Nina Feng, University of Utah
(Published March 23, 2022)
I’ve tumbled quickly from above, rolling to a stop next to a stretch of wild, thick forest. Lines of crackling blue energy stream through the sky. Many draw their powers from these magical ley lines, seams to another universe. Alien beings might pour into this place, once known as Earth, now ruled by an oppressive government called the Coalition States. I’m human, but I’m also a Shifter, which means that I have mastery over the rifts. As I begin to cast a spell to open a portal, a voice beckons in the distance, louder and louder until it drowns out everything around me . . . (Siembieda 9-13)
“Ok,” Steve says. “You gotta roll 3D6 for your P.P.E.” And like that, my vision of post-apocalyptic Earth dissipates. Steve’s the Game Master for Rifts, a tabletop roleplaying game (TRPG), and the one who decides the main narrative in which we’re all implicated. He tells the story, and he’s helping me create my character sheet before the group convenes at 6pm.
“3D6” is shorthand for rolling three six-sided dice. “P.P.E.” stands for “Potential Psychic Energy,” which is the amount of magical power you have to expend in this TRPG, and every player must roll the dice to see what level of P.P.E. their character wields (Siembieda 42). Steve suggested I read the 382 pages of the Rifts game guide before I came today, to construct my character before the game started. I’d skimmed through most sections, and I’d chosen my character—a “Shifter”—but I didn’t realize the level of detail that was inherent in character creation. There are many rules, and it was already different from the idea I had of a TRPG, otherwise known as a paper-and-pencil role-playing game. I thought we were free to tell the story how we liked; after all, TRPGs are story driven. Since the birth of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, stories created through TRPGs such as Rifts have become popular, with rule systems that encourage worldbuilding around fantasy and science fiction (Peterson). Players sit around a table and narrate their characters’ actions out loud to progress the plot; rules, character sheets, and dice are used to define the abilities of the players and potential actions (Dormans).
As Steve wipes the kitchen table for the game, I realize there is no board, no cards, no props. The world is an entirely imaginary construction—the preparation, rules and settings provided in the Rifts guide are taken into Steve’s hands, and he builds our world from these resources. This means that the world I’d imagined in my head as I read the background information in Rifts might be compromised. As Gary Alan Fine writes in Shared Fantasy, his ethnographic study of TRPG, “Because gaming fantasy is based on shared experiences, it must be constructed through communication. This communication is possible only when a shared set of references exist for the key images and a clear set of expectations” (3). For a TRPG to operate smoothly, players have to identify with the narrative and their characters within the narrative. They must adhere to the rule systems in order to achieve unifying goals, also known as “campaigns,” or a specific quest that usually involves all players, culminating in a climactic conclusion (Bowman 108). Already, I was experiencing some aversion towards this unfamiliar game format, particularly the control that belonged to Steve. This essay may help scholars of rhetoric and game studies move through spaces of dissonance like those I encountered; in order to express my relationship, as an outsider, with this community of gamers, the writing is inspired from performative aspects of autoethnographic texts, highlighting the importance of relational ethics in autoethnographic methodology for game studies.
As a PhD student in Writing and Rhetoric, I was studying game designs for the composition classroom, mainly how fictional narratives could lead to role-play and immersion for student engagement. Steve had told me about his TRPG group before and invited me to join, but I’d always been hesitant, mainly because of the understanding I had about “gamers” as misogynistic (Consalvo; Dill and Thill). I like to think of myself as open-minded, but I’m aware of how judgmental I can be. I decided to finally take the opportunity to see how a narrative-driven game, without digital technology or props, could be immersive. I realized that an autoethnographic pilot would be the best way to question my own biases and understand this new culture, since I clearly held preconceptions about the gamer community before entering. Part of my struggle was being the only woman of color in a somewhat unfamiliar group where almost all the participants had grown up Mormon, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS). I had constantly experienced racism in a predominately white and LDS state—this contributed to my assumptions and anxiety about the community I was entering. Therefore, I wanted to hold myself accountable while still acknowledging my marginalized position.
Autoethnography is defined by a focus on foregrounding the researcher’s experiences in relation to sociocultural knowledge and participant data, providing transparency and accountability through critical reflexivity, and fostering innovative presentation styles (Denzin; Spry; Chang). Similar to ethnographers, autoethnographers seek to understand people and culture; they follow a research process in which field notes and data are collected through participation, observation, and interview, which are presented in an analysis and a report. Unlike ethnography, autoethnography centers personal experience as valuable primary data to aid in telling a larger story about society (Chang 48).
Rhetorical and communication scholars have employed autoethnographic methods for decades (Ellis and Bochner; Denzin), and they have greatly influenced studies of game communities. In this essay, I contribute to the peer-reviewed research utilizing autoethnography in game studies, particularly with a focus on ethical relations (Brown; Sundén; Lammes and de Smale). As Carolyn Ellis discusses, Institutional Review Boards (IRB) do not offer information on “relational ethics,” or how to make responsible, compassionate choices during unpredictable, nuanced interactions during the research process, or in the ways we analyze and represent participants and ourselves in our findings (435). Centering relational ethics in research, I examine the playing of the Rifts TRPG game (an IRB exempt study with all identifying information removed/changed) using Kenneth Burke’s concept of “identification.” Building first upon “identification,” which is defined as subjects entering into a space of commonalities with hopes of achieving social unity (Burke 22), I then link José Esteban Muñoz’s “disidentification,” as moments of subversive performance (Muñoz 12), as well as Krista Ratcliffe’s definition of “non-identification,” or moments of critical reflection (Ratcliffe 72). This theory of the triadic play of identification exercises relational ethics of autoethnographic methodology, helping researchers understand the ways that players construct meaningful identities within a game narrative. In the proceeding sections, I explain autoethnography and relational ethics, as well as the triadic play of identification. I present my own experience, along with player voices, demonstrating the interplay of the various stages of identification that we engaged in during Rifts. Through an autoethnographic approach, I reveal complex positionalities, honoring player perspectives and offering insight on gameplay and identity development.
