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.

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SWR: Orcs Nest

Shrink-Wrapped Recall – An occasional series about memories of old game shops. The rest of the series can be found here.

One of the nicer things about living with the internet is that it is now a lot easier to work out how to get to someplace new. For example, I recently learned of the existence of a game shop about thirty five minutes from my home and the first thing I did was to get on Google Maps and have a look at the address on street view. Does it still exist? Is there nearby parking? Is it accessible by road? Would it take me the best part of a day to get there? Yes, Yes, Yes, and No.

Before the arrival of the internet, it was almost impossible to answer any of these questions before setting out. If you were well-organised and careful, you might track down a map of the local area or look into the public transport routes , but more often than not you would just get yourself to someplace close to your destination and then wander around until you encountered either a map or someone who knew the location of the shop. I remember once learning of the existence of a game shop in Hammersmith and spending about three hours looking for the place only to discover that, while it had once been ‘around the corner’ from the original Games Workshop offices, its relationship to the gaming hobby had become somewhat attenuated over the passage of time.

This is why, despite becoming a regular visitor to the Virgin Game Centre within months of getting into RPGs, it took me literally years to find my way around the corner to Orcs Nest on Cambridge Circus.

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Backing onto Other Sub-Cultures

I have recently been reading Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift, a book about the early days of the RPG hobby and how RPGs became a sub-culture in their own right with their own ideas and values. I will almost certainly be posting a longer piece about the book at some point but I wanted to just jot down some ideas as they occur to me.

The Elusive Shift sifts through a load of fanzines and magazine editorials in order to re-construct the process by which RPG culture detached itself from war-gaming and became its own thing. While the book is pretty interesting all things considered, I was quite frustrated at Peterson’s reluctance to really engage with that process of cultural drift. To be fair, Peterson is not alone in this myopia, when we attach ourselves to institutions and sub-cultures we tend to internalise the narratives that said cultural institutions repeat about themselves. Regardless of whether or not these narratives are true, the fact that they are internal narratives constructed by members of the institution tends to result in narratives that treat cultural institutions as monolithic, coherent things that change according to internal forces but ultimately retain a degree of continuity.

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Origins: Orbitting the Hobby

Origins is a series of posts in which I reflect upon my earliest gaming memories as well as the events that shaped my tastes and understanding of games. The rest of the series can be found here.

I think it’s fair to say that I circled the hobby for a number of years before I ever got to play.

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