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1999 - New texts and new media in global youth culture: the fantasy roleplaying games.

by Hawke Robinson published Apr 25, 2005 12:00 AM, last modified Sep 17, 2015 06:10 AM
Sørensen, Anne Scott (1999). New texts and new media in global youth culture: the fantasy roleplaying games. Young, vol. 7, no. 3. <>. Psychological and sociological study from interviews with 13-16 year old boys in Danish game club. Warning: heavy use of jargon. 10 pages. [No longer online.]

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New texts and new media in global youth culture: the fantasy roleplaying games


Anne Scott Sørensen

The fantasy roleplaying games have spread from the USA to Europe during the last 15 to 20 years, and have become especially popular among boys and young men from the age of 12 to 20. As the English compound indicates, these new textual media are hybrid phenomena. They are textual media, used in free play with roles and settings, but they also contain an element of game with their use of dice. The fantasy roleplaying games can then be viewed from many different angles: as media, text, play and game; artifact as well as creative process and social activity, and as such, they constitute an evident challenge for the media and youth research focused on textual and cultural analysis.

As of yet, not much research-based literature exists on the subject, either in the Nordic countries or internationally, and the literature in existence is narrowly topical and predominantly of a (social) psychological or psychiatric nature with a focus on either the role aspect or the occult element (Fine, 1983; Richardson et al., 1991). As a researcher in media and youth questions, I consider fantasy roleplaying games in a wider context, and in this article I shall pursue the hypothesis that they can function as a sort of meta-media through which young people can relate creatively to the entire global media culture – figures, landscapes, narratives, aesthetic codes and not least, genres. I shall also discuss how highly distinctive global and local fan cultures operate around the new media, and to what extent they can be interpreted as competent communities of taste. However, the main purpose of the article is to introduce this new media through a textual analysis of some of the products, both commercial multinational products and local (Danish) fan products.

Let me start with some statements concerning the nature of the new media from a couple of dedicated Danish players.


Fantasy roleplaying games as narrative media

From observational research and from interviews with young, Danish players from the age of 13 to 16, I have learned that the media context and media aesthetics are decisive (cf. Scott Soerensen, 1997 and 1998)[i]. At the time when I interviewed the young players, they played about once a week in the local youth club and also occasionally with friends. They were ordinary, average youths without anything in common other than their interest in this particular media. In the interviews they talked about roleplaying in the following ways:


When you are roleplaying, you are the one who is there, and that is the most important part, that you make the decisions, and so on, you cannot just put the book aside, you yourself are part of creating the story (…) you create the adventure, that is part of what makes it fun, I think (Aske, 16 years old).


You identify yourself with it, (…), if you are playing on the computer, you also get to decide something, but, for instance, if you are watching television, then you don’t get to decide, and it can be a bit harder to identify with it. I think roleplaying is the best kind of entertainment, or how should I put it (Jacob, 15 years old).


 (…) what is wrong about watching a film is that you think ’oh no, why does Indiana Jones do that, he should have guessed there is a trap there’, and you can’t do anything about it at all. When you are playing a computer game, you only have a few limited choices – like I choose to attack – but in roleplaying, I can do whatever I want (Sune, 16 years old).


The quotations show that the players themselves perceive the fantasy roleplaying games as fictitious and narrative media in line with books, television, films or computer games. According to the players, what distinguishes the fantasy roleplaying games is the degree of interactivity – you are both the user and the creator.

But what then is a fantasy roleplaying game, specifically? At bottom there is always a definite media concept outlined in the following parts:


1. A master narrative or so-called campaign, i.e. a genre-defined fictitious universe which is described in comprehensive literature, as background to the games, mainly embracing the genres of fantasy, horror, and science fiction/cyberpunk, etc.

2. A short story or so-called scenario. The scenario is formed as a minor narrative with a minor gallery of characters, a limited topography, a mini-plot, etc. In a scenario the realisation of the plot is relatively open, but various lines of action may be sketched in the form of so-called flow charts, which are a form of narrative models.

3. A set of rules which includes extended character sheets (qualities, skills and equipment) and point systems which are implemented through the use of dice. Each player has his own set of up to 12 dice which in turn each may have up to 20 faces. The dice are first used when the characters or persons of the play are to be designed. After that they are used every time it must be decided whether the players can carry out their intentions and let their characters execute certain actions.


During the action, a game master, who is the overall storyteller, director and judge, controls the play. The game master has advance knowledge of the scenario and the set of rules, which the players do not have. When it comes to designs of non-professional players, which is still more common, it is often the game master who has written the scenario and perhaps also chosen the set of rules. It is also the game master who does the introduction. After that, the course of the game is determined by the interaction of the game master and the players, interrupted by throws of the dice when the outcome of a particular step must be determined – is a given person able to kill the dragon/ close the coffin before daybreak/ hack his way into a computer network, etc.