I argue that the triadic play of identification underscores the essential practice of relational ethics in autoethnography, also expanding rhetorical and game theories of identification. Autoethnographic relational ethics aid the researcher in acknowledging their biases and positions of power, and through gameplay and the triadic play of identification, it uncovers personal and master narratives, exposing negotiations of norms and differences. As Dennis Waskul and Matt Lust discuss in their study of TRPG, the difficulties of keeping the player, the person, and the character persona separate is akin to daily life: “We all find ourselves players located at the liminal margins between the people we believe we are and the personas we play in varied situated social encounters” (353). Game environments are complex ecosystems that help us understand cultural formations such as identity and community, and we need better tools to ethically engage autoethnographic researchers with participants, especially if they occupy different positionalities. In the game group I joined, I was the only woman of color, and out of the six other players, five identified as white, one identified as white-passing and Latinx, four of them currently identify as queer, and all of us had varied socio-economic positions. Rhetorical scholars will find the theory of triadic play useful because it allows us to make more attuned, ethical choices when working to represent nebulous layers of participant identity, including our own. Following other games researchers that utilize feminist/queer/critical race theory to study identity, such as Adrienne Shaw, Kishonna Gray, and Lisa Nakamura, I work to recognize the complications of identification and disidentification. For auto/ethnographers who are new to game communities, we need an approach that will embrace minoritized researchers and participants, while allowing space for critical perspectives to recognize inequity.
Relational Ethics: Auto/Ethnographies of Tabletop Roleplay and Identity
With a rich history in participant observation, game scholars have engaged in many ethnographic studies of tabletop roleplay communities that involve identity, from Gary Alan Fine’s sociological work on TRPGs, to Daniel Mackay’s critical performance approach, to Sarah Bowman’s psychological study, and most currently, Nicholas Mizer’s anthropological focus. These ethnographies inform rhetorically focused TRPG game scholarship, such as Jennifer Cover’s research, which makes genre and medium visible, and Evan Torner, who examines the rhetoric of design. Working from similar perspectives, scholars such as Antero Garcia extend the study of rule systems and their cultural impacts, along with Aaron Trammel’s look at discrimination and representation in TRPGs. Garcia and Trammel’s work, in particular, demonstrates the need for critical race/queer theory in ethnographies of tabletop roleplay to explore established norms and the rhetorical effects of dominant ideologies in and around games.
Beyond ethnography, autoethnographic methodology offers an even more conducive space for queer, feminist, and critical race theory, while traditional ethnography often obscures subjectivity and the role of the researcher. Autoethnography allows us to trace the dynamic development and exercise of power inherent in the slippery ways we consciously and unconsciously identify with varying narratives, emphasizing reflexivity over reflection. Unlike reflection, which occurs after an event, reflexivity is an ongoing process of examining the self and research methodology, allowing for changes in the moment during data collection and processes of analysis and writing (Finlay).
As feminist rhetorical scholars have discussed, rigorous reflexivity is a necessary tool to understand the limits of our knowledge and the “ethic of care” we extend to participants. Gesa E. Kirsch and Joy S. Ritchie write, “[A]n ethic of care is dependent on engagement with ‘the personal’—a particular person of ethical character engaged in the examination of context, motivations, relationships, and responsibilities” (Tronto qtd. in Kirsch and Ritchie 21). Kirsch and Ritchie are illuminating the subtleties and the contexts of relationships between researchers and participants, and the ethics of recognizing the histories and ideologies that we all carry with us into those interactions.
Building on Kirsch and Ritchie’s “ethic of care,” I invite Carolyn Ellis’ voice on relational ethics, which acknowledges the difficulty of navigating interpersonal exchanges, and encourages accountability and communication with participants. Ellis writes, “One is never finished making ethical decisions as long as interacting with others. Thus, we must be fully present and continually asking questions about ‘what is going on here,’ in particular ‘what is needed to make this interaction go well, to honor the other person, and to take care of myself?’” (439). Ellis, Kirsch and Ritchie are highlighting the necessity of an ongoing exercise of reflexivity that encompasses nuanced attention and invites personal and structural knowledge on inequity and empathy. Tami Spry calls this “relational reflexivity,” which fractures the singularity of the researcher’s role, drawing attention to the often colonizing, individual nature of the researcher’s construction of knowledge (Spry 640). If we unsettle this authority and question our ability to retreat definitively to our own personal conclusions, then the methods themselves are always open for change and ethical partnership.
Methods and Participants
As Bonnie Nardi discusses in her ethnographic study of World of Warcraft, game play is centered on subjective experience. Players create a perceived “magic circle,” a space of play where “the meaningfulness of play is bound within the activity of those who actually play” (116). From the outside, we may view a game as uninteresting or inaccessible, but this is because the formal characteristics of a game, such as rules and rewards, are not the same as the activity of playing the game.
I tried to keep this in mind as I entered into the game Rifts, since I felt like an outsider; I hoped the activity of play would bring us together. Within the six other players (one who self-identifies as white-passing and Latinx, five who self-identify as white), there were three self-identified women and two men, and one (currently non-binary and queer, pansexual at the time) self-identified tomboy ciswoman, Riley. I include limited details for certain people and extended details for Riley because this information is what they were comfortable sharing. I would be the only Chinese ciswoman and the only one without TRPG experience. Steve, the Game Master, lived with two of the other participants, Linda and Riley, and Lila was Linda’s sister. Mary and her husband, Lucas, were the last two players. Everyone there held part-time or full-time jobs in the restaurant or retail industry, except for me, and Steve and his roommates were full-time students, as well. Within the Rifts story, our group was in pursuit of a man named Mephisto, someone with a large bounty on his head. We were working as a group to find him and collect the bounty. Mary and Lucas were armed cyborgs, Linda was an equipment operator, Riley was a giant crystal, and Lila was a shape-shifting human with magical weapons. The group chose their characters together, and I joined a few weeks later as a Shifter, whose main power was opening up travel between dimensions.
