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A fieldwork-based dissertation exploring the importance of storytelling, play, and the imagination in the modern world.
A fieldwork-based dissertation exploring the importance of storytelling, play, and the imagination in the modern world.
156 backers pledged $6,509 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most influential cultural developments in the last fifty years, and understanding that story can provide vital insights about the role of narrative and play in the modern world.  By supporting this Kickstarter you will be a part of one of the most ambitious research projects into tabletop role-playing games yet completed. You will get to participate in this story by following my research as I conduct it, seeing the process of how research comes together, and reading what I discover when it's done.

I’m following a story that I want to share with you. It begins in the American Midwest, in the wake of the social upheavals of the 1960s, a time when the modern world seemed to be falling apart and it was not always easy to find a story to believe in. To the east, the Bronx was burning in the midst of racial tensions, with over 30,000 fires between 1973 and 1977 in the South Bronx alone. Further east than that the Vietnam War marched towards the fall of Saigon. Closer to home for the Midwesterner, the 1973 oil crisis meant the dispelling of ideas about limitless energy supplies as residents waited in long lines for rationed gasoline. The following year would bring Nixon’s resignation and the Boston police strike. It was in this context that a small group of Midwestern Americans developed a game organized around the collaborative generation of fantastic oral narratives firmly grounded in an imaginary version of the pre-modern world.

Within thirty years of the release of the original Dungeons & Dragons, over 20 million people [≈ population of Australia] had played the game, and the culture would never be the same. The ideas at the center of D&D have shaped the way we think about and experience stories, whether in video games, movies, or our everyday lives. In my research I trace the trajectories of those changes, asking questions as I go:

  •  Why do stories matter? 
  •  Why do we play? 
  •  What does it mean that in D&D storytelling happens collaboratively, and why do we use rules and dice to do it?
  •  How is it that we all imagine these stories and fantastic places together?

Some great books and articles about gaming have been written, from Gary Alan Fine’s 1983 Shared Fantasy: Roleplaying Games as Social Worlds to Jon Peterson’s 2012 Playing at the World, with numerous others in between. With a few exceptions (like Playing at the World or Michael Tresca’s The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games), they also tend to focus on a few gaming groups local to the author and to de-emphasize the historical development of the hobby. This has allowed the authors to make some really insightful observations, but like any approach this focus illuminates some things and obscures others. My goal in this research is to observe a variety of gaming groups around the United States and to think about what I learn from these groups in a historical context, both in terms of the history of the hobby and individual gamers’ own personal histories. Although I’m interested in all kinds of gaming, in my dissertation I will specifically be focusing on the story of the Old School Renaissance, which has not been studied nearly as much as other areas of the hobby.

I’m currently a PhD candidate in the anthropology department at Texas A&M University, meaning that I have completed all of my coursework and “all” I have left to do in order to complete my degree is to write my dissertation. My goal after that is to get a job teaching at a university. More broadly, I’m firmly committed to raising awareness and interest in research into role-playing games, a task for which I’m well equipped. I’ve been studying role-playing games for about seven years, and have made numerous academic presentations about gaming and geek culture more generally. I have an article forthcoming in The Journal of Popular Culture about the cultural history of D&D (submitted manuscript available here), and another on the history of gaming in Spain that will be included in the 2013 Wyrd Con Companion Book. Other articles I will be submitting for publication cover topics like what mapping in D&D can tell us about our understanding of space and place and what it means to be a geek in the 21st century. These articles are the seeds of the chapters for my dissertation, so you can see some of the work I have already completed.

Playing DCC RPG at the 2013 Popular Culture Association Conference
Playing DCC RPG at the 2013 Popular Culture Association Conference

For many of those reading this, I assume that my gaming background is at least as important as my academic background. I played my first RPG at fifth grade camp, when our counselor ran a session of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. Throughout my childhood and teenage years I played tabletop games here and there, but most of my early RPG experience came from video games like Phantasy Star or Eye of the Beholder. It wasn’t until college that I started gaming regularly, and since then I have played nearly every version of D&D and a variety of other games. My regular home campaign uses Adventurer Conqueror Kingand is centered on a version of Michael Curtis’s Stonehell dungeon. I’ve also been attending Gary Con and the North Texas RPG Con for the past three years. 

 I need your help to complete this research. I have received some research grants, covering some of my travel costs to do research at conventions up to this point, and another grant that will allow me to travel to at least one gaming group, but to produce the kind of research that I feel the gaming community deserves I will need to visit more than just one group. It’s important to note that this Kickstarter is only to cover the expenses of producing this dissertation, not living expenses.

Back in 1983, Gary Alan Fine wrote that scholars of gaming tend to be attacked on two fronts: 

“First, they are accused of not being sufficiently serious about their scholarly pursuits. Second, they are accused of alchemically transforming that which is inherently fascinating into something as dull as survey research computer tapes.” 

