Friday, June 17, 2011

Shared Fantasy, Chapter 1

So, I have started reading Shared Fantasy by Gary Alan Fine.  This is a sociological paper on the culture of gamers.  That, in itself, is not really all that interesting.  So far, his conclusions and insights have largely matched up to my own experiences in the hobby.

What is fascinating is that this book was published in 1983, and most of the research was done in 1977-1979.  As such, it provides a window into the early days of the hobby.  If you are a grognard, or just an OSR enthusiast, I strongly recommend giving it a look.

I'm going to break this post up into several parts, as I read the book.  This post focuses on the introduction and first chapter, which already has a lot of really neat quotes.

In the introduction, he is attempting (as the introduction to any book on roleplaying does) to explain just what the heck these games are.  He makes this statement:
Gaming fantasy combines the expressive freedom of fantasy with the structure characteristic of games.  It is neither as rule-governed as games, because of its fantasy components, nor as free-floating as fantasy, because of its organization, which derives from the gaming model.
This is a near-perfect elocution of a position that I've held for a while.  It is a roleplaying game.  To ignore either the roleplaying in favor of the game mechanics, or the game mechanics in favor of the roleplaying, does the whole a disservice.

(As a note, he consistently uses the term "fantasy" rather than "roleplaying" throughout the text.  As I understand it, that was fairly common at that point in the hobby.  He also uses it to draw connections to psychological studies on fantasies and imaginative play.)

Did you know that Henry Kissinger is a big fan of the Diplomacy game?  I didn't.  That's kind of cool.

The book includes a brief discussion of the origin of RPGs.  Apparently, the very first pseudo-RPG session occurred when the referee of a medieval wargame was bored, and decided to give each participant additional goals that had nothing to do with winning the battle.  Given some of the recent discussions of doing exactly the same thing to spice up 4e combat, I find that intriguing.

Most of the research takes place in the author's home of the Twin Cities.  Apparently, the local gaming club actually met at the police station, in a community room.  Very odd.  In a later section, where the author is attempting to paint a picture of the "typical" gamer, an interviewee mentions that he was very surprised that some of these people would be in a police station of their own free will.

Of course, comments similar to that also really underscore that this book was written before the "Satanic panic" had taken hold.  I haven't come across a single reference to religious issues yet.

Another great quote:
Children's fantasy is recognized as being shared, as in "playing" house, soldiers, cops and robbers, doctor, or rocket ship.  Collective fantasy is seen as childish, even when one wistfully regrets the pressures that cause one to put aside such "foolishness" for the requirements of the workaday world.  This childish tradition of collective simulation provided a basis for the development of these "adult" games.  The rulebooks and price tag provide legitimacy for what one did for free and freely in vacant lots, tree houses, and public parks.
There is one anecdote that I find amazing, and fairly puzzling:
Gamers in San Francisco whose characters belong to an evil society planned to attack and take control of a dungeon in Los Angeles.  These plans were thwarted by Bay Area gamers who had played the LA dungeon at a convention.
I don't really understand this.  Did early gamers have some kind of persistent shared world idea, that eventually morphed into things like Living Greyhawk?  What would it mean to "take control" of a dungeon?  How would you thwart that?  Does anyone know?

Tune in Monday for a continuation, possibly with answers!


  1. That's amazing to me that the book was written so early! I suppose it's easy to assume that roleplay is bigger today than it was back then, but looking at the sheer amount of merchandise and news coverage the hobby got back in the day I'm beginning to have second thoughts :D

  2. The hobby is much wider today than it was in the heyday of the '80's. You have a lot more companies involved, and each company has a lot more games available.

    But, I'm not sure we actually have that many more gamers. In raw numbers we almost certainly do. But, I suspect that the growth severely leveled off in the late '80's as the faddishness wore off. There are a LOT of ex-gamers out there, or gamers that moved away from the tabletop.