For this pilot, I attended two consecutive 4–5-hour game sessions and acquired consent the first day. During the game sessions, I took notes, and after each session, I wrote a reflection of my experience to fill out the notes more completely. My research questions focused on: 1) How do participants create meaningful play in the game? 2) How do participants construct meaningful identities in the game?
Steve, Mary, Linda and Riley volunteered for interviews, which were recorded on my phone. At the forefront of this project, I engaged autoethnographic methodology and relational reflexivity at every level, from play to draft revision. I gave my essay to Steve to read, since he was a member of similar academic communities, and I wanted to be fair and open with him about the depiction of our relationship. I also omitted certain personal details to provide de-identified information.
Shifting: Idioculture and Identification
As I prepared to embark on this journey, I constructed my in-game identity for Rifts, set in a post-apocalyptic world, “an exotic realm where magic is real, demonic creatures and monsters stalk humans and weird science, psychic abilities, ancient gods, supernatural horrors and alien beings are commonplace” (Siembieda 1). I didn’t know what to expect of the other players, but I wondered if they had chosen their characters in relation to each other’s identities, inside and outside the game. Fine discusses the culture that every group creates as “idioculture”: “a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and customs peculiar to an interacting group . . . Gaming groups develop a culture for members within the game itself, and simultaneously as a friendship group they develop traditions” (136). This group had been playing together for a year, and they had already progressed through one campaign before they began this one. It would be the second Rifts session for all of them and the first one for me. As I scrolled through the overwhelming number of characters, I started reading through the description for “Shifter,” a class of beings who are known for dark magic, such as opening dimensional portals through spells and summoning creatures, often demons, they then control. From the beginning, I identified with a subversive character, one that could ruin social unity and disrupt norms.
In Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification, subjects identify with one another, in hopes of achieving social unity, but still remain as separate entities—joined and divided (22). Underlying identification is Burke’s idea of “consubstantiation”: “For substance, in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (21). Subjects enter into and occupy a space of commonalities—the overarching story of Rifts is a consubstantial narrative, shared conceptual and emotional spaces of story.
Within rhetorical game studies, Burke’s “identification” has been used by various video games scholars to describe these shared spaces. Ian Bogost explains identification “as the need to identify with others” using symbolic systems of communication (“The Rhetoric” 127-28), building towards his theory of “procedural rhetoric,” which outlines how game mechanics may further dominant ideological norms (Persuasive 29). Gerald Voorhees reiterates Bogost’s idea, drawing from Gonzalo Frasca’s notion that ideology underlies all simulations and bringing attention to the inclusion and exclusion of identities within games (Voorhees). Bogost and Voorhees are both emphasizing that game processes may further reify or disrupt normative identity formation. Consubstantial spaces, such as video games, may therefore cause unconscious reproductions of dominant and harmful narratives—but they may also foreground other shared narratives, creating community and connection for marginalized players. Burke’s concept is significant because it requires researchers to acknowledge the centrality of the TRPG game narrative and accepted rules. In short, identification helps us recognize the systems of norms that operate in game communities.
My subversive character, the “Shifter,” reflected how I operated in the “real” world, as someone who was weary of rules and regulative systems. Usually evaluating the world through a lens of intersectional feminism, I often found myself challenging a dominant, white cisgender-heterosexual male presence. These were conscious moments of identification with intersectional theory, defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw as the study of overlapping inequities, “where systems of race, gender, and class domination converge” (1246). But these conscious moments began to build towards an unconscious development of disidentifying with the group, who I assumed were not aligned with my ideology.
In using the concept of identification to recognize norms, I also link in the notion of “disidentification,” which is valuable for those of us occupying non-normative spaces. José Esteban Muñoz developed this concept of survival/resistance that “minoritarian subjects,” or those that occupy multiple marginalized positions, use to simultaneously inhabit and transform dominant ideologies (7). Rather than entirely assimilate or oppose, disidentification is a critical performative process where a subject may work fluidly within and against a master narrative for political purposes; for instance, performing a character subversively in Rifts to critically comment on an oppressive aspect of the storyline. Muñoz clearly emphasizes that “[d]isidentification is not always an adequate strategy of resistance or survival for all minority subjects. At times, resistance needs to be pronounced and direct, on other occasions, queers of color and other minority subjects needs to follow a conformist path if they hope to survive a hostile public sphere” (5). Within gameplay, particularly for “newbies” (i.e., outsiders to gamer communities), overt resistance may damage the researcher’s relationships with players, though the researcher’s personal discomfort should not be dismissed, particularly if they occupy marginalized positionalities. Disidentification through gameplay offers the player-researcher a way to stay engaged without relinquishing their own values or out-of-game identity. Perhaps in choosing the “Shifter,” I was subconsciously finding a way to enter what might be “toxic gamer culture” as a feminist scholar (Consalvo). I wanted to join the consubstantial narrative of Rifts while maintaining my out-of-game identity, which follows the ideology of a larger consubstantial narrative—the “intersectional feminist”—prevalent in my academic community.
Steve identifies as a feminist, and I knew his two roommates embraced non-normative ideas of gender and sexuality, though they had never explicitly discussed this with me; at the time, I did not feel close enough with the group to ask questions about this aspect of their identity in interviews, nor questions about socio-economic status and race. I hope to give them space to discuss these identities as this research progresses, since the concept of disidentification offers more recognition for minoritized positionalities regarding gender/sexuality/class.
