In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The ninth interview is with sociologist Katherine Castiello Jones. She wrote “Gary Alan Fine Revisited: RPG Research in the 21st Century.” In the article, she examines Fine’s Shared Fantasy study on the basis of contemporary cultural sociology, arguing for a conditional reading of his influential findings. She levels a critique at scholars who do not historicize Fine while also expanding on several under- appreciated aspects of his work, such as comparisons of gaming with broader leisure cultures.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – In what context is Gary Alan Fine usually cited in most game scholarship? How would you recommend we use his work instead?

Katherine Castiello Jones – Often Fine’s work is used to justify game scholarship. As an academic who studied role-playing games, Gary Alan Fine provides legitimacy to the scholarship that follows. While it seems that Fine is often cited as a “game scholar,” being one of the first academics to publish a book on the topic, within sociology Gary Alan Fine is better known for his cultural scholarship, particularly his study of small groups. Fine has published on a variety of cultural activities: mushroom hunting, high-school debate, restaurant workers and most recently he’s focused on the study of rumors. He’s been quoted saying the following about his work:

My central research and writing focus is on the relationship between culture and social culture. This interest informs all of my writing from my study of Little League baseball to that of rumor to that of fantasy games. The question I ask is how is expressive culture shaped by the social system in which we all live and how does this social system affect the culture that we create and that we participate in. I examine the way in which small groups affect and give meaning to our shared experiences.

Fine’s wider research focus is linked to my own research interest in role-playing games. RPGs are an ideal location to study the interactions between expressive culture and social systems. RPG groups also provide an interesting location to examine small group interaction and shared experiences.

While Fine’s research on role-playing is interesting in what it tells us about role-playing specifically (and at this point it is really a historical document that tells us what role-playing was like in the early days of the hobby), it also speaks to questions beyond role-playing. I would really like to see game scholarship engage with these wider issues. As a sociologist, I am interested in exploring more general social processes and systems—I think game scholarship could provide a valuable contribution to that and would like to see more game scholarship address areas of interest beyond simply the games themselves. Gary Alan Fine’s body of work provides a way to link role-playing to larger questions about social systems and culture. Rather than focusing solely on his study of role-playing games, scholars might want to take a look at some of his other work. What larger questions has he examined that role-playing games could help answer?

ET – Sociology and other disciplines are concerned with issues of social inequality along race, class, sexuality and gender lines. How might we better understand these issues’ impact on wider gaming culture?

KCJ – Role-playing games and groups do not exist in a vacuum. The people that write and play RPGs are still part of the larger culture, one in which inequalities along the lines of race, class, sexuality and gender do exist. While it seems that some people expect fantasy settings to allow us to transcend social relations, this is not the case. As Gary Alan Fine argues, social systems will impact the culture which we create and in which we participate.

Ideologies about race, class, gender, sexuality, etc are often so deeply ingrained in our culture as to be invisible. Often well-intentioned game creators or players will reproduce these inequalities without realizing it. Certain taken-for-granted assumptions–such as the idea of Races with particular skills or weaknesses in many game systems—reify categories of difference or “otherness” in ways that may not be consciously racist, but serve to maintain particular understandings of race, gender, etc. Interactions within gaming groups or at gaming conventions may also serve to reinforce these differences and hierarchies.

This is not to say that I don’t believe RPGs can be used to challenge some of these inequalities, I definitely feel that role-playing games have the potential to be a force for social change.  And there are certainly games and groups that have taken up this challenge successfully.

There does need to be a more conscious discussion and examination of these issues, however. There has been a lot of recent activity on various online forums that has dealt with this aspect of the subculture, particularly around issues of gender and race. The blog Gaming As Women has really been useful in raising consciousness and opening up spaces to discuss these issues.

As has been made clear by these discussions, being a progressive person who doesn’t personally hold racist or sexist views is not enough to challenge social systems. Conscious effort needs to be put into making role-playing games more diverse and making the subculture more welcoming to different folks. It won’t always be easy to make these changes, the process of recognizing inequality is not necessarily fun, people will make mistakes and may often feel uncomfortable. Yet to continue to maintain the myth that RPGs are open to everyone and welcoming to everyone, while refusing to recognize existing inequalities, does a disservice to the RPG community. I definitely think the first step is recognition, which is already taking place, and then creators and players can more effectively work to create fantasies that are not only more diverse but that may potentially challenge inequalities.

ET  – If you had to use a game to teach cultural sociology, what would that game be and why?

KCJ – Well that depends – cultural sociology is a pretty broad topic, so I think it differs depending on what aspect of cultural sociology I was attempting to teach. One version of culture focuses on culture as shared repertoires of action, shared orientations to the world, shared common sense. In that sense all games can be great examples of culture. A popular game used in Intro Sociology classes is Monopoly, because you can break down the actions encouraged by the game, the way the game orients you towards the world, the shared beliefs and values that are perpetuated when you play the game. But even more complex games: computer games, tabletop RPGs and live-action RPGs, are built on these shared actions, orientations and common sense. The beauty of using games to examine culture is that most games have explicit rules you can analyze about how players should be behave, actions that are prohibited, beliefs of the world, and so forth that are often much harder to explore in “real world” cultures and societies.

ET – What is the reading list of books that game researchers should be reading but aren’t?

KCJ – It would be a reading list that focuses on sociology of culture. As I mentioned earlier, this is a vast field, so I’m highlighting works that are either a useful background or seem the most applicable to game research.

For information on distinctions and symbolic boundaries, Pierre Bourdieu and Michèle Lamont are two important authors. Bourdieu’s work Distinction can be intense to go through but his theories on habitus and cultural distinction are useful when thinking about how culture is used to create distinctions and hierarchies.

Howard Becker’s Art Worlds is a contemporary classic in the “production of culture” vein. Becker looks beyond the artist to see how suppliers, performers, dealers, critics, and consumers all contribution to the production of a work of art.

Ann Swidler’s book Talk of Love is another important work. She looks at how culture influences action. Focusing on how Americans talk about love, she examines how individuals can hold different orientations and common sense understandings of the world, often simultaneously.

Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” from The Interpretation of Cultures should also be read. This is a classic in the sociology of culture, and a good introduction to theories of culture.

Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style is also important. Though he focuses on punks and other youth movements in Britain, his larger conclusions can be usefully applied and expanded by looking at gaming subcultures.

Lyn Spillman’s Cultural Sociology is a great introductory resource. You’ll get readings from a lot of the big names in cultural sociology along with an introduction to some of the main themes within the sociology of culture. Very useful if you want to get an overview of cultural sociology and makes links to gaming research.

For another take on small group interaction, Elusive Togetherness by Paul Lichterman has some interesting perspectives. He examines cultures of interaction within church groups that enable some actions while preventing others. Definitely applicable when looking at gaming groups or other locations of small group interaction.

I really think more game researchers should think about gaming, particularly RPGs or live-action role-playing, as a serious leisure activity. The serious leisure perspective distinguishes some hobbies and activities by the intense investment of time, money and effort practiced by their participants.Unfortunately there haven’t been a lot of books published, most of the work is only available in academic journals or as dissertations. There is a website devoted to the Serious Leisure Perspective ( that provides a good overview of the perspective along with a bibliography and a digital library.


Katherine Castiello Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology (researching three American groups promoting abstinence until marriage) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from which she has a graduate certificate in advanced feminist studies. Her article “The Possibilities Are Endless: Creating New Worlds in an All-Woman Game” is in the August 2010 RPGirl zine. Her research interests include culture, gender and sexualities.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

Gedankenspiel II: The iPhone

September 18, 2012

How ephemeral is that which we type with our thumbs?

