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Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds

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This classic study still provides one of the most acute descriptions available of an often misunderstood subculture: that of fantasy role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Alan Fine immerses himself in several different gaming systems, offering insightful details on the nature of the games and the patterns of interaction among players—as well as their reasons for This classic study still provides one of the most acute descriptions available of an often misunderstood subculture: that of fantasy role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Alan Fine immerses himself in several different gaming systems, offering insightful details on the nature of the games and the patterns of interaction among players—as well as their reasons for playing.


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This classic study still provides one of the most acute descriptions available of an often misunderstood subculture: that of fantasy role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Alan Fine immerses himself in several different gaming systems, offering insightful details on the nature of the games and the patterns of interaction among players—as well as their reasons for This classic study still provides one of the most acute descriptions available of an often misunderstood subculture: that of fantasy role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Alan Fine immerses himself in several different gaming systems, offering insightful details on the nature of the games and the patterns of interaction among players—as well as their reasons for playing.

30 review for Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    The vast majority of the non-fiction works I've read were read back when I had access to a college library and tended to live in it - often to the detriment of my studies. They aren't listed in Goodreads simply because they tend to unmemorable academic titles and I forget their names until someone mentions one in some discussion, and I think, "Oh yeah. I remember that book." Fine's work might not be a particularly stellar or insightful bit of academic research, but it's still extremely valuable s The vast majority of the non-fiction works I've read were read back when I had access to a college library and tended to live in it - often to the detriment of my studies. They aren't listed in Goodreads simply because they tend to unmemorable academic titles and I forget their names until someone mentions one in some discussion, and I think, "Oh yeah. I remember that book." Fine's work might not be a particularly stellar or insightful bit of academic research, but it's still extremely valuable simply because in 1983 no one else had the guts or the foresight to consider academic research and historical documentation of the nascent gaming hobby to be important. As such he leaves behind what is probably the only contemporary historical records of the early days of gaming and the culture of early role playing groups, something that is of increasing importance as more and more of the grognards from those early days turn in their final character sheets. As a munchkin coming in to the game at the very end of that era, I can testify that Fine captures some of the essence of early gaming both good and bad. Some things a modern gaming reader will recognize as very familiar. Some arguments and particular social frictions never go away. Some things I think will seem a bit bizarre. One thing that modern gamers might not understand about the early days of D&D is that it was a frontier. And like most frontiers, by and large, gaming was largely peopled by groups of very much marginalized people. And was coming out of the '70s which made it in many ways an experimental counter-cultural lifestyle of its own before it became normalized through sheer popularity. Gaming was seen as a sort of delinquency both because it was new and a bit weird, and because the people playing it were legitimately weird and often as not anti-social in one way or the other. Comic books like 'The Knights of the Dinner Table' record the truth of that in parody, but it shouldn't be thought that because it is parody that it's really that over the top. As Homer Simpson observes, "It's funny because it is true." Groups that I knew of at the time were combining D&D with drug use, or living together in a hippy commune, or bought occult tomes so that they could really cast spells (or at least try to) while gaming, or invented weird and sometimes startlingly dangerous sorts of D&D meets LARPing. As gaming stores didn't exist in many areas, some of the earliest carriers of D&D works were occult book stores where you'd push your way through the haze of incense and other smoke to find D&D books on the shelf next to works on neo-Druidism and modern Witchcraft. I can only imagine what I'd known about if I was older. But even so I find the presentation of gaming culture in E.T. is remarkably spot on, particularly if you confine it to the younger players with little knowledge of the 70's groups, and particularly in the novelization where the references to drugs and the mother's fears regarding the older son are more explicit. Fine captures some of that in his work in an era that is just before society begins to revolt against gaming in the "Occult Scare" of the mid'80's, and really just before society even notices the gamers and before nerds really get their revenge by becoming the creators of the art - whether Game of Thrones, the Marvel Universe, or video games - that everyone else is consuming. It's hard these days to find anything in popular entertainment that hasn't been influenced by gamers, and it all starts in the groups that Fine takes the time to study. If I had to criticize, I'd say that Fine spent too much time with some of the leading game creators of that era and not enough time out in 'the wilds' of the larger community. But the very fact that someone was paying attention and took the time to try to understand what was going on is still amazing.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Michael Burnam-Fink

    Shared Fantasy is an ethnographic description of the fantasy role-playing games community circa the early 1980s, linked to a functional, if not exactly scintillating, theory of fun and games. Fine is a sociologist, and he's interesting in the workings of status in the young, male, gaming group that he studied, and also the creation of a shared culture around an imaginary world of magic, heroics, violence, and ever fickle dice. He treats RPGs as entertainment, with all the care that the subject d Shared Fantasy is an ethnographic description of the fantasy role-playing games community circa the early 1980s, linked to a functional, if not exactly scintillating, theory of fun and games. Fine is a sociologist, and he's interesting in the workings of status in the young, male, gaming group that he studied, and also the creation of a shared culture around an imaginary world of magic, heroics, violence, and ever fickle dice. He treats RPGs as entertainment, with all the care that the subject deserves--games won't save the world, they won't turn kids into satanic monsters, but they're a great way to spend and evening with your friends. This book is most valuable from a historical perspective, in that a lot of modern 'serious gaming' culture was formed in these D&D clubs, and the conflicts that Fine studies are the same as the ones argued at length on RPG.net today. Rules vs rulings; problematic players and arbitrary GMs; the troubles of moving beyond adolescent male power fantasy. There are some choice quotes from Gary Gygax when he truly was the high priest of a rapidly expanding hobby, and a lengthy section on the world of Tekumel developed by the incomparable Dr. M.A.R Baker.