Steve also told me that Lucas asked if I was attractive when Steve told him I was joining the group. This comment irked me, and it reinforced the concept I had of gamers objectifying women. It also made me suspicious of Steve and his roommates—maybe they were secretly aligned with these kinds of values? I admit that my bias extended beyond gamer culture; I assumed the group had left the LDS church, like Steve, and that they might hold internalized patriarchal ideas (but don’t we all?). There were moments I was aware of this bias, but there were also blind spots that I understood only later in my ongoing process of relational reflexivity.
As I continue to construct my character sheet, Steve hands me three dice, each one with six sides. I was to roll the dice to determine my P.P.E. (Potential Psychic Energy) and a number of traits, such as Mental Endurance (M.E.) (Siembieda 120). I decided to use my highest roll, 20, as my measure of Mental Endurance, since this was most important to me; Mental Endurance was not a measure of intelligence, but the ability to endure difficult emotionally and mentally challenging situations. There were a number of other characteristics I could care less about, such as Physical Beauty (P.B.).
“What’s your P.B.?” Linda calls out. I look at what I recorded.
“A 9,” I say. Average.
“Nina doesn’t care about P.B.,” Steve says. At that moment, I thought that Linda asked because she did care. As much as I try to challenge it, this reinforced my stereotype about Mormon women and high standards of conventional beauty in the community. Even though I never saw either of Steve’s roommates obsessing about their appearances, I had difficulty shaking these deeply embedded stereotypes.
These moments, where I struggled with my awareness of dissonant ideas, are what Krista Ratcliffe would call spaces of “non-identification” (72). Along with identification and disidentification, I fasten on the concept of non-identification, places of reflection, or spaces for “rhetorical listening,” which offer us a “code of cross-cultural conduct” (Ratcliffe 34). This strategy can be used to engage players and researchers in understanding difference, since current and historical inequities are threaded into player experience and identity formation. Ratcliffe argues for rhetorical listening as an act that one may utilize in the gaps of non-identification to recognize and question the invisibility of identification with hegemonic ideologies, thus encouraging conscious identification and ethical rhetorical practices. Rhetorical listening is an approach that researchers may practice in moments they do not identify with other members of a community, to take pause and be consciously receptive, engaging in self-examination, exercising the potential of the autoethnographic method. In these moments, I see myself engaging with non-identification, questioning my perspectives. This space of non-identification helped me realize my own identification with stereotypes, fostering awareness of the care I needed to extend to my participants because of my preconceived notions. The triadic play of identification between identification, disidentification and non-identification, then, allows us to explicitly examine the consubstantial narrative as well as player narratives, highlighting how subjectivity, ideology and awareness work within games as social systems.
“Ok, next you have to figure out your ‘Alignment,’ which is your code of ethics,” Steve says, opening the Rifts guide to a new section. “Your O.C.C. usually helps you determine which Alignment you should choose, but it’s up to you. It’s really hard to be ‘Principled,’ so no one really chooses that one.” “Principled” is the “Superman” of Alignments—your moral compass is black and white, and you’re always doing what is perceived as “right.” Steve runs his hand through his hair casually; he doesn’t seem particularly preoccupied with enforcing rigid rules in this narrative, but I’m still hesitant about the amount of rules we’ve already covered. As I look through the “Alignments,” I decide on “Aberrant”: “Whether a villain or a corrupt or extreme anti-hero, the Aberrant character looks upon people without honor or a sense of loyalty” (Siembieda 202).
Although I didn’t operate as harshly as an “Aberrant” character in my day-to-day life, I secretly wanted to—particularly as a Chinese mother who experienced daily microaggressions, subtle forms of racism and sexism. As an “anti-hero,” I wouldn’t have to conform to societal expectations of what mothers looked and acted like, along with the model minority myth that was imposed on me daily. I identified with a role that offered possibilities for occupying liminal spaces, which often disrupted the master narratives I had to entertain in real life—a role that I could play subversively, in a space of disidentification. I assumed that everyone else would be adhering to the idea of a “hero,” a typical character that followed a journey towards saving someone from peril and fighting unsavory characters, some that probably looked like “Shifters” (Bowman 146). Unconsciously at the time, I was creating a character that was disidentifying because of my imagined ideas of this group.
I would soon find out that everyone else in the group had chosen the Alignment of “Unprincipled,” which meant that they might cheat and lie, but they were overall quite concerned with the welfare of others, often bound by loyalty (Siembieda 201). They had chosen the most human Alignment. In this particular “idioculture,” everyone had developed characters with similar moral compasses.
Thirty minutes before the first session began, I finally meet Lucas, Mary and Lila. Lila shyly introduces herself, looking briefly in my eyes and looking away. She dresses like Linda, Riley, and myself—relaxed, in jeans and a plain, long-sleeved waffle-shirt, a shade of warm red. Lucas and Mary surprise me, since they don’t look or act like the rest of the group or like the stereotypical gamers that Bowman discusses, who identify as “misfits,” outside mainstream culture (208). They speak and move with confidence, and they have clearly spent time making aesthetic choices that align them with conventional standards of beauty. Lucas is wearing a black t-shirt and fitted gray jeans with an army-colored snap-back hat that has a red Obey logo smack in the middle. Mary has made even more stylistic, conscious choices with her presentation. She has shorn, bleached-blonde hair and mint-colored, painted acrylic nails, the middle finger on each hand an iridescent purple. I also realize that though I thought I was unconcerned with Physical Beauty (“P.B.”), I’m being fairly judgmental about it in regard to this group. These moments, when I became aware of my assumptions and judgments about what gamers look like, are layered with non-identification, confronting the identifications with unconscious biases.
