Role playing materials, by Rafael Bienia

Amanda D. Odom

Front Range Community College, Westminster, Colorado, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Games; LARP; Live-action role-play; Tabletop games; Video games

Odom, Amanda D. 2017. Role Playing Materials, by Rafael Bienia [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25.

Rafael Bienia. Role playing materials. PhD diss., Maastricht University, 2016. 216p.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Rafael Bienia's Role Playing Materials focuses on three forms of gaming: live-action role-playing (LARPing), mixed reality games, and tabletop games. As a game designer, player, and member of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), Bienia has significant experience in these areas of gaming. Bienia begins Role Playing Materials by deconstructing the terminology of play, starting with the idea that "role playing is a hobby for people who enjoy imagining and exploring characters who are challenged with invented tasks in fictional worlds" (13). He points out, however, that any time people imagine they are someone else and consider how they would act or react as that character, they are role-playing. According to Bienia, "gaming" is a construct of games, players, and practical materials. In Role Playing Materials, the interconnectedness of games, player culture, and game studies is evident across the text. Bienia sees the research process itself as a role-playing process, which lends nuance to the discussion.

2. Analysis

[2.1] Ontological and epistemological categorization inform Bienia's larger discussion of role-playing and the role-playing process. Central to his research are Latour's concepts of action and actor. Bienia examines human, nonhuman, and material actors and actions in role-playing. In chapter 2, "Methodology and Theory," he notes that action is observable when a network of actors work together: "The pencil does not write without paper or hand, the paper does not show traces of words without pencil or hand, the hand does not write without a writing device or a piece of paper" (23). Rather than defining role-playing materials as single objects or components, Bienia provides a network-based definition that allows him to evaluate the concept across media.

[2.2] Insights in this text open up further interesting discussion of the permanence of perspective. For example, time restrictions as he worked to inhabit varying perspectives also changed his practices (such as making new or wearing old costumes) (32). His reiteration of Markus Montola's (2005) suggestion that players define game spaces and that they realize the power to do so through character agency makes compelling the juxtaposition and blending of his statuses as participant and observer, player and researcher.

[2.3] In chapter 4, "Mixed Reality Role-Playing Games," Bienia briefly details the history of merging real and virtual spaces from the 1960s on and explores the 40-year history of tabletop games. Building these histories, Bienia argues that the meaning of role-play is fluid and depends on a range of factors, including individuals, communities, sessions, and games. Given this fluidity, Bienia focuses his work on an exploration of "how…materials (actors) make role playing (agency) work in role-playing games (network)" (37). While Bienia recognizes the classic elements of role-play noted in previous scholarship (narratives, goals, and rules), his focus on role-playing's network of material actors emphasizes the ways that role-playing works. Thus, rather than offering a historical accounting of these games, he engages the games' materials as collaborative elements with narrative features.

[2.4] Bienia positions Role Playing Materials as a bridge between past and future research. According to Bienia, "Mixed reality technology pushes game development towards a vanishing of a dividing line between the digital and non-digital" (164). He argues that "actor-network theory provides one toolbox to understand these changes" (164). In studying role-playing, Bienia seeks to complement but not duplicate game studies' previously mapped territories and patterns. Role Playing Materials is "a dissertation about role playing and materials" and "about materials that are role playing" (169). In key moments, the writing alternates between the perspectives of human and nonhuman materials. In an effort to change how we know about role-playing, Bienia both shares his game-playing experience and speculates on what the game experience might be like from the perspective of other materials within the network. During a tabletop game, he personifies nonhuman elements (a lamp, a pencil, and a table) in order to examine the various places and contexts engaged in role-playing.

