Gaming has been around for a long time. It’s easy to say that gaming is a new thing due to the rise in digital gaming, however gaming goes far beyond that. Playing tag with childhood friends is a form of play and the only difference between that and playing the latest first-person shooter on the fastest console to date is our perception of that term ‘play’. Play can range from digital gaming, to analogue gaming to real life gaming and the only difference is the ‘systems’ we use.
Digital and analogue gaming have both been around for a very long time with the latter being around the longest. Both are still rising in popularity today despite what peaks and troughs they have been through in the past and this rise in popularity is making the differences show much more than they have. From a theoretical standpoint they are both incredibly different avenues of gaming with many different aspects found, but in a different degree, within both.
Shared fantasy is the theory that people playing a game of any kind can dive into the same fantasy. A good example is people at a table playing Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax and Arneson, 1974) and talking in character at the table. At that moment person A is not talking to person B, it’s their character talking to person B’s character. This is the most prevalent example and it mostly present in most types of play. LARP (Live Action Role Play) is fundamentally based on the idea of shared fantasy. LARP is a live action game usually but not always including cosplay. People can dress up as their favourite characters or create their own for use in fantastical battles or political debates and so on. The whole idea of LARP hinges on its players sharing a fantasy. A key aspect of sharing fantasy is the suspension of belief of the real world. For example, in LARP two friends from the real world may be enemies in the game and for the fantasy to correctly flow that ‘enemy’ tag must be the forefront of how they see each other in that time. This also applies back to TTRPGs (tabletop role-playing games) in that the world the game takes place in may have completely different rules and laws to be abided by.
Roleplaying is a term used very often in the gaming circles. It is used as a genre for video games and a term for a mode of play in all games. Literally meaning playing a role, role playing is leaving who you are to become someone else temporarily. Games like Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax and Arneson, 1974) and LARP scenarios will usually always ask for some degree of role play. In video games this can be a little more complicated. RPGs (role playing games) tend to be one of two types although this is not a developed idea. A game can have a pre-established protagonist such is the case in God of War (SIE Santa Monica Studio, 2005). Kratos in the game has a very detailed backstory and origin and occupies a clear-cut role in the narrative. Players can roleplay when playing as Kratos however they are limited in choices and decision making. On the other hand in the case of games such as Divinity: Original Sin II (Larian Studios, 2017) there is an option to play a character with no backstory or pre-established past to speak of giving the player much more freedom to role play how they want. For the sake of this essay and future research these two types of role play will be separated into ‘free role play’ and ‘method role play’ (derived from the term method acting). Free role play is having total freedom with role playing and not having a pre-established lore or backstory influence a player’s decisions and going further giving the player access to make their own backstory. Method role play is like method acting where an actor (in this case the player) attempts to become the character they are given (a games protagonist) in order to role play that character and their mental state, backstory and decision making.
The magic circle is a theory that has many applications when talking about games and theory. Salen and Zimmerman (2004, pg107) say that “To play a game means entering into a magic circle…”. To summarise, this is the idea that a games conflict and world is contained in its magic circle, often referred to as a protective barrier. The magic circle is seen as a sperate world with its own rules and language. The primary example used is a game of football. Once a person is in the magic circle their language changes from ‘the ball went into the net’ to ‘that player scored a goal’. The same is true for gaming, both analogue and digital.
In analogue gaming circles rolling a 20 on a 20-sided dice is a critical hit. If someone from outside the magic circle was to view a dice being rolled without this knowledge, they may react by saying ‘that person rolled a 20 on the dice. However, someone who exists in the magic circle would reply ‘that player rolled a critical hit.’ At a table of people playing a TTRPG game it is very likely that the players will refer to each other by their character name even while not in a roleplay conversation. Critical Role (Critical Role, 2015) is a very popular live stream where a group of voice actors play through a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax and Arneson, 1974). When their dungeon master (Mathew Mercer) asks them a question he always calls them by their character name. Such as referring to his own wife, Marisha Ray by her in game name, Keyleth. This improves the depth of both shared fantasy and roleplay. Making it easier for players to act in character and helping the shared fantasy grow and continue uninterrupted.
