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 (seriousleisure.net) 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.”

Wedding Boxes and Bauhaus

October 1, 2009

Reality

Before I dive into any more long-winded exegesis, here are a few more fun things I’ve observed over the past few days (in digestible bullet point form!):

• Many of the musicians who play in the subway cars for money rely on some sort of pre-recorded musical back-up these days.  Case in point:  a violinist who wore a backpack with a giant hole where the speaker poked out.

• Americans are treated far better by Germans now that Obama is president.  No B.S.

• If an American walks into a German Starbucks, they put on some hits from back home… from about 2-3 years ago.  But most Germans don’t go to Starbucks because it’s too expensive and the coffee’s not that great.

• If you’re in you’re a male teenager, it’s your God-given right, even duty, to horse around dangerously close to the edge of the S-Bahn tracks.  Just observing.

I took several important steps within the past several days that make me feel more like a real citizen of Berlin rather than some weirdo pretender (though I am admittedly a weirdo).  One was to get a library account – took 3 minutes and was totally painless except for the 25 euros I shelled out for the year…  The second was to actually think about the menu for the week, make a list, and go grocery shopping at the Turkish open-air market on Großgörschenstrasse, Lidl and Netto for the things I will need to eat later on.  I will be baking myself a cake on Friday, because it happens to be my birthday, and I can’t get good donuts here.  The third was to have my semester ticket start, which means I can use the buses, S-Bahn and subway as much as I want without having to continuously count up the change in my pocket or put it on my bank card.  What a relief to be able to decide to go somewhere and not have to debate with my sore-ass legs about whether it was really within walking distance from my apartment!  Borrowing books, finding some order in one’s eating habits, and being pre-paid to travel around on a whim – I guess that’s citizenship to me, no thanks to the Ausländerbehörde!

Fulbrighter and filmmaker Luisa Greenfield was to join me at the Berlin screening of Ulrike Ottinger’s The Korean Wedding Chest at the Akademie der Künste am Hanseatenweg last night, so I showed up unreasonably early (as is my wont) and plopped down in front of the theater.  An older couple sat near me and smiled at me, which of course prompted a conversation about who I was, etc.  Then after the man had left to get her a tea, the woman asked me if, as a German film scholar, I knew a director named Hans Jürgen Pohland.  It turns out I did:  he made the jazz drummer semi-documentary/feature film Tobby (1961), which I watched in order to be remotely informed about a paper on a panel I chaired earlier this year.  Anyway, she revealed that her husband, Siegfried Hofbauer, wrote the screenplay that Pohland barely used anyway.  Hofbauer then went on to work as a production designer on Volker Schlöndorff’s Academy-Award winning The Tin Drum (1979) and still worked as a jazz musician and painter in Berlin.  I thought it was amazing that I was one of the few people from the U.S. who’d likely seen the film and was sitting across from its screenwriter!  So he came back with the tea and we talked film for awhile, particularly about how Tobby (the drummer) then got into some major-league drugs and the film was likely the high point of his career.  Then Luisa showed up and we talked more film before, during and after the screening.  Ottinger’s comments about her own film were incredibly insightful, and I’m now determined to see that which I haven’t seen of her oeuvre.  She’s way better than Herzog, and for good reason:  she took courses from the likes of Pierre Bourdieu, Louis “I Accidentally Strangled My Wife” Althusser, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.  Her films are symbolically anthropological, for lack of a better description.  More below.

Anne Hector and I met up the next morning to go to the big Bauhaus exhibit at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, which was jam-packed with tourists of all ages.  Squeezing through loud tourist groups while trying not to knock over valuable pieces of early 20th Century art, Anne and I managed to have a good time looking at some of the original Walter Gropius pieces as well as Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer and the rest of the Bauhaus scene.  I’m convinced I would’ve either gotten along great at the Bauhaus academies, or I would’ve hated it the first day and thrown a fuzzy amorphous shape at their form/color studies!  My trail then led me once again to the HFF, because it was October 1st.  Why October 1st, you ask?  Well, I’ve decided in October – December to devote each month to a particular genre I’m researching for my dissertation:  October’s for westerns, November’s for science fiction, December’s for musicals (since, heck, it’s Christmas Time!).  So I easily picked up several western DVDs to take home and watch, surprised at how little of a hassle it was to do so.  I think I’m going to like it at my host institution; it seems designed around film geeks.

Fantasy

The Korean Wedding Chest (dir. Ulrike Ottinger, Germany 2009)

Ottinger’s previous films, particularly Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia and her China series, explore encounters between our so-called “modern” world and more traditional ways of life.  Her latest film (NOT her upcoming vampire comedy with Elfriede Jelinek Die Blutgräfin (2010)) does exactly that:  nestled in the mega-city of Seoul lies a wedding industry so seemingly “traditional” it boggles the mind.  Seoul quite literally opened itself up to her so she could document one family’s journey through the engagement process to the wedding.  As one would expect, there’s a lot of coaching by women who work in bridal shops, who seem to be the real keepers of this tradition.  A married man myself, I asked myself where Kat and I might’ve gotten the money together to have even a remotely “Korean” wedding (actually, I also cried part way through because of recollections of our own wedding — I’m presently a lonely husband waiting until the end of the month…)  No answers present themselves:  these events offer none of the flexible glamour of the American wedding.  Like any wedding, all of what transpires is carefully scripted to pull off exactly the right photo/video documentation of the event.  That being said, Ottinger’s film succeeds in defying this convention and instead showing all the human bits of imperfection at the seams of these highly traditional, scripted affairs.  You should see it for the colors alone.

White Wolves (dir. Konrad Petzold, GDR 1969)

A proper Gojko Mitic Indianerfilm, White Wolves is a fantastic mess of celluloid best watched by either a crowd of very cynical people or 5 year-olds.  Here’s the plot:  the Dakotas have been driven from their lands by General Mining Industries run by the evil capitalist Mr. Harrington.  Harrington’s so evil that he hires bandits to steal his own money from himself so he doesn’t have to pay his miners, and then continuously blames the attacks on the renegade Dakotas.  Mitic’s happy Dakota wife is, of course, melodramatically killed by the bandits, and so he takes merciless revenge on the bandits.  Now on to the important aspects like…

The Cool Gojko Mitic Shtick: At one point, he gets a hold of a box full of dynamite sticks, which he uses in combat by throwing them at people and shooting them in the air with his rifle.

The Strong Woman Scene: Most of these Indianerfilme have at least one scene to show they’re not totally misogynistic, and White Wolves is no exception.  The sheriff’s wife manages to trick a guard holding her captive into going into the saloon, at which point she steals his wagon.

The Heavy-Handed Communist Scene: The workers flat-out don’t believe the Dakotas stealing their money nonsense – in fact, no one but the villains believe it throughout the film – and demand their fair wages.  When the villain tries to ply them with cheap liquor, they turn it down outright.