And if it’s so ephemeral, why do we commit so many moments of our limited lives to entering such text?

Importance itself, so it seems, has been awarded too much importance.

Ever wonder how, for example, Coca-Cola possesses so much clout in the world? Remember that their chief product is a sugary beverage that contributes little to human well-being and much to tooth decay and diabetes.

Coca-Cola gained its power by cornering the market on triviality.

Or in other words: in a system that privileges exchange-value, the winners are those who maximize this aspect of their product regardless of its use-value. Expenditures that might’ve been made to increase a trivial product’s use-value to the broadest possible demographic (I.e. making Coke products healthier) instead endeavor to increase the exchange-value in the minds of the target demographic. Triviality itself – the communication of Coke as a leisure product – becomes an asset in maintaining this exchange-value. And so the trivial takes on the thickness of hardened clay, a coldness worthy of finance capital’s indifferent gaze.

The heavy attention traffic flowing through the weightless center confers upon it the illusion of weight. Partaking in this illusion activates us, stimulates our social and sensorial instincts. We drink our Coca-Cola, tap out our messages with our thumbs, post on Facebook, precisely because the stakes on such activities have been set so low for us. The paradoxical effect of our involvement actually investing these trivial products with meaning does not become visible at the moment of contact, but only afterwards as metrics.

One spends 2 hours a day “on” Facebook.

One drinks 2-3 Cokes per week.

One taps out a single message on an iPhone over the course of 45 minutes.

Numbers heavy as lead, for an activity light as air.

Sent from my iPhone

Gedankenspiel I: The Pen

September 13, 2012


[I have written a series of blog posts on paper entitled “Gedankenspiel” that I am entering verbatim into WordPress. The thought is that I write differently by hand than via computer.]


The pen is not only mightier than the sword, it’s mightier than the COMPUTER.

When I confront my students with the task of research, I usually present to them their mightiest tool:

the pen.

Why this, in an age of smartphones, micro-cameras and ubiquitous information?

First of all, information is neither neutral nor ubiquitous.

It is invested, complicit, contextual, and throttled.

Invested, in that powerful interests support only certain information flows

Complicit, because the flows themselves impact the information available (McLuhan, Kittler)

Contextual, in that it cannot convey but a partial view of the given story


Throttled, because access even to the permitted information is part of someone’s profit model

You use your pen to invest in your own, simple information flow

The pen allows us to be selective about reality, because we by nature have to be.

No circuitboards or touch screens or operating systems stand between us and the comparatively simple algorithms of writing.

Pens afford a mastery over language, which is itself not only a means to power over others, but also over one’s own thoughts.

Should our notebooks be set alight, our memories, narratives and control over them blown away as ashes into the wind, then we shall use our pens to once again inscribe power – via the written word and image – into the personal realities we perceive.

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The eighth interview is with myself, Evan Torner, conducted by my co-editor Bill White. In addition to co-editing the book and the introduction, I also wrote a chapter called “Kid Nation: Television, Systemic Violence and Game Design.” The article shows television’s reliance on game mechanics through an analysis of the 2007 CBS reality show Kid Nation. These game mechanics often compete with the voyeuristic fantasy presumably offered by the show and wind up producing instead an incoherent, ideologically charged end product.

Here are Bill’s follow-up questions for me:

Bill White – What tools does being a scholar of film and television give you for the study of games? In other words, how does your field approach games as an object of investigation?

Evan Torner – Film studies approaches games primarily as media. Such a definition situates games as yet another artificial means of information storage and transmission, akin to painting, music, or newspapers. But like these other media, games then also have their own medium-specific logics, to which we must seriously attend in order to understand them on their own terms.In Marshall McLuhan’s media studies rubric, for instance, games would be considered a “cool” medium, meaning that they require much more user input in order for the content to be communicated. Players produce meaning and narrative by interacting with the game mechanics within a specific social context. The compulsive activity loops of Farmville (2007) replicate repetitive-but-satisfying labor, the die-rolling in Monopoly (1934) approximates the whims of opportunity, and the character auctions of Amber: Diceless Role-Playing(1990) reifies the latent competitive instincts of the players in their characters, to name but a few mechanics. Every game mechanic, every line of code (or lack thereof) is a design team’s specific intervention into social reality, just like every shot and cut of a film are scrutinized by its creators with respect to how the audience will react (all the moreso now in the digital age).And just as ironic re-appropriations of films can be folded back into cinephilia, subversion of a game’s mechanics and/or cheating can be easily folded into the overall meaning that gameplay produces. For example, when I use cheat codes in Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2003)to throw half-a-dozen stormtroopers into the air, I intensify my engagement with the game’s physics algorithms and satisfy certain power fantasies of my own regarding the manipulability of space and human bodies. The medium rewards interactivity – even the re-coding of said interactivity – but in the end, the medium is still the message. Every game frames its players’ attention, this act of framing has a history, and every such history interfaces with the tangled media histories of the archive.

Then there is the obvious point that most games from the late 20th Century to the present draw heavily on codes of filmmaking for their aesthetic and narrative tropes. Films and games both unfold vividly in real time, but film still gives shape to our temporality. Any player of video games like Red Dead Redemption (2010), board games like Arkham Horror (1987), live-action role-playing games like Delirium (2010), or even alternate reality games (ARGs) like The Beast (2000) can articulate their vastly different experiences in terms of “being in a movie,” even though each of their durations far outlast that of most feature films. That very cinematic consciousness will continue to be somehow latent in most new media, and film studies still has the tools to address that consciousness, as recent work by D.N. Rodowick, Vivian Sobchack and Thomas Elsaesser has shown. Games are also having a huge impact on the way today’s blockbusters are made, which Lorrie Palmer, Nitzan Ben-Shaul and Steven Shaviro among others have also illustrated. For a good depiction of what I mean, watch District 9 (2009), and you’ll see the master medium informing the aesthetic switch from television to film to video games over the course of one film.

Finally, a welcome shift in film studies since the 1990s has reframed the viewer into an active agent over their media experience, rather than mere passive consumers who feed off the pre-packaged ideologies and propositions of industrial Hollywood. Theodor Adorno, as much as I admire his work, fed a deep and often classist cynicism about the nature of your average filmgoer that’s taken us scholars decades to overcome. The new framework offered by Janet Staiger and others reformulates “reception studies” in a way that could also accommodate players of games as well: as discerning subjects processing and interacting with material, possibly to repurpose within their own socio-cultural milieu. Mashing up videos on YouTube and playing Skyrim (2011) as a pacifist character may seem like media experiences alien to one another, but reception studies has the methodology to bring these comparative appropriations into mutual dialog.In summary, film studies opens doors to the structures that underpin media products and their consumption within an evolving media ecology. Games are just another species of plant in the garden, but they’re rapidly growing to be the most important one, so it’s imperative that film studies now follow game design developments as well.

BW – In your chapter, the reality show Kid Nation (2007) emerges as a really badly designed game, at least as far as the children who were its participants were concerned. If you had been a producer of that show, what would have been the most important change you would have made in its organization, and why?

ET – The short answer is: I’d have changed everything. Kid Nation could have become so much, and instead contented itself to be a lame Survivor(2000-present) clone in a fake Wild West town. The problem lies in its vacant core concept (“just another CBS reality show!”) beyond the fascinating initial pitch (“40 kids out in a desert town for 40 days have to learn how to survive together.”) This tends to happen with any network television programming, but such risk aversion becomes increasingly indigestible in our diversifying media diets. Viewers want television to deliver the unexpected, not pre-arranged TV “events.”Given the above, here are the two radical paths I might have taken, had I produced Kid Nation.