Digital gaming is not too different. Terms do change depending on whether the player is in the magic circle however, it has less to do with role play this time around. The main scenario in which the magic circle impacts digital gaming is within esports or at least a serious level of play. When a team are coordinating and strategizing, they will use terms relevant to the game. Giving callouts that to someone outside of the magic circle would make no sense whatsoever. The aspect mentioned above about calling a player by their character name could be found but only in specific genres. In massively multiplayer online games (or MMOs) players may group up and call each other by their character name. In Star Wars: The Old Republic (BioWare, 2011) the character name is always displayed instead of the account name or a real name, so it is very easy for this to happen. Outside of MMOS it can occur in smaller multiplayer games as well, for example in Divinity: Original Sin II (Larian Studios, 2017) players will often refer to their co-op partners by their in-game character names. This has the same effect as in analogue games where it improves the roleplay experience of a player and the shared experience of the group. The fact that shared fantasy in digital games is very limited on the genre of game being played be a big limitation in comparison to TTRPGs.
Bleed is the theory that elements of play from a game can ‘bleed’ into the real world and vice versa. This almost comes hand in hand with shared fantasy and roleplaying due to the fact players are often calling each other by their in-game character name. If the conditions are set for bleed to take effect, then a player could refer to another player by their character name outside of the game. Similarly, the language found in the magic circle can also be bleed. When a player stops playing a TTRPG but then refers to normal everyday functions as if they were dice rolls or epic adventures and so on.
In TTRPGs, and some digital games that borrow heavily from TTRPG mechanics, there is a person labelled as a ‘game master (GM)’ or some other synonymous term, famously ‘dungeon master (DM)’. These are the people who guide the narrative and use rules that are either created by a game such as in Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax and Arneson, 1974) or are created by the GM when they are comfortable with TTRPG systems. This essay aims to make clear that a games master is in fact a player. Salen & Zimmerman (2004, pg300) define the word play as “Play is free movement within a more rigid structure.”, this is a very common definition and it helps to justify this ‘The GM is a player notion’. By this definition, the games master is just as much a player as the players themselves as they are expressing their free movement within a structure. Granted, the structure they abide by is much smaller and potentially a structure they helped to create but, nevertheless. The Games master is a ‘player’ as they are expressing themselves while abiding by rules.
When comparing how digital and analogue games interact with the concept of shared fantasy some obvious differences show up. Primarily, using the idea that a games master is in fact a player of the game just as much as the players themselves a point can be made that the shared fantasies found in TTRPGs are much more ‘player created’. In a digital game the designers or developers are in fact the architects of the fantasy. As mentioned previously in this essay, games like God of War (SIE Santa Monica Studio, 2005) give the main character a very clear and descriptive backstory. This impedes on the players ability to freely roleplay by prohibiting their creativity. In TTRPGs the games master is the architect. Some TTRPGs do offer a laid-out journey such as Storm Kings Thunder (Wizards of the Coast, 2016), an official adventure for their game. Even if a games master decides to run this as their adventure, they still have a lot of control and the books tend to even advise tweaking and changing things to fit the games master’s table. If the games master is running what is called a ‘homebrew’ adventure, which is simply an adventure they have created, they have full control over the experience. This ‘player created fantasy’ is fascinating. An average player of these games is almost never going to be a close friend of a developer, they could however be a close friend of the games master and therefore the games master can tailor the experience to them. The nature of TTRPGs is that the players character is completely made up by the player. This allows the character to have whatever backstory the player wants. Along with the games master being a player and an architect at the same time along with players being players and having the ability to create their characters past in a smaller scale being architects themselves everyone at the table has collectively created this shared fantasy. A more customised fantasy which has a lot of depth and cooperation from player to player is going be a lot more successful and potentially have more longevity than if it was created by a game designer.
