By David Slagle
An array of multicolored dice lay on the table in front of you, serving as makeshift paperweights for the scrawl-ridden sheets of paper that blow in the wind of your friend’s basement ceiling fan. The rainbow of dice colors is matched by the variety of dice shapes. There are run of the mill six-sided dice as well as polyhedral dice, from pyramidal four-sided dice to nearly round twenty-sided dice. You look up from the paraphernalia spread on the table before you. You see your friend across the table, his brows dipped in concentration, half of his lower lip hidden behind his teeth in a display of nervous tension. He raises his eyes and looks straight into your own, then speaks. “Sinder is lying helpless on the stone floor, paralyzed by the lich’s spell. The lich stands above her murmuring in an ancient tongue, his fingers weaving a new spell and his voice cracking with glee at the sight of her blood. The rest of the party huddles in a corner of the crypt, a stone golem menacing them with its massive fists. The rest of the party except for you. You stand ten feet away from Sinder, fifteen from the lich, perhaps the only party member free to stop him from finishing off your friend. It’s your turn in the initiative. What do you do?”
A million thoughts run through your head, a million possible actions, but what you do depends, in part, on who you are. A certain segment of the population would dive right in and roll a d20 to put a crossbow bolt through the lich’s desiccated heart. Yet, if this scene were presented to the vast majority of Americans, there would only be an unending procession of questions, about dice, liches, golems, initiative, even Sinder. What is going on here?
What is going on is a tabletop role-playing game, or RPG for short, and it is ironic that in the age of popular gaming, of Everquest, World of Warcraft, and even Dungeons and Dragons Online, so many people can be so uninformed. Despite this hindrance, on his website devoted to everything RPG, enthusiast John Kim estimates that in 1998 there were 2.5 million monthly tabletop RPG players. As astounding as that number may initially sound, put into context it is paltry–it is less than one percent of the US population. More people vote on American Idol every week than play RPGs. Tabletop RPGs are the pastime of an astounding minority of the US population.
Still, despite their limited appeal, RPGs have been discussed in wider cultural terms since they first emerged from “wargaming” in the 1970s (Williams, Hendricks, and Winkler 1). Though it may be tempting to stigmatize RPGs as “games that dorks play,” given their obscurity and baffling structure, over the years role-playing games have had a suprisingly strong cultural import. In his landmark sociological essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Clifford Geertz observes that seemingly isolated cultural rituals like cockfights can be interpreted in terms of wider culture. Geertz views ritual as a means of expression that can order meaningful themes “into an encompassing structure [and present] them in such a way as to throw into relief a particular view of their essential nature,” and role-playing games are no exception to his observation (386). RPGs are not an isolated trend that can be named, boxed up, and boxed off from the rest of culture. They exist within culture, interplay with it, bring changes and are changed. In their own way, role-playing games are cultural texts that serve as windows into the elusive American character that hides in each of us, primarily through metaphor and functionality. Metaphorically, role-playing games display the fragmentation of American culture through the fragmentation of the player’s personhood, and reinforce aspects of the American Dream. Functionally, tabletop RPGs are social tools, allowing for both “deep play” and “playing at roles,” a fantasy that provides freedom from social barriers.
To analyze such statements, one must further understand what RPGs are. Unfortunately, the rules of RPGs are a stumbling block for many people. Role-playing game creator Paul Elliott reflects, “most people that have had no contact with the roleplaying hobby have tremendous difficulty in visualizing a game without a board, counters, a winner, or a loser.” RPGs are abstract, and though they often have their own systems of representation, such as miniature figurines, for the most part the games remain in the mind’s eye. Such placement means that RPGs are boundless and imagination-fueled; it also means that they are largely inaccessible to a culture weaned on games grounded in boards and icons. This inaccessibility is only compounded by the fact that there is no uniform set of rules that can consistently be used between role-playing games. The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game, for example, takes hundreds of pages of rules to explain. Contrast this with the iconic Dungeons and Dragons version 3.5 whose rules are spread out over dozens of books, from the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook to Heroes of Horror. Rules are not only different from game to game, but they are nearly impossible to describe succinctly.
