With The Greatest Unreality I set out to develop a better understanding of how players of tabletop role-playing games create, explore, and maintain shared imagined worlds. To accomplish that, I went to seven locations around the United States, got to know gamers, interviewed them, and recorded their game sessions. Throughout the entire process I made it a goal to try to consider as much of the experience of imagined worlds as possible, not shorthanding them as fictions but instead trying to describe how those worlds present themselves to players. Page 99 of my dissertation finds me right in the thick of one of the stranger places that led me: an ethnographic account of Nabonidus IV, the imagined world I encountered in Denton, Texas through a player named Liz Larsen:
In an inversion of the history of colonialism in our world, the natives of the “New World” of Nabonidus IV possess highly advanced technology relative to the Azure colonists. These natives, known as The Bleem, live in the asteroids surrounding the unnamed aqueous planet. To them, Nabonidus IV is a remote outpost, potentially useful for mining. Not long before the Azure People arrived, however, a large Bleem ship came under attack from an unknown source, marooning the survivors on the small asteroid. In appearance the Bleem resemble bipedal lorises reimagined by Jim Henson. Although Liz offered the Bleem as a potential character choice, basing their class on the dwarves of D&D, all players instead chose to play Azure People. This placed the Bleem firmly in the “other” category, and although the colonists had some contact with the Bleem before the beginning of the campaign, when the players met them in the third session the scene had all the markings of a first encounter, complete with cultural misunderstandings.
Although Liz had offered some general descriptions of the Bleem in the first two sessions, these details were not tied down by the players and shifted in their particulars until the characters approached the camp. The idea of kinetic expressiveness as central to their communication, however, remained consistent throughout. In early descriptions, the Bleem communicated primarily through complex facial expressions, but in the third session Liz offers a more detailed bit of color and diction:
They have some sort of flowy garments made out of like silken [pause] silken strands. Some sort of, vegetation [unclear] like imagine like if you, um, like wove [pause] spider silk into these long flowing sort of like banners and- and streamers that kind of come off of their necklaces and beads and stuff. And they kind of float around them in a [pause] way that wouldn’t really mimic Earth gravity. Um. As they move. Um. [pause] And, um, they blend in well with the terrain of the asteroid. They’re very dark and smoky colored. With like burgundy and auburn patches on their fur. Their fur’s not really made of fur, but it’s- it’s more like a- like a very thin fine quill. So they can stand it all out like a sea urchin or let it lay flat at will. You know, kind of like a- like very obvious movement. So they can kind of puff up.
Although the page doesn’t really give a sense of broader thematic points, I’m actually quite happy with how it represents the whole. Ethnography, especially the phenomenological sort of ethnography I attempt in The Greatest Unreality, depends on particulars. In the introduction, I say that “I am less concerned with what must happen or even what usually happens than with what did happen and how those it happened to make sense of it.” The way the Bleem move matters, because it happened. In our conversations about the imagined worlds of gaming Liz described the ambience of color, song, and choice diction as providing a medium that could connect the imagined world with our own, quite literally bringing that world into our own. In that process, our own world, the imagined world, and those that experience it enter into a dynamic of mutual shaping. Page 99 of my dissertation, if it’s successful, demonstrates that as ethnographers we are also exploring, creating, and connecting worlds through the use of ambience.
Nicholas Mizer, 2015. The Greatest Unreality: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds. Ph.d. dissertation, Texas A& M.
Nicholas Mizer’s research sits at the intersection of anthropology, interactive design, phenomenology, and gonzo ethnography. From this position, Mizer investigates questions of how collaborative imagination shapes the human experience of worlds, especially how games can serve as a way to re-enchant our experience of the world. He is a lecturer in Games and Culture at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, and editor at thegeekanthropologist.com, and a chair of Game Studies for the Popular Culture / American Culture Association. You can reach him at email@example.com.
His dissertation will be published soon as a book called Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds.