Inner Worlds V: Nicholas Mizer, the anthropologist of imagined worlds
On Dungeons & Dragons, enchantment, and whether we still need stories
I first encountered tabletop role-playing games as an awkward teenager and it was an epiphany. It was like being in a movie, and reading a book, and playing a video game all at once — and sharing it with friends at the same time. It felt just right. The creative freedom and bonding with people who didn’t see your passion as immature and stupid — unlike the more popular kids and the adults — were exhilarating.
I’ve been playing ever since. Our group has conjured countless realities and spent hundreds of hours exploring them as imagined heroes and heroines. We also devoted a lot of time to meta — everything that lies between reality and stories we played out. We discussed and bickered about storytelling, character creation, and mechanics. From high school, through college, to white collar jobs (I know, we’re not a very diverse group), building fictional worlds has become a part of reality for us. Even today when we get together, we reminisce real travels, parties, and drunken escapades as much as made-up adventures facing the armies of Archaon, unfolding the secrets of R’lyeh, or orchestrating plots in the Rokugan court.
But how did that happen? How does a group of adult professionals keep imagined universes woven into their lives?
I brought my why’s and how’s regarding tabletop gaming to Nicholas Mizer. Nick is a contributor to The Geek Anthropologist and when I learned about his studies into imagined worlds and role-playing games, I knew he was the right person to answer my questions. And so we went on to discuss the human search for enchantment in the world where so little enchantment is left.
Wojtek Borowicz: Can you tell me about your research into imagined worlds and Dungeons & Dragons?
Nick Mizer: Sure! It’s focused on tabletop games and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. I spent about five years doing research at different locations. I went to game conventions in the States and to wherever people I met there played: from New York to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I interviewed them about how they experienced the imaginary worlds. I would also record their game sessions and in some cases play with them in what anthropologists call participant observation.
Are you a D&D player yourself?
And when you play, is it hard to escape the anthropologist’s perspective and just immerse yourself in the imagined world?
To be a good participant in a session you need a certain level of engagement. That’s why I record the sessions. I have thousands of pages of transcripts and I would go over them afterwards, with a more analytical approach. In other cases I would just sit, observe, and take notes, without actually participating. It’s kind of switching back and forth between the roles.
You’re more often a player or a Dungeon Master?
In most of my home playing, I’m a Dungeon Master. Usually I get to play when I go to a game convention.
Did playing as a Dungeon Master nudge you towards researching imagined worlds?
That’s definitely a factor. A lot of roleplaying games scholars, like for example Sarah Bowman, have focused on the player’s experience and did important work on player psychology. Thinking about it from the game master’s perspective helped me bring the concept of creating the world into the forefront of my research.
That’s especially interesting to me. Apart from visitors to the fictional worlds, like fantasy readers or video game players, there are also those who build them. What do you think drives them to play Minecraft, invent a universe for sci-fi novels, or design a campaign in Dungeons & Dragons?
In my research I look at the concept of enchantment developed by a sociologist named Max Weber. His idea was that in the modern era, as bureaucracy develops, quantification grows, and people become cogs in ever bigger capitalist machines, a sense of enchantment in the world gets stripped down. Rationalization breeds disenchantment. But a lot of people want a sense of an enchanted relationship with the world. And one of the ways we can learn to re-enchant the world is to create, maintain, and regularly visit these secondary worlds.
Don’t you think it’s a bit ironic? We want to escape disenchantment of quantification of everything in the real world, so we find refuge in Dungeons & Dragons, itself reliant on quantification, numbers, tables, and dice rolls.
In D&D you’re using tools of disenchantment but you’re turning it on its head. You’re using the disenchanted mechanics to experience an enchanted world. It’s not coincidental that Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, had background as an insurance adjuster. His friend once said that D&D is fantasy fiction through actuarial science.
You also see this tension in mythology. A student of myth, like Claude Levi-Strauss, would say that a lot of what drives mythology is the experience of opposing binaries and trying to work out how to resolve them. In gaming, you have opposing binaries of enchantment and rationalization. You’re trying to find a productive mediation between those two. And when you look at the history of Dungeons & Dragons, you can see the editions of game shifting back and forth from completely free form to rules and statistics taking over.
The analogy to myth makes me curious. We’re spending time in fictional worlds to reinvent mythology in a world that has become stripped of myth?
We are definitely doing new mythologizing in those worlds. In anthropology we’re more and more certain to think that the worlds emerge, even in a non-imaginary sense, through interactions between people and things.
There’s an anthropologist named Miho Ishii who talked about African divination rituals. The practitioners are working with magical objects, called asuman, that are sort of the material component of spirits. The practitioners, the spirits, and the asuman themselves interact to produce a world that emerges from those interactions. In Dungeons & Dragons the players, the Dungeon Master, and the dice rolls also interact to produce a world that exists within our own world. They are bringing enchantment into their life.
I’m Polish and played a couple of Polish tabletop RPGs but they never felt much different from western games. Do people in other cultures imagine their worlds differently?
I have done some work on Spanish gaming. Once they first got into role-playing games, they really wanted to develop a game that was Spanish, that would have a Spanish feel to it, instead of being like the American or the French games. The game they developed, one they still consider THE Spanish game, is called Aquelarre, which stands for Witches’ Sabbath. It’s set in late medieval Spain and draws on traditional folklore from the Iberian peninsula. One of the things you see in Aquelarre is a bleak outlook on life. You can easily catch a cold and die in that game. But almost like in Don Quixote, another embodiment of Spanish views on the world, you still throw yourself into the world, as dangerous as it might be, and seek adventure. Meanwhile, the D&D myth is very much about a sort of protestant ethic: if you work hard, you will get rich and become powerful.