The irony is that the rules that make RPGs so difficult to comprehend are ultimately not that important. As Paul Elliott observes, “when faced with a game in-play [players] will invariably find it the easiest game in the world to play. This is because only the referee is required to know the rules.” Players simply have to choose an action from their imagination. The individual running the game, referred to by Elliott as the referee, but also known as the Keeper, Gamemaster, or Dungeon Master, must then creatively resolve the action by applying the existing rules. The rules are tools to be used to tell a story, not laws to be rigidly obeyed. It is even understood by the makers of RPGs that Gamemasters (GMs) will tinker with the rules as they see fit. The designers of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game remark, “Every rule you see in this book was written for a reason. That does not mean that you can’t change them for your own game . . . The ability to use the mechanics as you wish is paramount to the way roleplaying games work–providing a framework for you and the players to create a campaign” (245). Since RPGs are not defined by a concrete set of rules, they must be defined in other terms.
Role-playing games are always imagination-seated games in which a group of like-minded individuals gather together to tell a story. One of the individuals agrees to run the game—plotting it, portraying in-game characters, applying the rules to resolve conflict, generally propelling the game forward as GM. The rest of the individuals create characters, from their abilities to their history and personality, and portray these characters by pretending to be them within the story the GM devises. Players can have their characters do anything that pops into their heads as long as it is feasible and reasonable for the character. The GM determines the outcome of player character (PC) and non-player character (NPC) actions through a mixture of game specific rules and homebrewed rules agreed upon ahead of time by the participants. Rules are only important insofar as they help tell the story by determining the outcome of actions and structure play. As for representation and lack of icons, the designers of the Marvel Universe Roleplaying game say it as well as anyone else: “[I]n roleplaying games, you create your own playing piece when you create your own character. You are your character, and playing your character is what the game is all about” (2). Players create characters and portray them within a reality that is created through imagination rather than through game pieces.
In his seminal analysis of cockfighting, Clifford Geertz also initially ignores the rules of cockfighting in order to hone in on a specific type of imagination—metaphor “[M]uch of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men,” Geertz claims (368). Cultural rituals, like RPGs or the Balinese cockfights, stand in as artistic representations of aspects of the culture at large–they “render everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed . . . where meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived”(Geertz 385-86). This assertion is key to Geertz’s belief that ritual serves as a cultural text, a “story [those in a culture] tell themselves about themselves” (Geertz 388). The metaphor of ritual can be read to increase understanding of the values and beliefs of a people, just as a story can be read to better understand a character or an abstract idea. This concept is buttressed by developments in ludology, the study of games. One of the preeminent ludologists of the twenty-first century, Johan Huizinga, holds that “play” is “based on the manipulation of certain images, on a certain ‘imagination’ of reality (i.e. its conversion into images)” (4). To be “playful,” games must embody some cultural truth; ideas of reality are incorporated, or converted into images in games through rules and mechanics, just as reality is converted into images visually in film or through words in literature. Though knowledge of the rules is not necessary to understand RPGs as games, it is vital to decoding how the games function as symbols of culture. In games, the mechanics and rules of play are the building blocks that form the metaphor.
Before honing in on the specific mechanics of RPGs that embody American truths, it is necessary to examine the culture that spawns them. America as a “fragmented” society is key to this examination. Even cursory scrutinization of contemporary media shows a society hopelessly divided into cliques and castes based on everything from political beliefs, money, and physical attractiveness, to common interest in specific diversionary activities. Such division is eminently apparent in media. In an episode of the NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the self-proclaimed liberal creators of the titular comedy show decide to air a sketch called “Crazy Christians,” to the outrage of several conservative Christian groups and small market affiliates. This is but one example of the show’s constant depiction of the Red State-Blue State divide in contemporary America. People define themselves by their moral or political values, group together, and then lash out at the supposed “other,” those of a different political persuasion. The togetherness many Americans felt after the tragedy of September 11th is not apparent in Studio 60’s sermonizing, perhaps because it was an illusion. Political divisiveness–fragmentation–is the modern reality. In film, the 2005 movie Brick ably illustrates the many cliques that form in high schools across America. The film’s loner protagonist, Brendan, must navigate his way through jocks, stoners, drama queens, and toughs to unravel the murder of an ex-girlfriend. High school students are grouped together with like-situated individuals and cut themselves off from those unlike them, as illustrated by the self-imposed segregation of lunch eating areas. The cultural metaphor is all too apparent in these works. America, as a monolithic culture, largely does not exist; individuals will more readily associate themselves with fragmentary groups within specific subcultures.