The playing and the individual players continually alternate between (at least) three frames of interaction. In the innermost frame all participants are entirely inside the game and inside their own character (the game master can also act as minor characters - for example: ‘Ouch, you bastard, you hit me’). In the middle frame, they are inside the game but outside the characters, since the players refer to their actions in either the first or third person singular (example: ‘Then I/X try if I/he can get across that river’). In the outermost frame, everyone is in a certain sense inside as well as outside the game, because a certain initiative is negotiated with the other players, with the game master, and through the use of the dice (example: ‘How many endurance points do I have? Does it require a throw of the dice?’). These frames are again doubled in the different positions of the player, the game master as player etc. In addition there are further frames, the nature of which can be discussed, for instance a meta-context where the interpretation of the rules is negotiated, or a social context where the players are joking, gambling, fetching provisions, and, not least, discussing clues in and hints at recent films, tv-serials, computergames, etc.

When as a researcher I am to interpret the interaction that takes place during a game, I take into consideration the context of a youth generation which has grown up with an excess of media narratives, and which in this new media has had the possibility to master them all by experimenting with the well-known schemes - either as ordinary players or as game masters, system designers and authors. According to the respondents, it is the mixture of the dimensions of storytelling, roleplaying and gaming in the new media which makes them unique. It is due to this mixture that the well-known texts and narratives come alive again by supporting both the minor (suspenseful) effects as well as the big surprises. In connection with the quote above, concerning Indiana Jones, it was said of the so-called adventure games that ‘it’s the fun of fantasy roleplaying games, I can beat them just with the dice’ – which in fact would have been impossible without the dimension of gaming.

This might sound paradoxical at first but it makes sense if you look at it from the perspective of the modernist dogma that says that freedom lies in the form, as it is interpreted by the Norwegian media researcher Anders Johansen, inspired by McLuhan in the essay collection Grace and Other Attempts to Come to Terms with Modernity (Johansen, 1996). According to Johansen, modernity is characterised by playing with the culturally acclaimed forms of expression, as it takes place in physical activities such as soccer – or in the use of art and media. The purpose of this playing is the sovereign practice, ‘grace’, which observes as well as breaks rule-bound forms and gives an experience of ‘flow’. Johansen defines ‘flow’ as a self-effacing presence, a heavenly state only possible ’in the abandonment of oneself to a pattern of an artistic or ritual nature’ (1996: 316). The condition for flow is only present when reality lets itself be simplified into what is possible to define, understand and master. And that is usually only the case in religious rituals, in the practise of art, and in play and games. Simultaneously it is Johansen’s point that the need for and the nature of such experiences of mastering change in time with society’s increasing complexity, and the modern media will become the pivotal point for new types of flow experiences which correspond to the particular qualities and challenges of modernity.

I will try to illustrate how this playing with form in the context of the fantasy roleplaying games can be manifested very firmly in the roles (play) and the dice (game); but how it also can be performed as a purely fictitious thing (fantasy) in the so-called rule-less fantasy roleplaying game, where the roles are subordinated to the genre-defined narration and where dice are not used. The genre concept is thus important as a starting point to discuss the game as a product, a process and as a marker of taste.


The roleplaying games as part of the global media cycle

It is characteristic of the fantasy roleplaying games as commercial products that they are part of a global media cycle and form their own sub-cycles within this global cycle. A commercial concept for the fantasy roleplaying games, which are usually produced and marketed in cassette form, consists of several pamphlets or booklets, which describe a so-called campaign world with character sheets, topographic maps and scenarios, etc. These products can be supplemented with various kinds of additions and accessories, and they form the basis of a wealth of so-called rip-off products such as magazines, calendars, catalogues, etc., all of which are renewed with the same speed as computer programmes. The fantasy roleplaying games are mostly produced by large multinational media groups and they are sold either in a number of multinational chain stores, such as Mega Store, Virgin, Comix, Hobby House and Goblin Gate, or in local specialised shops for exclusive fan and media products.

A typical example of a media cycle concerning a roleplaying game is the very first mass-produced roleplaying game, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) (1973) and the sequel Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) (1977) from TSR (Tactical Studies Rules), which still is the ‘principal work’. It has been translated into a number of languages, and published in different versions for audiences differentiated by age. Furthermore, it has been converted into a number of related games, such as the board game New Dungeons and Dragons. The series Dragon Lance was introduced as a common background to the entire complex and was an enormous success. It has since then been followed by an almost interminable number of sub-series, mainly written by the authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman during the 1980s – 1990s. Simultaneously, there have been new so-called campaign worlds, such as Forgotten Realms (1987), which have been converted to comics as well as computer games. Another example of a sub-cycle is from Games Workshop, a primarily British group which produces as well as distributes the roleplaying game Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying (1987), the board and figure game Warhammer Fantasy Battle and a number of supplements, such as Warhammer Battle Magic. This concept has its own fanzine, White Dwarf, which is a mixture of ad catalogue, manual and magazine.

