Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: The Functions of Role-Playing Games

Sarah Lynne Bowman has written a fascinating book, The Functions of Role-Playing Games, published by McFarland & Company. She traces a carefully argued series of propositions, taking a wide view of roleplaying in its many aspects and incarnations and tracing its links both to pretend play, storytelling, and primeval ritual and to modern theories of psychology and sociology. Bowman states many of these significant connections as well as anyone has done so.

An early emphasis of Bowman's is the manner in which roleplaying creates community through narrative ritual, something as old as humanity. While she does not explore every interesting anthropological comparison, she does make a strong case for modern recreational roleplaying as simply a recent manifestation of human's primal need to engage in group ritual practices.

Bowman also notes out that roleplaying games exist in diverse contexts, from theater to business, from therapy to leisure, and more, and she points out that the reputation of these various forms of roleplaying enjoy varies, some neutral or positive, while others, like theater or roleplaying games and even psychological roleplaying, are sometimes viewed with suspicion. She engages in an interesting discussion of differing perceptions of play among children and adults and how this has colored society's conclusions about games, roleplaying in particular.

Moving from this, Bowman points out that roleplaying games all create opportunities for skill training and problem solving. Some games do this purposefully, while others have incidental moments of challenge, transformation, and learning. Different fields, as mentioned above and discussed in greater depth in the book, have different focuses when it comes to overt didactic elements, whether in content or style.

All such games, though, offer their participants the change to engage in identity alteration, which ties back in with ritual enactments, but Bowman's main avenue for exploring this aspect of games is psychological. She concludes that, generally speaking, this sort of activity is normal and common to many activities and that most people engage in such self-transformation will learn from the experience or come out stronger for it, but she acknowledges that identity alteration does shade into several serious mental illnesses or conditions.

The first half of The Functions of Role-Playing Games is, for me, a satisfyingly rich literature review and analysis, in which Bowman expands or definitions and understandings of roleplaying, while the second half of the book, based mostly on individual anecdotal accounts coupled with an emphasis on Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire, the games most familiar to the author, was also interesting but particular to the assembly of information she had available from her subjects and may not have broad applicability or led to real understanding of the fascinating questions she raises. For example, a significant proportion of her subjects discussed feelings of alienation, which in some cases led them to roleplaying games or fashioned their understandings of it. It is hard to compare the degree of this alienation to that experienced by the general population or to assess its actual impact on the subject's game behavior, since all of the accounts are self-reported.

That said, Bowman has provided a well-written and captivating exposition of many theoretical and cultural aspects of roleplaying, linking the games we play to many more venerable and valuable fields of study. I gained greater understanding of my own games and their players, whether adults or children, and I can now perceive more deeply and richly what occurs in such games.

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