José P. Zagal and Sebastian Deterding, eds. Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach (Routledge, 2018, 494pp, £43.99)
Reviewed by Justin Wigard (Michigan State University)
Role-Playing Game Studies offers ‘an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and transmedia synthesis of the state of the art of RPG research’. What this means is that the book provides a broad scope aimed at three guiding purposes: 1) providing a synthesis of the current state of RPG research; 2) establishing foundations for the field of RPG studies, and 3) offering clear definitions of RPG concepts, terminologies, and findings within RPG studies. This is accomplished through a transmedial approach, following the rhizomatic nature of RPGs as they emerge out of unique historical strata, work their way into games of all kinds, and move into spaces of media and culture. The topics range widely from the history of various strains of RPGs (tabletop, computer, live-action, freeform) to chapters on representation, economics and the erotic within role-playing games (though not necessarily all at once). To accomplish this, the book operates as a hybridized project, a combination textbook/handbook where each chapter represents an introductory distillation of a portion of RPG studies, whether a particular concept within RPGs or an approach to understanding them further. These all combine for an interdisciplinary and transmedial text towards understanding a sprawling and fledgling field that is, itself, interdisciplinary in nature.
The book is organized into four parts: Definitions, Forms, Disciplinary Perspectives and Interdisciplinary Issues. Zagal and Deterding offer two foundational essays as a groundwork for the volume. The two framing chapters do much of the heavy lifting in tracing the conventions of the field alongside the terminology necessary to engage with role-playing game studies. The first examines the fluid and often amorphous nature of role-playing games, citing the understudied and multi-faceted nature of RPGs as cause for marking boundaries of role-playing game studies. The second provides definitions for readers unfamiliar with role-playing games, as well as concretizing some concepts and terms in succinct ways for more proficient RPG aficionados. The two essays work in tandem, framing the sections that follow so that each chapter can be understood in context. The construction and layout of the text further lend themselves to the educational and enlightening nature of the text, featuring textboxes, graphics, data tables and even a glossary of significant key terms.
Part Two expands on the initial foundations of RPG theorizing to understand several of the most popular RPG formats. Jon Peterson finds nineteenth-century wargames to be early antecedents to modern iterations of role-playing games, eventually giving rise to participatory stories and simulations of stories. Here, Peterson highlights ‘Organized science fiction fandom’, alongside fantasy literature fandom, as significant precursors that led to Gary Gygax’s development of Dungeons & Dragons (1974). In tracing D & D’s historical antecedents, Peterson’s chapter serves as a foundation for the increasingly complex forms that RPGs have taken since Gygax’s pen-and-paper RPG was released, including computer RPGs and tabletop RPGs alongside some lesser-theorized forms like live-action RPGs. The section is bookended by a chapter by Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Jaakko Stenros and Staffan Bjӧrk, which examines not just the legacy that Dungeons & Dragons has had on RPGs, but that RPGs have had on the wider culture.
Section Three focuses on perspectives that feature extensive or significant contributions to role-playing game studies, for instance, sociology and literary studies. Each chapter introduces a discipline, covers key movements and terminology necessary for engaging with that discipline, then shows existing research within or from that discipline concerning role-playing games. The chapter on performance studies is one of the collection’s most intriguing, since it engages directly with one of the primary demarcating traits of role-playing games. Because performance is such a central concept to the RPG as a form, providing an understanding of performance as it pertains to RPGs seems like a Sisyphean effort. Yet, the authors manage to provide an entry point into this intersection, and at the same time, open the door for new paths of inquiry by complicating how performance can be thought of in relation to RPGs.
While Role-Playing Game Studies primarily serves as an introduction to and foundation for the field of role-playing game, much of its perspectives and approaches can be applied to sf studies. Part four offers the most value in this regard, as each chapter addresses common issues or concepts in role-playing games that also appear in science fiction. As an example, Karen Schrier, Evan Torner and Jessica Hammer explore the myriad ways that the concept of worldbuilding manifests within RPGs. They show RPGs to be vehicles for rich worlds in themselves as well as spaces in which players and designers can collaborate on worldbuilding. This chapter utilizes several sf RPGs, such as Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game (1987) and Fallout (1997-), to illustrate how media properties may begin with their own canonical storylines that are expanded upon in RPG forms, how RPGs can serve as origin points that branch beyond the scope of the original project in a transmedial rippling effect, and even how worldbuilding in a single RPG can affect communities outside of that game’s boundaries.
Even though Zagal and Deterding’s collection feels like a textbook in many ways, it will prove infinitely useful to those interested in the intersection of RPG studies and science fiction. Readers should not be deterred by the seemingly low proportion of sf RPGs discussed in-depth within Role-Playing Game Studies; instead, each chapter stands as a snapshot of major movements in RPGs related to the topic at hand, and in that same vein, as a jumping-off point for future inquiry. Moreover, the collection is cohesive: no single chapter or section feels weak or out of place, and they are unified through their similar rhetorical structures. On the other hand, its arrangement may deter those seeking extended treatments of fewer topics within role-playing game studies.