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.Subculture
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.