The Relationship between Role-Playing and Computer Games

In the last year, I’ve reflected upon the relationship between role-playing and the rise of computer gaming, and how that relationship has shaped the current revival of tabletop gaming (or as I dubbed it in a previous post: The Renaissance.)

Role-playing games have always faced the “hard fun” problem, which is to say that participants are asked to contribute a substantial amount of creativity to the game. These RPGs, whether tabletop or otherwise, are active games, and that means they will always have a smaller audience than those games that “driven themselves.”

Even though computer games often have a direct antecedent to a role-playing, tabletop game or experience, it’s not uncommon for non-RPG games to dominate the top sales charts. Players  flock in large numbers to titles created by luddites (those people who think mechanics matter but narrative doesn’t) while more classic RPGs game garner smaller audiences.

What I’ve hypothesized is this: Programmers in  the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s modeled the computer game on the RPG table experience. Those role-playing aspects have slowly been stripped out (e.g. computer programmers don’t understand storytelling, you can’t commodify individual experiences) as game development became more corporate. However, players fundamentally gather in online spaces to play, which is simply more fun when its designed in a more individualistic way.

Of course, the luddites among us are quick to tell me that I’m wrong.

In the coming year, I’ll be writing several academic essays exploring the relationship between MMOs, community, play, and memory, and how those forces shape experiences with players.

What Inspired This Post:

These are the pieces I read that prompted to write today. I’m not sure they are related in any linear way, but I found them each to be bits of the larger narrative that formed.

When LARPs, RPGs, and Dungeons & Dragons Make the World Better

D&DWhen we were writing Dungeons & Dreamers, John and I spent a great deal of time whittling away various themes and ideas that just didn’t quite fit into the narrative. The best story that didn’t make the book was a long chapter I wrote about Richard Garriott’s mother helping a community build a prefabricated Children’s Museum.

Freed from the constraints of the narrative, it’s equally enjoyable to gather the smaller stories that wouldn’t have fit into our book but that clearly grow out of the idea of games as community.

Live Action Role-Playing Games

While we wrote about Austin’s Society for Creative Anachronism, which was really LARPing before LARPing was a thing. These days, I’ve been seeing stories about theater groups and game organizations using LARPs as a form of comedy and expression.

On Games Making You More Social

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In Which the Internet Creates Ways for Museums to Incorporate RPGs

A few days ago, I gave a lecture to at Eastern Illinois Historical Administration Symposium, a day-long conference that brings together museum curators and graduate students preparing to curate. During my talk, I mentioned the idea of using Dungeons & Dragons (or other role-playing games) as an outreach mechanism for museums, which are one of the few organizations set up to encourage and partner with RPG players.

To flesh out the idea of how that might work, I turned to the Internet. I posted this idea (and the blog post I wrote about it) into several Google+ and Reddit communities, and then moderated the discussion.

Throughout the next few days, the ideas for including RPGs and game organizations evolved into an interesting model that included events for hard core gamers and for people less inclined to play. Here are the best ideas:

For the Gamer

Host a Night at the Museum Game Event

The theme everyone kept returning to: A Night at the Museum. The ideas ranged from single night games to regular meetings (either weekly or monthly).

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When Dungeons & Dragons Went to the Museum Curators Symposium

**I’ve launched a Reddit discussion about how to incorporate RPGs and D&D at Museums. You can join the discussion there, or begin one here. I’ll recap it all in a few days.**

I should have known I'd be speaking to an agreeable crowd. The EIU campus looks like a castle.

I should have known I’d be speaking to an agreeable crowd. The EIU campus looks like a castle.

On April 12, I was invited to give a lecture at the Historical Administration Program Association Symposium at Eastern Illinois University, a yearly event that the EIU HPA alumni association puts together to examine “some aspect of current museum theories and practices.”

