The Greatest Unreality: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds
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Drawing on four years of participant observation, interviews, and game recordings, this dissertation explores the collaborative experience of imagined worlds in tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Research on tabletop games has at times been myopic in terms of time depth and geographic scope, and has often obscured the ethnographic realities of gaming communities. This research expands the ethnographic record on tabletop role-playing games and uses a phenomenological approach to carefully examine how gamers at five sites across the United States structure their experience of imagined worlds in the context of a productive tension between enchantment and rationalization. After discussing the history of Dungeons & Dragons in terms of enchantment and rationalization, the dissertation presents three case studies, each exploring a different facet of experience in imagined worlds. At a convention in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, gamers commemorate the life of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, but also their own childhoods and a sense of a lost, imagined pre-modern world. The experience of time in the game connects that perduring world with the imagined world of the game. Having explored the relationships between commemoration, nostalgia, and the experience of imagined worlds, the dissertation moves on to consider how the imagined worlds of gaming enter the experience of players. The techniques and theories of performance utilized by a gamer in Denton, Texas portray performances in gaming, psychedelic rock, and abstract analog video art as "kidnapping reality” through the use of color, song, and choice diction to convey both affect and imaginary things into the physical spaces of her performances. The final case study considers gamers in New York City and Portland, Connecticut, where two groups have developed the imaginary worlds of their games over many years. The dissertation argues that gamers in these groups come to experience the imagined world as increasingly concrete and complex over time, and that their sustained interactions with it develop into a strong sense of what Heidegger called dwelling.
Mizer, Nicholas J (2015). The Greatest Unreality: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from