Shared Fantasy

I once wrote the draft of a paper called “Ideology in Board Games”. I tried to show how ideology comes into every aspect of our lives. Board games like those from Avalon Hill Battle of the Bulge, an early form of which was produced in the late 1960s, that I later used to develop my ideas on panzer warfare. This ultimately was published as an article in 1983 (see the abstract), using the concept of negotiated order as a guiding principle. But the underlying purpose of this was to show how ideology permeates every aspect of life. Another game was about stocking a zoo with animals in order to preserve rare animals.

Gary Alan Fine Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds (Chicago University Press, 1983) is a detailed examination of role-playing games. Unconnected to it there is an on-line précis by Samantha Dana in pdf download format here. This is worth reading for its discussion of Shared Fantasy.

Nearly twenty years after Shared Fantasy was reviewed in 2004 in Symbolic Interaction  by Dennis Wascul and Matt Lust. The review was article-length, so my job had been done).

Fine’s book uses participant observation to understand how players construct social worlds out of fantasy role-playing, and then in the course of play generate identities. It is all to easy today to associate such games with computer programmes. But Fine’s book was written in the years 1977-79 before on-line gaming became popular. The 1970s was the era of face-to-face gaming, dominated by role-playing games, when early versions of Dungeons and Dragons were introduced in 1974 and grew in popularity rapidly from the mid-1970s onward.

In any event Fine’s interest is in the way small groups in face-to-face interaction define the unstable reality of the gaming situation that they construct together. Fine uses Erving Goffman’s concept of Frames and the engrossment of players in the game. Fine uses Frame Analysis (1974) in different contexts as well. Anselm Strauss’ concept of negotiated order, first fully elaborated in Eliot Freidson (ed.) The Hospital in Modern Society (Free Press of Glencoe, 1963) was available at the time, I used it in my doctoral dissertation at Gothenburg University in 1977 which applied the concept of negotiated order to the Scottish Highland Clearances – but Anselm Strauss’ work is not used in Shared Fantasy.

There is a good reason for this. Fine’s work has from the start focussed on short-term face-to-face groups whose membership tends to be unstable and often temporary, not on more permanent groups. So, instead, Fine uses Erving Goffman’s early work as the main symbolic interactions source to analyse the processes of interpersonal interaction in the small group that comprised the players of Barker’s game, that Barker himself adjudicated as Game Modulator (GM).

Fine sees these temporary groups as examples of what he terms ideocultures (Fine, 1979), an approach that is a recurring theme in his work. See also Fine (2012).

The process of coming to an agreement is complex and varies in its specifics from game to game. Having been appointed to a tenure-track post in the Department of Sociology at Minnesota University Fine learned of the existence of a fantasy gaming circle at the University that was being run by a Professor of Linguistics in another Department, M. A. R. Barker – who invented a fantasy game Empire of the Petal Throne (Fine, 1983 Preface p.xiii), set in his own invented world of Tekumel.

I have not come across this game before, so know nothing about the details of the game, but it is clear that the dynamics are much like those in Dungeons and Dragons which originated in 1974, using dice to decide outcomes. The Game Moderator (G.M.) sets the framework and participants sometimes negotiate with the GM over their own character’s role and development, as well as with other players.

Shared Fantasy gives a detailed and interesting description of gaming situations in which players identify with their characters so much that if the character dies they sometimes drop out permanently. A new player arriving or an old player dropping out can radically change the interpersonal interaction.

It is not possible to do proper justice to the text without writing a book about it. Any overview will necessarily be an inadequate alternative, so the book itself should be read if at all possible.

Chapter 1 FRP (pp.5-38) outlines Fantasy Role-play Gaming and presents a summary of the kinds that were at the time popular. These include Dungeons and Dragons, Chivalry and Sorcery, RuneQuestAvalon HillStar TrekLord of the Rings and other examples of fantasy role-playing.

Chapter 2, Players, (pp. 39-71) moves on to examine the players who take part in FRP (class, age, gender, etc), their characteristics and their approach to FRP.

Chapter 3 (pp. 72-122) is entitled Collective Fantasy covers the topic of refereeing. The referee, game moderator, is responsible for making decisions about the outcome of events and actions. The referee decides on the purpose of any quest and what the players will meet with on the way.

Chapter 4 (pp. 123-152) concerns the cultural system of the game, and since the author was playing a game both invented and refereed by Professor Barker it was the cultural system of the Empire of the Petal Throne. The longish title of the chapter is in Tsolyani, one of the languages Barker invented. Fine writes of the existence of “striking parallels…between the two fantasy masters, Tolkien and Barker” (pp. 130-152). See also the comparison in Wikipedia. Barker has written five novels based on his invented world. The group that Barker had in Minneapolis and that Fine was a member of was composed of seven other players all in their teens and twenties. It is the ideoculture of this group that Fine studies in Shared Fantasy.

Chapter 5 (pp. 153-180) is on Game Structure. It is here that ideocultures become apparent, with the formation of friendships, neutralities and hostilities. This chapter shows how someone who tried to dominate the game was opposed by other players and began to be defined as “deviant”, and can, if continuing to dominate, become an outcast. Refereeing is the task of an experienced player and is sometimes described as being “god”. Alliances fluctuated with changes in players.

Chapter 6 (pp. 181-204) is on “Frames and Games”, using Goffman, Schutz, and Glaser and Strauss, to develop the concept. This is one of the most interesting chapters in the book, impossible to summarise adequately.

Chapter 7 (pp. 205-228) “Role-playing and Person-playing” is about degrees of identification of the characters people play. The distinction is nowhere near as clear as it might first appear. Some players are very defensive of their characters and become quite upset when their character dies. Others have a more detached attitude. The main issues taken up, by subheading, are “Gaming as an extension of self”, “the construction of character”, “identification”, “overinvolement” Role-Distance”, Referees and Role-Playing”.

Chapter 8 (pp. 229-222) “The Reality of Fantasy” is the concluding chapter. Fine returns to his interest in negotiated orders, and emphasises the negotiated order of fantasy rules (pp. 234-236), illustrating how these are often flexibly interpreted. Chess is a game we often associate with fixed and immutable rules, but it is not so in practice, as Fine discusses. It is worth remembering the film The Thomas Crown Affair, this short u-tube of the theme song, showing the game of chess Fay Dunaway and Steve McQueen  play,  illustrates the point well.


Fine, Gary Alan (1979) “Small Groups and Culture Creation: the ideoculture of Little League baseball teams” American Sociological Review 44 (Oct) 733-45.

Fine, Gary Alan (2012) Tiny Publics: a theory of group action and culture Russell Sage, New York.

Goffman, Erving (1974) Frame Analysis: an essay on the organization of experience Harvard University Press

Wascul, Dennis and Matt Lust “Role-Playing and Playing Roles: The Person, Player, and Persona in Fantasy Role-Playing” Symbolic Interaction 27, 3 (Summer, pp.333-356)

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