Friday, July 15, 2011

Shared Fantasy - Conclusion

So, we have finally come to the end of this journey.  This is Chapter 8, where Dr. Fine reiterates all of his points, and presents his conclusions.  I was originally assuming that this wouldn't even require a post of its own, but his summary actually produced a number of really good quotes.


The fantasy life of an individual is an important detail for a psychologist.  However, in most cases, fantasies are extremely personalized, abstract, and difficult to accurately communicate.  Fantasy gaming is unique in that it involves collaborative, communal fantasies.  The social rules that spring up to handle that collaboration and the types of fantasy realms that result can tell us a lot about what the group has in common.  Or, as Fine puts it, RPGs "are collective Rorschach tests, communal TAT cards."


Role-playing games are certainly games, but they are unlike the vast majority of games people play.  They are cooperative, open-ended, and largely abstract.  There are no "victory" conditions, per se.  It is a frequent challenge, when introducing others to RPGs, to come up with another game that they resemble.  Fine puts forward Twenty Questions.  Most people do not play Twenty Questions in a competitive way.  There is no tracking of points or winner declared.  The relationship between the person answering the questions and the people asking them is similar to the relationship between a GM and her players, in that their goals are opposed but they are not actually working against each other.  There are clear rules for guiding the game, and yet the open-ended nature of the possible questions means that those rules are often inadequate to cover all situations.

The entire point of RPGs is to have fun.  Many people even define "having fun" as the "victory condition" of RPGs.  Fine points out that putting fun as a yardstick of success has some interesting side effects.  "This means in practice that the official 'rules' are less important than the informal decisions that promote engrossment in the fantasy."  Somewhat academically stated, but it is a clear description of Rule 0.

Of course, this flexibility in rules has some interesting side effects as well.  Nearly every rule in existence, whatever the context, is flexible to some extent.  Judges (and even police) can show leniency regarding violations of the law.  A human resources department can opt to ignore certain corporate regulations to handle a specific case.  Even in other games, rules can be bent.  In a casual game of chess, the players will negotiate some informal understanding of how long a player has to choose a move, and exactly what constitutes beginning and ending a move.  Fine asserts that "game rules are not absolute, whatever their formal designation, and fantasy gaming provides a particularly graphic example of this negotiation of rules."

One final quote on games, that I particularly like:
If games are simulations of some segment of social life, then fantasy role-playing gaming with its meticulous attention to detail can almost be said to be a simulation of life itself.

Gamers are, indisputably, a subculture of our own.  We are a rather unusual subculture, though.  We are nearly entirely self-selecting, rather than being pre-admitted based on birth (such as a racial subculture) or rearing (such as a religious subculture).  We are a leisure subculture, with very few of us participating in the hobby with our careers, politics, or philosophies in mind.  We have members that span the entire spectrum from tangentially interested ("I've listened to my significant other blather on often enough to get the jokes.") to deeply involved ("I write a gaming blog.") with little internal stratification (i.e., hardcore gamers rarely sneer at casual gamers).  Our hobby is generally time-intensive, requires a significant investment of attention, and is not something we can casually share with those not in the hobby (which distinguishes it from most sports and other games).

Fine reiterates that gaming is also a male-dominated hobby, with a number of decidedly masculine traits.  Again, I think that this is less true today than it was when the book was written.  It is definitely worth thinking about, though.

Small Group Dynamics

Role-playing games are generally only played with four to ten people.  The designation of one of these people as "game master" is unusual in and of itself for small group dynamics.  It is a bit more significant than the dealer in a card game, but less separate than a referee at a sporting event.  The players will then arrange themselves in a loose hierarchy, based on charisma, experience, and volume.

However, what makes the dynamics of a gaming group particularly interesting is that the traits of the characters and events in the game also significantly impact how the players interact.  Imagine if your color in Parcheesi dictated your social status in the game.  Or your holdings in Monopoly allowed you to manipulate the turn order, or allowed you to bribe the fictional officials within the game to stack the Chance deck.  The simultaneous negotiation of status and leadership both in character and out of character makes for a rather unique laboratory.


Well, that wraps it up, folks.  I may do one or two follow-up posts on particular topics that I don't think entirely got justice in my summaries.  But, for now at least, I'm putting the book down.


  1. Thanks for putting up your notes on this seminal work, which richly deserves much more attention than it gets. It is like the Bible, which everyone holds in great reverence but few have actually examined its message.

    To sum my thoughts:

    The elements of the RPG subculture has been under corporate attack for some time by the leader of the industry seeking greater market share. The assault takes aim squarely on what made the players their own subculture in the hope of increasing the market size: shortening the time required to play beginning with character generation (starting skill packages to starting builds and limited decision-making in 4th edition); shortening the time commitment to the game through tools; and increasing the ability to casually share the game – doing both through the encouragement of short Encounter events and the appeal to the video game market, which does stratify its players from casuals to professionals who play for pay. Though I cannot make a formal co-relation, the results I see suggest an increased internal stratification that does not bode well for a game that once promoted socialization between “geeks” – by rapidly becoming a game of rules rather than a game of player trust.

    Following this trajectory and its train of thought, I will go on a controversial limb and say that fun will soon not be the main reason to play RPGs. The main reason may become to satisfy some sublimated psychological need. And the games themselves will be more socially disruptive than any of us older guys remember from our days of our mazes or monsters.

  2. I am going to strongly disagree with your assertion on two levels.

    First, I'm going to disagree that enabling casual gaming is inherently a detriment to the hobby. One of the biggest barriers to introducing new players to the hobby, and one of the biggest drags pulling established players out, has been the massive time investment necessary. It would be like saying that if you want to play golf, your only option is to sign up to play once a week, every week, and keep a cumulative score. People would find simpler alternatives that allow them to get something a lot like golf but without the commitment. This is the niche that MMO's have grabbed. You can get 60-90% of what you get out of tabletop games (depending on your priorities), but you get to do it on your schedule. WotC is looking to make it possible for people to play games in a very casual, non-committed fashion. And, a lot of people have gotten back into D&D because of the Encounters program.

    Second, I'm going to disagree that there needs to be any stratification at all between casual gamers and dedicated gamers. That only happens when dedicated gamers start referring to themselves as "real" gamers and acting in an elitist fashion. If they instead looked at themselves as simply the core of the hobby, and took on a responsibility to be welcoming to those on the fringe, the community would grow faster. If we stick with 4e and Encounters as an example, the dedicated gamers can be the DMs and the casual gamers the players. And, those gamers who want a different sort of game can find it.

    I think that you are making a fundamental error here, in assuming that a large number of new players who play in a different way will somehow hurt your choice of play style. It's simply not true. Yes, it may mean that the percentage of gamers who play the way you do drops from 60% to 20% of the population. But, that 20% of the population will actually be numerically larger than it was before. And, more importantly, you don't need to game with all the gamers. You just need to find three to five like-minded individuals. The more people that are gaming, the more likely you are to find those individuals.

    I am not at all certain I understand your last paragraph. I don't see how anyone would ever play RPGs for any reason other than fun. The only question is whether they are seeking the same type of fun as you.