The trend toward cultural fragmentation and identity adoption is embodied in role-playing games through what sociologist Dennis D. Waskul calls a “bracketing of the person” (26). Just as culture at large is fragmentary and demands individuals adopt an identity, role-playing games require the player to fragment himself, to “bracket” or embody different aspects of identity. Waskul lists three aspects that coexist in the RPG gamer: the persona, or the character each player attempts to embody through role-play; the player, who is the individual who attempts to bring life to the persona and navigates the rules; and the person, the life, experiences, and identity of the individual outside of the game in the everyday world (21).
The mechanics of RPGs necessitate such a division of the self because each identity is needed to play the game. By becoming absorbed in a persona, gamers are absorbed into the fantasy world, deepening the enjoyment of the game. Unfortunately, the gamer cannot remain absorbed in a fantasy world–someone must roll the dice, so to speak, so the gamer must also be a player. Even the person outside of the game is necessary as a foundation for the other two. With no original individual, there would be no persona to slip into or game to play. Yet, gamers must be able to think through a circumstance as a persona, not a player, to “[distinguish] between ‘player knowledge’ and ‘persona knowledge'” (Waskul 29). If they begin to think through the logic of an RPG as a game and try to outsmart the GM, they will inevitably ruin the magical illusion of the jointly created world for themselves and their companions. Such blatant game-playing is referred to in RPG circles as “metagame thinking,” and “should always be discouraged, because it detracts from real roleplaying and spoils the suspension of disbelief” (Slavicsek, Collins, and Wiker 248). For an RPG to function, gamers must be able to “actively establish symbolic boundaries between player, persona, and person and assume the right role in each situation” (Waskul 26). If the wrong bracketed aspect is chosen, the magic of the game will be broken. The “role-playing” required in RPGs is deeper than mere embodiment of a character. Gamers must fragment themselves and constantly shift between the created roles for a role-playing game to function. It is this fragmentation of the gamer that serves as a microcosm of the fragmentation of society.
It would be remiss, however, to quit analysis of cultural fragmentation at these conclusions and imply that both Americans and RPG players remain permanently cemented in their well-defined roles. In truth, Americans rarely adopt only one identity to live by, and are instead a jumble of identities. We present a different mask in different situations, choosing which is appropriate within our bracketed person. We can seem humorous to our friends, boring to our coworkers, sadistic to our lover, and responsible to our parents at the same time. We can be father, son, brother, mother, daughter, and CEO. Both Studio 60 and Brick have their rule-breakers. On Studio 60, the characters of Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes, one a liberal Jew and the other a conservative Christian, have an ongoing flirtation that overshadows their Red State-Blue State bickering. In Brick, Brendan, as an outsider, is still able to move between the various cliques comfortably. In RPGs, too, the boundaries between player, persona, and person seem more permeable than not–the “neat distinctions between person, player, and persona become messy” (Waskul 31). An unnamed RPG player quoted in Waskul’s study further explains, “You can’t say that your PC will never be an extension of yourself because you are playing your character . . . You can never think like the character because the character is you” (qtd. in Waskul 31). The gamer can never truly embody their chosen character because all thoughts and decisions run through the player and person first. The player must rely on educated guesses based on his or her own experience when making decisions as a character–they do not have access to someone else’s thoughts and feelings. In this light, the bracketed person of RPGs is an even more appropriate metaphor for how Americans play at roles. In both reality and RPGs, Americans must choose between bracketed identities, though the lines between them are thin.