1) The Self-Reflexive Documentary Path – Most people alive do not recall watching the PBS documentary American Family (1971), but this was the TV docu-drama precursor to MTV’s The Real World (1992) two decades later. What the series captured was the elliptical, unscripted nuances of one American family’s daily life (in spite of plausible accusations of performance for the cameras). The suspense of the unexpected that “life unscripted” delivered kept the 1970s viewer also conscious of the presence of the intrusive camera on intimate moments. Kid Nation had a fairly large crew of about 50 adults on location, meaning they actually outnumbered the kids they were filming out in the New Mexico desert. After the show was over, some children who were made out to be villains (i.e., Taylor) revealed in interviews that this ponderous crew played a large role in sculpting and editing their various behaviors for TV, from giving them lines to say to staging some of the various major “events” around Bonanza City. Due to legal reasons, adult supervision in such a scenario cannot be avoided, so why not integrate it into the show? The TV audience would have cared more, had the filmmakers not staged themselves as the wizard behind the curtain, but as a real part of the children’s lives – working with them as a TV crew but also giving the children the end authority and agency over how to govern their space. This re-imagining of Kid Nation would most significantly have no game rules whatsoever, except for those which directly guaranteed the survival of the town (i.e., don’t eat all your food supplies in one evening, etc.) What would emerge would be, I think, a fascinating portrait of children who were both politically autonomous, but also under the constant surveillance of adults. You would find tasks and responsibilities breaking down like those of a workplace, as well as tensions regarding who is, in fact, in charge of the town or the “star” of the show.

2) The Larp Path – If you had to structure the Kid Nationshow in a game format, however, why not have the kids play something they know very well: pretend! Every kid would create a fictional persona for themselves, dress up as that character, and behave according to a series of negotiated rules regarding who could determine what in the story world. A fictional alibi for coordinated interventions in the children’s lives would do wonders for everyone involved, as well as maybe demonstrate the strain of living for 40 days as a made-up character. There can be little doubt that this would fulfill the fantasies of many of the kids there, and eliminate much of the personal investment in popularity contests and mugging for the camera otherwise found in the show (since one’s character differs from one’s reality TV persona). This would give us a kind of anthropological insight into kids at play, and also see how they address real-world responsibilities through personas or roles they adopt.In any case, the better Kid Nation would’ve been one in which the kids recognized and solved genuine problems experienced by the community, and used the games (or lack thereof) as a means to that problem-solving. Making a TV summer camp game show is just not properly addressing the kids’ autonomy, the Lord of the Flies metaphor, or the needs of the viewers.

BW – Following up on the previous question, granting that it was a poor game for children, was it nonetheless compelling (or even immersive) television? And even if so, is there any sense in which the the experience of being a viewer of the show could be called “ludic”?
ET – That’s an interesting question. Television shows have only recently been re-envisioned through a game studies lens – particularly Lost (2004-2010) and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (1998-present) – and generally these shows revolve around fan participation in terms of creating wikis and/or steering the plot/competition with their interests. Kid Nation had the idea in mind that it was creating a grand “what if” scenario on the level of science-fiction or social experimentation: what if a group of kids were isolated from their elders and had to form their own society? What would that look like? These questions invite viewers to play around with concepts such as civilization, necessities, luxury and impromptu authority. In contrast to the allure of these questions, however, Kid Nation instead focuses its attention almost myopically on the “characters” – the children playing themselves in a reality show – and mostly avoids the larger ramifications of the social experiment at hand.So the show as it appeared should not necessarily be considered “ludic” with regard to the viewer, though its very production could be considered (as I argue in the essay) a piece of game design. Nevertheless, the show certainly awoke in me the curiosity about the present possibilities of television within a new media environment, and how burdensome reality TV conventions appear to get in the way of the viewers being able to “play” with the material.

BW – It’s clear that the study of digital games is gaining academic respectability. Where does the study of role-playing, particularly in the form of tabletop games, fit in to that picture, as far as you’re concerned?

ET – Tabletop role-playing games are powerful conceptual tools for looking at the construction of narrative and character in the media. Game mechanics create their own narratology. Just look at Jason Morningstar’s summation of the Coen Brothers’ localized crime-gone-horribly-wrong genre in Fiasco (2009; about which Felan Parker has recently written this excellent paper), or the way Greg Stolze and John Tynes’ Unknown Armies (1999) affords the creation of David Lynchian modernist horror. On the topic of horror: the depletion of sanity points in Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu (1983) simulate the way H.P. Lovecraft’s figures slowly lose their grip on reality over the course of a story. Pulls from the Jenga tower in Epidiah Ravachol, et al.’s Dread (2005) show that a player is risking his/her character’s life with a specific course of action, with a character’s eventual death conforming to generic expectations. Heck, Bret Gillan’s Final Girl (2012) paces scenes through the waypoints of individual characters being killed off in a slasher film simulation. Cinematic consciousness rises up again even in our folk oral tradition! My point is that game mechanics do a lot more work than just produce “entertainment,” whatever that is. They instead frame expectations, incentivize certain behaviors, discourage others, and help players negotiate the social fiction unfolding before them.

On a side note: tabletop RPGs may also structure serial television more than one would think. While I was translating the permanent exhibit at the Filmmuseum Potsdam, I noticed that the process that scriptwriters for a German soap opera used to generate new content was analogous to a role-playing game: about 6-8 writers would sit in a room and, playing their favorite characters, improvise their way through a series’ arc. The writers’ room is, in other words, a perfect foil to the backroom of your local gaming store, but one of them then produces fictional properties worth sometimes millions of dollars. My analysis of the Joss Whedon cult classic series Firefly (2003), for example, finds it directly informed by forms of storytelling from tabletop role-playing games. Each of the series’ nine core characters insists on their own reality, their own instrumental knowledge, and their tongue-in-cheek archetypal quality, as player-characters are wont to do. One can only guess how much television fiction comes from something akin to a role-playing game, and how much role-playing games then draw on serial television to structure their narratives. I venture that it’s way more prevalent on all sides than one would suspect!

So to get back to the “digital games” aspect of the question: developments in tabletop RPGs eventually trickle into digital games (RPGs and otherwise), digital game developments into tabletop, and increased dialog between the different media allow each to re-purpose ideas from each other. I remember how Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic (2004), one of the most addictive solo digital RPGs you can play, was entirely built on a framework adapted from the D20 Star Wars system published by Wizards of the Coast. Though any layperson could sit down at their computer and play a Jedi with them, the game’s sub-systems are, in fact, nearly unintelligible unless you’ve got some experience with tabletop (i.e., talk of saving throws, DC20 skill difficulties, and so forth). The computer calculates all the data for you – there’s no need to roll the dice or even know what’s going on behind the scenes – but it’s somehow comforting to players that there’s this familiar tabletop RPG system underwriting the whole engine.