This is an area of research I want to develop more. Gaming scholarship in general is getting started on this but we don’t have a comprehensive understanding of how the idea of roleplaying games has been adapted in different cultures.
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time playing online RPG games and I would often get into fights with players from Russia and Brazil. I have no idea why it was these two nations in particular but even though now I know it’s nonsense, when I meet Brazilians or Russians in online games, the voice at the back of my head still says ugh, these people. How often do you see our biases mirrored in fictional worlds?
This definitely happens. People in different countries have different ideas about getting together to play. You can also have conflict not only across cultural lines, but across gaming tradition lines. In tabletop RPG that would be something like I’m gonna write a five-page backstory and each of us is gonna do that versus we don’t do that, it emerges out of play.
Another thing that has been well-covered in a lot of gaming research is mapping existing stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings onto fantasy worlds. Something like orcs becoming racial stand-ins for the xenophobic others, where you make it okay to kill a whole tribe of orcs because they’re considered a sub-human race. That obviously has problematic implications when you map that back onto relations between cultures in our own world.
Would you say that gamers and world-builders, in video games and tabletop alike, are becoming more aware of this?
Recently I saw a picture posted by a woman of color. She was flipping through the handbook for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and in the section for creating human characters they have an image of a woman of color. That was the first time she’d experienced that. There’s also a group in the Seattle area called Native Design Network. They are working to increase awareness about cultural representation in gaming and serve as cultural consultants for people who want to use different cultures and native influences in their games and fantasy worlds responsibly, without violating existing cultures.
We’re definitely making progress but there is still a long way to go. There is resistance and as we make progress it obviously stirs up people that don’t want this kind of change to take place.
One field where we still lack diversity in fantasy and gaming is age. There is this notion that dreaming up imaginary worlds is something nerds do. And there is no longer shame in being a nerd, but it’s still considered a thing for teenagers, or people in their 20s and 30s. Don’t older people need a parallel universe sometimes?
There is still a lingering idea that this is an adolescent thing to do. Even in scholarship about play you can look back to psychologists like Piaget. In his stages of development of play he places imaginative play at childhood level and assumes adults just don’t do it. But it’s in the realm of popular culture, too. It’s not just about portraying the kids or teenagers as the people doing this. It’s also about showing it as adolescent in a negative sense. Showing that people who need to experience these other worlds are developmentally stunted.
But it’s changing. A great recent example is Stranger Things, the miniseries from Netflix. It’s got a very strong D&D backbone to it and it’s very celebratory. In Stranger Things, D&D is a constructive activity. There is no question of portraying the kids as escapist.
There is a culture historian, Michael Saler, who says that we are all geeks now. If you view geek culture as a tradition of creating, maintaining, and consuming imagined worlds then it becomes understood that this is just something that humans do. We’re doing that in our daily lives and then we do it in fiction. We are always synthesizing disconnected details into some sort of connected whole. We are trying to connect the dots and make them cohere into worlds that make sense.
Building worlds and not just stories has become a booming business, judging from the success of Marvel Cinematic Universe, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. Why is that?
The economic motive breeds criticism that it’s easier to just make another Marvel movie than come up with something original. But I look at it from an anthropological perspective. If you think about ancient Rome or Greece, people weren’t saying ah, do we really need another story about Hercules? It was natural that we’re gonna tell stories in the world we’ve developed. And as it becomes richer, these stories will have more power to inform our own understanding of ourselves, others, and the world around.
But it’s not just the economic factors. There are developments that made it possible for the first time to create a world at the scale of Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars canon. It’s not that we didn’t want this before, but to maintain worlds that big we needed social technologies: the level of organization required to make it cohesive and the background apparatus to manage movies spanning that length of production time.
Do we even need stories anymore? The advent of video games with procedurally generated worlds so big you will never explore even 1% of them, like No Man’s Sky or Space Engine, seems to show we’re doing fine without them.
What you’re identifying here is the changing conception of what story means. In the early days of D&D no one was saying I’m a Dungeon Master, I’m gonna create this narrative from point A to Z and it’s gonna have a plot arc just like a novel. Instead, they were creating locations in which stories can occur. It was closer to oral folk tales and oral storytelling. They were drawing a lot on traditional pulp fantasy, too. Connected short stories like Conan the Barbarian, set in a world but without robust plot arcs. As things moved forward, quest fantasy became more popular. Tolkien had his rise in popularity in the United States and lots of other fantasy authors started going in that direction. Instead of the standard fantasy story being a bunch of short stories, now it’s a series of novels that’s 12 books long with these big, epic plot arcs. People started wanting more and more of that and it shaped the way the games were played and written. It also shaped people’s ideas of what narrative was and what kind of narrative they were looking for in a game.
So now in these procedurally generated games we’re seeing a return to the idea that a game is supposed to provide a world in which events can happen. You don’t know what story is going to come up because you don’t know what is around the corner. In many cases it hasn’t even been generated until you walk around. And then it happens and you, as the player, make the story out of it. If you ask anyone about No Man’s Sky, they’re gonna tell you a story. This is what happened to me. But the game didn’t create that story or scripted it for them. They organized the events into some kind of narrative.
You see that in tabletop gaming as well. A return to some of these oldschool principles of allowing the Dungeon Master, the players, and the dice to sort of collaboratively generate the world and see what happens, rather than coming into it with a narrative you want to tell.
So games used to be a medium for telling stories and the procedurally generated worlds allow players to create the stories or even be the story themselves?
Both aspects have always been present in gaming. Throughout the history of video game studies the narrativists and the ludists have been fighting it out in a kind of chicken and egg debate. But the truth is, they have both always been there.
Liked that? Read other conversations about imagined universes at Inner Worlds.