These sub-cycles simultaneously form part of other media cycles by implicitly as well as explicitly drawing on other media and media products, from books to films and television series to comics and computer games – or by inspiring such productions. The fantasy roleplaying game (A)D&D for instance made J. R. R. Tolkien a cult writer because the originator, Gary Gygax, was inspired by his fantasy classics The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings vol. I-III (1954-55) - the first part of the term ‘fantasy roleplaying game’ is derived from Tolkien’s universe. A science fiction game like Star Wars (1992) from West End Games springs from the director George Lucas’ film trilogy – current in the 1990s, with new productions, publishing of film manuscripts in book form, etc. In another science fiction game, Cyberpunk (1990/1993), from the small company R. Talsorian, literature as well as film is cited as sources of inspiration: from William Gibson’s trilogy Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) to films such as Blade Runner (1982/1993), Liquid Sky (1983), Terminator 1-2 (1984, 1991) and Robo Cop 1-3 (1987, 1990, 1993) – or a television series like Max Headroom. An example of how roleplaying games themselves can become the source of other productions is Vampire (1992), a game in the horror genre from White Wolf, which became the source of the vampire series Kindred: the Embraced, produced by Aaron Spelling in 1996 (aired on the Danish TV2 in 1997), rather than using Anne Rice’s literary vampire series from the 1970s to 1990s – or the classic Count Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). With this success, Vampire has become an example to follow for the entire media industry involved, since the producers today compete to design concepts which technically and aesthetically are so advanced or otherwise innovative that they have a chance of becoming canonised in the global media cycle.

This entire media cycle is led by large multinational media groups; but in various ways it also has access to the young roleplayers and their environments in the form of, for instance, clubs and societies. The Internet is today an essential link between producers, distributors and users. Information about the products and distributors as well as information about current events and arrangements is disseminated on the Net; games systems are exchanged and interest-based contacts are established, and games are also played on the Net in the so-called MUDs (multi-user-dimensions or domains).[ii] According to a number of researchers of youth and media, such an exchange between the commercial and the (in)formal parts is a general characteristic of the modern youth and media culture, as it is discussed by Paul Willis in connection with a number of studies of young people’s consumer habits and everyday lives (1990) and by Lisa A. Lewis (1992) in a study of a range of different fan cultures. In the world of roleplaying games this exchange constitutes its very lifeblood.


Roleplaying games as part of a global as well as local youth and media culture

All over the Euro-American world today, roleplayers organise themselves locally, regionally and internationally in societies, clubs and the so-called game events, also called conferences, conventions, or, with an international abbreviation, CONs. Producers and distributors always sponsor such initiatives to a greater or lesser extent. In some places they are also subsidised by the authorities, or they are integrated in offers proposed to the young by the authorities. There are large national differences concerning the nature of this exchange. In the USA, the commercial initiatives are dominant; in Sweden, the authorities have integrated the idea in their youth work, for instance in co-operation with the church in confirmation classes; in Denmark there are private as well as public subsidies for young people organising themselves.

During the last decade, the environment for the roleplaying games in Denmark, as well as in other European countries and in the US, has consolidated itself with an increasing degree of qualification, specialisation, and differentiation. In addition to the national organisation Sleipner, there are societies and clubs in Denmark today in Copenhagen and all major provincial towns. These societies are often behind the so-called events with imaginative titles such as Pentacon, Viking Con, Hong-Con and unCONventional. These events are simultaneously co-ordinated within the umbrella project Workshop 2000. The magazine Fønix, which is published by Sleipner[iii], functions as a communicator of international trends and news and as a national umbrella organ by announcing events, reviewing products and publishing debating articles and self-ironic fan letters.

Parallel to this organisation, there has been an increasing differentiation of the fan culture. In the environment surrounding the fanzine Fønix, the national organisation Sleipner and the project Workshop 2000, a cultural layer has come into existence with the ambition to be professionally assertive in the media world. Something similar has been noted in other youth and media cultures. In connection with studies of Doctor Who and Star Trek (respectively British and American television serials), Henry Jenkins (1992) and John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins (1995) have emphasised on the one hand, that the boundaries between professionalism and amateurism have eroded in young people’s media cultures during this time, and on the other, that a given media culture is quickly differentiated in relation to such elements as competence, resources, interests and tastes. This development has been accompanied by a debate among the users on the media: on quality, types, genres, etc. Panel discussions or project meetings are arranged concerning fantasy roleplaying with or without rules, interfaces between the board and character game and the so-called live action games, game mastering and game ethics, genres and aesthetics; there are also courses for scenario writers, systems developers and designers[iv].