In a similar vein, World of Warcraft (2004) owes much of its iconography and tropes to Dungeons & Dragons (1974; 2000; 2008), yet fuses them with a short-term, medium-term and long-term mission structure that’s much more complex than any dungeonmaster could offer. I’m also thinking of the Call of Cthulhu-esque sanity points system found in that Nintendo GameCube classic Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002), in which monsters drive you insane and begin to affect the console player’s actual ability to play the game. On the other hand, tabletop RPGs steal ideas from digital games all the time: John Harper’s swashbuckling RPG about air pirates Lady Blackbird (2009) could have been adapted from console RPGs like Final Fantasy VII (1996) or Skies of Arcadia (2001). Its visual elegance and rules simplicity allow for a plug-and-play feel that appeals to gamers who want tabletop RPGs to play like those games do. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (2010) boils all choices down into a series of lists of options – menus, if you will – and reduces the range of player choices to a series of individual “moves” which necessitate interesting narrative outcomes, rather than simply producing player success or failure. These moves could easily be translatable into the forking paths of, say, a work of interactive fiction or a digital game. That is to say, digital games have attained academic respectability, but tabletop role-playing games lurk as the underappreciated conceptual and design basis from which many of these games’ mechanics and storylines emerge.

Digital games are profitable and require all kinds of hardware in practice, but the theory behind them can be simply formulated via pencils, paper and dice. Understanding tabletop RPGs should constitute yet another component of any citizen’s media literacy as the hobby spreads on a global level and remains, above digital games, a low-tech-but-effective way of engaging in collective storytelling, a powerful medium with its own logics like any other.

Bill White is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, where he teaches speech communication and mass media courses. He received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in communication, information and library studies. His research interests include communication theory and the rhetoric of science and science fiction. He is the designer of the small- press tabletop RPG Ganakagok.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The seventh interview is with role-playing designer and writer Nathan Hook. His article “Circles and Frames: The Games Social Scientists Play,” argues that Solomon Asch’s 1951 Conformity Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Prison Experiment among others, when read as games, interrogate the boundary between the so-called “magic circle” and “protective frame” of play. His article implies that there is but a thin line between psychology experiments and live-action games, and between player and character in such situations.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner –  How does being a game designer affect your work in psychology?

Nathan Hook – Games can be viewed as systems that alter player behaviour.  Since psychology studies behaviour as an expression of inner mental states, understanding how systems can influence that behaviour can be crucial.

To give a particular example: there is an incredibly strong social contract in a game that, once it has begun, the game must be finished. We need to be mindful that this applies to psychology experiments as well. In one of my undergraduate experiments, a participant was stung by a bee halfway through and still refused to step out of the experiment, ‘playing’ through to the end.  Explaining the right to withdraw from the event is not in itself sufficient if participants bring in their own frame which impairs their judgement in using this right.

In terms of role-playing rather than games in general, being a successful ethnographer is extremely close to role-playing.  In the classical tradition of ethnography, an ethnographer immerses oneself into a different culture or subculture to gain insight into the actual living experience.  They are playing a role –sometimes that of a tolerated outsider, sometimes using their social status to get commitment, sometimes fully undercover and immersed.  I’ve found that applying ethnographic principles to researching role-playing an extremely self-reflective and recursive experience.

In clinical psychology, debate is ongoing about the medical recognition of computer game addiction.  For me, this is ironic, given that academic computer game texts explain quite clearly how one makes any given game addictive.

ET – At what point do psychologists become game designers, even to a limited degree? Where is the line that they cross?

NH – The history of experimental psychology is full of game-like examples.  To give one simple example: a classic cognitive psychology experiment often repeated by undergraduates is to measure under different conditions participant’s digit span – the maximum length of a string of characters a person can remember.  One form of this is to tap out a sequence on a number of blocks which the participant then tries to repeat – essentially identical to the ‘Simon says’ game.  Psychometric testing could also be considered a game, if people were to start comparing their scores.

To give another example: an experiment had participants undertake an IQ test and then gave them a predetermined result to induce a particular emotional state.  On their way out, a person planted by the researcher tried to ‘chat up’ the participant and get their phone number.  In many ways, this is a role-playing game – the organiser has created a situation, briefed the participant-player and then arranged an encounter with a scripted non-player character (NPC) to see how the player responds to it.The line that separates these two lies is the intent of the designer.  The psychologist (like other scientists) is normally creating a situation for the purpose of attempting to acquire data to test a hypothesis (or, in ‘grounded theorising,’ to form a new hypothesis).  In contrast the game designer is designing a situation/system to give the players some kind of experience – often but not always ‘fun.’  The difference is a question of intent of creative agenda.

ET –Fundamentally, what impact do experimental larps or larp-as-experiments have on their participants that ‘normal’ larps do not?

NH – Experimental larps often push people boundaries outside the comfort zone to offer experiences that would not otherwise be had, such as being an abused prisoner or a having a different sexual orientation.‘Normal’ larps (which is a heavily questionable concept, since what is a normal in larp varies massively) tends to offer a greater element of wish fulfilment – for example, being a hero with a sword.  While they do offer an experience outside the everyday, they neither push boundaries nor challenge the player’s core identity.Being an adventurer killing an orc is very psychologically different to being a guard abusing a prisoner.  There is a distinct lack of research on the psychological safety of experimental larps.  Just as people choose to engage in high-risk physical sports knowing the risks, it is important that we understand the risk factors of such larp events.

ET – Why should psychologists read larp research?

NH – Psychology is a very broad subject and itself is difficult to define.  Literally ‘the study of the soul,’ one common definition is ‘the study of people (except for animal psychology).’  Some would define it as ‘the study of the mind,’ but that presupposes a binary division between body and mind.

All games involve people, and structured games are a defining trait of being human.  For this reason, the study of people needs to acknowledge and include a widespread and defining human activity.

In the early days of psychology and the wider social sciences, one approach was to study human creations to gain insight into the minds and cultures that created them.  By studying a work of art, we might gain insight into the mind that created it.  If we accept that games are art, then studying games is a direct continuation of this tradition.  As Lizzie Stark recently argued, the unlimited progression of Dungeons & Dragons is analogous to the American dream and reflects the culture that created it.

ET – As someone who has, on occasion, gotten addicted to certain video games, the ‘hidden formula’ behind the games that really arrest your attention for hours on end is interesting to me. What characteristics do the most addictive games share?

NH – One of the underlying reasons for computer game addiction is called ‘flow’  This is a cognitive state caused by being challenged just enough for your skill level, and challenge(s) increasing the difficulty at just the right pace to match for increasing skills.  The rhythm of the activity creates a mental state of focused motivation and ignoring other wider motivations.

All games are about constructing new frames for meaning.  The positions of pieces on a chess board are trivial and of no importance to us before a game. Once we start playing, they become vitally important.  We imbue them with meaning because we attach symbolic value to that data. In the same way, once we start playing a computer game, the position of virtual pieces becomes of vital importance – so important that it drowns out other important elements of our lives. This is studied from different angles both in sports psychology (sometimes called being ‘in the zone’) and educational psychology as principles to achieve effective learning.

ET – How does larp itself become addictive?

NH – I don’t think larp is addictive, at least not in a formal medical or scientific sense. In a more casual sense of addictive, I think there are many factors at work.  For some, larp does offer escapism from the stresses of everyday life, as shown in the documentary film Darkon (2006).  It offers power and agency, and power (even pretend power) is addictive.  A campaign larp can be ‘addictive’ in the same way that a good book is addictive – people care about the characters and want to follow their story and, in larp, identification with a main character is implicit in the design, since they are living inside your body.

 I’d also recognise that larp also extends to involvement in the social community of larpers, comparable to team sports or amateur dramatics.  While social conflict does happen, the larp community is also very accepting.  Having intense emotional experiences – even negative ones – tends to bond people together and larpers often tend to have other common interests, such as computer games or an interest in certain genres of fiction.

