What’s Up, Doc? – Role-Playing in Academia

This has shaped up to be an interesting year from a role-playing game studies point of view. There was the Role-Play in Games seminar back in spring, Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania came out, and most recently, last Saturday, Markus Montola defended (with distinction!) his doctoral dissertation on role-playing games. The dissertation, titled On the Edge of the Magic Circle: Understanding Role-Playing and Pervasive Games, and is available as a free download, because that’s the proper way of doing science.

My long-time reader will remember Markus Montola as one of the two men behind the role-playing games studies course that I reported extensively on back in 2009. Indeed, many of the theories and even specific examples in the dissertation were familiar to me from the course.

Doctoral dissertations tend to be fairly heavy stuff and I once sat through a two-hour dissertation defence that was utterly incomprehensible to me – and that was in my own field. However, Markus has managed to keep his text intelligible even to the well-read layperson. (In the end, my background is in philology and linguistics, while the dissertation’s angle of approach is mostly sociological.)

I can’t give much of a description of the actual dissertation defence, since it’s already been nearly a week and I don’t trust my brain to be able to reconstruct an intense, fast-paced and theoretical discussion between Markus and Professor Mary Flanagan, who they flew in from Dartmouth for the event. Mostly, I remember some slides of Flanagan’s one of which showed the field of prominent game researchers as a series of blue orbs. Top left, Caesar; top right, Aristotle. In the middle, names like Huizinga, Caillois, Goffman, Salen & Zimmerman, Fine, Juul, Mortensen, Stenros… and at centre bottom, in a red orb, Montola. This was quickly dubbed as “the Montola V-model” during the break. The other thing I remember was the final slide, which featured, among other things, me:

Well, there’s also Markus. It’s Rafael Bienia’s group shot from the Role-Play in Games seminar. (I’m the one with the tam-o’-shanter, front right. Markus is almost directly above me, the bespectacled gentleman with the arrow necklace.)

I was amused.

The thesis itself, then… Well, I’ll be cheap and quote the abstract:

On the Edge of the Magic Circle studies two threads of contemporary western gaming culture: Role-playing and pervasive games. Recreational role-playing includes forms such as tabletop role-playing games, larps and online role-playing games, while pervasive games range from treasure hunts to alternate reality games. A discussion on pervasive role-playing connects these strands together.The work has four larger research goals. First, to establish a conceptual framework for understanding role-playing in games. Second, to establish a conceptual framework for understanding pervasive games. Third, to explore the expressive potential of pervasive games through prototypes. And fourth, to establish a theoretical foundation for the study of ephemeral games.The central outcome of the work is a theory complex that explains and defines role-playing and pervasive gaming, and allows them to be understood in the context of the recent discussion in game studies.In order to understand these two borderline cases of games, the work establishes a theoretical foundation that highlights gameplay as a social process. This foundation combines the weak social constructionism of John R. Searle with the recent game studies scholarship from authors such as Jesper Juul, Jane McGonigal, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.

It is comprised of a 160-page dissertation proper, which is followed by seven articles previously published in different places, such as the International Journal of Role-Playing. It begins by a long discussion defining terms such as “game”, “rules” and “play”. They may feel obvious, but there’s been a long debate on whether role-playing games are games at all or something else entirely. The question of what are rules may also seem intuitive, but even they come in many guises (Petri Lankoski summarizes Montola’s rules typology on his own blog). There are also less obvious key concepts such as the magic circle of play, the agreed-upon boundaries of the game, such as who’s playing, how long the game lasts and what is the play area. This becomes a very interesting concept when considering pervasive games, which are pretty much defined as games that stretch, bend or break those three boundaries.

Another key concept is diegesis, that which is real within the world of the game. The concept was appropriated from film studies, originally, and the classic example is film music. Most of the time, film music is non-diegetic – it’s there to build the atmosphere of the film and the characters in the film do not hear it. Indiana Jones doesn’t hear the classic John Williams tune every time he kicks some Nazi ass. However, “Anything Goes” was performed by a character within the film – it is diegetic.

The discussion on diegesis, amusingly, is illustrated with some photoshopped artwork from Knights of the Dinner Table, where the characters try to construct an equifinal diegesis. There usually being more than one person in a role-playing game session, there will also be more than one diegesis, and the players and GM must negotiate until all of them have roughly the same idea of what’s what and who’s where in the game world – equifinality. Things get difficult if people have strongly differing ideas of what’s happening.

A third key concept I’d like to highlight is ephemerality, a quality of games that makes them challenging to study. Once a game is over, it’s gone. You can document a lot – video the proceedings, record discussion, get detailed debriefs from all participants, but you can never recreate the game exactly, since you can’t peek within the heads of the players and access their experience of the game as it unfolds. This ties in with the idea of the first-person audience. The players themselves are their own audience, since so much of the game happens in their minds. This was illustrated by Montola during his lectio as (and I’m paraphrasing here) “If I were roleplaying now, I’d be my own audience, getting the experience of giving this speech, and the audience would be here to get the experience of being the audience.”

A lot of the discussion is centred on the Prosopopeia larps, two pervasive prototype larps that were run in Stockholm. The first was 52 hours, the second lasted for weeks. They blurred the magic circle in interesting ways and seem to have been fascinating games in their own right. The 2006 Knudepunkt book Role, Play, Art has an interesting article on the first game, by the way, and there are a couple more about the second game in Lifelike.

I can recommend reading the dissertation, if this stuff seems at all interesting (or understandable). Remarkably, we’re less than a month away from second RPG thesis defence, to occur on October 18th, when J. Tuomas Harviainen (the shaven-headed gentleman just behind Montola in the above photo) defends Systemic Perspectives on Information in Physically Performed Role-Play, which has a terribly intimidating title. I haven’t dared delve any further in yet. I will probably have a post up once the defence is over and done with, but I have to warn you that it may just be “herp derp” and a selection of the best lolcats on Facebook that day, since I don’t have too high hopes of actually understanding most of the content. (Given time, I probably could, but my workload this autumn is so massive it threatens to implode on itself. This will be reflected on my update rate, and I apologize.)

Now, to go and figure out how I can use this stuff in my Experience of Horror essay…


3 thoughts on “What’s Up, Doc? – Role-Playing in Academia

  1. OMG! Whereas, once upon a time, we were belittled, berated and told to “Grow Up!” for gaming past a certain age, now we can actually get Ph.D.s for writing dissertations about gaming!

    This I have GOT to read for myself. ROFL

  2. pervasive larps make fun reading but from point of taple-top rpg are really just artsy-shite. Scholastics of course can find much to study from them

  3. Pingback: BDSM Role-Playing and Librarians « Worlds in a Handful of Dice

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