One consequence of the professional ambitions in the milieu is an increasing criticism of the commercial products, and it has become still more popular to produce roleplaying games of one’s own and establish an audience for them. Hence one of the more recent traditions at Danish events is nominations of the best self-made games (the so-called ‘Otto’ awards), which correspond to the reviews of the professional products in Fønix (which are awarded ‘Rats’). When games – commercial as well as self-made – are evaluated, they are evaluated in relation to the established genre conventions in the roleplaying games: fantasy, horror, science fiction/cyberpunk, action/adventure and humour, since it is demanded that the genre codes are respected as well as crossed in an original innovation. Consequently importance is attached to atmosphere, plot, characters, and visual design, besides the game system itself[v]. Since an elite has made itself evident in the environment, a continuous debate has occurred during the game events of recent years about ‘the elitist roleplaying game’. Thus, there has been an increasing interest in genre hybrids and in experiments with innovations such as documentarism, biography and meta-fiction (cf. Konzack, in print). Such genres form the starting point of a taste-determined profiling of individuals and groups.

Some of the interesting questions presenting themselves in this context are what position the discussions of genre and quality take on the aesthetic traditions, and what aesthetic traditions they may be seen from. In the academic discussion of media aesthetics, the management of genre by the new media is often looked upon as a popularised version of the traditions of high culture, or as specific genre creations in pop culture (Gripsrud, 1990). The question is, however, whether distinctions like high and low, élite and popular, avant-garde and mass, art and kitsch, etc., could and should be maintained concerning the media. Or whether it would be in order, as for instance with cybernetics, to look for new concepts such as avant-pop – a combination of avant-garde and pop. Henry Jenkins (1992) and John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins (1995) chose an entirely different approach, which is to let the aesthetic concept formation lie and instead use the distinctions of the fan cultures in question. However, it seems important to me to try to employ both approaches – to work conceptually as well as empirically.

To provide a background for embarking upon this discussion I shall take a closer look at two scenarios, written by experienced roleplayers, which were nominated in the scenario contest at the game event FASTAVAL in 1994. The two scenarios represent two of the above-mentioned genre creations, horror and science fiction/cyberpunk, which at the time were relatively new, but which today are propagated fairly widely. However, they still have a certain underground value in opposition to the fantasy genre, which represents the absolute mainstream of the fantasy roleplaying games. This is confirmed in a survey of the media consumption of 3,000 young Danes aged 15 to 18, in which it is evident that fantasy is the most popular genre among Danish roleplayers (Fridberg et. al., 1997: 76).


The horror scenario

The horror genre is a very well-defined genre in the commercial as well as the self-produced games. The genre draws its inspiration from literary Gothic as it has been employed in the 20th century by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, in the film noir tradition, in the splatter, horror and thrill comics and in current splatter and horror films. In the world of roleplaying there are no distinctions between the sources of high culture or pop culture, just like there are no distinctions between the subgenres; yet there is a distinction between the more traditional horror and what in this context is perceived as hard-core and designated Gothic punk. The scenario Isabelle: A Story about Vampires (1994) belongs to the softer variant of the genre like its source, the ever more popular roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade (1992), but at the same time it contains elements of Gothic punk.

In the written model, the author by way of introduction recommends the game master to: ‘Steal as much as you can from the atmosphere of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coppola’s Dracula film.’ (Kaos, 1994:6). The new edition of Nosferatu by Klaus Kinski or Anne Rice’s vampire series are also good to use, like of course the cassette of the roleplaying game campaign Ravenloft (1990) or the game Vampire: The Masquerade (1992). Thus it is important that the game master has a thorough understanding of horror as ‘beautiful, seductive, attractive and repelling, adventurous and unreal. And terribly moral’ (Kaos, 1994:6). The author emphasises that he has wanted to write a really ‘romantic’ and in that sense old-fashioned drama, where the motive lies not so much in a classic detection plot as in the intrigue. It is therefore also constructed as a so-called rule-less roleplaying game, where the only law is that of the narration (genre), and where it is the task of the game master to enforce it.