ET – You say on the one hand that there is perhaps no “normal” larp, but on the other hand suggest this analogy of an “adventurer killing an orc.” Semi-genocidal fantasy adventurers seems a very specific legacy that is nevertheless attached to “normal” role-playing. Why has this particular psychological investment in killing orcs had such power over the gaming hobby since the 1970s?

NH – Michelle Nephew argues a strong element of role-play is male fantasy wish fulfillment – being the lone hero outside of society armed with the sword.  While I don’t agree with all of her argument, I do accept that part of it.

In some respects, this kind of fiction is designed to make it easier for a scenario writer.  D&D happens in a dungeon, since walls and corridors stop players from wandering in a direction the GM hasn’t mapped out.  Having some orcs, zombies or bandits to fight is easier to design than a complex murder mystery or political intrigue.

One reason I’d suggest newer tabletop role-play games have moved away from this has been that computers became better at running games of dungeons and orcs, ane a number of board games also simulate fighting through dungeons well.  Tabletop role-playing games responded by becoming about intrigue or horror, something more challenging for computer games to do.

Nathan Hook recently finished his master’s in psychology research methods with The Open University. He uses an ethnographic approach to study identity construction by recreational role-players and emotional bleed from fictive play experiences. He lives in Bristol, United Kingdom; his website is

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The sixth interview is with role-playing designer, professor and my co-editor Bill White. He co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with J. Tuomas Harviainen and Emily Care Boss. In the article, he looks at Nordic and American interpretations of role-playing immersion, contrasting emotionally resonant and creative play/design philosophies and advocating for a bottom-up definition of immersion, based on communities’ play experiences.

Here are my follow-up questions:

1. As a tenured professor in communications, how do you see the field of game studies developing with respect to your field?

This is an interesting question. One of the first things I did when I was thinking about how to shift my research focus to gaming was to try to figure out how the study of games fits into the field of communication, which has a chimerical disciplinary history that interweaves social psychology, political science, classical rhetoric, anthropology, journalism, information science, performance studies, and things even further afield. One scholar has called communication an “archipelago within the university,” meaning that it pops up here and there within the larger intellectual system of the academy. So it’s not clear for any given class of phenomena what is the “proper way” to study it from a communication perspective. What I found was that communication as a field currently sees (digital) gaming primarily as a medium, like radio or television, and at least to date has spent a lot of time worrying about its dysfunctions, like addiction, alienation, and aggression. At least, that’s the stuff that has been published the most; it overlaps considerably with social psychological studies of the impact of media violence.

But I think that’s changing; the “moral panic” over digital games has been blunted by the sheer cultural force of videogames, computer games, and on-line gaming. So communication as a field is adapting to that. I think there’s more interest in understanding the psychological and physiological dimensions of the gaming experience, with an eye toward providing practical information to game designers. In my chapter with Jiituomas and Emily in Immersive Gameplay we mention in passing some of the ways that media scholars are doing that, looking at “passion” and “flow” and “presence” as central elements of the game experience.

At the same time, there are communication scholars who are taking a more cultural perspective on gaming, trying to understand what it means to be a gamer in terms of identity and belonging to a community. This is an approach that I find more congenial to my own interests. The direction that I would like to take, and to find an audience for, would investigate how gamers form “cultures of production” that are engaged in the creation of meaningful aesthetic experience. This is the thing that connects game studies to the study of what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture”; Jenkins is known for his studies of science-fiction fandom.

2. How has that slippery term “immersion” changed over time and space?

This is a hard question! The thing that we try to show in our chapter for Immersive Gameplay is how variable are individual understandings of what immersion is. Ron Edwards, one of the founders of the Forge game design discussion site, makes the point that immersion is often used to valorize whatever one finds enjoyable about the gaming experience. So if what you like is the story, you experience a kind of “narrative immersion,” but if playing a different person is what makes you happy, then you enjoy “character immersion,” and so forth.

The one important change that I hope is becoming increasingly prevalent is a rejection of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman call “the immersive fallacy” in their magisterial game design text Rules of Play. The immersive fallacy is the idea that the goal of game design is to create experiences that are ever more indistinguishable from reality—that immersion requires a comprehensive sensory experience in which you are literally “immersed.” But that’s not true! Whatever we take immersion to be, we know it can be achieved in circumstances short of complete virtual reality. We don’t need the holodeck to be immersed. So it’s useful to have a term that lets us challenge that assumption.

3. What role do you see academic works such as yours playing within the game design community itself as it stands?

I would like to think that the academic study of gaming can be in dialogue with the practice of game design, that it can provide insights into the gaming experience that enables designers to interrogate their own assumptions about what makes a game, and what makes a game work. In the heyday of the Forge, this sort of thing happened all the time. The theoretical discussions about Creative Agenda and reward cycles led to efforts to create games that explicitly played with those ideas, producing I think some interesting experiments as well as some real innovations.

Of course, Forge theory wasn’t academic; it didn’t have to justify itself in the institutional context of the academy, which is another way of saying that it didn’t have to talk to anyone other than those inside the tabletop RPG community. This makes it harder for academic game studies to “speak to gamers,” because it’s also speaking to other scholars, trying to enlist them in its project, and speaking in front of an institutional audience (i.e., tenure and promotion committees, university administrators) that has to make judgments about the intellectual value of the work.

But here’s my secret hope: that the academic study and criticism of games can move us as gamers to an appreciation of role-playing as art. I see my own work heading in that direction.

4. What games interest you most these days, and how might we go about researching them?

I honestly cannot stop thinking about Traveller. I run a game at cons that I call “Mustering Out Blues,” where the players randomly create their characters, veterans of military service in a galaxy-spanning space empire now suddenly on their own, and are randomly deposited on a planet in search of gainful employment. What are they willing to do in order to make a buck? If they’re offered 100,000 credits to shoot a man in the head with a laser, will they do it? The gameplay is so interesting, because it involves this constant sense-making of random results, forcing a pattern upon what is essentially “noise” in the information science sense. And yet narrative emerges from that! It’s novelistic, in that not much really happens but we get a chance to get inside a character’s head for a while, but it’s a definitely a story. It says something.

As for studying that, I am a big advocate of the close reading of RPG “actual play” transcripts to see how they produce the fiction. This means listening to audio (and maybe video, but I think that’s inessential) and seeing how the game system’s rules and the the table-level player-to-player exchanges produce the imaginary actions and reactions of characters and game world. The result would be an account of the production of a fictional experience as well as an interpretation of the fiction thus produced. I think that might be really interesting.

William J. White is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, where he teaches speech communication and mass media courses. He received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in communication, information and library studies. His research interests include communication theory and the rhetoric of science and science fiction. He is the designer of the small- press tabletop RPG Ganakagok.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

Say hello to my little friend.

…and there’s more where that came from.

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The fifth interview is with game scholar Jussi Holopainen. In the volume, he co-authored  “First Person Audience and the Art of Painful Role-Playing” with Markus Montola. The article looks at experiences playing the controversial larp GR (2008) in terms of the surprising egalitarianism of shared psychological stress. They find that role-playing games specifically designed to elicit negative emotional experiences are actually considered rewarding by their participants.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – Last decade, you and Staffan Björk released a book called Patterns in Game Design. Could you tell us a little more about your purpose with the book and what you saw as its successes and failures?

