In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.
The fourth interview is with sociologist Todd Nicholas Fuist. His article in the volume “The Agentic Imagination: Tabletop Role-Playing Games as a Cultural Tool” offers the notion of “agentic imagination” to explain the social interactions that pivotally shape narrative and identity within tabletop role-playing games. The essay combines ethnographic data with speculations about broader implications of role-playing research on the gaming hobby.
Here are my follow-up questions:
Evan Torner – In your article for Immersive Gameplay, you discuss a concept called “agentic imagination.” What is that exactly, and how does it help us understand how role-playing games work?
Todd Nicholas Fuist – The “agentic imagination” is a theoretical concept I have been developing out of my research on gaming. In the piece in Immersive Gameplay, I specifically describe it as “the active ability of social actors to shape their identities through immersive imagination.” There are two things you need to know as background to understand the concept, so I’ll talk about those first:
a) Some of this concept references the notion that, in sociology, we tend to think in terms of “agency” and “structure.” Structure is what is “hard” in social life: class position, the legal system, economics, politics, institutions, etc. It’s often defined as the things that pattern our behavior, relationships, and expectations. Agency, on the other hand, is what social actors can do on their own: free choice, independent thinking, being able to break out of the structures of society, so to speak. Sometimes these concepts are pitted against each other, as in “agency vs. structure.” This is a problematic way to approach it: agency and structure are two sides of the same coin. Agency only makes sense in a world that is structured, and structure only has meaning and relevancy if people can push against the edges of it sometimes.
b) The concept also draws on the sociological understanding of “identity.” Identity is, in sociology, largely about identification with social groups and how your particular pattern of identifications makes you both different from others as well as recognizable to others as a certain “kind” of person. With regard to gaming, one could say that “identification” with gaming as a hobby and a culture provides some of your “identity,” giving you and others a sense for who you are. As such, “identity” doesn’t refer to some kind of fundamental, static, core being. Your identity, in sociology, is an ongoing social process that requires active identification, either by you or others, to be a thing.
Now that we have the background, we can talk about the concept a little bit more.
I am, obviously, drawing on the idea of agency for the concept of the agentic imagination. Where does agency come from? Conversely, what stifles agency? I would strongly argue that part of what is required for agency is the ability to have some sense of how things are and how they could be. This requires a bit of a reading, perhaps an intuitive one, perhaps a conscious one, of both social structure and identity. A person might think “I am poor. I know this because the things that are unavailable to me that seem to be available to other people who live in different parts of the city than me.” That’s a reading of both social structure and identity. This person may also think “However, if I were to attend college, I could get a degree and become successful and change my lot in life.” Their ability to think and do this would represent their agency.
I would argue, however, that a large part of the background of agency comes through the ability to imagine. Can you imagine a different world? What about a different life for yourself? Can the hypothetical person in the example above imagine themselves as a doctor or an executive? Many social movements, I would suggest, have been predicated on the idea that “Another World is Possible” (to borrow the motto of the World Social Forum). The Feminist Movement, for example, involved women (and eventually men as well) imagining a world where women were able to participate in society in ways they currently were not. In my dissertation research, on progressive religious groups, a woman who is a member of the woman priest movement within Catholicism told me how soul-crushing it was to feel called to be a priest when she was a little girl but never see the female form represented on the altar or hear a woman’s voice saying mass. It was literally “unimaginable” that she could be a priest. When she heard about the woman priest movement, her perspective was radically shifted and she could suddenly imagine herself as a priest. Now, she says mass regularly at an alternative Catholic community.
This circles back around to the concept and what it has to do with role-playing. As the example above suggests, imagination is a powerful tool for shaping our identities and, as such, our ability to act in the social world. We envision possible futures, different versions of our self, and ways the world could be different. Role-playing games are a fascinating place to observe and practice this sort of agentic imagination.
