Role Playing Materials - Rafael Bienia - ebook

Role Playing Materials ebook

Rafael Bienia



Die Dissertation Role Playing Materials untersucht die materielle Seite von Larp, Mixed Reality und Pen'n'Paper Rollenspielen. Wie kooperieren Gewandung, Virtuelle-Realität-Brille, oder ein Bleistift mit Erzählung und Spielregeln? Neben Antworten auf diese Frage versucht das Buch das Verständnis von Rollenspiel als eine Handlung zu erweitern, die nicht nur von Menschen geprägt wird. Role Playing Materials examines how larp, mixed and tabletop role-playing games work. Costumes, computers, pen and paper are not passive elements. Materials change and are changed during role-playing game sessions, because they work together with narrative and ludic elements. If we think about materials as social elements, how do they make role-playing games work? To answer this question, Role Playing Materials draws on ethnographic fieldwork among role-playing communities in Germany. The analysis draws upon the fields of game studies, and science, technology and society studies.

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Rafael Bienia„Role Playing Materials“

This dissertation has been randomly chosen for an originality check.The electronic and manual plagiarism tests by the Maastricht University Library under the supervision of the Board of Deans have been negative.

Copyright © 2016 Zauberfeder GmbH, Braunschweig

Autor: Rafael BieniaSatz und Layout: Christian SchmalHerstellung: Tara Tobias MoritzenDruck und Bindung: Schaltungsdienst Lange, Berlin

Alle Rechte vorbehalten.Kein Teil dieses Werkes darf ohne schriftliche Einwilligung des Verlags in irgendeiner Form (Fotokopie, Mikrofilm oder ein anderes Verfahren) reproduziert oder unter Verwendung elektronischer Systeme verarbeitet, vervielfältigt oder verbreitet werden.

Printed in GermanyISBN:

Hinweis:Das vorliegende Buch ist sorgfältig erarbeitet worden. Dennoch erfolgen alle Angaben ohne Gewähr. Autoren und Verlag bzw. dessen Beauftragte können für eventuelle Personen-, Sach- oder Vermögensschäden keine Haftung übernehmen.



to obtain the degree of Doctor at Maastricht University,on the authority of the Rector Magnificus, Prof. dr. L.L.G. Soetein accordance with the decision of the Board of Deans,to be defended in publicon Thursday 28. April 2016, at 14.00 hours


Rafael Peter Bienia


Prof. dr. Sally Wyatt


Dr. Karin Wenz

Assessment Committee:

Prof. dr. Renée van de Vall (chair)

Dr. Marinka Copier (HKU University of Arts Utrecht)

Prof. dr. Maaike Meijer

Prof. dr. Frans Mäyrä (University of Tampere)



Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Methodology & Theory

2.1 Introduction, or Following Materials to Multiple Role-Playing Game Sites

2.2 Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, or Building a Vocabulary

