REVIEW: The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson

I was an undergraduate when I first became aware of the fact that people outside the hobby wrote books about roleplaying games.

Back in the days before Amazon, these books were virtually impossible to find and if you did manage to track any of them down you discovered that had all been written decades previously for lay audience. I can still remember using an inter-library loan programme to get hold of a copy of Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy hoping for some academic-level analysis of RPGs only to discover a weird collection of anecdotes about Americans playing Empire of the Petal Throne at some point in the early 1980s.

However, in the twenty-or-so years since that first encounter with RPG scholarship, academic institutions have tried to catch up.

Like all human institutions, academia is an expansionist project. Always desperate for more money, prestige, and resources, academic departments invariably recruit more graduate students that they need and so each new generation of graduate students faces greater pressure when it comes to finding jobs, building careers, and carving out professional niches. As a result of these economic and social pressures, each new generation of academics is forced to push the boat out just that little bit further in search of virgin subject matter that can be mined for articles, books, research fellowships, and undergraduate courses.

Evidently, all of the intellectual land east of the D&D has now been settled and the covered wagons are starting to trundle across the plains of Roleplaying.

The problem is that while RPGs, the RPG industry, and the RPG hobby all exist as real-world phenomena, only certain facets of those phenomena are readily legible to academic institutions.

The first structural challenge faced by anyone pushing out the intellectual boat, is making the subject matter institutionally legible. What I mean by ‘legible’ is that academic scholarship demands a certain level of transparency meaning that, whatever your conclusions, it should be possible for other people to track down and re-examine your data. The problem is that while RPGs, the RPG industry, and the RPG hobby all exist as real-world phenomena, only certain facets of those phenomena are readily legible to academic institutions. For example, while your weekly game exists, not all of it can be subjected to academic forms of analysis. An academic might be able to ‘see’ who sits at your table, which games you play, and whatever notes and paperwork your game generated, but how do you study a game that exists primarily in the heads of people sat around a table? As a sociologist, Gary Alan Fine tried to study RPGs by talking to a group of gamers about their experiences but the limited pool of subjects and the limited scope of subject-matter resulted in a book that felt weirdly stilted and blinkered in that it gave the impression that gaming was at least partially about obsessing over the details of a fictional game world that has now been largely forgotten.

This problem of narrow focus and restricted legibility is institutionally inescapable because of the way that academics are trained and academia usually tries to overcome the problem by recognising that some subjects require a multi-disciplinary approach. Thus, a sociologist like Fine might talk to gamers about the social worlds surrounding the games while an entertainment economist might pour over TSR’s financial records, and an English scholar might look at the prevalence of colonialist themes in certain types of game.

The Elusive Shift deals with the early cultural history of RPGs. The book’s primary focus is how the first generation of gamers laid down more-or-less shared conceptual frameworks allowing them not only to make sense of their hobby, but also to make sense of their hobby in a way that was different to that used by people engaged in similar hobbies such as playing war-games and reading fantasy novels. Peterson chooses not to use either term, but one could argue that The Elusive Shift is about early attempts by gamers to forge a shared identity or subjectivity. 

Usually, when people want to talk about the birth of RPGs, their first instinct is to interview big names from back in the day. Aside from the fact that this generation is now in the process of dying off, it is worth bearing in mind that memories of what happened back in the day are likely to have been distorted not only by the habitual act of re-telling, but also by cultural shifts that have taken place within the field of RPGs. For example, one of the more frequently-recurring names in this book is that of the White Dwarf columnist Lewis Pulsipher and you would be hard pressed to recognise the amiably laidback interviewee of this British gaming podcast as the tub-thumping tactical puritan depicted by Peterson.

Rather than going straight to the horse’s mouth, Peterson studies the early cultural history of RPGs by looking at the textual content of period game books and at the kinds of things that got published in some of the fanzines and magazines that emerged in the first few years of the hobby. The idea being that while the likes of Pulsipher may not be saying stuff like “I personally consider the silly/escapist style to be both boring and inferior for any campaign” in 2021, they certainly said so at the time and looking at what people said at the time rather than what they remember believing now is a much better way of situating ideas in their appropriate historical contexts and talking about how those ideas developed over time.