Looking through my writing, I realize that I paid the most attention to the details of Mary’s appearance; it’s because Mary is the most recognizable to me, the one I identify with the most. I recognized Mary as a similar kind of outsider to gamer culture, one who has been recently initiated, which is why I focused on her so intently. She had never played a TRPG before this one, and she had just met everyone at the table a year ago. In watching her assimilate, I was learning how to do so myself. In my recording of the interview, I can hear the prosody and tone of my voice mimicking hers:
Nina: Yea, I’m, like, really curious, like, the first time you went, what did you think about it, before going in?
Mary: I thought it was going to be balls-out costumes. Like, the last one we did was Superheroes. That’s, like, slightly less nerdy than medieval times. And this Rifts one is fun too, ‘cause it’s kind of futuristic. So ummm, it was, like, hard to get into it first, like um, I feel like I didn’t participate as much. Me and Lucas kind of just, like, watched. And like you, it took three hours to make my character sheet, and I was, like, ‘WHAA.’ Yea, like, ‘“Grab a D4”—I don’t know what that means.’ ‘The four-sided die.’ And I was like, ‘Which one is that?’ There’s a lot of setup, but once you’re in it, decision-making and everything is a lot easier.
Nina: Well, that’s how I felt too when I was making my character sheet, and all the dice and stats, and he suggested I read through the Rifts book before I started. So, I was reading through that and like, NONE of it was making sense to me.
I can hear and see my language adapting to Mary’s emphatic speech, and I knew that I was mirroring her gestures and facial expressions, as well; these were somewhat conscious decisions, and reflexive thinking in the moment guided my actions, so I could help her feel comfortable with my communication style. Rhetorical listening helped me extend an ethic of care towards Mary, but I also related to her the most. Beyond her communication habits, she was reflecting how I felt as an outsider to this community, arriving with the same stereotypes about TRPG players and being overwhelmed by the rules and process of character creation. The shared experiences of the past year had helped her become part of their community, and she learned the language of the game. Besides learning the discourse, Mary had already played an entire campaign, the Superheroes narrative she mentioned. She, like the other group members, referenced past game events, drew on inside jokes, and teased other players while we played the game; they identified with a previous narrative, which helped create a set of norms for the present narrative, as well.
I was learning that in order to be accepted as an insider, I needed to understand the references, so as not to disrupt conversation and gain acceptance. This is all part of the consubstantial narrative, the existing story of friendship and community that players built into Steve’s imagined story. Besides being a familiar figure for me, Mary also taught me about meaningful game play through her experience:
Mary: I actually really like this game because you do get to, kinda be somebody else. Like, there is a part of it, I try to be really similar to my character, but maybe my character is, is really, really, really strong, and I’m not a strong person, or maybe my character is really, really, really assertive, but I’m like, such a pacifist. . . . And I actually think we’ve turned gender roles, kind of, on their head with this game, our group specifically. Most of the girls are really strong, and you don’t care about your personal beauty stats or whatever. Like, maybe you do, but maybe not in real life. ‘Cause I’m a warrior, Riley’s a crystal gem, and Linda is a mechanics operator.
Mary recognized the game’s potential in allowing players to occupy different positionalities. Her acute insights on overturning norms, such as gender roles, help explain how the characters they play allow members to occupy identities that disidentify with patriarchal ideological structures. Mary was also using tactics of disidentification to engage in meaningful play, like me, but simultaneously identifying with the consubstantial narrative and metacognitively occupying the space of non-identification as she analyzed her own gameplay. As a very self-aware player, Mary talked very quickly and openly, and I realized that she didn’t need me to interject as much with validations during the interview, so I learned to give her more space to talk.
Me: Can you play out deviant things?
Mary: Absolutely. Like, ‘cause you choose your Alignment, and me and Lucas, both on purpose, we usually do ‘Unprincipled’ or lower, we’re like working on this team, but we give ourselves that space . . . in our last game we played, I was interrogating this guy, and I was like, ‘Cool. Can I break this guy’s finger?’ Like, clean off, like, just chop it off. And Steve was like, ‘I’m sorry, what is your Alignment?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, this.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, go for it.’ You would do that; you would torture someone to get money or information or whatever. You can steal or whatever. And Lucas went into a tavern, and was like, ‘Can I get a drink?’ Steve was like, ‘Their alcohol is crazy and does all this stuff, so you have to roll if you want to try drinking it.’ And Lucas was like, ‘Oh yea, I’m going to get drunk in the game,’ even if it doesn’t progress the story at all or do anything for him. He wanted to see what his character can handle and what you can get away with in this world.
Mary’s perceptive evaluations of the game allowed me to see how much she wanted to experience and create a compelling narrative, and though she and Lucas also participated in disidentifications, such as using lower principles, they were still using the rules to play out nonconformity. Mary cared about other players’ experiences and game immersion, which is something that is co-created. This was the piece I didn’t understand until later, and I reminded myself reflexively to stay open-minded; the consubstantial narrative is a world with a set of norms created by local groups, and players identify with these norms out of care for each other. But the game norms in this particular space often invited disidentification with norms in real life, therefore encouraging the performance of disidentification.
Linda was another player that engaged in the shifting layers of identification, disidentification, and non-identification, engaging in subversion. In my interview with Linda, I asked: are there parts of the game that make you feel liberated?
Linda: Definitely some. My intelligent, arrogant character got to say and do a lot things that I actually kind of—like, I tend to be a little bit of a snob, and somewhat sarcastic, but, like, to myself; I don’t let anybody else know about it. Everybody thinks I’m just so sweet and innocent and loving, and I’m like, ‘Nooo, but I’ll just let you keep thinking that.’ So being able to play that kind of character, and I mean, that’s pretty mild. I don’t go for the beheadings and all that. I still play fairly decent characters. But the fact that I was able to say whatever sarcastic thing on my mind was really fun.
