Shared Fantasy

Just finished reading Gary Alan Fine’s 1983 “Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds” and thought it’d be useful to jot down some thoughts.

The book is a sociologist’s “participation observation study” in which Fine joined a gaming club and played in four different RPG campaigns including Traveller, D&D, Chivalry & Sorcery, and Empire of the Petal Throne – the latter run by Professor Barker himself, the creator of Tekumel.

It’s an academic read and at times a bit heavy but overall very enjoyable. Fine reveals the subculture of roleplaying gaming in the early 1980s and, frankly, I found it quite disturbing at times. The casual sexualisation of women and the intense interpersonal relationships of the male-dominated early American RPG scene was quite alien to me.

Putting all the dated references aside, I was first transported inside the early hobby and reminded of many details from my own gaming here in the UK. We were decidedly less violent and rape was never a feature of the games I played, so in this respect British gaming seems somewhat more refined. That said, I was reminded of the attitude of older gamers who – when I was myself about 12 years old – would dismiss us as “munchkins”.

Of more use were Fine’s theories around role-playing and the idea of shared fantasy. He constructs a strong case for the idea that roleplaying games generate their own social worlds and he clearly articulates the value of fantasy in wider culture. Fine seems to feel that roleplaying games have more to offer sociologists and psychologists than was considered acceptable at the time.

I enjoyed the journey into Professor Barker’s Tekumel – a game I have never explored – and was deeply affected by the reports of much deeper roleplaying associated with this and the Chivalry & Sorcery games described. Fine is quick to delineate roleplaying – the framing of a persona – from acting and in this I felt a strong affinity with my own approaches to play. Suffice it to say that those who have dismissed this distinction as mere semantics are proven incorrect.

In the last section I found the greatest fruit: Chapter Seven, “Role-playing and Person-playing” was the most revealing part but it makes sense only in the light of the earlier sections of the book. Here Fine explores gaming as an extension of self, different modes for creating character personas, and discusses the balance of role involvement and role distance. I found myself thinking deeply about the possibilities for play that I have tended to avoid or find others disinterested in exploring.

It’s an old book in a 2002 reprint but there is much to discover within the pages. That said, it’s not an easy nor a light read and some gamers would probably find it overly technical. If you enjoy theory and want to get a sociologist’s albeit dated view on the hobby, give it a go. Be warned, however: the players of the era Fine encountered include a hefty bunch of dickish brutes and there are moments when I wanted to throw the book across the room.

Game on!

One comment

  1. I need to search this out. My first degree is in psychology and sociology and I find participant observation fascinating (if troubling as a methodology). I suspect that the misogyny relates to 80s male culture as much as roleplaying, in that any study of male dominated hobbies of the period would uncover the same attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

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