Jussi Holopainen – I had been collaborating with Staffan since the end of 90s on experimental game design projects, especially based on ubiquitous and wearable computing principles. As we were doing the design work, we consciously tried to explore which game design suited the technologies the best. In other words, we were doing technology analysis from a game design point of view. While doing this work, we were getting frustrated about the lack of proper conceptual frameworks for game design and decided to develop our own. This framework development eventually resulted in the “game design patterns” approach. So we initially wanted to build a tool for ourselves, but then realized that the patterns approach would, if published, benefit both the game development and game studies fields.

The patterns material has mainly been used as a tool for analysis in a number of game research projects, whereas the adoption in the game industry has been limited. I guess that the patterns are more useful in analysis than in the day-to-day design work itself – although, of course, analysis is always a part of game design work process. I have not been that active in game design patterns work for some years now, as my interests have shifted somewhat, but Staffan has continued the work. Staffan is also the main force behind, a wiki-site dedicated to refining and expanding the patterns collection.

To sum it up: the main success is that the patterns approach is useful for analysis of game design, but that using it as an actual tool for game design itself has been a bit problematic.

ET – If you were going to re-write Patterns of Game Design based on the patterns you’ve found up until 2012, what would you add and/or change?

JH – It is not about the new or old patterns as such, but I would like to have a different overall structure to them. At the moment, we have patterns for goal structures, actions etc. but not a real coherent hierarchy or structure. Something like having a hierarchy akin to MDA (Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics) and basing at least some of the aesthetics layer patterns in existing frameworks for human emotion and understanding (e.g., Ortony, Clore, Collins: The Cognitive Structure of Emotions and Lakoff-Johnson’s work on metaphor would be suitable candidates). Actually, that started to sound like a project. I have to talk to Staffan. We will keep you posted on the upcoming revised game design patterns book!

ET – What books should prospective game designers and/or game studies scholars be reading in order to best prepare themselves for the field?

JH – Patterns in Game Design, obviously! Well, there are also some books around which better prepare for the game design or game studies work in a more comprehensive manner. Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play and the follow-up anthology Game Design Reader are both extremely valuable sources of information for both game design and game studies. For more practical game design work, I would recommend Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop and Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design. Ernest Adams and Joris Dorman’s Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design is also a valuable contribution to the field of game design. Perhaps a bit less well-known but very comprehensive and enjoyable book about game design is Aki Järvinen’s doctoral dissertation “Games without Frontiers.” It is availble for download at and is in my opinion one of the best pieces of work on game design research ever.

ET – What are some of the main issues in field research regarding larp?

JH – Perhaps the best introduction to these issues is the paper Jaakko Stenros, Annika Waern & Markus Montola (2012): “Studying the Elusive Experience in Pervasive Games.” Even though they are discussing mainly pervasive games, many – if not all – of the issues are relevant to larp research as well. The ephemeral nature of larps is to blame and especially the first-person audience: that each of the players in a larp will have their own distinctive experience which can be drastically different from the other players’ experiences. This makes it really difficult for the researchers to get a comprehensive view about the player experience of any given larp. I am currently interested in using methods such as psychophysiological measurements and eye-tracking in combination with the usual interviews and video analysis for investigating the players’ experiences in larps. They might turn out to be too invasive and burdensome for useful research and also extremely difficult to generalize, but I would like to at least try them out.

ET – How might psycho-physiological or eye tracking measurements be conceivably woven into a larp plot somehow, combining research experiment with the game fiction?

JH – It is conceivable, but then you have to be really, really careful about the research design. For example, if you are interested in how people allocate their attention (i.e., where their gaze is focused) while attending a larp and the game mechanics using gaze-tracking favor certain focus areas, the results are going to be messed up. I would rather see two different set-ups: First, where the instrumentation as biofeedback is used conspicuously as part of the game mechanics. Second, where the instrumentation is as unintrusive as possible and they are not part of the game mechanics in order to get as reliable data as possible about how people really react and experience events in a larp.

ET – Do you think that larp will ever be “normalized” as a medium like theater, television or film? Why or why not?

JH – I doubt that larps will ever be as culturally pervasive as film or even theater. The main reason, I guess, is that larps tend to be cognitively, socially and affectionally (sometimes even physically) very demanding and many – if not most – people find very demanding entertainment (and art) out of their league. And if you make a larp less-demanding enough, it tends not to be about live role-playing anymore, but some kind of low participation theater. So somewhat paradoxically, a demanding larp will not get to be mainstream and a non-demanding larp is not a larp anymore!

ET – What is the factor that, in your opinion, is most decisive in getting individuals to committing to larp as a medium? Is it their social group? Their talents? The appeal of an individual larp?

JH – Sheesh, I was expecting easy questions! I do not think there is a common decisive factor relevant for all kinds of larps. It is more about the player’s personality and expectations about the larp, including peer commenting, available information about the larp itself, organizers’ previous larps,  who is going to attend the larp and so on. For me, personally, the most important things are that the larp does not require much investment into physical items (e.g., having to make your own chain mail) and there are people I know who are also attending or running the larp. This also means that for lazy and shy people like myself, these are going to be the most important factors. I guess it is about feeling secure and comfortable socially even though the theme and the events in the larp itself could be extreme. For example, I guess most people would not like to play GR for the first time with complete strangers.

Jussi Holopainen is a Finnish game scholar whose main research focus has been on design and player experience principles for games of all kinds. He has long worked at the Nokia Research Center in Tampere. His publications include Patterns in Game Design co-authored with Staffan Björk and numerous conference and journal papers as well as various book chapters.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The fourth interview is with sociologist Todd Nicholas Fuist. His article in the volume “The Agentic Imagination: Tabletop Role-Playing Games as a Cultural Tool” offers the notion of “agentic imagination” to explain the social interactions that pivotally shape narrative and identity within tabletop role-playing games. The essay combines ethnographic data with speculations about broader implications of role-playing research on the gaming hobby.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner –  In your article for Immersive Gameplay, you discuss a concept called “agentic imagination.” What is that exactly, and how does it help us understand how role-playing games work?

Todd Nicholas Fuist – The “agentic imagination” is a theoretical concept I have been developing out of my research on gaming. In the piece in Immersive Gameplay, I specifically describe it as “the active ability of social actors to shape their identities through immersive imagination.” There are two things you need to know as background to understand the concept, so I’ll talk about those first:

a) Some of this concept references the notion that, in sociology, we tend to think in terms of “agency” and “structure.” Structure is what is “hard” in social life: class position, the legal system, economics, politics, institutions, etc. It’s often defined as the things that pattern our behavior, relationships, and expectations. Agency, on the other hand, is what social actors can do on their own: free choice, independent thinking, being able to break out of the structures of society, so to speak. Sometimes these concepts are pitted against each other, as in “agency vs. structure.” This is a problematic way to approach it: agency and structure are two sides of the same coin. Agency only makes sense in a world that is structured, and structure only has meaning and relevancy if people can push against the edges of it sometimes.

b) The concept also draws on the sociological understanding of “identity.” Identity is, in sociology, largely about identification with social groups and how your particular pattern of identifications makes you both different from others as well as recognizable to others as a certain “kind” of person. With regard to gaming, one could say that “identification” with gaming as a hobby and a culture provides some of your “identity,” giving you and others a sense for who you are. As such, “identity” doesn’t refer to some kind of fundamental, static, core being. Your identity, in sociology, is an ongoing social process that requires active identification, either by you or others, to be a thing.

Now that we have the background, we can talk about the concept a little bit more.