  3. 5 out of 5

    John Carter McKnight

    Perhaps the best book on game culture I've read - astonishing for a 1983 book on 1979 research. A participant-observer study of three tabletop gaming groups, Fine's work has a strong theoretical component, using Goffman's frame analysis. Much of the work is still applicable, to tabletop groups and MMOs alike, as well as social virtual worlds. My copy is a forest of sticky tabs: the insights come at a swift and steady pace. A truly outstanding piece of readable academic ethnography and analysis. Perhaps the best book on game culture I've read - astonishing for a 1983 book on 1979 research. A participant-observer study of three tabletop gaming groups, Fine's work has a strong theoretical component, using Goffman's frame analysis. Much of the work is still applicable, to tabletop groups and MMOs alike, as well as social virtual worlds. My copy is a forest of sticky tabs: the insights come at a swift and steady pace. A truly outstanding piece of readable academic ethnography and analysis.

  4. 4 out of 5

    John

    This study is interesting to the gaming historian as it provides a look at the gaming scene of the late 70s largely unaffected by either short or long term nostalgia. While the author appears to have enjoyed his time playing, his attempts to present an unbiased look at the sociology of the scene leads him to include a look at the whole scene, warts and all, not in order to reveal those warts, but simply in order to look at the whole sociological picture. As a result we get a look at the games bei This study is interesting to the gaming historian as it provides a look at the gaming scene of the late 70s largely unaffected by either short or long term nostalgia. While the author appears to have enjoyed his time playing, his attempts to present an unbiased look at the sociology of the scene leads him to include a look at the whole scene, warts and all, not in order to reveal those warts, but simply in order to look at the whole sociological picture. As a result we get a look at the games being played, the superstitions held, the prevalence of “cheating” in games, the common interests held outside of gaming, the styles of role-playing present at the table, and more. While I do think that the author had an experience that was reasonably typical of the era, it was a limited experience that was not universal. The groups he participated with mostly had an atypical spread of ages from pre-adolescent to young adult. An age range probably more typical in the era he played, but one that is otherwise atypical in my experience. I do have a few observations with the benefit of decades of hindsight: On the subject of dice superstitions I think little has changed over the years, but it’s interesting to note that we now know the dice used in his era often did have manufacturing irregularities that could lead to dice that actually were “loaded.” So it’s likely that not all beliefs in “lucky” or “unlucky” dice at his table were based on superstition. The author found cheating to be ubiquitous. I think that is no longer the case. Part of the reason that cheating was ubiquitous at the time was that the games simply weren’t very good. The odds of success were skewed in ways that felt wrong. Players have a feel for what their characters should be able to do based on the fiction the games are based on, and the games of the era often made for incompetent characters. Games now are better designed to simulate the genres they are portraying, so that players no longer feel they need to cheat to keep things interesting and entertaining. Of course, some of the “cheating” that the author describes has now been baked into the game rules. Examples of “cheating” he ascribes to referees are considered normal practice. Not so much fudging dice rolls (although this is accepted by many), but the idea of changing a pre-planned encounter to better suit the situation at the table would have been considered “cheating” by some. Now it’s simply considered good game-mastering by most. The level of misogyny the author describes is appalling, and I wish he had dug a bit deeper into exploring the reasons behind it instead of dismissing it as male “locker room” style behavior. He notes that he himself did not participate other than to smile politely and sometimes laugh, but largely felt uncomfortable. This describes my own early gaming experiences when I ran into misogyny at the table, but looking back I realize that the majority behaved like I did while it was only a minority that participated actively. The author did not note this observation, but in general did not go into a great deal of detail on the misogyny present. It’s also interesting that it appears the worst of the misogyny took place not at a table dominated by teenagers, but at the game run by the then late-40 something MAR Barker himself. The excuse for the in-game behavior being that they were playing in character. The players themselves were much younger men, but that Barker allowed this kind of behavior at his table is disturbing. One final minor note not related to gaming, but related to an aside the author makes comparing JRR Tolkien to MAR Barker. I have a problem with the comparison of Tolkien and Barker both being converts to religions they were not born into. Barker converted to Islam in his early 20s, Tolkien converted to Catholicism when he was 8 because his mom converted, not, as Fine states, because he made a “theological choice, considering alternative theological systems.” He was eight. He just did what his mom did. The book overall was a lot more interesting than I expected it to be, and covers even more than I was able to touch on in this review. Unfortunately, there were also sections that I had to plow through that were more focused on sociological theory and comparison that meant little to me as I have almost no background in sociology. Overall I still recommend it to any student of the early history of role-playing games.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Abbie

