Book review

The functions of role-playing games: How participants create community, solve problems, and explore identity, by Sarah Lynne Bowman

Sean C. Duncan

School of Education, Health, and Society, and Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Performance; Self

Duncan, Sean C. 2011. The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity, by Sarah Lynne Bowman [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0356.

Sarah Lynne Bowman. The functions of role-playing games: How participants create community, solve problems, and explore identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. $35.00 (216p) ISBN 978-0786447107.

[1] Sarah Bowman's The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity is a provocative foray into the world of role-playing games (RPGs), their connections to forms of role-playing and performance in other contexts, and their implications for understanding identity and learning in gaming contexts. As a serious study of the continued importance of RPGs—a genre of game ranging from tabletop contexts such as Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade to games for digital computer and console systems such as World of Warcraft and the Final Fantasy series—this text attempts to explicate how players of these games form meaningful communities, solve problems as part of role-playing, and express forms of identity through role-play. For fan studies, Bowman's emphases on narrative and identity may be fruitful points of entry to understanding RPGs as a game genre and as a creative fan practice.

[2] In what is at once an analysis of role-playing games and advocacy for their consideration as spaces for legitimate study, Bowman argues that these "games provide a healthy, useful outlet for creativity, self-expression, communal connection, and the development of important skills over time" (9). While it is not the first scholarly work to attempt to unpack the significance of role-playing games (Bowman cites Gary Alan Fine's classic Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds, among other texts), she attempts to characterize contemporary role-playing games and connect them to a wide swath of valued enterprises outside of games, from fostering social connections among youth to applications within military and governmental contexts. Throughout, Bowman's key argument is that RPGs connect to a wide set of concerns and endeavors: They are game-based performance spaces, they foster explorations of identity, and they have relatively untapped potential for applications in education. This is a commendable stance, and she successfully illustrates that the forms of play found within these games cut across a wide range of cultural and educational practices.

[3] The scope of Bowman's text is quite ambitious, both theoretically and in terms of the topic of study itself. Her approach is to first discuss the historical evolution of the form (chapter 1), connect RPGs to other forms of communal role-play (for example, improvisational theater and therapeutic role-play; chapter 2), and describe how interaction within RPGs can provide community for players (for example, by building empathy; chapter 3). She further argues that RPGs lead to the development of skills (for example, interpersonal skills through military or governmental training; chapter 4), aid problem solving (chapter 5), and guide identity play and identity alteration (chapters 6 and 7). By describing the role-playing game in a variety of contexts, Bowman is attempting to map out how we may develop a theory of the form in general, bringing to bear a sizable range of theoretical perspectives to elucidate both the ways that these games are played and how meaning is made of them by their participants. Much of the text focuses on extensive literature reviews, supplemented with interviews with RPG players and brief ethnographic notes based on her own immersion within RPG communities, and it should be most useful for readers interested in connecting games to issues of performance and identity in particular.

[4] Bowman concludes the book with a typology of nine different forms of role-playing characters (chapter 7). These types—"the Doppelganger Self," "the Devoid Self," "the Augmented Self," "the Fragmented Self," "the Repressed Self," "the Idealized Self," "the Oppositional Self," "the Experimental Self," and "the Taboo Self"—present the reader with a provocative starting point in attempting to characterize the forms of identity that evolve through the play of RPGs. For instance, the Taboo Self represents a classification of RPG play as a means to express often taboo behaviors (such as rape, incest, and transgenderism) in the relatively consequence-free environment of a game. In contrast, the Repressed Self is Bowman's attempt to characterize how some RPG players express, as she puts it, their "Inner Child" through game play, allowing the performance of the "youthful, naïve self within each of us" (170). Bowman's Selves, which are presented descriptively and supported by anecdotal evidence, are a potentially useful typology that could begin to capture the various ways by which players of RPGs make meaning of their activities within an RPG game space.

[5] I note that Bowman's argument in this final chapter is categorical in nature, less intent on furthering a theoretical argument than on presenting the reader with a set of classifications of the types of Self she finds of most interest in RPGs, and then, as she puts it, striving to "delineate the types of roles that players enact and their relationship with those roles" (177). The book in general can be seen as an extended literature review, concluding with the beginnings of an evocative classification scheme for the understanding of identity play within RPGs. Readers interested in identity in gaming in particular may find the theoretical underpinnings of Bowman's many Selves to be lacking, but her attention to the description of players' recounting of their motivations (chapter 7) is compelling. As some studies of role-playing gaming had previously insufficiently characterized the diversity of identity play that players engaged upon with RPGs, it is notable that Bowman has sought to explain the "complexities of characterization" (164) that typify RPG play of this sort. Throughout the text, she suggests that the creation of an "RPG character" cannot be understood as a disconnected, insular enterprise but should be conceived of as the meaningful development of alternate identities that can connect to valued practices outside of the game.