Despite these difficulties, I have already been able to secure some funding for my research, in the form of a $2,000 research fellowship that will allow me to do interviews and game session recordings at two sites. The funding from this Kickstarter will allow me to expand that research into additional sites and produce something worthy of the gaming community. I think this project is something that community, and the broader geek community, can get excited about. I approach my research as a geek, someone “too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness,” as John Green so eloquently put it, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

One reason that using Kickstarter for this project is so exciting to me is that as a member of the gaming community I want that community to be a part of this research. Backers will receive regular updates throughout the project and I look forward to interacting with all of you as I share my observations and ideas, both online and at gaming conventions like Gen Con, Gary Con, and NTRPG Con. Backers will also receive first access to recordings and transcripts of interviews along the way. In the end, of course, you can also receive a copy of the completed dissertation.

As I do this research and write my dissertation, there are some things that I’m firmly committed to. 

  • First, I am committed to explaining without explaining away. I take gaming, play, and stories very seriously (a seriousness sometimes expressed through silliness, which I also take seriously), and the last thing I want to do in my research is to reduce those things to something less than what they are. This means that I will not be explaining away D&D as “mere escapism,” educational tool, psychological dysfunction, or anything else. Instead, I want examine gaming in all of its complex, messy details. 
  • This leads to my second commitment: basing my work on actual play and experience. It is all too easy for scholars, myself included, to get lost in “forests” of theories and abstraction and forget the “trees” of actual experiences people have while gaming. As an anthropological folklorist, I am strongly committed to the idea of participant observation and creating work that flows out of actual experience rather than speculation done from the comfort of my rolling office chair. 
  • Part of focusing on actual pay is working with actual people. Since I started researching D&D about seven years ago, I’ve found that my fellow gamers have a lot to teach me. What that means is that I have become committed to collaborative research, working with the gamers I study rather than swooping in and assuming I understand their lives and gaming better than they do. Ultimately, the final interpretations I write are my own, but they are developed collaboratively through my relationships with the people I meet along the way.
  • All of this collaboration isn’t worth much if I hide away my data and writing away like a mad scientist, which is why I am also committed to open access and transparency. I will be providing updates about my experiences and thoughts throughout the research process, and wherever possible I will be submitting articles I write to open access publications rather than tucking them behind a pay wall. That said, I am a (very) junior scholar, and at some points I may need to submit articles to traditional academic journals. When I do this, I will try to retain rights to some version of the manuscript and make that publicly available. On the data side of things, the IRB (human research ethics board) has been very helpful, and I have received permission to make all of my recordings and transcripts publicly available. This means that other researchers and gamers will be able to use that information in their own research and form their own conclusions. I currently have a number of articles posted on my academia.edu page, and invite you to take a look at the kinds of things I have to say about gaming. You can also check out Spot Check, the weekly video series about my research.

To get a better sense of what your backing will allow in terms of research, I have put together this table of estimated expenses. Ideally, I would be at each research site for about two weeks, but that may not be possible in all cases and partially depends on the level of funding.  At some sites I will be able to stay with local gamers, while in others I may need to use a hotel for at least part of the time.

My ultimate goal would be to visit six sites for two weeks each, but I have set the initial funding goal at a point that will allow me to do 3-4 sites.  If your pledges take us past that initial target, I will use the additional funds to visit more sites, giving you access to more interviews and play session recordings and ultimately a better final product.

Add-On Rewards!

Adventurer Conqueror King $10 add-on (pdf) , $40 add-on (hardcover)  

I've been using Adventurer Conqueror King in my home campaign since it first came out about a year and a half ago, so I was very excited when Autarch, the folks who put it together, offered to support this project by offering pdfs and hard copies of the game as add-on rewards. For those who aren't familiar, the game's central refinement of the old-school gaming experience is providing comprehensive, integrated support for play across all levels of a campaign. Domain building, random encounters, and mercantile ventures all become things that help build up the campaign world. In my campaign the players have used those rules to put together a ranch where they harvest venom from poisonous animals and then sell the venom to the assassin's guild in the capital city. Even if you're not looking for a new game system, there are lots of useful bits and pieces that you can use in your game.  

The Habitition of the Stone Giant Lord and Other Adventures From Our Shared Youth   

$25 reward level (pdf), $30 add-on (hard copy) 

Ohmigosh this thing is so cool. Habitition is the latest bit of awesome from the Player Generated Map and Document Archive (PlaGMaDA). You can (and probably should) go to the website and check out the archive's many maps, character sheets, and other scraps of paper from the history of gaming. You can (and probably should) send them some of your old character sheets. You can (and probably should) consider getting a copy of this latest book, which compiles seven hand written modules from "back in the day" with an essay by Jon Peterson. It's equal parts nostalgia and old-school playability. When PlaGMaDA first acquired Habitition,

    • Bonus Goal 1, $7,500: Pulp Non-Fiction This will allow for research at 4-5 sites. If this bonus goal is reached, I will also write 25-50 page pulp/popular style summary of the dissertation.  Backers will receive this in the same format (electronic, softcover, hardcover) as the full dissertation.
  • Bonus Goal 2, $11,500: This will allow for research at 5-6 sites. If this bonus goal is reached, the summary of the dissertation will not only be written in a pulp/popular style, it will be designed to look like an article from an early twentieth century pulp magazine.