My lecture, “Trans Museum,” explored how transmedia storytelling can be used at museums both to reach audiences in new ways and to extend the mission of museums beyond the building walls. As an exemplar, I discussed Transmedia Indiana, a project I co-directed with Professor Jennifer George-Palilonis.

One of the most challenging aspects of explaining transmedia storytelling is helping people understand how it works. To do that, I fall back on anecdotes and metaphors to illustrate the concepts we find in transmedia stories. One of those concepts, interactive and collaborative storytelling, has its roots in Dungeons & Dragons.

There is a Dungeon Master, who is analogous to a museum curator, that leads a group through a story. However, the experiences and interactions of the players, who are analogous to the museum audience, colors and changes the way the story unfolds. The best DMs (and curators) are those who create spaces for people to experience the story without being confined to a single, direct route through that story.

This is normally where the audience sometimes gets a bit uncomfortable because it requires the curator to consider their work as more than just an expert storyteller. Instead, it asks the curator to re-align their identity to be part of the collaborative communication experience.

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Why Computer Games Don’t Make You Violent, but Frustration Might

While writing the Second Edition of Dungeons & Dreamers, John and I spent a great deal of time discussing Part IV: A Darkness Falls (read this section for free), which deals with the socio-political issues related to computer games and violence. We wanted to make sure we treated the issue fairly and that we relied upon science to guide our narrative.

When we wrote the First Edition, we spent hours pouring through research studies and interviewing experts who have studied media effects and violence from a variety of angles. We wanted to make sure we weren’t letting our own assumptions (that games don’t cause violent behavior) get in the way of what we actually happening. We were satisfied that we’d accurately portrayed what was happening: that no studies had found a causal link between playing violent computer games and actually committing violence.

Still, when national tragedies like the Columbine school shootings happened, people searched for easy…and quick…answers to the heart-wrenching question of why such a thing might happen. In general, we don’t like accepting that sometimes terrible things happen for very complex reasons that we might not understand until later. Instead, we want answers and we want them immediately.

Oftentimes this means violent computer games are blamed for these tragedies.

Ten years later we found the socio-political landscape hadn’t changed much.

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The Renaissance of TableTop Games

D&DI suppose had John and I really thought through Dungeons & Dreamers back in 2001, we might have considered creating a little cottage industry around the book’s basic premise.

As we researched and then created the spider web-like narrative plot points that connected modern computer game developers with Dungeons & Dragons, we were continually struck by how direct the link was between the two worlds.

Without fail, the developers of some of the most popular computer games had their creative spark generated by some transformative tabletop gaming experience.

It’s no accident that so many early computer RPGs were built around narrative stories, and online RPGs were built around community actions. Those were the two hallmark of great tabletop experiences: storytelling and community.

Being writers we fell in love with the simplicity and elegance of the story (although to be honest we didn’t tell that story very well until the Second Edition), but we didn’t think much beyond what that might mean once our book was finished. Instead, we lamented that fact that writing this story in 2003 probably put us on the cutting edge of this story.

We knew that game culture would eventually become something that people took more seriously, we just weren’t sure when that would be.

Fast forward to 2014, and we’ve seen the answer play out in the last few years.

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The Devil, a Vampire, and an RPG, a story of a Florida candidate

If you don’t completely love the fact that in Florida, a Republican congressional candidate faced a scandal because pictures of him LARPing hit the media, then I don’t want to know you.

Of course it’s completely silly that this is even a story. I’m far more  likely to trust somebody who can muster up the time and energy to go do some live-action role-playing because I know they have the capacity for some form of empathy. (Well, one hopes Jake Rush role plays one of those tortured soul vampires, and not a straight up killer.)

Florida’s ‘Vampire’ Congressional Candidate Might Be The Future Of American Politics

This morning, a local politics site revealed Republican Florida congressional candidate Jake Rush has an extensive history of playing gothic and “vampire”-themed live action role-playing games. While this initially seemed like a scandal, Rush didn’t shy away from the revelations about his fantasy life. He responded by issuing a statement wherein he defended his “hobby activities.”