I am, obviously, drawing on the idea of agency for the concept of the agentic imagination. Where does agency come from? Conversely, what stifles agency? I would strongly argue that part of what is required for agency is the ability to have some sense of how things are and how they could be. This requires a bit of a reading, perhaps an intuitive one, perhaps a conscious one, of both social structure and identity. A person might think “I am poor. I know this because the things that are unavailable to me that seem to be available to other people who live in different parts of the city than me.” That’s a reading of both social structure and identity. This person may also think “However, if I were to attend college, I could get a degree and become successful and change my lot in life.” Their ability to think and do this would represent their agency.

I would argue, however, that a large part of the background of agency comes through the ability to imagine. Can you imagine a different world? What about a different life for yourself? Can the hypothetical person in the example above imagine themselves as a doctor or an executive? Many social movements, I would suggest, have been predicated on the idea that “Another World is Possible” (to borrow the motto of the World Social Forum). The Feminist Movement, for example, involved women (and eventually men as well) imagining a world where women were able to participate in society in ways they currently were not. In my dissertation research, on progressive religious groups, a woman who is a member of the woman priest movement within Catholicism told me how soul-crushing it was to feel called to be a priest when she was a little girl but never see the female form represented on the altar or hear a woman’s voice saying mass. It was literally “unimaginable” that she could be a priest. When she heard about the woman priest movement, her perspective was radically shifted and she could suddenly imagine herself as a priest. Now, she says mass regularly at an alternative Catholic community.

This circles back around to the concept and what it has to do with role-playing. As the example above suggests, imagination is a powerful tool for shaping our identities and, as such, our ability to act in the social world. We envision possible futures, different versions of our self, and ways the world could be different. Role-playing games are a fascinating place to observe and practice this sort of agentic imagination.

One theme that has emerged through the interviews I have conducted for this project is that gamers use role-playing to “try on” various selves, model different ways of behaving, work through personal issues, connect with ideas bigger than themselves, and prefiguratively live out alternative social realities. While I’m not so naive to suggest that role-playing will end oppression or usher in some kind of new utopia, I was consistently intrigued by how many people reported to me being able to come to real understandings about who they are, what their social positioning is, how they feel about social problems, etc., through role-playing. As such, while I don’t believe that imagination is all it takes to change social structures, I do believe that imagination has liberatory potential, and the kinds of things that we feel capable of imagining shape the sorts of ways we conceptualize the world. As such, the creation of liminal spaces, such as is done when groups of people get together to role-play, where these sorts of imaginations can flow freely are potential sites of renewal and resistance for people.

ET – As a sociologist, what do you think the emerging field of game studies does well, and what could it do better?

TNF – I don’t profess to be an expert on game studies, but my exposure to it, through the International Journal of Role-Playing, the Game Studies Journal, and various books, suggests that game studies has two main strengths:

a) Authors in game studies seem to be doing some sophisticated theorizing. In my piece for Immersive Gameplay, I cite pieces by Arjoranta, Balzar, Hitchens and Drachen, and Montola that feature some interesting and useful theorizing.

b) Additionally, work in game studies seems enviably interdisciplinary. Many sub-disciplines would be thrilled to have people from so many different fields actively collaborating on their area of study.

Having said that, as a sociologist, I tend to want theorizing grounded in as much empirical data as possible, and I do feel that game studies could, as an emerging field, use more empirical research, particularly more interviews and participant-observation. I see a lot of gaming studies research that looks at the games themselves (i.e. examining the content a particular game) or theorizing out of what appears to be the author’s personal gaming experience. There’s nothing wrong with this, but gaming is a broad and varied hobby and, following audience studies media theorists such as Henry Jenkins and Ien Ang, it seems to me that we do ourselves a favor by concentrating more on the actual experiences of people who game. I would recommend Sarah Lynne Bowman’s book The Function of Role-Playing Games for a good example of qualitative empirical work into gaming.

ET – Participant-observer studies appear to be one of the best ways to do sociological work on RPGs. Are there other methodologies we could be using?

TNF – I had not really thought about this much prior to you asking this question, but something leapt immediately to mind when you asked this. In sociology, some researchers use a method called photo elicitation. This usually involves having someone take pictures of important things in their life (for example, you may ask someone to take a photo of ten things in their life that are important for their religious beliefs) and then the researcher would go through the photos with the subject, having them explain each one in turn. The idea is that this puts some power of interpretation in the hands of the interviewee and moves it away from the researcher. A researcher might ask “how do you feel when you go to church,” for example, assuming that “church” is where this person is “religious.” By asking, instead, “show me pictures of important religious things in your life,” you may find that “church” is not where this person feels religious, but other place, such as nature, their bedroom, or at work.

It seems like you could do a similar thing with gaming, but as opposed to using pictures, use gaming artifacts such as character sheets, maps, dice, and gaming books. In my research, I tend to argue that culture is best understood as being “embedded” in objects, relationships, and practices. Put simply, we tend to understand culture through things. As such, I think that interviewing someone about gaming is interesting, but actually having them pull their favorite gaming books or character sheets off their shelf and explain, say, why these particular books are their favorite, what they have meant in their life, etc. would be very revealing. I suspect that gaming artifacts like books and characters sheets, like many objects, are very much containers of relationships, culture, memories, and practices and may provide interesting data on the role gaming plays in people’s lives and how it shapes their social world and biography. This could also, as with photo elicitation, minimize the researcher’s understanding of what gaming is supposed to look like, feel like, and be about, and privilege the understanding of interviewee.

ET – How do you see RPGs as folk art and oral culture interacting with other wider social movements across the United States and, if I may, the world right now?  Is there some kind of dialog between role-playing and the Occupy movement, for example?

TNF – That’s a really interesting question, and to be honest, I have no idea if there’s actual dialogue going on between any movements and the role-playing world. Having said that, I can see some points where I can imagine points of contact would be, including within the work I am doing.

“Play” and “storytelling” broadly, has become a big part of cutting edge research into social movements. I’m thinking in particular here of the work of Benjamin Shepard who wrote a book called Play, Creativity, and Social Movements: If I Can’t Dance it’s Not My Revolution, drawing on the wonderful Emma Goldman quote, as well as work by Francesca Polletta on storytelling in movements, particularly her book It was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. This work tends to discuss a number of things, but a predominant theme is how play and storytelling bring emotions into social movement participation. Playful protest can diffuse tension at a high stakes protest, it can provide a bit of levity while dealing with difficult issues, and it can dramatize people’s experiences in a way that opens the space for multiple and varied interpretations, creating dialogue around issues.

Many social movements, I would suggest, already have a role-playing aspect built in. I remember being at a mass protest event in Buffalo, New York in 2001 and at the convergence center where all the activists were meeting people were doing training that involved playing out scenarios such as peacefully confronting police officers and dealing with a combative news reporter. The idea was that we would build up the skills necessary to be able to handle these difficult situations when they happened if we tried them out in a safe space, first.

This suggests a point of connection between movement activity and role-playing, related to what I was talking about with the agentic imagination in the piece in Immersive Gameplay. Nina Eliasoph, a sociologist of social movements, analyzes how important talk about politics is in her book Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. What she finds that is so interesting is that people want to talk politics with each other, but often lack the spaces to do so. In my piece for Immersive Gameplay, I argue that gaming can provide safe, liminal spaces that are not “real” in that they take place in the shared imagined space of the game, but also not totally “fake” in that they represent actual interactions people are having with each other. It seems to me that these sorts of liminal, in-between, spaces are ideal contexts for serious talk about politics to happen, not necessarily in the way Eliasoph studies (linking the experiences of individuals to larger structural realities) but perhaps in the way Shepard and/or Polletta may understand (creating complex narratives that channel emotion and make room for dialogue). Part of what I suggest in the piece on the agentic imagination is that my interviewees were often able to work through complicated personal and social issues such as racism, sexism, and sexual identity through play in the safe space of role-playing.