The story is focused on the primeval vampire Isabelle, who has created six other vampires in her image. To quote the scenario, she has loved each and every one of them but also rejected them again in cold blood. Before the present time of the scenario, she has, full of days (centuries), gathered all six in a monastery vault to force them to accompany her into death. However, as she lies dormant on her grave in her youthful ideal state of ‘the most beautiful of all’, she is found by a count who falls in love with her, takes her to his castle and keeps her in a glass coffin – with a reversed Snow White plot as a result. For one day he accidentally spills a drop of blood on her lips, whereupon she awakes and rises again as a vampire in the most obscene of all states, namely in ultimate decay. In the same process her six vampire progeny are however also awoken.

As stated in the scenario, the game begins the moment the first vampire wakes up. The players are not to be given the entire background story, but just be told that one of them is missing. The game master’s task is then to let them experience more and more flashes of memory as they wake up. Of the six game characters, two are defined as women, four as men, each with their own shady past and complicated relationship to Isabelle. There is the insane, impotent and suffering romantic hero and the psychotic, seduced young heroine. There is the thoroughly evil nobleman, the demonic, devil-worshipping knight, the sympathetic knight – and the very young and innocent Belle.

What are the six going to do? Will they start looking for Isabelle? Will they stay together or will they part? Will they escape a vampire’s death? It is now up to the players as they are guided by the clues placed by the game master. The clues follow a so-called flow chart of the actions possible according to the genre code. The game becomes most successful when the players know a bit about the genre and the vampire motive, so they can establish a real challenge to the game master and scenario writer – but this is not a prerequisite. On the other hand, it will not work if anyone knows this particular scenario in advance and thus have thought the options through and decided on a certain strategy. Everyone gains most from the game if the players have approximately the same qualifications and thus think and act along the same lines, preferably on a certain common level of insight and understanding, but without knowledge of the present scenario.

In keeping with the genre code in a game like this, the themes are the horror which arises when something changes character and challenges the boundaries between the human and the inhuman (bestial), or between the human and the superhuman (divine/paranormal) and thus spreads doubt as to elements such as identity, body and gender. In the predominantly psychoanalytically or psychosemiotically inspired literature on horror, the genre is perceived to concern itself with the unfulfilled desire, according to the literary scholar Fred Botting (1996). In the classic Freudian version there is a focus on the repressed desire which haunts the individual as ‘das Unheimliche’, a pun between the ‘(un)-familiar’ and the ‘(un)-secret’, which causes eeriness (Freud, 1919/1955). In Julia Kristeva’s more recent psychosemiotic interpretation, the genre concerns itself with the completely denied desire which materialises as a non-object or ‘abject’ (Kristeva, 1980/1982). This ‘thing’ is materialised in ambiguous borderline characters or in partial objects which break to the surface from inside, either from the psyche or the physical body, and, as it were, absorbs the individual.

Just like it is the case in literature and film, the difference between older and newer, softer and harder versions of the genre in the fantasy roleplaying game, wherever it lies in the gamut between art and kitsch, lies in the degree of psychological and physical decay or parcelling out. Even though the scenario Isabelle ostensibly refers to an older/softer version of the issue, the scenario plays with the ultimately macabre, the vampire decay, in a way which refers to the latest development of the genre as Gothic punk. As is evident from the illustrations for Vampire (1992) as well as Isabelle (1994), the vampire in the scenarios is presented as a fundamentally indefinable character. It is just as hard to define concerning gender, despite the physical features, as it is concerning the body and identity and the quite fundamental question: what sort of an individual is this? Where does it come from? Is it even an individual in our ‘normal’ sense? With these ambiguities, both scenarios respect the indicated genre conventions, but at the same time they depart from, for instance, the literary and cinematic management of genre by not seeking answers to these questions of foundation.

The game then becomes a play with genre codes, and the objective is to know and practise them as well as to liberate oneself from them either through the submission to the system and chance which lies in using rules and dice (Vampire), or through the sovereign command of genre which is a means as well as an end in the rule-less Isabelle. The expression of grace and the experience of flow may arise from this command of form and it is the surprising common work springing from this which, with an expression from classic aesthetics, is the ‘purposeless’ purpose of the game.


The science fiction/cyberpunk scenario

Science fiction (SF) is another well-defined genre in the roleplaying games, where it is consistently renamed cyberpunk. According to Botting (1996), SF has its roots in Gothic, like horror, but developed in a different direction, which since Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in particular has concerned itself with (future) technologies, alien/outer space and alien forms of existence. The designation cyberpunk comes from the author William Gibson’s novel trilogy about cyberspace as a parallel, virtual reality, and it is precisely Gibson who is referred to in the genre proposal Cyberpunk (1990/1993), along with a number of more recent films and television series.

