Bryan Caplan  

The Sociology of RPGs: A Case Study in Cultural Growth

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The Kling Plan for Mortgage Fo... I Will Live to Be 87...

On recommendation of fellow gamer (and noted sociologist) Fabio Rojas, I've just read Gary Fine's Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. The book's 25 years old, but still remarkably fresh. You've got to love this passage:

Because of their complexity, these games are difficult to describe succinctly. They are a hybrid of war games, educational simulation games, and folie a deux.
A few more highlights:
Bainbridge (1976) notes that 73% of science fiction fans believed that science fiction fans are generally shy and introverted. This finding corresponds to the way in which many gamers see themselves and others. Yet role-playing is significantly different from science fiction fandom in that gaming requires active participation. Gaming is therefore a means by which former (and current) science fiction fans feel that they can overcome their shyness - by adopting alternate personae.
A great illustration of the power of exit:
As I have noted, players jokingly refer to the referee as God, but, like any god, if his demands get too imperious, he may find himself without believers. Players have the ultimate control - by leaving the game. Disputes rarely reach this point...
An interesting pattern that I doubt many economists would have noticed:
High-status players also often sit next to the referee. This places the less skilled players at the opposite end of the table, making it difficult for them to hear, to ask questions, and to participate.
With the benefit of a quarter century of hindsight, what's striking is how much more civil and sophisticated role-playing game have become.

I've never witnessed the boorish - almost feral - manners Fine documents in great detail, and by my standards, the games he describes (Empire of the Petal Throne excepted) are hackneyed at best. At least this in this hobby, cultural growth more than kept pace with economic growth. Just as comic books have finally broken the shackles of the super-hero genre, role-playing games have broken the shackles of one-dimensional medieval fantasy.

At last GenCon alone, Fab and I played everything from grunts in the Vietnam War, to stars in a soap opera, to occult investigators out of the t.v. series Supernatural. Verily, we have entered the Golden Age of the nerd.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
John Thacker writes:

Just as comic books have finally broken the shackles of the super-hero genre, role-playing games have broken the shackles of one-dimensional medieval fantasy.

Which is to say that those other genres were always there, but are becoming more popular? TSR had Boot Hill (Western) and Gamma World back right when they began D&D, after all. (D&D always had the advantage of better built up worlds and backgrounds, less one-dimensional one might say, hence the others were forgotten.) Paranormal investigators? Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu dates back to 1981. Paranoia dates to 1984, and is anything but normal medieval fantasy. And course there's all the super-hero, gothic horror, and cartoon-based RPGs.

Gen Con has always had experiences like you describe. I remember 15 years ago people talking about role-playing particular characters on the Titanic's voyage and Gen Con. However, I suspect that medieval fantasy does still dominate actual played campaigns.

Rochelle writes:

You know, if you really wanted to, you could get all your affairs in order when you're 86 and kill yourself when you're 87, thus making this type of predictor completely accurate. Or you could wait til the year after when your 88, kill yourself then, and prove it completely wrong. The only real effort it takes on your part is to not die prematurely.

kerry writes:
Just as comic books have finally broken the shackles of the super-hero genre, role-playing games have broken the shackles of one-dimensional medieval fantasy.

I have to echo everything John said above. I've been playing RPGs for 20+ years, and I cannot remember any time when I felt "shackled" by a particular genre.

Comics used to have a wide variety of genres, from romance to western to horror to hard sci-fi. Super-heroes were pretty much dying from the end of WWII until they were reborn with the Silver Age. It is interesting to note that the recent super-hero domination of the market is a result of regulation in the form of the Comics Code. This destroyed the most popular comic genres of the day (crime and horror) and created a vacuum that new superhero books eventually filled.

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