Linda was also playing with disidentification in relation to outside norms, using the game to perform parts of her identity that didn’t fit into her daily persona. The game allows these shifts in positionalities, offering players satisfying ways to occupy characters, strengthening personal narratives of play.
Linda and Mary showed me that in this “idioculture,” the ideologies of the “real world” that players shared was a very important part of the cohesion, since they often found entertainment in upending these shared norms. Grounded in queer theory, Muñoz’s concept of disidentification allows us to understand how players interact with normative ideology in the multi-layered playing of Rifts. These relationships to norms reveal how players persist and studying the game through disidentification also acknowledges when and why disidentification may be occurring for players, mapping meaningful identity construction. When I began to understand the players’ motivations and their personal narratives tied to the game, I was able to align myself more with the consubstantial narrative. In forming a theory of the triadic play of identification, I believe the model’s potential for recognizing relational emergences between identification, disidentification, and non-identification is particularly useful for autoethnographic researchers. There are continuous overlapping waves, a constant layering of non-identification upon identification upon disidentification in gameplay, creating awareness and metacognitive engagement. For player-researchers, these are opportunities to reflect and revise methods of data collection, analysis, and writing. From the layered movement of identification emerges a rhetorical sensitivity to player interactions and identity formation, encouraging the practice of relational ethics.
Throughout all the interviews, I first concluded that participants were driven either by plot or character creation. Although I carefully chose my character, I recognized that for me, the immersive qualities in the game came from the development of plot, since I was becoming irritated when new developments happened too slowly.
I found myself wanting to control the narrative and feeling dissatisfied when I had to acquiesce to the higher power of Game Master. It’s part of why I had trouble participating in the consubstantial narrative, since I could not align myself with Steve’s story. In these moments of feeling like I was lacking agency, I was disidentifying with two consubstantial narratives: the Rifts narrative that Steve was creating, and the narrative of perceived patriarchal norms that I thought the group believed. As my interviews progressed, I let go of my previous perceptions. Earlier, when Linda and I were talking about physical beauty, I assumed she cared most about P.B. But as she discusses in the following interview, intelligence is her most valued trait.
Linda: I always make my characters intelligent because I value the intelligence stat in the game. Like, I prefer the bonuses you get for extraordinary intelligence over the other bonuses. I also think I am pretty intelligent, but it is difficult in this setting because Steve is smarter than I am. So, I might be as smart as my characters, but to try to interact with his makes me feel kind of dumb because he is smarter, and I also worry that, like, I should be able to figure things out, like, my character should, but I can’t, because I’m not as smart as my characters.
Nina: I don’t know that he’s more intelligent or if you just think of things differently. Steve has his own way of thinking . . .
These are moments where I saw the complicated dynamics and positionalities that the players held. I was concerned about Linda’s feeling of frustration, and I wanted to support her, but I also knew that there were multiple relationships at play here, so I wanted to be careful how I spoke about Steve. Linda’s brave vulnerability taught me that there is often more at stake in games than we think. Her characters seemed to align, value-wise, with her out-of-game identity, and the frustration she feels in the game is not artificially performative, but intensely embodied.
Linda: I was just thinking, the main thing for me is that, our play time often triggers or aggravates my anxiety, so I often end up with characters who don’t interact as much, simply because I don’t want to be there, or I’m having a bad day and just need to be quiet. . . . Sometimes it works in my favor, while everyone is arguing about something, I’m sitting there quietly and thinking to myself. Then, I suddenly come out with, like, ‘What about this?’ And it turns out I came out with something really good.
Linda is keenly aware of how she feels in different spaces, even when those spaces are layered and liminal. To protect herself, Linda has used the game space as a shield, a way of disidentifying with the game narrative while still playing it. In this way, Linda and I related, since I could not identify with the consubstantial narrative, though for different reasons. She showed me how to navigate the space in ways that did not sacrifice out-of-game identity, performing character traits that were recognized in the game. Linda found a way to create personal accommodations through the character.
As Mary, Linda, and Riley all demonstrated through the interviews, which operated as spaces of non-identification, they were very aware and rhetorically attuned to their own actions.
In the following interview with Riley and Linda, they talk about meaningful parts of the game.
Nina: When you make characters, do they reflect who you are outside the game?
Riley: Personally, I try to make it a different thing, something separate from me. For me, the fun is being somebody else. So, they all end up having some characteristics of mine, but it would be difficult to be a completely different person.
Riley enjoyed the potential in creating characters that might allow them to exercise abilities/actions they did not have in real life, much like Mary and Linda. I wondered if Riley’s shifting gender and sexual identity—something Steve had conveyed—was related to what they found meaningful in gameplay, but I did not want to push this question, since Riley was quieter than Linda during our joint conversation when I asked about identity. As Boellstorff et al. write about ethics in game community research, “No set of a priori rules of ethics can predict the range of situations to which ethnographers must be prepared to respond with tact, sensitivity, and caution” (129). In consciously utilizing relational reflexivity, I tried to respond by listening closely, to the silences and hesitancy, which helped me realize that I needed more time to develop rapport with Riley. The interview with Linda and Riley was joint because they felt more comfortable talking to me together, and though I responded with more validating comments than in my other interviews because I sensed more discomfort, I began to understand how much more involvement I needed in this game community to make my participants feel secure. They both relaxed as the conversation continued, and I think this was partly because I respected the boundaries that existed at the time between us. At the time, none of the players identified as queer, though now, Steve, Riley, Linda, and Lila all embrace this term. With continued play and research in this group, the concept of disidentification would allow more space to represent these players’ sexual and gender positionalities.
