Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Academic Study of Dungeons and Dragons

(Below is an excerpt from a larger work. I thought it might be of interest to LotGD followers. I've made a few edits of interest here and there. I'd be happy to read your questions and comments. Thanks to Benoist for getting the ball rolling.)

Despite the 40 year history of the game, and the very recent development of Game Studies as an interdisciplinary field of study, no critical mass of cultural research exists on Fantasy Role-Playing Games (FRPGs) or Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) specifically.

However, there are individual studies and pieces of research notable for their contribution to this subject. Fine’s often-cited landmark study of FRPGs as social worlds, published in 1983, is the only sustained, full-length ethnographic study on D&D subculture. Given the time period of the early 1980s, his monograph was forward-thinking in relation to the application of ethnographic methodology to an object of study from popular culture. Alas, no scholar extended Fine’s work.

With few exceptions (Toles-Patkin, 1986; Lancaster, 1994), published studies of D&D between the mid 1980s and the late 1990s came not from the developing fields of cultural studies or popular culture, but rather from psychology. These studies, somewhat stereotypically, examined the personality traits of gamers as they relate to issues of deviance and emotional instability (Simon, 1987; Derenard and Kline, 1990; Blackmon, 1994; Carter and Lester, 1998; Raghuraman, 2000). These studies found no correspondence between gamers and these personality traits.

In the last ten years, a group of young interdisciplinary scholars from around the world have sparked the study of D&D and FRPGs (Marshall, 2007; Mona, 2007; Williams, Hendricks, and Winkler, 2006; Patri, 2006; Borah and Schaechterle, 2006; Hernandez, 2006; Chrulew, 2006 and 2005; Waskul and Lust, 2004; Mackay, 2001; Ronnick, 1997). These studies likely stem from the demographic of original or second wave D&D gamers (such as myself) now in their 30s with their PhDs. In contrast, Master of Arts (MA) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) level graduate students in their 20s study MMOs almost exclusively, with little beyond a brief acknowledgement to D&D. Academic conferences and research on MMOs far outstrips the work on D&D and FRPGs today.

The above research provides a foundation, and does indeed point towards recent and increased attention from interdisciplinary scholars. However, the research on D&D/FRPGs does not constitute a critical mass of secondary academic literature.

Why does no body of research exist on this topic? I can explain this situation with each of the following three factors contributing equally to the current academic context. First, the lack of research has stemmed, at least in part, due to what Brian Sutton-Smith calls the “Triviality Barrier.” By Triviality Barrier he references that - despite politically correct claims to the contrary - not all subjects are considered appropriate for study in universities (not all subjects will get you hired either). Without question, a broadening of the definition of “appropriate” has taken place in universities in the last decade. However, the ontology of scholars stills suggests the unworthiness of D&D as a topic for study. When calls for research do come forward they emphasize ethnographic approaches - a point reiterated in the inaugural issue of Games and Culture. Second, as a subject hidden in full view, D&D subculture takes place quietly at dinner tables during weeknights or weekends and remains at the fringe, outside of the contemporary social spotlight. Finally, the D&D gaming phenomena reached its peak in the early 1980s prior to the development of academic units devoted specifically to the interdisciplinary study of popular culture subjects. By the mid-to-late 1980s, when the disciplines of Cultural Studies and Popular Culture began to coalesce, D&D had already moved to the margins and was effectively missed as an object of study.


Anonymous said...

Excellent stuff.

I think a fourth reason might be simply that the subject matter is of little or no interest to those outside the game. In order to overcome this notion, you'd need to make a strong argument that the dynamics of "the game" are somehow applicable or important to the world beyond it. Does the research into this field have any external value--a value that can't be more fully realized by exploring some other, more widely accepted activity?

Rob Kuntz said...

Very good; and no doubt a broader study will be made as the researchers ponder the online games (WoW, et al) phenomena that D&D/RPG influenced. And that will collide, though gently, with Lance's point, as well.

Kiltedyaksman said...

Lance, you are bang-on. Don't worry, that's coming. What we bring (socially, culturally, historically) to our games provides the rationale for the research - and perhaps the reason why we play games at all. I'm hopeful to bring some of those here for some preliminary feedback from the community. LotGD raises another point that there is much to be gained from a review of the MMO literature re: PnP RPGs. There's a new MIT Press book on WOW that's a good example. Cheers and thanks.

Benoist said...

I too think a further development of this field of study is inevitable, particularly when considering indeed the popularity of MMOs. Sooner or later, questions revolving around the popularity of World of Warcraft and Co will trigger further interest into the hobbies that influenced the way they are now. TRPGs and Wargames and other offshoots of the hobby will come to mind by that time.

As to the external value of TRPGs on a larger scale, it makes no doubt to me. We could be speaking here of management, of team-work and social dynamics on a micro-scale, if we only consider the game table itself. Off the top of my head, studies of the relation between these dynamics and the published sources that influence them as they relate, for instance, to the rules of a group or workplace and components like the size of said group/workplace and management/leader-employee/follower relationships would be interesting to initiate, for instance.

The type of mythologies developed around dinner tables would also be interesting to study as they relate to the spiritual relativism of the times (thinking of the works of J. Campbell here). And that's just for starters!

Heruka said...

Thoughtful and moving towards an opening-up of important territory. Thanks for the post and comments.

My tuppence worth would be a suggestion that any research or focus for study, should also take on board the key themes of psychology (of narrative, of the intrapersonal dynamics of playing a role, the interpersonal aspects of doing so in relation to others, and of group process on all levels) and the ground of being for the whole roleplaying enterprise - imagination. How does the game give us feedback about responses to events in life, as well as in the life of the imagination?

I'm currently writing a book on Trauma (I'm a psychotherapist) and I am using material from an ongoing AD&D campaign as an illustration of complex dynamics around responses to traumatic events (on the level of PCs, players, groups and reflections of the 'real lives' of participants, as well as iin 'cultural' terms, and with an eye upon the creative expression of place and 'milieu').

Fascinating areas though - and all power to everyone so engaged.