On the gaming side of things, what games have this sort of liberatory potential? Theoretically, all of them, but I’d like to highlight a few. Robert Bohl’s science-fiction game Misspent Youth is very clearly designed to trigger the righteous indignation of the players. Players will spend the game feeling helpless before a powerful authority, as well as experience the excitement of direct action against that authority as the game progresses. Julia Bond Ellingboe’s Steal Away Jordan is designed to create a similar sense of feeling constrained by authority. Unlike Misspent Youth, however, Ellingboe’s game deals with the very real history of slavery in the southern U.S. I can imagine almost no better game for people to create stories where they develop empathy and experience powerful emotions with regard to a social issue than Steal Away Jordan. Joshua A.C. Newman’s game Shock allows players to create an alternate reality to exist in during the game, either dystopian or utopian, and provides rules to specifically explore the social consequences of living in such a world. If, as I suggest, imagination is an important component of liberation, then the ability to explore alternative realities and feel how they would be different than our own is a valuable tool. Finally, while I have little personal experience with them myself, I’ve heard some talk about jeepform games, which seem to place a high premium on immersively exploring a central theme. Having said all this, as mentioned in my piece in Immersive Gameplay, one of my participants said they learned about racism through playing Dungeons & Dragons. While I would suggest that certain games are more geared towards creating the kinds of liminal spaces I’m discussing here, I do believe that almost any space where people are given free reign to use their imaginations can develop liberatory potential.

To conclude and return to the original question, I would say that while I am unaware of any direct contact between social movements and role-playing, there does seem to be a number of places where social movements are exploring play and storytelling and role-playing games are confronting social and political issues. If there is any direct connection, say a social movement group that actively incorporates gaming into their work, I’d love to hear about it. If not, however, I can certainly imagine that the kinds of spaces fostered by role-playing games could have the kind of liberatory potential that scholars of social movements see in play, storytelling, and talk, and could imagine them becoming tools in movement activity in the future.


Todd Nicholas Fuist is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Loyola University, Chicago. His work is on religious communities that have messages and projects which revolve around social justice. His other academic interests include gaming and gamer culture, social movements, media, and identity.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The third interview is with role-playing designer, librarian and scholar JTuomas Harviainen. He co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with Bill White and Emily Care Boss. Harviainen contributes a significant body of Nordic larp scholarship that points to a fundamentally different play/design philosophy regarding “immersion” from the Anglo-American definition.

Here are my follow-up questions:

Evan Torner – You are defending your doctorate in Information Sciences in the fall. What is the focal point of your research?

J. Tuomas Harviainen – My dissertation, within the discipline of Information Studies and Interactive Media, deals with the information-systemic properties of physically perfomed role-playing in its various forms (larp, BDSM and so forth). The core idea is that, by adopting the social contract of play, people create temporary spaces in which access to information is significantly altered. I claim that by looking at the information-environmental properties of those temporary social systems, we can understand a lot more about both play experiences and the way social contracts affect our information seeking and distribution in everyday life.

ET – What is an example of the kind of information-seeking that happens in role-playing games that would then be directly applicable to everyday life?

JTH – All sorts of information needs appear during role-play, and people respond to those accordingly. Most of the time, the behavior is very similar to mundane life, regardless of the context in which one is acting. The most interesting thing for me, however, is that the artificial constraints of the games show us just how much of an impact the social expectations we have on how we seek information. If, for example, one plays in a game where certain actions are forbidden within the fiction (say, envisioning democracy as a viable concept, in a Medieval game), we can get an inkling how such limits affect people in real life. As Bernard Suits put it, games are about artificial limitations. Many of those, in many games, concern information acquisition and use.

ET – How do rituals, information systems and game systems intersect?

JTH – On many grounds, which is what led me to my current line of research. The adoption of temporary rulesets, limitations and boundaries, the change of social identities, and the act-as-if with things one cannot really perceive, these are very common in both games and rituals. I do not claim that they are all information systemic things, but I do parts of them can be very well analyzed from an information studies perspective. The ritual-game connection in particular has been noted by many earlier researchers, but I dare claim that it has not been properly examined until very recently. Games being highly ritualistic social systems, it is actually hard not to see a connection, yet scholars and designers both have been quite happy to just rely on a quick nod towards Johan Huizinga and Victor Turner, plus a set of black-box thinking where ritualistic games are expected to provide ritual-like results, without going into the actual mechanics of why and how.

ET – As a researcher and game designer, you have on occasion used games you’ve designed to test your hypotheses. What are the advantages of this “scientific” approach, and how might more game designers adopt it?
JTH –The idea is that in such games, it is possible to combine the idea of a laboratory experiment with the playful, unpredictable nature of games. I know it’s imprecise, but a lot of human communication actually involves such creative chaos. Because people like the game, they run it for others, and that way I get a convenient data build-up which helps me analyze the results. The great thing about laboratory-larps especially is that it’s possible to insert some artificial parameters into the fiction, in order to test the effects of those parameters in a chosen setting. For example, it’s quite easy to experiment on gender role expectations by making a game that plays on those expectations – or where they are defined as totally absent, or altered, by the game’s setting. That’s something rather hard to accomplish through means other than role-playing. I’ve also noticed that this research application of design has made me analyze my games much more thoroughly, and significantly improved the quality of my games. For that reason alone, I’d suggest others try it out, even if they are not interested in experimentation for the sake of research.

ET – What key role-playing scholarship are game studies scholars not reading, but should?

JTH – My two pet peeves are game scholars’ focus on digital gaming and the way they tend to read just their own field’s research. The former has lead to a kind of tunnel vision, where people publish brilliant stuff on, say, immersion in digital games, but talk about it as if that description were descriptive on all sorts of game immersion, while their concepts would not actually hold water in a larp or tabletop role-playing context at all. And vice versa. So people really should look beyond the confines of their chosen platform.

The second thing that does not get sufficiently read is original works. Too often, game scholars just quote from quotations or excerpts, leading to a build-up of bias. The recent discussion on the differences between what Huizinga actually meant with the “magic circle” and the way that concept was appropriated to game studies is a good example. If one reads Juul’s or Salen & Zimmerman’s descriptions of Wittgenstein or Suits, one gets a distorted picture of what they actually said – and then very likely propagates that false impression. So I think reading the actual base references should be mandatory for any serious researcher of games of any type.

ET – Do you know what concept might replace “immersion” within the next decade as it is exhausted within the discourse? With what term would you replace it, if you could?

JTH – I doubt “immersion” will be replaced, despite being very problematic. I would, however, like to examine it from many more perspectives, and to add new clarifications and potential ideas to the current discussion. For example, presence research, traditionally conducted in the context of telepresence or virtual environments, offers a lot of useful concepts that game scholars have thus far, in my opinion, neglected to take into proper account – especially on the question of immersion vs. spatiality and the sense of place. (As a great starting point, I’d recommend this article: Turner, P. & Turner, S. (2006). Place, sense of place, and presence. Presence, 15(2), 204-217.)

J. Tuomas Harviainen is a Finnish library chief information specialist, game studies researcher and designer, who specializes in live-action role-playing. His mini-larps have been run in at least 14 countries, used as training tools in schools and universities, and been translated into seven languages. He is finishing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Tampere, Finland, on role-playing games as information systems, and is an editor at the International Journal of Role-Playing.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”