When I conducted the pilot, I knew that Riley was working through a liminal space in terms of gender identity, and they were a pansexual cisgender tomboy woman at that time, disidentifying with dominant binary gender narratives. In always attempting to identify fully with the game narrative, Riley was working to create an immersive consubstantial narrative that clearly invited disidentification and the possibility for everyone to create characters that subverted oppressive ideologies. Their confidence in Steve’s ability to build a better world was clear, as well as their trust and excitement with this community. As Riley said of the sessions, “It’s interactive game time! This is my favorite!” To my question of how much our outside lives affect game lives, Riley said:
I think it really depends on the session, because, with Steve especially as the GM, he tries to craft things for the skillsets of the people, the characters that are involved. And he tries to make it so we can all succeed in some way, which is nice. So, like, in times where I’m like, ‘OH, I can use all of these skills; this is so useful,’ it’s, like, GREAT for me because I’m so useful—I picked such a great character!
Riley discusses success as furthering the narrative through productive actions of players, which progress the story. Riley engages in identification so gameplay can continue for everyone at the table. Along with the other players, they voiced their belief that Steve was a generous GM. Their thoughts helped me revisit my own biases and negative attitude towards Steve’s narrative.
I listened again to Steve’s interview, and I heard Steve’s empathy more clearly, his attempts to create a consubstantial narrative geared towards players.
Nina: How do you know people are having fun or they’re invested?
Steve: For me personally, it’s why I prefer a smaller group and more expansive world . . . the thing you can do, again, is become familiar with your players and understand what they’re doing and what they’re bringing to table. And so, you know, I’ll drop analogies from familiar material all the time.
Intentionally employing the lens of relational reflexivity in my interview with Steve, I tried to offer validation, verbal and non-verbal, but most importantly, I refrained from making some of the sarcastic comments I’d make in other contexts. I tried to nod affirmatively and listen more, since I was occupying a researcher role, and Steve was making himself vulnerable in sharing his personal thoughts. It made me think how I could’ve been more supportive in our friendship, as well—not just in this conversation, since the space gave Steve time to explain his perspective.
Steve: I can also talk about my personal experience. You know, I’m a long-time player too. I’ve played many, many players, and they’re almost always geniuses. It’s difficult for me to play somebody who can’t see things, who can’t see solutions, who can’t think through problems. It feels too shackled to play a character who wouldn’t make these kinds of connections . . . or, you know, maybe I’m just that egotistical guy who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, so I have to play that, too. I don’t know.
We laughed, since he said this in a self-deprecating tone, and I was glad I hadn’t interrupted with some smart remark, because Steve was self-aware. I just perhaps didn’t always give him the time to convey it. Ashley Brown, a games researcher who studies marginalized play, writes that the autoethnographic process allows us to document evolving methods, emergent emotions, and unexpected experiences. In utilizing reflexivity throughout this study, I was able to record the shifts in my relationships and my own emergent understandings as a researcher and a player.
As an “Aberrant” character, playing with a group of “Unprincipled” characters, I realized that from the beginning, I was identifying with a different unifying vision than the rest of the group. From my perspective, I wanted to subvert the system, upending the idea of a traditional narrative, stealing control from the GM, hoping the other characters would participate with me in this endeavor. But to the other players, Steve was not oppressive just because he was GM. As Steve wisely said in our interview:
The people who struggle are those who are obsessed with breaking rules. Because you want a rule to break, and until you find a rule to break, you’re going to be frustrated. I think that the rule-governed environment comes less into play. It’s more like structure than it is anything else. . . . [discussing dice rolls] Rules become less the walls around you and more the vehicle to perform the actions that you want to do.
In wanting to steal control from the GM, I was obsessed with breaking the rules. And I wanted to replace his world with my own, without consideration of the players. The group had begun in a different temporality, literally and figuratively. Not only did they construct their characters together, weeks before I did, but they entered the fictional narrative before my character and I appeared, so they had already negotiated differences. Our identifications were misaligned, and I was attributing the disconnect to traditional structures that lay outside the game, such as past religious influence. But it seemed the misalignment actually stemmed from my projection of these biases onto this group, along with my misunderstanding of the motivational aspects of game play.
I had originally concluded that the participants I interviewed either cared about plot development or character creation, since they derived a sense of agency from one or the other. But it’s not just narrative that drives the story, but the rule mechanics, which allow space for disidentification with normative belief systems. I was so obsessed with story as the driving tool, and with how players negotiated character and plot in this realm, that I was not considering how inextricably linked the story and subsequent character development was to the rule system. The rules create a framework for the imagined world to operate; without them, there is no consubstantive space for players to further a narrative. The players gained agency not by abandoning rules, but by using them. They all identified with the rule system because they were following a different consubstantial narrative than I was. I disidentified with the Rifts game because I was following the ideological narrative that guided my academic and social life—I was playing a caricature of the Intersectional Feminist when everyone else was playing a Rifts character. There’s no reason why varying levels of consubstantial narratives can’t intersect, but as I recorded notes and reviewed them, I uncovered my own rigidity. Autoethnographic methods offer researchers this tool of relational reflexivity. In re-evaluating my data and constantly assessing my position among other players, I was able to recognize the infallible notions I had about my own assumptions, and I thankfully began to interrogate my ideas.
In sustaining this work to create an in-depth portrait of this group, I plan to extend this project into a year-long autoethnography, so I may more fully represent my participants’ experiences and intersecting positionalities—particularly the queer and Latinx players, whose identities and experiences deserve attention beyond a pilot study. The participants did not discuss their sexuality, race, or class in relation to the game at the time of the pilot, and I would like to use an extended study to recognize these facets of their lives, as well as their changing gender identities, and how they affect meaningful gameplay. I prioritized participant voices in this essay, though I wouldn’t have accomplished this without continuing relational reflexive work, even in the revision process. As researchers, we have the ultimate power in how we represent subjects. Autoethnographic relational ethics offers us a perspective that demands accountability and (re)evaluation of how we are framing participants and operating from biases.