2.2.1 Actors, or various sites of action

2.2.2 Network, or action at a distance

2.2.3 Agency, or making a difference

2.2.4 Mediator and intermediary, or translating agency

2.3 Methodology, or Selection of Qualitative Empirical Data

2.3.1 From participant observation to field notes

2.3.2 From semi-structured interviews to transcripts

2.3.3 Ethical considerations

2.4 Theory, or an Actor-Network Vocabulary for Game Studies

2.4.1 Play

2.4.2 Role playing

2.4.3 Game

2.4.4 Role-playing games

2.4.5 Table 1. A vocabulary for an actor-network study of role playing

2.4.6 Situating the study

2.5 Conclusion, or a Vocabulary for Writing about Role Playing Materials

Chapter 3: Larp

3.1 Introduction, or Following the Garb

3.2 Problem, or Stories and Rules are not enough

3.3 Results, or Material Work in German Larp

3.3.1 A rhizome of actions

3.3.2 A short actor-network history of German larp

3.3.3 Role playing with garb

3.4 Conclusion, or an Actor-Network Study of German Larp in the 2010s

Chapter 4: Mixed Reality Role-Playing Games

4.1 Problem, or an Emerging Technology

4.2 Introduction, or Reassembling Realities

4.2.1 A second chance for augmented and virtual reality technology

4.2.2 Computers everywhere

4.3 Results, or Following Emerging Technologies with Role Playing

4.3.1 Obscurus 2 or Larp and Augmented Reality

4.3.2 Virtual reality and role playing

4.4 Conclusion, or Before the Blackbox of Mixed Reality Role-Playing Games

Chapter 5: Tabletop Role-Playing Games

5.1 Introduction, or “Compare it with Improvisation Theatre”

5.2 Problem, or Experiments With a Messy Network

5.3 Results, or Let the Materials Speak

5.3.1 Light

5.3.2 Table

5.3.3 Battle map

5.3.4 Character sheet

5.3.5 Pencil

5.3.6 Game master screen

5.4 Conclusion, or Lights Out

Chapter 6: Conclusions

6.1 Summary of Empirical Chapters

6.2 Main Findings

6.2.1 Ontological findings

6.2.2 Epistemological findings

6.3 Implications

6.3.1 Actor-network theory and game studies

6.3.2 Actor-network theory and methodology

6.3.3 Ephemeral role playing phenomena and material actors

6.3.4 Ethical implications of game material mass production

6.4 Limitations

6.5. Suggestions for Future Studies

6.6 Final Thoughts on Role Playing Materials

Appendix A: Participant Observation

Appendix B: Interviews

List of Tables


Summary in English

Samenvatting (Summary in Dutch)

Valorization Addendum

About the Author


This dissertation is a network that includes many people who supported me during the past years. Let me take some time and say my thanks.

First of all, I want to thank my supervisors Sally Wyatt and Karin Wenz. Your support and guidance helped me to stay on track without losing my enthusiasm for the diversity of academic work. Your detailed and constructive feedback improved my academic skills immensely.

This dissertation was part of the NWO funded project “Narrative Fan Practices” led by Karin Wenz. With Karin, Nicolle Lamerichs, and Maarten Michielse, I was in the lucky position to be part of a team of excellent scholars. From our joint work, I learned the visible and invisible trades of our profession and I can only hope that my contribution was of any help to you.

To Lotte and Maarten. I enjoyed every time we shared so far. Whether it was a cappuccino with Lotte to discuss our chapters, or a chocomel with Maarten at Bandito’s – it was always a pleasure to see you. I am glad that you became my paranymphs. Paranymphs are basically two angels taking care of the nervous wreck before, during, and after the defense. Whatever happens, thank you for this in advance!

To my colleagues at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) in general and the research program Arts, Media and Culture (AMC) in particular. AMC has made me feel at home, treating me as a proper colleague, giving me opportunities to teach in your courses, give lectures, and contribute to this wonderful community. Special thanks to Louis van den Hengel, Jack Post, Daniel Stinsky, and Renée van de Vall. I am grateful for the meetings of our Media & Aesthetics group led by Ike Kamphof, who also helped me as my BKO coach to master Problem Based Learning.

To my colleagues of the research program Maastricht University – Science, Technology and Society Studies (MUSTS). I had the opportunity to benefit from your advice, feedback, and an open ear during several lectures, an introductory course, and one summer workshop. Special thanks to Wiebe Bijker, Karin Bijsterveld, Jessica Mesman, Bernike Pasveer, and Julia Quartz-Topp.

To the reading group on Practice Theory, initiated by Jessica Mesman, it was a great opportunity to see and learn with colleagues from both programs, AMC and MUSTS. I am grateful to have been part of this fruitful collaboration within FASoS, because I experienced how interdisciplinary work really works within a faculty.

Many thanks to Geert Somsen and Alexandra Supper who led the graduate school and who were always keen on improving the diversity of topics of lectures and workshops. I had the opportunity to contribute several times with workshops and profited from many sessions on the life around a Ph.D.