The recent history of pop-cultural discourse should at the very least give us a reason to pause before we start leaping to any conclusions about what early gamers happened to think or feel.

As someone who has spent quite a lot of time not only in gaming but also in fandoms where semi-professional magazines serve as venues for debate and intellectual ferment, I must admit that Peterson’s approach makes me somewhat nervous. Recent years have seen a number of different fandoms come to terms with their own institutional biases, biases that not only gave added weight to certain kinds of voice, but also made it harder for other kinds of voices to stick in cultural memory. Peterson is not interested in acts of reclamation or ‘de-colonisation’, the actors in his play are all very male, very white, and very middle-class. I am not saying that Peterson’s book is racist and nor am I in a position to point to good work that was done at the time by women of colour, but I think the recent history of pop-cultural discourse should at the very least give us a reason to pause before we start leaping to any conclusions about what early gamers happened to think or feel.

Another reason for caution is that RPGs have always been an activity with low levels of social cohesion in so far as it has always been possible for people to be active and enthusiastic gamers without ever engaging with a broader community. The internet and social media have made it very easy to build and discover online communities but, up until the 1990s, most gaming groups operated in near-complete isolation. If the town you inhabited didn’t have either a dedicated game shop or a regular convention, chances are that your group played in isolation. As a result, I think we should resist the urge to make any inferences about the hobby based upon the discourse that played out amongst a handful of networked commentators and game designers.

As someone whose early gaming experiences happened primarily in a language other than English, I must admit that this book felt eerily parochial. I started gaming in the early 1990s and there was definitely a clear sense that linguistic differences had resulted in cultural divergence from Anglo-Saxon gaming culture for the simple reason that the only games that were accessible to us were those that been either translated from English or written in our language. If you start with different language you get different games, different magazines, different debates, different values, and end with a very different history.

It is also worth pointing out the role of institutional gatekeeping in shaping the range of opinions that get into print. The people who get their ideas into fanzines and magazines are not representative of most gamers as most gamers never feel the need to put their ideas on paper and try to get them published. In fact, a lot of the zines that Peterson references were tied to particular publishing companies meaning that the people cited in this book not only had to have both the desire and the capacity to make themselves heard, they also had to have the connections required to make the transition from the mimeographed page to the commercially printed one.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the voices that appeared in these fanzines were more conservative than the hobby at large, but you can see how these fanzines might have been used to disseminate a quite narrow range of opinions. For example, at one point Peterson writes about the near-universal attempt to use mockery and scorn to discipline a class of over-generous so-called ‘Monty Haul’ GMs who ignored designer advice about the correct ratio of risk to reward. Peterson points out (quite correctly in my view) that the urge to hand out powerful magical items might not come from GM weakness but rather from the urge to emulate fantasy novels in which characters are quite often showered with magical items simply by virtue of being the novel’s protagonist. One might argue that a similar dynamic is at work in the so-called ‘gaming horror stories’ where shame and mockery are to this day deployed to reign in cultural outliers who might want to use gaming as a means of exploring their own weird, unpalatable, or transgressive ideas. One gamer’s harrowing death-march through another gamer’s sexual fantasies is another gamer’s use of RPGs to explore ideas about identity and social boundaries. Back in those days, nobody ever defended the people who wanted to game about sex just as nobody ever questioned the need for graphically violent critical hit tables.

Given all of these considerations, I would argue that the real cultural history of RPGs is likely to be a good deal weirder and more varied than anything represented in The Elusive Shift.

I realise that I have now spent well over a thousand words complaining about Peterson’s assumptions and methodologies but while my personal experience does make me somewhat cautious about the book’s conclusions, I must admit that I really enjoyed reading the story it had to tell. So what story is The Elusive Shift trying to tell? Well… to be honest, that isn’t immediately clear.

The meat of the book lies not only in Peterson’s uncovering of the debates, but also in the way that he manages to track their development over multiple years and multiple publications.

