New CHID Focus Group on Tabletop Gaming (Autumn 2008)

CHID 496 E: “Paper and Dice 101: Tabletop Gaming as Storytelling, Storyplaying”
Autumn 2008
Tuesdays, 2-3:50 PM

FAMOUS AND INFAMOUS, Dungeons & Dragons was first published by TSR Hobbies, Inc. in 1974. By 1979 Fortune magazine named Dungeons & Dragons the hottest game in the US, and since then, hundreds of different role-playing games (RPGs) have followed spanning genres, systems and mechanics, histories, cultures, and technologies. However, common to most, if not all, tabletop or pen-and-paper (and some computer) RPGs is a desire for storytelling, for playing out a story, what Gary Alan Fine calls “shared fantasy.” In other words, it can be argued that RPGs are what Walter Ong calls “secondary orality,” a kind of oral tradition where characters and their adventures are rarely written down yet are collectively produced, remembered, recalled, and often retold. It is this orality, this storytelling and storyplaying that makes gaming more than a misanthrope’s escape. Right about the same time that D&D was coming to the fore, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” and argued, “For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.” What then is the critical significance of RPGs? How do we analyze and understand gaming? Why is “shared fantasy” important or vital or useful?

OUR FOCUS GROUP, as part of a continuing series generated by the Critical Gaming Project at UW, will attempt to broadly historicize and contextualize tabletop gaming in the US and will focus on the critical question of why gaming and fantasy is of cultural value. Central to the focus group will be actual game play, from basic mechanics to character creation to role-playing to adventuring. The course will meet once a week for 2 hours to engage in play, guided discussion and observation, reflective writing, and a handful of critical readings.

THE GAMES we will play are Games Workshop’s Talisman and an independent, high-fantasy role-playing game by Edmond Y. Chang called Tellings.

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