In the scenario The Verdict by Jacob Jaskov (1994) we are in the year 2009. By way of introduction a universe is outlined which draws on references to a typical cyber universe, as it is described in Gibson and in the cassette for the fantasy roleplaying game Cyberpunk. The known world order is disintegrating, there are now also fourth and fifth worlds, which consist of European, and American city slums and inhabitable regions, and all worlds are ruled by large alliances, corporations and technologies, etc. The plot is that a group of scientists at BTI (Brainware Technology Incorporated), which is owned by one of the largest, global corporations, has created the first artificial intelligence ARTIE IMAGO and the group is now working on giving it – and other AIs – a personality with a new type of software: a brain on disc, which consists of a programme for self-programming. The group has set ARTHUR – an AI – to create a modification of the real world, and it has also sent a group of AIs on an educational journey to virtual reality with a view to letting them form the basis for such a self-programming programme.

The AIs are sent to Earth in a spaceship in the belief that they are aliens from Laist (African word for Earth), belonging to the Mianen people (the name of a Mongolian tribe and of a computer programming language), and with the assignment of forming an impression of Earth and pronouncing a verdict concerning its future. Their connection with their own origins, i.e. the Brainware Group, is the computer of the spaceship, i.e. ARTHUR. The AIs can among other things retrieve all the information they wish from ARTHUR, and all the technological gadgets they wish to equip themselves with.

The scenario specifies to the game master that the assignment for the players is not so much to find out about Earth and humans, as it is about discovering their own world and their own nature. Or rather, it is about whether they exist at all – or have a possibility to do so. Physically they look like the humans they meet, but it is the task of the game master to make sure that strange blackouts and sensory impressions hit them until they start wondering and asking questions. The players each act according to the scenario, through a number without special personal features, which they are to gain during the game. The scenario proposes that the players are able to find BTI, which in their virtual reality appears as an information void, but which they can establish contact with through ARTHUR, who has connection to the computer systems of the ‘real’ world. ARTHUR is also the players’ opportunity to step into ‘reality’ in the form of implemented ‘information eggs’ – but this is only to step out into another computerised network at Mitsubishi!

Inspired by Brian McHale (1992), the literary scholar Timo Siivonen (1996) claims that compared to horror, SF concerns itself more with the rational and the sensible/intellectual than with the irrational and desire, and concerns itself rather with the collective and political than with the individual and moral. He also distinguishes between classic SF and cyberpunk. In classic SF the threat against humanity can be located and is external. It is given the outward form of machinery, drugs, space aliens and vessels from other planets or operative technologies. In cyberpunk, on the other hand, the ‘thing’/technology has penetrated further and further into the identity and the body in the form of microchips and prostheses, so far that the boundary between what is human and what is not is at stake. Siivonen uses Gibson’s novels as an example of cyberpunk: an individual can exist here as a non-physical element which may materialise itself as pure information stream in a data network – even if it is dead and does not exist, either in an organic or an inorganic sense. Siivonen refers to Donna Haraway’s famous cyborg metaphor[vi], when he states that the ‘thing’ has become part of ourselves, it has merged into us, we have become a hybrid, so that it is no longer possible to determine what is human being, nature and technology, respectively. But according to Siivonen, SF and horror fuses into what he calls an ‘oxymoron’ in terms of genre (‘generic oxymoronism’), and this he sees as a union of otherwise incompatible discourses on the supernatural and the technological.

Siivonen refers to the fact that there is a psychoanalytical and a psychosemiotic interpretation of SF, respectively. According to the psychoanalytical interpretation, the opposite movement is given form in SF in relation to the horror genre and the concept of ‘das Unheimliche’, as the other/alien, perceived as coming from without, is attempted to be made ‘familiar’/integrated. In psychosemiotics (Kristeva) the ‘thing’ is interpreted as what will not be coveted at all, and which eludes as well as haunts the object. But also as what cannot be symbolised and which in its naked factualness appears terrorist. Siivonen himself advances the hypothesis that the hybridisation of genre is an expression of a change in the relationship between man and nature which underlies the entire modern aesthetic. All the way up through modernity, art has expressed the idea of natural beauty and the sublime as aesthetic utopia, which has reflected the command of nature as social strategy. In cyberpunk however, Siivonen sees a recognition of the breakdown of modernity, as aesthetic as well as social project: nature here shows itself as ‘the unnatural nature’, as the monstrous become mundane – and thus is trivialised. According to Siivonen, this turn marks a change in the basic relationship between subject and object. The central way of presenting the problem is displaced from a question of identity to a question of existence, from a ‘Who am I?’ (in relation to nature) to a ‘Where am I?’ or ‘Am I?’ (in and as ‘unnatural nature’). The problem of identity is now tied to the question of which form of reality is being discussed, as traditional perceptions of subject and body – and work of art – are disintegrated.

