Monday, April 18, 2011

Course on RPGs: Lecture and Discussion Topics

I'm starting to settle on a list of lecture and discussion topics for the RPG course.

Here's some of the introductory material followed by a list of topics I hope to address. As you can see, I try to create titles that will help encourage attendance :) I also try to link keywords from the readings into the lecture titles.

This course focuses on tabletop role-playing games, specifically Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). We will approach the course from the dual perspective of cultural history and cultural studies. In addition to the critical analysis of academic research on RPGs, we will review popular material (texts and films), video-conference with gamers and authors, and conduct tutorials of RPG play and basic game design.

Although its antecedents have a much longer history, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first published the game in the early 1970s. Over the last 40 years, D&D has given rise to the RPG industry, been revised into several editions, withstood a moral panic in the 1980s, the advent of computer RPGs in the 1990s, and the creation of massively multi-player online games in the 2000s.

What makes this game unique? Why do people continue to play this “strange” game with nothing other than with paper, pencils, their imagination, and oddly-shaped dice?

The majority of gamers play RPGs for social reasons. They play for group interaction and affiliation, and enjoy the cooperative style of play the game engenders. Some use RPGs to escape from an increasingly fast-paced modern existence – and to break their sense of the everyday. Set within a hyper-mobile, technology-based society, they express an anti-modern sentiment by eschewing computer games and consoles in favour of face-to-face human interaction. We will examine these questions, and many others, through an analysis of academic and popular sources, as well as experiential learning.

I approach this subject from the perspective of what American fandom scholar Henry Jenkins calls the “Aca-Fan” – an academic who identifies as a fan (or in this case, gamer). I have played D&D since the early 1980s, attended gaming conventions, and participate in online fandom. My academic background, alongside my familiarity with this gamer subculture, allows me to bring a unique perspective to this course.

1. Course Introduction: What is an RPG?

2. Out of the Basement: Where Did D&D Come From?

3. Early Research on RPGs: Fantasy Games as Social Worlds

4. Satan’s Game?: Moral Panic and D&D in the 1980s

5. Liminality and the (Invisible) Rules and Roles of RPGs

6. Quantifying (and Colonizing) the Imagination: Governmentality and RPGs

7. RPG Gamers: Fandom, Fanzines, and Fan Communities

8. RPGS: Women, Animals, and the Environment

9. Why RPGs?: The Heroic Life, De Certeau, and the Everyday

10. Back to the Future: D&D and the Old School Renaissance

There you have it. Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think.


  1. I like it. Sounds like you have yourself a great little syllabus there. I wish I could be taking the class. Be sure to post up lecture notes :)

  2. Sounds wonderful. I am not familiar with De Certeau, but a quick look at Wikipedia reveal someone who I need to be more familiar with. Are you going to be using texts, or some sort of bound anthology of various PDFs?

  3. Looks great. I'm particularly interested in how you'd treat the literary origins and tropes of RPGs, and in any insight on social identity as a factor.

  4. Looks really interesting, esp. the governmentality and Certeauan bits, which make me think about everyday life around gaming and the nature of everyday life in game (I can't decide if I'd love or hate to see heterotopias in here).

    everyone's course, like everyone's game, is their own, of course, so I'm fired by ideas for guest lecture topics rather than course additions. One such would be gameworld design vs anthropology, which I see as mirror images oc each other - attempts to construct possible/plausible societies, either unpacking them or packing them up in practice. I'd assign Geertz's Negara as a model game supplement.

  5. I wrote an individual response to each of you and then blogger deleted it when I went to post. That figures. Here's the short version:

    Roger, I have to make tough decisions relative to course time. So other than to highlight the importance of fantasy fiction as a founding element of D&D I won't be able to spend as much time on it as I would like. I love that stuff though.

    Richard, how RPGs "break" notions of the everday is a prime reason why people play RPGs IMO. Unlike some, I don't view that as strict escapism. I think that's the simple answer that people point to, but I think there's more going on than that.

