The Sociology of RPGs: A Case Study in Cultural Growth
By Bryan Caplan
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.