It is these ways of putting the question which distinguishes cyberpunk, and which make the fantasy roleplaying game a genuine late- or post-modernist form. As it is represented in this scenario, the typical cyber individual asks the same questions of the basis of its user as the vampire did earlier, yet even more radically: is it a man or a woman we are confronting? Is it actually a living being? From which world does it emerge? Or more urgently – which reality are we discussing? In the fantasy roleplaying game, this problem of foundation becomes a sort of condition which no longer is up for discussion, but which in the process of the game is submitted to aesthetic-systemic mastering strategies.

Taken to the extreme, you might say that the recognition built into this new media is an echo of the late- or post-modern philosophy that everything has become a game. Tilman Küchler (1997:1) thus speaks of the epoch of the game which is ‘the end of a thinking in which the metaphysical subject occupies a privileged position at the centre of philosophical speculation. The ensuing 'post-metaphysical' epoch then appears as an era of 'an-archy' and 'anti-humanism', two terms which designate an ontological condition in which the withering away of the foundations and principles of Western metaphysics allows for a liberation of thought from metaphysical a prioris’.


New patterns in genre and taste

By way of two examples I have tried to illustrate how the fantasy roleplaying game may form the point of departure for a performance of grace and thus an experience of flow. However, to make this happen a certain level of aesthetic (genre) skills is required of the players along with a certain level of communicative competence. Anders Johansen (1996), whom I referred to by way of introduction, in fact emphasises that what is aesthetic is deeply rooted in what is social: through the aesthetic playing with form we also act socially as we symbolically negotiate social relations and seek to master our conditions of life. It is my experience from many hours of observation studies that the social aspect is constantly present during the game and that it is highly relevant when it comes to a deeper understanding of creation and mastery – but also that they are extremely difficult to identify and analyse. Therefore, in conclusion, I shall put forward some rather general conjectures about the connection between the aesthetic level and the social level, and some views on the formation of genre-defined patterns of taste among young people of today.

The American researcher in youth and music, Lawrence Grossberg, in his study of the genre development of rock music during recent decades (1992) offers a suggestion for an aesthetic of media and youth culture. In so doing, he maintains an element from classic aesthetics while settling accounts with the built-in hierarchies between high and low, elite and popular, etc. The premise of his genre concept is a shift in focus from the work to the user/the young person and thus to taste, as he sees taste as the result of a mixture of passions (emotions) and effects (elements of meaning). The main point of view is that the extrovert rebellion of rock has been replaced by an introvert self-reckoning against what became a new convention, and that this shift reflects a general displacement in the genre investment of the young, so that their emotional level today is directly tied to the aesthetic self-reckoning. The general genre investments which Grossberg identifies in current rock formation, are: the sentimental (a nostalgic investment), the hyper-real (a minimalist investment), the grotesque (an investment in excess), the comic/ironic (a scepticist investment). Aesthetically, this is expressed in something which Grossberg defines as hybrid – rather than as actually new formations – namely, pop rock, hard rock, metal rock, or death metal, etc. – and which can be seen as the result of a widespread sampling and meta-fictitious self-commenting. As a consequence of Grossberg’s analysis it can be said that in the aesthetic involvement of young people, the genre becomes the point of departure for a taste-determined profiling, but is simultaneously exposed to a continuous undermining, as the awareness itself of genre and the aesthetic game on a still more differentiated level becomes a criterion for the qualified product or the qualified user. This entire process forms part of the young people’s thematising of themselves and their surrounding world in a still more sophisticated play between similarities and differences on various levels.

These observations are countered as well as confirmed in a recent Swedish study by Erling Bjurström (1997) of the relationship between style and taste in youth culture, even though he does not explicitly concern himself with the concept of genre. With reference to the French cultural anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, Bjurström establishes how well-known as well as new demographic differences (class, race, gender, etc.) are relevant to the taste formation of young people. However, they seem to leave a ‘residue’ which cannot be fully explained in sociological terms, and which at least partly appears to be subjective choices. At the same time, the formation of taste takes place – particularly among the best educated young people today – in such rapid fluctuation, and with such a delicate sense of detail and so minimalist, that it is almost impossible for the adult researcher to identify. While the taste communities of young people still generally follow classic divisions between and criteria for the serious and the popular, the distinction, particularly for this minor group of aesthetically trained young people, has become a more unstable, i.e. temporary and heterogeneous action. Although it is still bound to the rebellion against what is considered established, for example in expressions such as ‘it is so ugly/bad/misbegotten that it is beautiful/good/hot’. In relation to this, Bjurström refers to late modernity as a subjective state and to how the process of stylisation and the aesthetic sensitivity forms part of an ongoing negotiation of the modern conditions of life. The aesthetic competence developed in this process may well be socially generated, but conversely it may also become socially generating, and among today’s youth, be the points of departure for very differentiated indications.