Role-playing games also represent aspects of the American Dream, a dream defined by “the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American,” in other words, unhindered social mobility that can be achieved through hard work (“American Dream”). This observation has been made regarding Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. In her study of the online game EverQuest, sociologist T.L. Taylor observes that many players constantly set goals to achieve “which can range from gaining levels to securing particular weapons and armor, killing certain monsters, gaining admission to a specific guild, getting special skills, and exploring difficult zones.” (75). EverQuest players must be willing to suffer through “the grind,” the “experience of going through painfully boring or rote gameplay with slow advancement,” what is essentially work (Taylor 76). If they can make it through boredom-induced blood, sweat, and tears, EverQuest players can achieve the Norrathian Dream—the next level, the next ability, new armor, etc. All goals are achievable as long as players have a strong willingness to work.
Tabletop role-playing games, in their own way, afford just as many possibilities for player advancement as their digital cousins. The Star Wars Roleplaying Game, for example, utilizes a leveling system where “[c]haracters generally begin play at 1st level and attain additional levels as they complete adventures” (Slavicsek, Collins, and Wiker 9). The leveling system of the Star Wars RPG is perhaps one of the most integral aspects of the game. As players overcome obstacles, they gain experience, both literally and figuratively. Literally, the player is constantly being instructed about the game world and plot by the GM through the advancement of the adventure. Figuratively the Star Wars RPG assigns a certain number of “experience points” to different challenges, such as defeating enemies and progressing the storyline. In other words, players gain experience in the form of points, and as players gain points, their characters progress in power. As the players increase in power, so do their weapons, armor, and magic.
The question of how such mechanics function metaphorically remains to be seen. Here, it is most telling to contrast tabletop RPGs with online RPGs. Online role-playing games, such as EverQuest, focus on hard work—again, grind is the operable term. Playing the game can become akin to a second job, sometimes even a second and third. An anonymous former guild leader in the game World of Warcraft says as much, reflecting after leaving the game that any “‘good guildie’ [must play] about 10 hours a day and seven days a week. Yes, that’s almost two full-time jobs.” The mechanics of leveling and character progression tend to emphasize the hard work aspect of the American Dream. The only way to progress is to mindlessly kill creatures in the game world for hours on end. Tabletop role-playing games, on the other hand, tie character advancement into progression of the story and other coherent experiences. Tabletop RPG leveling is centered in narrative. This echoes the fact that the American Dream itself is often narrative. On January 10th, 2006, The New York Times ran a piece telling the story of a former cabdriver who struck it rich in Russian oil and American real estate. It is but one of many “rags-to-riches” stories Americans tell to celebrate the American Dream. In a way, the American Dream is a giant collection of these rags-to-riches tales. Tabletop role-playing games metaphorically reveal how we often form narratives out of our experiences, narratives with a beginning point and an end point. We see our experiences as making us who we are, paralleling with the concept that the experience points we gain in the Star Wars RPG shape our status. RPGs consist of numerous ongoing rags-to-riches tales, a progression of fortune based on the progression of plot.
The metaphors of role-playing games, as complex as such ideas can be, are ultimately only a starting point for an in-depth cultural discussion. Going back to Clifford Geertz, it is possible to see that rituals often do more than merely represent culture. They can also be “positive agents in the creation and maintenance of [cultural] sensibilit[ies]” (Geertz 391). Rituals enforce their metaphors within culture. They have a certain functionality as cultural texts. Indeed, in many ways, role-playing games reinforce fragmentation and ideas of the American Dream.
In his essay “The Business and Culture of Gaming,” game industry veteran W. Keith Winkler reflects that the players of tabletop role-playing games make up their own distinct subculture: the gamer or gamer-geek subculture (146). The gamer/gamer-geek subculture is a true division of cultural mores, and is segregated from culture at large through “modes of dress, specific linguistic jargon, and a sense of solidarity” (Winkler 147). In other words, like the stoners of Brick or the conservative Christians of Studio 60, gamers and gamer-geeks can be identified by certain characteristics that they embrace at the expense of those of other groups. These characteristics not only identify them, but serve as almost purposeful barriers to integration or communication with those outside of the group. A gamer can understand talk of NPCs, buffs, armor class, saving throws, initiative, even liches and golems–a non-gamer cannot. The phenomenon of subcultural identification may be due, in part, to that fact that like Geertz’s Balinese cockfight, role-playing games are a focused gathering, “a set of persons engrossed in a common flow of activity and relating to one another in terms of that flow” (Geertz 373). Gamers come to view their focused gathering as a permanent arrangement.
