Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds (Review)

Shared Fantasy is an ethnographic study of fantasy roleplayers in the Minnesota area from 1977 to 1979 by Gary Alan Fine. As this predates the moral panic of the early 1980s (James Egbert disappeared in 1979; the movie Mazes and Monsters was released in 1982) and the resultant explosion in popularity of the field, it also serves as a historical artifact of the hobby’s early days. Does this book provide a better historical understanding of roleplaying games? Will reading this book make you a better player? My answers are yes and no, respectively.

Fine GA. Shared Fantasy : Role-Playing Games As Social Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1983.

As an ethnographic study, Fine played in a large number of roleplaying sessions across multiple game systems (Dungeons & Dragons, Chivarly & Sorcery, Traveller, and Empire of the Petal Throne), gamemastered a few sessions, and interviewed players and prominent game designers. He spent most of his time at the Golden Brigade clubhouse, but also played in private games and participated in two conventions. Within the book, he covers group dynamics, individual motivations to play, how players approach their characters, and how players and gamemasters approach their collective, shared worlds.

Fine separates players into two categories. The first plays a character that is largely an extension of themselves and attempts to “win”. The second type plays a character, and the player tries to play the character accurately, even if the character choices would disagree with the player’s choices. Fine notes that the players in both cases have no trouble distinguishing reality from the game. Historically, Fine is witnessing the growing sophistication and tailoring of content to different styles of play, as Chivalry & Sorcery catered to fans who wanted a more “accurate” medieval simulation and Empire catered to those interested in exploring a far more alien world with non-traditonal influences. However, contemporary gaming literature was documenting more nuanced categories of motivations, as the literature continues to do today.

Based on contemporary reviews, Fine’s accounts of the players militarism aroused the most interest. While he noted that characters often killed, tortured, and committed sexual violence without remorse, the players were law-abiding and sometimes pacifists in real-life. (Today, this character behavior would earn the ephithet murderhobo.) In the methodological appendix, the author notes his discomfort at their actions in the game and their crude table talk, but that he played along to avoid seeming weird. A contemporary review criticizes the author for missing an opportunity to do a psychological study of the participants (versus just interviewing them and asking why they did such-and-such). From a gaming perspective, it is unclear if there were any consequences for the character’s actions to dissuade them from being sociopathic. Based on my experiences, what he describes is more players testing boundaries than a cultural practice. As evidence, when younger children are at the table, or the table has more mixed sex representation, the players self-censure to be less violent and more chaste.

As dictated by sociological models, the author describes status structures within the group, which he bases on experience, role, and age. Players with more experience (e.g. sessions) in the game are afforded more respect, have more influence in determining the group’s actions, and can select to play roles more to their liking. Gamemasters are afforded the most respect. I do not think this analysis was particularly useful, but it was likely necessary for publication. A contemporary reviewer simulataneously criticized the book for including some content to justify the scholarly nature, while also not including analyses per several psychological and sociological models… so it seems he can’t win.

This excess of methodology can be seen in the “babysitting crisis”. After the club is mentioned in the local newspaper, the gaming club saw parents dumping children at the club to play. Older members and the leadership saw this as an imposition — that they were being used for free babysitting. The leaders adopted a policy that they would not allow the kids to stay later than the city’s curfew (10 pm) and, although it seems they never had to enforce the policy, they reduced the number of kids through the mere threat.

The book analyzes this situation in terms of power and status, where the older, higher status members used their privilege to enact ageist policies. However, as any person who has tried to teach young children rules to a game has learned, maturity matters. Immature or bad players can easily ruin the game for the entire group. In fact, this was a recent thread in Knights of the Dinner Table where the players were concerned about including a younger player into a tense, high-stakes scenario. The player concerns were not around abstract notions of status, but practical concerns about maturity, knowledge of the rules, and gaming late into the night. By trying to examine everything from a sociological perspective, the analysis sometimes misconstrues more practical reality.

While the book contains many interesting anecdotes and is one of the deeper looks into the hobby at the time from the view of a semi-detached player, the contemporary gaming literature at the time was far ahead in terms of understanding players and sharing concrete advise on how to evolve and improve games.