Enjoy the news frenzy.

Some organizations take the freak angle.

Some take the keep calm and carry on angel.

Then there is the Florida angle.

Look, I have no idea who Jake Rush is, and I’m probably not going to get a very good view of him by reading all these stories, which don’t focus on him at all. Instead, each rehashes some previously reported material and then spirals into the biases of the reporter. (Aside: This, dear media, is why people don’t want to pay for your work. It’s not the Internet.)

If you’re wondering how in 2014 we’re still reading stories that paint LARPers and RPGers as weird and Otherly, take a little tongue-and-cheek romp through this piece that examines how fear is instilled in some people about the game Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons & the Devil

Since then, fundamentalists have attached satanic panic to other geek interests, like Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering, but despite the fact that its popularity has long since waned (playing D&D when you own a perfectly good Playstation is analogous to a hipster with a new Macbook writing a letter on a typewriter) Dungeons & Dragons remains the occult gateway drug par excellence in the conservative Christian consciousness.

The Importance of Roles and Playing, a Tabletop Gaming Story

If you’ve been reading the blog (or part of the Dungeons & Dreamers Google+ page), you’ll know that we’ve been having a discussion about the importance of “role playing” in role-playing games.

As a storyteller, I find the role play to be most important in any communal game. How people react to each other and to the story determine just how much fun people have.

So it’s been fun to read the pluck out of the news some of the ideas we’ve been discussing this week. For instance, the joy of introducing somebody to the idea of role playing.

The Basics of RPGs

My daughter knows nothing about RPGs. The closest she’s played is Zelda, which is honestly not a true RPG. (Don’t hurt me.) In these last few weeks, it was my pleasure to start teaching her the basics of role playing games.

We don’t just play these games at home. These are meant to be played in groups, and so these games are popping up in places not normally associated with RPGs. One place where these games are being played: libraries. While comic book stores have hosted these types of tabletop games in the past, libraries have embraced the storytelling and community components of them as well.

Library makes plans for National Library Week

“It’s always good to have these monthly gaming sessions because it’s always a delight to see the kids interact,” said library director Kevin Marsh. “These gaming sessions are always a refreshing way to bring new interest to the library.”

It’s important to remember that these games aren’t just relegated to childhood. I would venture to guess that more adults play tabletop games than younger kids (although I don’t want to have a big fight about it.)

And if you’re going to play a big, communal game of Dungeons & Dragons, what better place to do it than surrounded by people who are already drinking and making shit up anyway: the bar.

Where to Unite Your Inner Beer and Board Game Geekery

Many closet gamers, having survived puberty relatively intact, now find equal revelry in the world of craft beer. The overlap between board geek and beer geek is considerable, so an organization has formed to meet the needs of those who love a round of Settlers of Catan as much as a tulip glass of Belgian Quadrupel.

Media Tidbits about D&D

I love watching Dungeons & Dragons  and other role-playing games seep into the public consciousness. (Well, maybe not so much when South Park did it, like here or here.)

The more we see the games depicted — even when depicted with its most nerdy roots — the more people begin to internalize the idea that these game communities exist, and the more they are forced to learn what we players have known for years: the games are great fodder for storytelling.

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Oh the Larp (and RPG) School Days

Outside my fancy and lucrative writing career, I’m also a professor at Ball State University where I’m the director of our Digital Media Minor, an online-only program that teaches students digital story development and design.

We’ve spent a great deal of time searching for ways to make the program less individualistic, which is a problem facing teachers who work online, and more collaborative. As we’ve redeveloped our courses to include more collaboration, we’ve focused on ways to build constructivism, e.g. student-centered classrooms, into the digital experience.

While planning these student-led events, I find myself using collaborative concepts I first learned when I playing Dungeons & Dragons back in 1980s, long before I ever became a teacher. That’s made me more sensitive to people who are using role-playing games as teaching tools so I thought I’d continue to share.

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