Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations

Edited by Sebastian Deterding and José Zagal

Routledge, 2018. ISBN:9780815369202

 

Originally conceived during discussions amongst the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) Role-Playing Studies Special Interest Group, this impressive volume represents an essential collection of essays and perspectives for any scholar currently researching, or thinking about researching, Role Playing Games (RPGs). With contributors ranging from internationally renowned academics (e.g. Staffan Björk and Sarah Lynne Bowman) to games designers (Moyra Turkington) and experts in narrative design (Whitney Beltrán), this compendium presents a multifaceted and holistic approach to the consideration of the subject.

As the editors themselves attest, the collection should be considered as a hybrid handbook and textbook; something which can be read from cover to cover and/or referred to when looking for a suitable citation or spark of inspiration. The central thesis of the book is that RPGs sit at the intersection of play, roles, games, and media culture, and the editors adopt an admirably pluralist approach in their definitions and considerations of RPGs, asking the readers (and authors) to move away from reductionist definitions, or as they put it “not asking what something RPGs are but what we can learn when we view them as a particular something” (p. 48).

The book is split into four sections. The first two offer an exploration of forms and definitions, the third section invites scholars from different fields to offer different disciplinary perspectives on RPGs, and the fourth combines several of these perspectives by presenting a range of interdisciplinary issues. With regards to the disciplinary perspectives, each of these chapters begins by introducing the reader to the field, before analysing how this specific discipline can (and has) be utilised to better consider RPGs from a different theoretical approach. These chapters do an excellent job of providing ample background for novices in the field, while providing enough analytical depth to be of interest to specialist researchers. For example, Rafael Bienia’s ‘Science and Technology Studies and Role-Playing Games’, approaches RPGs from a Science and Technology Studies perspective, in which the author first of all summarises the field, before asking the reader to consider how Actor Network Theory might be used to consider the role that non-human components (be they dice, computer monitors, or costumes etc.) have in RPGs, and how an anthropocentric ontology could (and arguably should) be rejected in favour of allowing other ontologies to present themselves.

The exploration of interdisciplinary issues in Section four is similarly well-balanced, with the different authors providing key context and background before considering how the particular issue(s) are being addressed, and what questions require further probing. In particular, Aaron Trammell’s ‘Representation and Discrimination in Role-Playing Games’  provided an honest and necessary account of representation and discrimination in RPGs, focusing on tabletop RPGs in the US to demonstrate how both designers and players still have some way to go to remove stereotypes whilst encouraging positive representations. The parallels that Trammell draws between RPGs and nineteenth century eugenics, both of which assign genetic traits such as strength and agility to particular races, are particularly sobering.

Given the sheer number of perspectives compiled within this volume the editors skilfully enable and maintain a coherent narrative whilst allowing for different voices and viewpoints to develop and flourish. It is a generous and yet congruent approach that is to be applauded. In summarising over four decades of research, whilst encouraging an interdisciplinary attitude and introducing the reader to current issues (that should serve as inspiration for future studies), this book should be considered as essential reading for any scholar wanting to incorporate RPGs of any variety into their research.


Sam Illingworth