How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity
Sarah Lynne Bowman
Professor Sarah Lynne Bowman (adjunct professor for several colleges) has written one of the more accessible academic role-playing research texts that I’ve encountered. It’s by no means a casual or light read, but it supplies a substantive and well-written product of intelligent research.
In the preface Bowman lays down some clear expectations of content: this is an ethnographic text. Bowman herself has participated in role-playing for over a decade, which puts her in a position of possessing insider knowledge, but having to methodically step away from that cultural participant role so those who are not role-players are still able to find the text accessible. In Valerie Raleigh Yow’s “Recording Oral History”—which is a fabulous book if you want to learn about interviewing from a text that’s not unreadable in its academic status—there’s a lot of discussion about researchers and informants, and how culture needs to be opened up in an ethnography so it is of benefit and usable by more than the community it reports on.
Bowman’s text builds in a sensible and linear fashion for the reader. Starting with the early days of role-playing in the States (such as the genesis of Dungeons & Dragons), she moves on to examining role-play in its common group forms, the ability of role-play to create community, role-play as an activity that builds skills, finally moving into the many ways role-playing allows us to play with, construct, deconstruct and examine matters of identity.
Her trinary definition of what constitutes role-playing builds on a concept that in order to be a role-playing game you must have a shared experience among multiple players, some sort of system, and develop an alternate self that they act as in this space. Something that I greatly appreciate about Bowman’s text is that she includes a number of citations of psychology and the field of theatre that enriches the information she presents to the reader, and places it in a wider context and understanding of the psychological and social benefits of role-play, and the very wide extent of experiences and types of role-playing games.
“The Functions of Role-Playing Games” may be a hard go for some readers because the text, though certainly not boring, is very dense. It’s not a book to skim, and I’m absolutely unashamed to say it’s going to take me multiple readings to feel like I’ve really read and considered everything it has to say. I found it fascinating (and useful) that Bowman included her interview questions in the book, which give you as 360 ° a few as humanly possible for a reader. There are also pages of resources, and if you feel a draw or fascination with research on the hobby, those citations are going to keep you busy for a very long time. If you’re willing and game to keep up with a dense, information packed read, Bowman’s book is a great start to reading about role-playing through academic eyes.
Want to mention a great piece of RPG research for the reading list? Conducting some right now? Tell me about it in the comments!