One theme that has emerged through the interviews I have conducted for this project is that gamers use role-playing to “try on” various selves, model different ways of behaving, work through personal issues, connect with ideas bigger than themselves, and prefiguratively live out alternative social realities. While I’m not so naive to suggest that role-playing will end oppression or usher in some kind of new utopia, I was consistently intrigued by how many people reported to me being able to come to real understandings about who they are, what their social positioning is, how they feel about social problems, etc., through role-playing. As such, while I don’t believe that imagination is all it takes to change social structures, I do believe that imagination has liberatory potential, and the kinds of things that we feel capable of imagining shape the sorts of ways we conceptualize the world. As such, the creation of liminal spaces, such as is done when groups of people get together to role-play, where these sorts of imaginations can flow freely are potential sites of renewal and resistance for people.
ET – As a sociologist, what do you think the emerging field of game studies does well, and what could it do better?
TNF – I don’t profess to be an expert on game studies, but my exposure to it, through the International Journal of Role-Playing, the Game Studies Journal, and various books, suggests that game studies has two main strengths:
a) Authors in game studies seem to be doing some sophisticated theorizing. In my piece for Immersive Gameplay, I cite pieces by Arjoranta, Balzar, Hitchens and Drachen, and Montola that feature some interesting and useful theorizing.
b) Additionally, work in game studies seems enviably interdisciplinary. Many sub-disciplines would be thrilled to have people from so many different fields actively collaborating on their area of study.
Having said that, as a sociologist, I tend to want theorizing grounded in as much empirical data as possible, and I do feel that game studies could, as an emerging field, use more empirical research, particularly more interviews and participant-observation. I see a lot of gaming studies research that looks at the games themselves (i.e. examining the content a particular game) or theorizing out of what appears to be the author’s personal gaming experience. There’s nothing wrong with this, but gaming is a broad and varied hobby and, following audience studies media theorists such as Henry Jenkins and Ien Ang, it seems to me that we do ourselves a favor by concentrating more on the actual experiences of people who game. I would recommend Sarah Lynne Bowman’s book The Function of Role-Playing Games for a good example of qualitative empirical work into gaming.
ET – Participant-observer studies appear to be one of the best ways to do sociological work on RPGs. Are there other methodologies we could be using?
TNF – I had not really thought about this much prior to you asking this question, but something leapt immediately to mind when you asked this. In sociology, some researchers use a method called photo elicitation. This usually involves having someone take pictures of important things in their life (for example, you may ask someone to take a photo of ten things in their life that are important for their religious beliefs) and then the researcher would go through the photos with the subject, having them explain each one in turn. The idea is that this puts some power of interpretation in the hands of the interviewee and moves it away from the researcher. A researcher might ask “how do you feel when you go to church,” for example, assuming that “church” is where this person is “religious.” By asking, instead, “show me pictures of important religious things in your life,” you may find that “church” is not where this person feels religious, but other place, such as nature, their bedroom, or at work.
It seems like you could do a similar thing with gaming, but as opposed to using pictures, use gaming artifacts such as character sheets, maps, dice, and gaming books. In my research, I tend to argue that culture is best understood as being “embedded” in objects, relationships, and practices. Put simply, we tend to understand culture through things. As such, I think that interviewing someone about gaming is interesting, but actually having them pull their favorite gaming books or character sheets off their shelf and explain, say, why these particular books are their favorite, what they have meant in their life, etc. would be very revealing. I suspect that gaming artifacts like books and characters sheets, like many objects, are very much containers of relationships, culture, memories, and practices and may provide interesting data on the role gaming plays in people’s lives and how it shapes their social world and biography. This could also, as with photo elicitation, minimize the researcher’s understanding of what gaming is supposed to look like, feel like, and be about, and privilege the understanding of interviewee.
ET – How do you see RPGs as folk art and oral culture interacting with other wider social movements across the United States and, if I may, the world right now? Is there some kind of dialog between role-playing and the Occupy movement, for example?
TNF – That’s a really interesting question, and to be honest, I have no idea if there’s actual dialogue going on between any movements and the role-playing world. Having said that, I can see some points where I can imagine points of contact would be, including within the work I am doing.