In terms of role playing in these two very different forms of gaming there is one key difference that has been mentioned in this essay already, that being that in digital gaming it’s quite common for the player to play as a pre-established character with their own detailed backstory. Sometimes this is a hard limitation such as the case in the previously mentioned, God of War (SIE Santa Monica Studio, 2005). The character, Kratos, has a very detailed past and therefore allows no freedom to the player in this regard. Some games have a similar limitation on role play but in a much softer way. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Studios, 2011) the player takes control of a blank character, they are free to choose race, gender, and eventually what kind of warrior they will be. The problem here comes from the games plot, something unavoidable in most situations. The plot is about the players character being revealed as a dragonborn who is destined to defeat the antagonist, Alduin. This is where aspects of role play are taken away from the character. The character has no ability to influence the characters journey but even more impactful on the role play experience is most of the characters in the world know the character is the dragonborn, thereby limiting the players ability to roleplay. This is an even bigger limit when the player realises how rich and diverse the worldbuilding is in such a game and all they want to do is be a bandit or be a town guard etc. With analogue games, especially TTRPGs this soft limit could be present or not, depending on the games master’s plans. A games master could plan that the all members of the party are special in some way a la the chosen one’s cliché. They could on the other hand grant complete freedom for the players to choose their own origin. If a player wanted to be a medieval knight with a bazooka from the land of Swervy Wervy they can do, under the games master’s discretion.
The ‘freeness’ mentioned throughout this essay is closely related to player agency. Agency is described by David Thue (2010, pg1) as “…being the ability to change the course of one’s experience…”. When bringing this idea to games it is essentially the player’s ability to influence the world. Role play in this case is referring to the smaller decisions. There are two types of agency, rapid decision-making or RDM and narrative agency. RDM is the smaller interactions, a player deciding to take the long way round a mountain for example and narrative being the player having impact on the plot and the world around them. It’s clear that both types of player agency are pushing factors in both role play and shared fantasy. The more control a player has, and indeed the more ‘freedom’ the player has, influences how deep and meaningful their role play experiences are. This has a knock-on effect with shared fantasy also.
In conclusion. Both analogue and digital game avenues can be a breeding ground for both shared fantasy and roleplay. The limits places on these two aspects are different for each but can overlap at times. The idea of ‘free’ roleplay is one that would enhance the shared fantasy in many ways. If a player can do anything they want, be anyone they want then they become more invested in the shared fantasy and as a result are more likely to role play their character. Both come hand in hand, roleplay enhances the shared fantasy and the shared fantasy encourages role play. They are not however, dependent on one another. A player can be invested in the role play of a single player game, playing solo means there is no shared fantasy. Both role play and shared fantasy have many interactions with other game theories and are sometimes closely tied to them. One could argue that shared fantasy could not exist without the existence of a magic circle and indeed that roleplay could not exist without some degree of bleed in occurring. Digital gaming certainly has more limits and constraints on its role play than analogue gaming however, the success of a shared fantasy during analogue gaming is almost entirely dependent upon the games master’s approach to running the game. All role play is dependent upon the players desires which is directly linked to their player type. The longevity and success of both role play, and shared fantasy are more optimal in analogue gaming.
Bethesda 2011, Skyrim [Computer Game]
Bioware 2011, Star Wars: The Old Republic [Computer Game]
Critical Role 2015, Critical Role [Livestream Series]
Gygax, G 1974, Dungeons & Dragons [Tabletop Role Playing Game]
Larian Studios 2017, Divinity: Original Sin II [Computer Game]
Salen/Zimmerman, 2003, Rules of Play – Game Design Fundamentals [PDF] pg107, https://gamifique.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/1-rules-of-play-game-design-fundamentals.pdf Date Accessed (10/03/2020)
Salen/Zimmerman, 2003, Rules of Play – Game Design Fundamentals [PDF] pg300, https://gamifique.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/1-rules-of-play-game-design-fundamentals.pdf Date Accessed (10/03/2020)
SIE Santa Monica Studio 2018 God of War [Computer Game]
Thue, D, 2010, Player Agency and the Relevance of Decisions [PDF] pg.1, https://www.ru.is/kennarar/davidthue/pubs/2010/ThueBulitko_ICIDS_2010.pdf Date Accessed: (02.01.2020)
Wizards of the Coast (06.09.2016) Storm King’s Thunder [Resource Book]