My goal is to have the dissertation completed by December of next year.  This allows me enough time to complete the field work, transcribe interviews and game sessions, and write up the analysis.  I will be transcribing and writing throughout this process, and my field work schedule obviously depends on my level of funding and the schedules of the gamers I’ll be meeting with.  Here’s where I’ll be—if you’re near any of these areas, let me know, and I’d love to meet you and throw some dice around!

November 2013: First research trip: New York, Connecticut

November 2013-February 2014: Other research trips, specifics to be determined. Possible sites include Madison, WI; St. Louis, MO; Los Angeles, CA; and Denton, TX.

November 2013: Panel on geek anthropology at the American Anthropological Association National Meeting (Chicago, IL).

March 2014: Gary Con (Lake Geneva, WI), Presentation on my research at the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association National Meeting (Chicago, IL).

June 2014: NTRPG Con (Dallas, TX)

July–December 2014: Full-time transcription, analysis, and writing.

Risks and challenges

A dissertation is a lot like a sandbox game: you start with a general sense of what's out there, but the full story doesn't emerge until you're actually exploring the world. I've been working towards this project for quite a while, and I have a good sense of what sorts of topics I'll be exploring, but as the research progresses it's likely that it will take new directions as well. My commitment to you is to bring you with me on that journey through updates, both on the Kickstarter page and through the Spot Check videos.

As I hope is clear from what I've said so far, I'm not just doing this research from the outside in; I'm a gamer myself. That said, I don't think anyone would disagree with the idea that the gaming community isn't perfect. Obviously, there may be things I say in my research about our community that you disagree with or that "air our dirty laundry." My commitment here is to tell as true a story as I can, one that serves the best interests of both gaming and scholarship to the greatest extent possible.

One aspect of this project that makes it different from other types of publications is that I do not have complete control over when the dissertation is fully complete. I have a talented committee of professors who will be grilling me on every word that I write, and ultimately it is they who will decide when the dissertation is acceptable for release. That said, I have a great relationship with my committee members and they want me to finish the project at least as much as I do. My commitment to you here is to keep you informed and to do everything I can to keep the project on schedule.

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  1. Select this reward

    Pledge $5 or more About $5

    IT'S THE JOURNEY, NOT THE DESTINATION: You will be able to follow my research progress by watching Kickstarter-exclusive bimonthly updates in the form of Spot Check, my video blog. These updates will include news from the field, interesting tidbits from game sessions and interviews, and my ongoing reflections about gaming. Additionally, you will be thanked by name in the acknowledgments section of the dissertation.

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    JUST THE FACTS, MAN: In addition to the above, you will receive the completed dissertation in a searchable pdf.

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    Pledge $25 or more About $25

    THE PLAY'S THE THING: All of the above, plus pdf copies of “The Caves of Maram Nazik,” and “Andragog’s Keep,” a one page dungeon and a module drawn from my home campaign, The Cities of Ishtamesh. Draft versions are available as soon as you pledge, final versions will be available by November 1.

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    Pledge $60 or more About $60

    ...AND IN THE DARKNESS BIND IT: All of the above, plus a cloth bound hardcover of the dissertation (shipping included)

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    Pledge $100 or more About $100

    ADDITIONALLY, THE FAQS, MAN: All of the above. Additionally, you will be invited to a 1-2 hour question and answer session using Hangouts on Google+, to be scheduled sometime midway through my research.

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    Pledge $250 or more About $250

    PLUSHIE PATRON: All of the above, plus my wife, a multiclassed Physics Teacher/Crocheter, has graciously offered to crochet a 12” plushie of a character or monster of your choice.

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    Pledge $500 or more About $500

    PARTY OF FIVE: In addition to everything above, I will run a session for you and up to four of your friends in either my home campaign or your system and module of choice, to be scheduled at your convenience.

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    Pledge $1,000 or more About $1,000

    THE (NOT QUITE YET A) DOCTOR IS IN: Everything above, and I will observe your home gaming group over the course of 2-3 video conferences (or live sessions, depending on geography), and give you a write-up similar to what I will be doing for my research. Your group may not actually be a part of the dissertation, but you will have a fun record of an anthropological view of your game!

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    Pledge $10,000 About $10,000

    WAIT, WHAT? You will receive the pleasure of knowing that I reeled in shock and disbelief at your generosity. Additionally, I will fly out to you (anywhere in the continental U.S.), give a talk on gaming at your friendly local gaming store (or other location of your choice), and run a game in either my Cities of Ishtamesh campaign or your system and module of choice.

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Funding period

- (30 days)