Even outside of the ceremony of the role-playing game, they seek to gather and identify with likeminded individuals. The sense of commonality and shared history created by role-playing games in the focused gathering bleeds into the outside world. The bonds that form between gamers and gamer-geeks are perhaps made even stronger by their comparative scarcity as a social group. Only around 2.5 million people play such games after all. Functionally, then, role-playing games provide common ground for the creation of a fragmentary cultural group, the very trend they draw out metaphorically.
Role-playing games also functionally enforce personal fragmentation. In her essay “Playing With Identity: Unconscious Desire in Role-Playing Games,” Michelle Nephew asserts that in RPGs “the player’s unconscious desires are allowed to become manifest in the role taken, since the persona of the character allows the player a disguise behind which to hide” (122). This observation is similar to Waskul’s caveat that the portrayed character is never truly separate from player and person. However, Nephew’s analysis focuses more on how RPGs facilitate misogyny and violence. In doing so, Nephew neglects to note that such a disguise can also function positively in gamers’ lives. Identity is fragmented and broken in the modern world. Individuals often must define themselves according to the desires of others. By hiding behind a disguise, gamers are allowed to express fragments of themselves that they normally must hide from others. The small dweeb who is constantly picked on in class yet always turns the other cheek, for example, can release his pent up energy and desire for violence by creating a sadistic barbarian to play in Dungeons and Dragons. A dweeb can be a bully, even if he would never be accepted as a bully in a social clique. Such release must be viewed as therapeutic, and is preferable to a similar outburst in the real world. There is no conspiracy to play immoral characters either. Many gamers and GMs attempt to grapple with ideas of morality in more sophisticated ways than black and white notions of good and evil. disguises allow gamers to explore subconscious aspects of themselves, as well as issues of morality, without the embarrassment of their actions being associated with them as a person.
Finally, role-playing games function culturally as simulated deep play. This idea can also be tied back into Geertz’s examination of the Balinese cockfight. In his essay, Geertz defines deep play as “play in which the stakes are so high that it is . . . irrational for men to engage in it at all” (Geertz 378). It is rollerball, sky diving, or playing poker with one’s wedding ring as collateral. Geertzís unique twist was to view deep play in a positive light, as a tool for “increas[ing] the meaningfulness of it all” (Geertz 379). High stakes, in Geertz’s view, translate into deep meaning. Deep play is a form of catharsis, embodying horrible aspects of reality such as poverty, pain, or death, making them conquerable through the rules of a game. In role-playing games, the stakes could not be higher–with every decision, the character’s life and well-being are at stake. But the player’s is not. Role-playing games simulate deep play by allowing the player to feel as if the fate of his life, maybe even the world, is in his hands, while at the same time cruelly withholding the ability to resolve said fates from the player. Players of the Marvel Universe RPG cannot control how many stones the enemy allocates to his attack, just as players of Dungeons and Dragons cannot control the role of the dice that may save their character’s life. Role-playing games are high stake gambling removed one degree away from the gambler, yet if the player has embodied his persona adequately and has mentally merged with the game world, the experience will still have a sense of intensity and immediacy. RPGs have the potential to put people in the position where all possibilities are endless so long as you are willing to risk everything, including your life, all while remaining in the comfort of your friend’s basement.
For all these years, scholars and cultural critics believed that role-playing game players were immersing themselves in fantasy realms, escaping to the worlds of Star Wars, Marvel Comics, dungeons, dragons, and gamer-dorks. On the surface, the observation holds true. But at a deeper level, role-playing games are about more than fantasy settings and gameplay mechanics. Even as RPG players escape into the impossible worlds of their imaginations, they tell stories about another world, one where identity is fragmented and the American Dream is celebrated. That world, of course, is our world, and even if you do not know what a lich is, or which dice to roll for a fortitude save, the story is about you.
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