[2.5] Bienia argues that the symbolic facilitates play in all role-playing scenarios. Fake blood might be used to represent wounds in LARPs, avatars represent the players in video games, and a map can represent a castle in a blighted kingdom in a tabletop campaign. Detailing his experiences with an Alcyon LARP, Bienia shows how real-life significances inform player decisions. He notes that cosplayers often wear lighter garb for brief indoor events, while LARPers may select different gear to be worn outdoors. Game preparation occurs well before a LARP. During the preparation process, sleep, food, and necessary game items become part of the game's material network, expanding and aiding in the fulfillment of the game's narrative. To this end, the players dirty their new, store-bought clothes, place their canned food in earthenware bowls to make the game feel more realistic, and modify their materials to incorporate aspects of their characters, worlds, and story lines. Thus, human and nonhuman actors are interrelational collaborators and "this distribution of work makes a dichotomy between human and non-human irrelevant as a precondition to know larp" (88–89).

[2.6] Analyzing the mobile game Obscurus 2, Bienia shifts focus to address how role-playing works in mixed reality games (and those augmented to be based in virtual reality) that use smartphones and computers. Bienia touches on game modification and the cost of materials, but focuses most on smartphones. According to him, smartphones allow access to a world beyond the game and are less stable as collaborative actors within role-playing scenarios. For example, the indoor location of one player of the mobile game Obscurus 2 made it difficult for that player to receive transmissions and game updates. Consequently, all the players had to integrate the technical problems into their role-playing. Eventually they decided to all move outside. Although the material-material relation required only this small change, the example highlights ways that role-playing's material actors work with narrative actors to construct the game experience (100–101).

[2.7] Studying the single-player online role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011), Bienia explores the differences between instrumental and "pretend" play. He argues that the game's prerendered landscape and plot limit the player's possible actions and as a result require more work of the player. The prescribed responses in computer gaming are similar to those in tabletop games. However, in Skyrim, "characters can swim through icy water without effect. Interacting with the cold world does not connect the actor water to character play" (110). Modding, the modification of hardware, software, or game-operating functions, is also covered here. Player communities create and add elements to the core game to enhance the experience of playing. For example, in Skyrim, the Hypothermia mod allows weather to be a significant factor affecting armor use and actions like jumping into rivers.

[2.8] Bienia argues that players define game spaces, but that they realize this power through their interactions with game materials. For example, he describes his view of Skyrim when using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset:

[2.9] Every part of the game world falls into the "right place." However, the mushrooms on the tunnel floor are surprisingly big. When playing Skyrim with an LCD monitor, the mushrooms were small and I barely noticed them…Replacing the LCD with the virtual reality display, everything is still in proportion to the body of my character, but as the proportion between the character's body and my body changes…the environment grows and the mushrooms designed for an LCD become larger than life. (116)

[2.10] Another physical actor, the band holding the virtual reality headset on the player's head, prevents long-term game play because of the discomfort it causes. In this virtual context, the avatar's clothes do not reflect the player's actual clothing. These minor elements are key, Bienia notes, because a "larp network becomes stable when narrative, ludic, and material actors collaborate" (99). When "role-playing games integrate more and more mixed reality technology, these combined networks become more ubiquitous" (121).

3. Assessment

[3.1] Time is one boundary in a game, and all play includes edges and landscapes, from a physical map in a tabletop game to the edges of the realm past which an avatar cannot navigate in a video game. Role Playing Materials compellingly examines a range of game boundaries, as well as the places where these boundaries are thin. Throughout, Bienia acknowledges the limitations inherent in observing the fluid nature of game play through static moments. He argues that that new game scenarios and changes in materials will inevitably produce different forms of play and game study each time. He concludes that research on any "stable mixed reality role-playing game network has to include more work on relations" because "when materials collaborate in a tabletop role-playing game, materials role-play, too…Researchers who want to understand materials as collaborators in role playing need to expand their understanding of role playing as a process that includes non-human actors" (159–60).

[3.2] Role Playing Materials argues that in order to understand the complexity of role-playing games, future research must acknowledge relations between narrative, ludic, and material actors. More importantly, these interrelations must be studied without giving any one actor a preferred position. This text prepares the ground for those interested in actor-network theories, game studies, games research methods, the process of play, and even ethical considerations of game materials and manufacture.

4. Work cited

Montola, Markus. 2005. "Exploring the Edge of the Magic Circle: Defining Pervasive Games.";jsessionid=A4973F49BC1DBD687B6388A08B6B7495?doi=

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