[6] With regards to this emphasis on identity play, a telling choice was to use the terms "Gamemaster," "Dungeonmaster," and "Storyteller" almost interchangeably throughout the text. Bowman states that "this individual was originally dubbed the Dungeonmaster (DM), though gamers often prefer using the terms Gamemaster (GM), Storyteller (ST), or Referee. The Storyteller oversees the world of the game and is often responsible for inventing the metaplot that ties the universe together" (25). This is significant—we begin with Bowman's overt discussion of a variety of RPG terminology, and then immediately (in the next sentence) implicitly adopt "Storyteller" as the default term. "Storyteller" is the preferred term in White Wolf's World of Darkness RPG series (referenced widely in the book), and it emphasizes a form of narrative-based play in which players coconstruct characters and stories with the Storyteller. This again reflects Bowman's recurring interest in performance and narrative within these games and makes clear the lens through which she inspects the potential value of role-playing games as spaces for the exploration of different conceptions of Self.

[7] We can see, then, that Bowman's Selves (for example, the Taboo Self or the Repressed Self, as discussed above) are primarily of interest to Bowman in how the player performs transgressive activities within the space of an RPG. Her analysis of the forms of performance and narrative-based identity play in these games is, in many ways, based on a consideration of one subgenre of the role-playing game: White Wolf's World of Darkness. The interviews she conducted for this work show that her participants highly valued the White Wolf/World of Darkness game system (chapter 3), and she has clearly had significant experience playing within this particular game world herself (chapter 6 includes many discussions of her personal play experiences). Though Bowman implies her claims are important for understanding many different forms of this game genre (see discussions of Dungeons & Dragons in chapter 6, for instance), much of her focus in the text is on only this one. She puts great emphasis on how storytelling and role-playing play key roles in identity expression within the World of Darkness system, while implying that these experiences are significant for understanding RPGs in general.

[8] Although Bowman convincingly argues for this RPG's importance, it is less clear how she sees her Selves (and the educational opportunities offered by RPGs) instantiating within other popular games often described as RPGs. I am left wondering how generalizable Bowman's work is to the task of understanding a variety of fan activities in other games commonly classified as RPGs, be they tabletop games such as Call of Cthulhu or digital games such as the Final Fantasy series. That is, while Bowman aptly calls attention to the RPG as a play space for the self, RPGs are a broad category of game, with a number of variants and interpretations of game rules.

[9] Though Bowman convincingly argues that RPGs can serve as play spaces for the enacting of many different Selves, the text could have been strengthened by greater attention to the constraints on the rules and structures of RPGs. Missing was any significant discussion of role-playing games as games. While her data provided many interesting examples of how players perceived their activities within RPGs, Bowman did not link these perceptions to respected game studies and game design practitioner literatures that have explored the nature of games' rule-based frameworks (say, Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen's 2003 book Rules of Play, among other texts). Bowman views games and game design almost entirely from the perspective of players' narrative and identity exploration. An analysis of the rule-based systems of these games and how they can constrain and/or shape what players do within them would have benefited her text—for example, by helping to better determine how a particular game's combat system might guide or limit an individual's expression of one of the Selves. As RPGs involve both identity play and adherence to a rule system, ultimately the reader is left wondering how Bowman's many Selves may emerge from the specific rule-based systems of the games she studied.

[10] Finally, Bowman makes broad use of theory, citing scholars including Erving Goffman, Sherry Turkle, Victor Turner, and Joseph Campbell. She does present an interesting set of possibilities for understanding RPGs, and she uses this wide range of theories to argue that RPGs are connected to other, valued practices outside of games. But though she appears to be genuinely concerned with performing interdisciplinary research, her text contains just too many illustrative examples of role-playing games' potential, linking them to a variety of theoretical approaches that might match cases and are not clearly connected to one another. This lack of connection occasionally disrupts the text's flow. Also, she does not always investigate unfamiliar scholarship very deeply. For example, in chapter 4, she cites a newspaper account of David Shaffer's research on urban planning games rather than citing his work itself. Most significantly, Bowman's text can be seen as more multidisciplinary than interdisciplinary. She employs multiple theoretical approaches to understand RPGs, but she does not connect them with one another or meaningfully synthesize them.

[11] The Functions of Role-Playing Games works best as scholarly advocacy for the legitimacy of a particular fan activity (narrative, identity-based, role-playing game play). That is, Bowman's primary goal seems to be to argue that RPGs are interesting, valuable, and worthy of study—which is certainly true, and it is important that scholarship in this area moves beyond Fine's nearly 30-year-old Shared Fantasy. However, Bowman relies inordinately on one subgenre of RPG, and she is unfortunately agnostic on key issues raised in game studies literatures that might have yielded deeper insights into the relationship of RPGs as game systems to the identity play she finds so compelling. The lack of theoretical coherence leaves the reader enticed by the potential breadth of intellectual endeavors that RPGs may touch upon, but confused as to how they interrelate.

[12] Yet as Bowman herself admits, the "volume [was] not intended to provide a comprehensive list of the various issues raised by participation in RPGs," and she believes that she has focused on "the most important and universal aspects of role-playing, regardless of format" (181). Though she convincingly argues that there is much in World of Darkness role-playing games that is worthy of study, the depth of these games and their relationship to other forms of games still remains unexplored. Perhaps in future work Bowman's Selves can be further investigated, tested in a wider variety of RPG contexts, and connected with a more meaningful discussion of RPGs as games. RPGs are certainly fascinating and compelling (for players and scholars alike), and although flawed, Bowman's text should be an impetus for scholars to move the discussion from the mere potential of these games toward further understanding the specific ways that role-playing, game narratives, and rule-based game systems can all interact to create meaning for their players.

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