“Play” and “storytelling” broadly, has become a big part of cutting edge research into social movements. I’m thinking in particular here of the work of Benjamin Shepard who wrote a book called Play, Creativity, and Social Movements: If I Can’t Dance it’s Not My Revolution, drawing on the wonderful Emma Goldman quote, as well as work by Francesca Polletta on storytelling in movements, particularly her book It was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. This work tends to discuss a number of things, but a predominant theme is how play and storytelling bring emotions into social movement participation. Playful protest can diffuse tension at a high stakes protest, it can provide a bit of levity while dealing with difficult issues, and it can dramatize people’s experiences in a way that opens the space for multiple and varied interpretations, creating dialogue around issues.
Many social movements, I would suggest, already have a role-playing aspect built in. I remember being at a mass protest event in Buffalo, New York in 2001 and at the convergence center where all the activists were meeting people were doing training that involved playing out scenarios such as peacefully confronting police officers and dealing with a combative news reporter. The idea was that we would build up the skills necessary to be able to handle these difficult situations when they happened if we tried them out in a safe space, first.
This suggests a point of connection between movement activity and role-playing, related to what I was talking about with the agentic imagination in the piece in Immersive Gameplay. Nina Eliasoph, a sociologist of social movements, analyzes how important talk about politics is in her book Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. What she finds that is so interesting is that people want to talk politics with each other, but often lack the spaces to do so. In my piece for Immersive Gameplay, I argue that gaming can provide safe, liminal spaces that are not “real” in that they take place in the shared imagined space of the game, but also not totally “fake” in that they represent actual interactions people are having with each other. It seems to me that these sorts of liminal, in-between, spaces are ideal contexts for serious talk about politics to happen, not necessarily in the way Eliasoph studies (linking the experiences of individuals to larger structural realities) but perhaps in the way Shepard and/or Polletta may understand (creating complex narratives that channel emotion and make room for dialogue). Part of what I suggest in the piece on the agentic imagination is that my interviewees were often able to work through complicated personal and social issues such as racism, sexism, and sexual identity through play in the safe space of role-playing.
On the gaming side of things, what games have this sort of liberatory potential? Theoretically, all of them, but I’d like to highlight a few. Robert Bohl’s science-fiction game Misspent Youth is very clearly designed to trigger the righteous indignation of the players. Players will spend the game feeling helpless before a powerful authority, as well as experience the excitement of direct action against that authority as the game progresses. Julia Bond Ellingboe’s Steal Away Jordan is designed to create a similar sense of feeling constrained by authority. Unlike Misspent Youth, however, Ellingboe’s game deals with the very real history of slavery in the southern U.S. I can imagine almost no better game for people to create stories where they develop empathy and experience powerful emotions with regard to a social issue than Steal Away Jordan. Joshua A.C. Newman’s game Shock allows players to create an alternate reality to exist in during the game, either dystopian or utopian, and provides rules to specifically explore the social consequences of living in such a world. If, as I suggest, imagination is an important component of liberation, then the ability to explore alternative realities and feel how they would be different than our own is a valuable tool. Finally, while I have little personal experience with them myself, I’ve heard some talk about jeepform games, which seem to place a high premium on immersively exploring a central theme. Having said all this, as mentioned in my piece in Immersive Gameplay, one of my participants said they learned about racism through playing Dungeons & Dragons. While I would suggest that certain games are more geared towards creating the kinds of liminal spaces I’m discussing here, I do believe that almost any space where people are given free reign to use their imaginations can develop liberatory potential.
To conclude and return to the original question, I would say that while I am unaware of any direct contact between social movements and role-playing, there does seem to be a number of places where social movements are exploring play and storytelling and role-playing games are confronting social and political issues. If there is any direct connection, say a social movement group that actively incorporates gaming into their work, I’d love to hear about it. If not, however, I can certainly imagine that the kinds of spaces fostered by role-playing games could have the kind of liberatory potential that scholars of social movements see in play, storytelling, and talk, and could imagine them becoming tools in movement activity in the future.
Todd Nicholas Fuist is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Loyola University, Chicago. His work is on religious communities that have messages and projects which revolve around social justice. His other academic interests include gaming and gamer culture, social movements, media, and identity.
Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”