Roleplayers, Loonies and Munchkins.

Finally, there is the problem of studying and documenting RPGs. A roleplaying game session can’t be studied after the fact because you cannot possibly have all the data. An audio tape and even a detailed transcript cannot reveal where people are looking and how they are acting. A video would, but even in the best-case scenario, you can’t get inside the minds of the players, to determine the invisible content of the game. You can’t record the game, merely the act of playing.

From that and the economic insignificance of RPGs it follows that not much research has been done. They could fit the full list of all academic RPG critique, designer reports and studies on a single slide. Additionally, new theoretical tools need to be created since the player is not the audience and the traditional theories from theatre, movie or even digital gaming studies cannot be directly applied.

Additionally, following an RPG session as audience isn’t very fruitful, and in the case of any LARP taking place in a space bigger than a few rooms, impossible. To properly study an RPG, the researcher must participate in it, and that explosion you just heard was the concept of academic detachment imploding. Also, much like in quantum mechanics, it is not possible to observe the system without changing the system.

Every time you observe a roleplaying game, Schrödinger kills a kitten?

Next lecture, pervasive larping.

6 thoughts on “The RPG Course – Lecture Five

  1. I think at least some people doing anthropology, if not all or majority of them, have this thing for participating in the life of the people they are studying.

  2. And it is also a very common method of study in social sciences in general, commonly called participant observation.

  3. Many of the key works in tabletop rpg research have been made precisely by playing and then analyzing that play, and approved by academics. Good examples include of course the seminal Fine, as well as Hendricks, Lacy and Kellomäki

  4. I assume you have already watched the Mazes & Monsters? I have always thought of it as kind of bland made for tv-drama instead of the vicious attack on gamerdom that it is often portrayed as. (Though it is still stupid movie filled with hammy acting.)

  5. Not yet, been a bit busy and haven’t had the correct mix of friends, beer and time to make it happen. I’ll see if I can manage it over the Christmas break.

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