Examining game play makes narratives and norms explicit, and this process can help us understand how we identify with and disrupt ideology. When non-identification occurs, these are moments of agency, of metacognitive understanding. Non-identification then becomes an ally for autoethnographic aims. Ratcliffe writes, “It is incumbent upon anyone in a place of non-identification to remember that all people circle in and out of dominant and nondominant positions on a daily basis, depending on whether they are at home, work, with friends” (76). There are multiple, situated ways these players create identities, but they all found ways to identify with one another through common rule systems. I had to accept that those rules harbored creative potential, and that I also behaved according to a personal rule system that deserved equal critique.
Through the lens of the triadic play of identification, autoethnographic relational ethics helps us understand the methods, theories, experiences, and relationships that affect identification with ideology. In using relational reflexivity during every stage of research—from data collection to writing conclusions—I constantly questioned my own motives in relation to participant views. This method is useful for marginalized voices, but it also forces those in concurrent dominant positions to acknowledge their power, as well. The triadic play of identification provides visibility and reminds us of these ideological positions, tracing how we form identity across difference. This theory also illustrates where layers of awareness and ideology and dissent overlap, and it indicates where we may lack rhetorical awareness. From a space of rhetorical listening, the exercise of autoethnographic relational ethics then urges us to pay more attention to the limits of what we know and to engage in the continuous attunement to care, power, and ideology.
Pandemic Acknowledgements: I want to express my deepest gratitude to my brilliant participants, and for the wisdom of Joy Pierce, Laurie Gries, Scot Barnett, and the astoundingly insightful reviewers, and editors, for this piece. Thank you so much!
Boellstorff, Tom, et al. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton UP, 2013.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games, MIT P, 2007.
---. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen, MIT P, 2008, pp. 117-140. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.117
Bowman, Sarah Lynne. The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. McFarland, 2010.
Brown, Ashley. “Awkward: The Importance of Reflexivity in Using Ethnographic Methods.” Game Research Methods, edited by Petri Lankosi and Staffan Bjork, ETC P, 2015, pp. 77-92.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. U of California P, 1969.
Chang, Heewon. Autoethnography as Method. Left Coast P, Inc., 2008.
Consalvo, Mia. “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, vol. 1, 2012.
Cover, Jennifer Grouling. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland, 2014.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1229039.
Denzin, Norman K. Interpretive Autoethnography, vol. 17, Sage P, 2013.
Dill, Karen E., and Kathryn P. Thill. “Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions." Sex Roles, vol. 57, 2007, pp 851-867.
Dormans, Joris. “On the Role of the Die: A Brief Ludologic Study of Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying Games and their Rules." Game Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2006 http://gamestudies.org/0601/articles/dormans.
Ellis, Carolyn. “Compassionate Research: Interviewing and Storytelling from a Relational Ethics of Care.” The Routledge International Handbook on Narrative and Life History, edited by Ivor Goodson et al., Routledge, 2016, pp. 431-446.
Ellis, Carolyn, and Arthur P. Bochner, eds. Ethnographically Speaking: Autoethnography, Literature, and Aesthetics. Vol. 9. Rowman Altamira, 2001.
Fine, Gary Alan. Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds. U of Chicago P, 1983.
Finlay, Linda. “‘Outing’ the Researcher: The Provenance, Process, and Practice of Reflexivity.” Pearls, Pitch, and Provocation, vol. 12, no. 4, April 2002, pp. 531-45.
Garcia, Antero. “Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial and
Gender Identities in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.” Mind, Culture, and Activity, vol. 24, no. 3, 2017, pp. 232-246.
Gray, Kishonna L. Race, Gender, and Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from the Virtual Margins. Routledge, 2014.
Kirsch, Gesa E., and Joy S. Ritchie. “Beyond the Personal: Theorizing a Politics of Location in Composition Research.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 46, no. 1, 1995, pp. 7-29.
Lammes, Sybille, and Stephanie de Smale. “Hybridity, Reflexivity and Mapping: A Collaborative Ethnography of Postcolonial Gameplay.” Open Library of Humanities, vol. 4, no. 1, 2018, p. 19. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/olh.290.
Linda and Riley. Personal Interview. 4 April 2017.
Mackay, Daniel. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. McFarland, 2001.
Mary. Personal Interview. 4 April 2017.
Mizer, Nicholas J. Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, U of Minnesota P, 1999.
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Routledge, 2002.
Nardi, Bonnie A. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. U of Michigan P and U of Michigan Library, 2010.
Peterson, Jon. Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games, Unreason P, 2012.
Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. SIU P, 2005.
Shaw, Adrienne. “Do You Identify as a Gamer? Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Gamer Identity.” New Media & Society, vol. 14, no. 1, 2012, pp. 28-44.
Siembieda, Kevin. Rifts. Palladium Books, 2005.
Spry, Tami. "Autoethnography and the Other: Performative Embodiment and a Bid for Utopia." The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (2018): 627-649.
Steve. Personal Interview. 4 April 2017.
Sundén, Jenny. “Desires at Play: On Closeness and Epistemological Uncertainty.” Games and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, Mar. 2012, pp. 164-184, doi:10.1177/1555412012451124.
Torner, Evan. “Uncertainty in Analog Role-Playing Games, Part 2.” Analog Game Studies, vol. 1, 2014.
Trammell, Aaron. “Representation and Discrimination in Role-Playing Games.” Role-Playing Game Studies. Routledge, 2018. pp. 440-447.
Voorhees, Gerald. “The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Roleplaying Games.” Game Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2009.
Waskul, Dennis, and Matt Lust. “Role‐Playing and Playing Roles: The Person, Player, and Persona in Fantasy Role‐Playing.” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 27, no. 3, 2004, pp. 333-356.