One circumstance, which is particularly striking when it comes to fantasy roleplaying games and the genre traditions at the basis of them, is the masculine touch in terms of quantity as well as quality of the products and the users. This tendency has also been discussed in e.g. film and reception analysis in relation to the popularity of SF and horror in films as well as television (cf. Cohan and Hark, 1993). The Danish study mentioned earlier of young people’s use of media shows that roleplaying is practised by a totally seen, narrow, but socially visible, broad, section of the Danish, male youth population: little more than 20 per cent practise roleplaying games, of which more than 90 per cent are boys from all types of social categories, as regards the social class of their parents as well as their own educational status (Fridberg, 1997:131). The study also shows that horror, and to a slightly lesser extent, SF, are the most exclusively gendered genres.

Unfortunately, the study does not show whether a preferred genre is common for specific young people in several media and could thus form an actual aesthetic profile. I have asked about this in my qualitative study. The data is naturally not comprehensive enough to draw clear conclusions, but there are some important directions indicated in the material. The material shows that the genre, at least for 14-16 year-old boys has an importance in relation to their incipient taste form anon and thereby a personal point of departure in the media and youth culture, but at the same time the formation of taste is open as well as dynamic. If we return for a moment to the young roleplayers quoted in the introduction, 15 year-old Jacob says that at the moment all he wants to play is horror roleplaying games, and that he sees a connection between that and his current interest in reading Marvel comics, Lovecraft’s stories or series literature created from his mythic universe; his interest in films such as Night of the Living Dead or films withS – and also in listening to heavy or metal rock. On the other hand, 16 year-old Sune says that he how prefers the Danish-produced roleplaying game Via Prudensiae (1994), because it has a bit of everything in terms of genre, which he connects with an opening up in terms of taste that has come after his interest in first fantasy and then later on SF. Aske, also 16, expresses the view that the medium of roleplaying games has motivated him to seek new genres, particularly SF, which he earlier dissociated himself from, but which he is now investigating also when it comes to literature and other media.

Since the fantasy roleplaying game today – after almost 25 years – is still so exclusively masculine, this must, among other things, be attributed to the fact that the management of genre predominantly has drawn inspiration from the treasury of the great (anti)hero epics with their violent aesthetics, which according to several researchers has reflected a modern masculinity undergoing a sweeping change (Jerslev, 1996; Bolin, 1998). But at the same time it seems obvious to point to the fact that a differentiation has taken place also in this respect, which may be interpreted as drafts for new masculinities, for instance, in Wallis et al., 1995, or Buckingham, 1993. New drafts which are established not least in the linguistically sensitive and narratively conscious interaction which characterises the roleplaying. An investment is made in an aesthetic game which demands verbal as well as social competence and what could be called a semiotic intelligence. The combination of system and narration, which constitutes the unique idea and form of the fantasy roleplaying game, may be perceived as a sensitive answer to a spirit of time and generation stretched between regulation and deregulation, order and chaos. Today it corresponds to a number of parallel tendencies in art as well as in science, for instance a distinct interest in games and game theory in literature and the studies of literature and languages; or the philosophical idea that we are living in ‘the era of the game’, as it is outlined by Tilman Küchler (1996). But that is another story.



[i] The interviews were conducted as part of a qualitative study at the Centre of Youth Media (1994-1998) in the fall of 1996 and the spring of 1997. I followed a group of 15 young players through a season in their youth club, interviewing, observing and participating in a number of local events and a few regionally and nationally organised events. I have since been in contact with the local societies as well as the national society for roleplayers in Denmark (Sleipner).

[ii] MUD originally means ‘multi user dungeons’, indicating the origin in the Dungeons and Dragons concept which has been left in the so-called social MUDs.

[iii] The name of a horse belonging to one of the gods in Nordic mythology (Thor).

[iv] Cf. various programmes for events, for instance the event held every year at Easter in Aarhus, FASTAVAL (humorous combination of the words ‘carnival’ and ‘festival’). (Fastaval 1997, 1998).

[v] As it takes place for instance in reviews in Fønix vols. 10 and 11 (1995) by Thomas Bregnegaard and Merlin Mann respectively. Where the first-mentioned gives a mediocre mark for a supplement to Cyberpunk because it follows the matrix of the genre in a much too predictable way, the latter gives a fail mark for a game that mixes genre elements from horror and cyberpunk, because it has not become an innovative hybrid, but rather a mess.

[vi] Donna Haraway’s use of the cyborg metaphor is discussed in Siivonen (1996), starting in the so-called cyborg manifesto (Donna Haraway: ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. (London, 1991: 149-181). Siivonen points out that the cyborg, all things considered, is not a metaphor, but a lexical oxymoron.



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