    I'm huge on Geertz, ethnography, thick description, and his influence on the humanities and social sciences. He's the man.

    Here's the anthology of readings and texts, in case you missed them:


    Vin Diesel, “Forward,” Harold Johnson, Steve Winter, Peter Adkison, and Ed Stark, 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons and Dragons (Wizards of the Coast, 2004): 2 pages (no pagination) (ISBN: 0-7869-4078-6)

    Erik Mona, “From the Basement to the Basic Set: The Early Years of Dungeons and Dragons,” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin eds., Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (MIT Press, 2007): 25-30 (ISBN: 0262083566)

    Terri Toles-Patkin, “Rational Coordination in the Dungeon,” Journal of Popular Culture 20, 1 (1986): 1-14. (ISSN: 0022-3840)

    Gary Alan Fine, “Fantasy Games and Social Worlds,” Simulation & Games 12, 3 (1981): 251-279 (ISSN: 00375500)

    Kurt Lancaster, “Do Role-Playing Games Promote Crime, Satanism, and Suicide Among Players as Critics Claim?,” Journal of Popular Culture 28, 2 (1994): 67-79. (ISSN: 0022-3840)

    David Walden, “Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 9, Spring (2005): 27pgs. (ISSN: 1703-289X)

    Dennis Waskul and Matt Lust, “Role-Playing and Playing Roles: The Person, Player, and Persona in Fantasy Role-Playing,” Symbolic Interaction 27, 3 (2004): 333-356. (ISSN: 01956086)

    Sean Q. Hendricks, “Incorporative Discourse Strategies in Tabletop Fantasy Role-Playing Games,” in J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, W. Keith Winkler, eds., Gaming as Culture: Essays in Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games (McFarland, 2006): 39-56 (ISBN: 9780786424368)

    Matthew Chrulew, “The Only Limitation Is Your Imagination: Quantifying the Medieval and Other Fantasies in Dungeons and Dragons,” Stephanie Trigg ed., Medievalism and the Gothic in Australian Culture (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2005): 223-240. (ISBN: 2503517021)

    Carlos Hernandez, “The Postmodern Hoard: Rates of Exchange in Role-Playing Games,” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 6, 1 (2006): np. (ISSN: 1547-4348)

    David Marshall, “A World Unto Itself: Autopoietic Systems and Secondary Worlds in Dungeons and Dragons,” in David Marshall ed., Mass Market Medieval: Essays on the Middle Ages in Popular Culture (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2007): 171-185. (ISBN: 9780786429226)

    Rebecca Borah and Inez Schaechterle, “More than Girlfriends, Geekettes, and Gladiatixes: Women, Feminism, and Fantasy Role-Playing Games,” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 6, 1 (2006): np. (ISSN: 1547-4348)

    Matthew Chrulew, “Masters of the Wild: Animals and the Environment in Dungeons and Dragons,” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 32, 1 (2006): 135-168. (ISSN: 1729-6897)

    Mike Featherstone, “The Heroic Life and the Everyday,” Theory, Culture & Society 9 (1992): 159-182 (ISSN: 0263-2764)


    Ethan Gilsdorf, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms (Lyons Press, 2010) (ISBN-10: 1599219948)

    Jennifer Grouling Cover, The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games (McFarland, 2010) (ISBN: 9780786444519)

  6. Ah, this looks interesting. Are you familiar with the RPG course done by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola a couple of years ago in the Tampere University? Their emphasis was rather different, though, and they covered LARP and electronic RPGs as well as tabletop stuff.

    I took the course and wrote a number of blog posts on it. They can be found at

  7. @nitessine,

    I wrote you a big long reply and then blogger screwed me again. Hurmph!

    Oh well, I do appreciate the link. I'll check it out.

    I'm all about old school D&D though - no excuses or apologies there. I don't want to teach a survey course on RPGs broadly conceived.

  8. Thanks for sharing the reading list. It'll doubtless come in handy at some stage. :)