    Read for my dissertation

  6. 5 out of 5

    Aldo Ojeda

    I often say that rpgs made me who I am today, which may explain my interest in the archeology of the hobby. This review then, will be not so much on the investigation by Gary Alan Fine (I believe it was well done, with honesty and the best intentions) but with the gaming subculture that he described. While reading this analysis made in 1979 (just five years after the release of the original Dungeons & Dragons) I was thinking: “man, I would love to have lived in the early days of rpgs.” It was a b I often say that rpgs made me who I am today, which may explain my interest in the archeology of the hobby. This review then, will be not so much on the investigation by Gary Alan Fine (I believe it was well done, with honesty and the best intentions) but with the gaming subculture that he described. While reading this analysis made in 1979 (just five years after the release of the original Dungeons & Dragons) I was thinking: “man, I would love to have lived in the early days of rpgs.” It was a brand new gaming experience (even the term role-playing game was not that common back then) and an enthusiastic subculture was emerging. But then, as Fine continued with his analysis, I realized that playing with straight teenage white male north-americans would not be nice, specifically with their views on women and sex (no surprise someone wrote the F.A.T.A.L. rpg under such circumstances, don’t google it please). And you can see the roots of many of the clichés that even today persist within the community and the outsiders view of it. The thing that surprised me the most was the quick expanse that role-playing games had in the early years. In just five years, the hobby expanded through all United States and had many, many members. In a time before the internet this is very surprising. It may have helped that it used the already stablished wargaming community for its expantion, but the velocity of the phenomenon reinforces my views on how a powerful tool rpgs are. Interesting times, indeed. Even if games back then were not very original and didn’t have many variations (all of them had random character generation, some sort of alignment system and many of the things introduced by D&D). That’s why the conclusions by the author feel weak. He participated and was very involved with the hobby and yet he could not see the potencial of the shared fantasy.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

    In the late 70s/early 80s, sociologist Gary Alan Fine became interested in the then-new phenomenon of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games. He spent over a year as a participant-observer in several different gaming groups, and the result is this fascinating study of an emerging subculture. What was most interesting to me was how very different many of Fine's experiences were to my own, despite the fact that I also play RPGs. Some of this may be related to time and setting. I wo In the late 70s/early 80s, sociologist Gary Alan Fine became interested in the then-new phenomenon of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games. He spent over a year as a participant-observer in several different gaming groups, and the result is this fascinating study of an emerging subculture. What was most interesting to me was how very different many of Fine's experiences were to my own, despite the fact that I also play RPGs. Some of this may be related to time and setting. I would like to think that gamers' attitudes about women, in particular, have matured since Fine conducted his study. Also, especially at first, Fine gamed with a public gaming club rather than in private homes, and I have never had this experience, so it makes sense that this setting would make a difference. It's also interesting to read the sections on individual's gaming style in light of Ron Edwards work on Creative Agenda in RPGs.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    This book is an excellently written and extensively researched sociological study of roleplaying games and the people who play them. The author's data and conclusions, while probably nothing surprising to veteran RPG players, are very interesting and well-articulated for those of us who have only a peripheral understanding of this world. The author's writing style is accessible and jaunty, but he never strays too far from theoretical and professional sources. Even though some of his characteriza This book is an excellently written and extensively researched sociological study of roleplaying games and the people who play them. The author's data and conclusions, while probably nothing surprising to veteran RPG players, are very interesting and well-articulated for those of us who have only a peripheral understanding of this world. The author's writing style is accessible and jaunty, but he never strays too far from theoretical and professional sources. Even though some of his characterizations of RPGs are now out of date (he wrote the book in 1983), many of his general observations are still true. I would recommend this book to any serious gamer who wants to hear an academic researcher's perspective on gaming, or even to anyone who has a passing interest in the sociology of leisure and games.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Michael Underwood

    This book is as old as I am, but it's important for being the first book-length analysis of tabletop role-playing. A good number of his points are still relevant, but the hobby/subculture has changed substantially since the time period of his research. If you're in tabletop RPG studies, you need to read this book. This book is as old as I am, but it's important for being the first book-length analysis of tabletop role-playing. A good number of his points are still relevant, but the hobby/subculture has changed substantially since the time period of his research. If you're in tabletop RPG studies, you need to read this book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Gregor

    Great book. It brings together a large amount of research into language and ties it all together in the broader framework of joint action.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jordan

    A fascinating academic study of gaming in the late 70s and early 80s. Despite its academic approach, Shared Fantasy is an interesting, engaging read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Thom

    An interesting read and a nice snapshot of 1983 Roleplaying Game culture. I especially liked reading more about M.A.R. Barker and Tekumel.

  13. 4 out of 5

    David

  14. 4 out of 5

    K.W. Colyard

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rob

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jukka Särkijärvi

  17. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kyle Sweeney

  20. 5 out of 5

    Becky

  21. 4 out of 5

    Pedro

  22. 5 out of 5

    Joshua

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nick Vossen

  24. 4 out of 5

    Javier

  25. 5 out of 5

    Renee (The B-Roll)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Megan

  27. 5 out of 5

    Robert A.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Smith

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sabe Jones

  30. 5 out of 5

    Staszek

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