The book is comprises six broadly-titled chapters (plus an intermezzo) and each chapter breaks down into a series of more-or-less overlapping accounts of intellectual skirmishes that played out in the pages of various books and magazines. The meat of the book lies not only in Peterson’s uncovering of the debates, but also in the way that he manages to track their development over multiple years and multiple publications. He is particularly strong when reading between the lines and realising that squabbles over ostensibly different topics can sometimes be viewed as continuations of existing arguments. For example, one of the more important debates covered in the book is the question of whether RPGs should aim to tell particular stories or whether story is something that emerges naturally from people rolling dice and making decisions. While contemporary gamers might be tempted to see this as an early expression of different tastes and preferences, Peterson points out that the disagreement can also be seen as a culture clash between the people who came to RPGs through war-gaming and those who came to it through their love of SFF.

However, while Peterson is really good at sifting through data, tracking how different ideas develop over time, and noting when ostensibly disconnected debates share a (frequently unacknowledged) bone of contention, he becomes far less confident the moment he is required to step back from the data and provide a more abstract theoretical framework or historical narrative. In truth, The Elusive Shift reads less like a polished work of cultural history than a series of extended blog posts about old fanzine arguments that have been clumped together under some broad chapter headings. Even the title itself seems poorly chosen as the idea of an “elusive shift” implies a hard-to-perceive movement from one state to another while the closest the book comes to this type of progression is suggesting that RPG culture came from nothing only to – after much debate – become nothing in particular.

When I first started gaming, the shared historical narrative was that while RPGs had started out as a form of war-gaming, they were in the process of becoming something that required such skills as the ability to act, the ability to improvise, the ability to create compelling fictional characters, and the ability to host an enjoyable dinner party. We rarely discussed the craft of roleplaying per se but when we did we spoke in terms of adding value to the session by coming up with cool characters and playing them in ways that were, if not compelling, then at least consistent. Those of us who subscribed to this aesthetics of role-playing saw people who wanted to navigate tactical engagements using miniatures and battle-maps as nothing more than knuckle-dragging primitives whose time had long since come and gone. This dichotomy in playing styles was often characterised as ‘role-playing’ vs. ‘roll-playing’ and we believed that RPG history was a long walk from the latter to the former.

The role-playing vs. roll-playing dichotomy casts a long shadow over The Elusive Shift as anyone who expresses regret over RPGs breaking with the norms and principles of traditional war-gaming is presented as a reactionary fussbudget whereas anyone who stresses the importance of story and playing a role is presented as a more progressive and forward-facing influence. To make matters worse, every time a commentator does express a preference for how things used to be done in Gygax’s basement, Peterson is quick to recall rumours according to which pro-wargame commentators would frequently ignore their own advice when sat at their own tables. Intriguingly, there are no stories about pro-narrative progressives arguing over the rules or insisting that the party could not talk their way out of violent confrontations.

I suspect that this book may have started out as an attempt to retell the early history of RPGs as a confrontation between role-players and roll-players.

Given the choice of title and the tendency to place a broad spectrum of voices into one of two rather simplistic camps, I suspect that this book may have started out as an attempt to retell the early history of RPGs as a confrontation between role-players and roll-players. Indeed, “the elusive shift” would be an excellent title for a story about how RPGs started out as an off-shoot of war-gaming only to become something more mature and complex. Thankfully, this is not the story that Peterson winds up telling.

The narrative behind The Elusive Shift only becomes evident once Peterson starts talking about the Blacow model. First articulated in 1980, the Blacow model was a less detailed but more philosophically complex forerunner to gamer typologies such as the one put forward by Robin D. Laws in Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. According to Blacow, there are four different aspects to the roleplaying hobby: Power Gaming, Role-Playing, Wargaming, and Story Telling. According to Blacow, every game and every gamer manifests all of these tendencies albeit at different levels and much of the conflict within RPG culture comes from the fact that different aspects manifest themselves as different (and sometimes incompatible) needs, assumptions, and expectations. This broad typology was then re-envisioned as a kind of political compass that placed Wargaming and Roleplaying in opposition along one axis and Power Gaming and Story Telling in opposition along another. The idea being that, as every player and every game partakes more-or-less in every aspect of the hobby, it should be possible to locate every player and every game as a set of Cartesian coordinates on a two-dimensional graph. This later visualisation doesn’t appear to have caught on (largely because it is both reductive and wrong to suggest that different aspects stand in zero-sum opposition to each other) but the idea that different people could legitimately want completely different things from a gaming experience does appear to have stuck around.

The story that The Elusive Shift struggles to tell is not one of a gradual movement from wargame-adjacent ‘roll-playing’ to fiction-adjacent ‘roleplaying’ but rather one of an unsteady shift from pluralism, to collectivism, and then back to pluralism.

The emergence of RPG culture meant that different kinds of people soon stopped seeing themselves as being different kinds of hobbyist and began seeing themselves as having a shared sub-cultural identity.

Reading between the lines of the book’s various chapters, what you find are people coming to the hobby from different cultural spaces. Despite all playing the same narrow range of games, these people played in very different ways in part because early games were not that clear on what an actual game session was supposed to look like. Upon discovering each other’s existence, early gamers started assembling a shared cultural space and tried to hash out a shared linguistic and theoretical framework that would allow different people at different tables to learn from each other’s experiences. The creation of shared cultural spaces meant that previously isolated gamers were confronted with each other’s ideas and while this lead to a lot of arguments, the act of arguing with each other in a set of shared publications, meant that people soon stopped seeing themselves as being different kinds of hobbyist and began seeing themselves as having a shared sub-cultural identity. However, while the emergence of RPG culture meant that different kinds of people started seeing themselves as having a shared identity, the disagreements never really went away. Unresolved, and unresolvable, the tensions between these different groups manifested themselves in dozens of different ways resulting in an endless stream of new games, new magazines, and new arguments until people finally started to recognise that they can’t argue each other out of wanting to play D&D like a miniatures game or Call of Cthulhu like a session of semi-improvised amateur dramatics. At this point, plurality and mutual respect was supposedly achieved as a culture-wide commitment to aesthetic pluralism.

I suspect the reason why Peterson feels a lot less confident when trying to articulate a set of narratives to fit the evolution of RPG culture is that RPG culture is manifestly not that pluralistic. Peterson himself acknowledges that the marketplace massively favours certain aspects at the expense of others and he also acknowledges that the community’s tendency to atomisation means that every new generation of gamers is cut off from history and forced to relearn old lessons and argue old points on the way to working out who they want to be and what they want to play.

Gaming is hard social work and the place where the realities of gaming happen are at the table, not in the pages of magazines like White Dwarf.

This is not a pluralism born of benign liberal tolerance let alone ludic multiculturalism, but a pluralism born of cultural isolation and institutional abandonment. Peterson pretends and many commentators like to believe that RPG culture has a shared set of social spaces but most gamers’ primary point of engagement with the hobby remains the small group of friends that sits at their table. Even the most laidback and open-minded of gamers has horror stories about playing at conventions or trying to start a new gaming group with a bunch of complete strangers. To start a new game is to run a gauntlet of differing expectations, different rule interpretations, and different levels of competence and self-awareness when it comes to being able to identify and articulate individual needs. Gaming is hard social work and the place where the realities of gaming happen are at the table, not in the pages of magazines like White Dwarf.

In truth, little has changed since the early 1980s. Back then, people played Dungeons & Dragons in radically different ways because nothing in the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks told you how to play the actual game. Forty years later, and people are still cobbling their games together based not only upon poorly-written and poorly-understood rules, but also on negotiating in-group tensions born of different people wanting different things out of an evening’s gaming. Gaming is still atomised, it’s just that nowadays gamers are more ready to recognise that their isolation is born of legitimate differences of opinion rather than one side or the other failing to play the game ‘properly’.

I think that The Elusive Shift is a really interesting book. Peterson has done a good job of digging out old fanzines and tracing how different ideas played out across their pages, but I am not sure how much the evolution of these debates actually tell us about the history of roleplaying. Academia requires things to be ‘legible’ before they can be discussed but there is a danger that in making certain things legible, you make them appear more real and substantial than they are in reality. Twenty years ago, when I finished reading Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy I pulled a face and concluded that, interesting as his observations may have been, Fine never managed to talk about anything more than one tine corner of RPG culture. Peterson’s book is very different, and a good deal more ambitious than anything attempted by Fine but finishing The Elusive Shift had me pulling that same old face: Sure, it’s kinda interesting, but at the end of the day all we’ve learned is what one tiny corner of the hobby happened to be obsessing about forty years ago.

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