My thanks towards the national Research School for Media Studies (RMeS) and the former director José van Dijk. The Winter and Summer Schools have always been an invigorating experience of discussing and learning more about the work of my fellow Ph.D. colleagues in the Netherlands. Presenting my own work was a great chance to receive constructive feedback. Thanks above all to Alex Gekker, Nils Kerssens, Lela Mosemghvdlishvili, Birte Schohaus, Rik Smit for your pleasant and stimulating company. Taking part in the research school activities showed me different universities in the Netherlands.

In the past years, my travels went beyond the Netherlands. A big thank you to my colleagues for their constructive feedback throughout the years: Benjamin Beil, J.T. Harviainen, Nathan Hook, Jonas Linderoth, Michał Mochocki, Torill Mortensen, Jan Salge, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern.

Thanks to the publishers of my first articles and books: Benjamin Beil and Thomas Hensel, Benjamin Bigl and Sebastian Stoppe, Sarah Lynne Bowman, Andrea Castellani, Sebastian Deterding and José Zagal, Karsten Dombrowski, Evan Torner, and Jutta Zaremba. Also thanks to Gerke Schlickmann for co-editing the MittelPunkt books with me.

I want to thank the communities of role playing for joining me in my field work, letting me play with them, their countless conversations, help, and interest in my work. Beside my interviewees (see Appendix B), I want to thank Mercedes Buyala, Michael Hess, and Matthias Trennheuser. Above all, my thanks to all of you who have made it possible for me to go to Alcyon XVI: Frances Arndt, Maria Angelika De Barros-Alves, Bastian Heer, Kelric, Julia Kieper, Flo Krell, Lu, Nummi, Franzi Schöttner, Max Stark, and my larp brothers Martin Strzodka and Mike Tascona.

To my office mates. Eli’s calm attitude was the right antidote to my somewhat cliché nervousness of a Ph.D. candidate. You had always a moment to talk and our family meetings will be kept dear in our memories. Two years later, Assem moved in. I am grateful for your company and the many talks we had about coffee, sports, politics, and religious studies.

To Peter Waldmann who had always faith in me as a scholar. I tried to follow your example of a teacher during my time in Maastricht.

To Thomas Hensel who took care of my first steps as a Ph.D. candidate and who linked me to ANT at University of Siegen.

To my family. Thanks to my parents for your support and faith in my curiosity from early on. Thanks to my brother for your support and your special way to make this world a piece of art.

To my wife. Thank you for this better life. Without your right words at the right time, I would not have applied to what seemed and became the most spectacular job I have ever had so far. Thank you for your support during these long years.

This network does not end here and I want to thank all future readers for their interest.

Chapter 1


Towards the end of his commencement speech at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, author Neil Gaiman shared a trick that reminded me of role playing:

Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped. (2012)

Gaiman’s trick is similar to role playing, because it involves a task and two specific stages in how to solve it. If the example was a role-playing game, the audio book would be the goal of the game. At the first stage, the player would imagine a character with the necessary production skills. At the second stage, the player would pretend to be the producer recording the audio book.

The difference between Gaiman’s trick and role playing is that role playing does not necessarily aim to solve creative tasks or to make art. Role playing is a hobby for people who enjoy imagining and exploring characters who are challenged with invented tasks in fictional worlds. Imagine a person dressed up as a wizard running through thorn bushes at night. On his trail, a group of yelling cultists. They chant in an unearthly language to call upon their foul god. Iä! Iä! Iä! The wizard character tumbles, because I as the player want the situation to escalate. Quickly, he is surrounded by three men and women in gray robes – actually the color is green, but it is dark. I cannot read their faces, so I have to expect the worst. What would you do in the shoes of this wizard? Cast a spell of attack? Cast a spell of protection? Surrender? Run again? If you stop reading this book for a second and imagine the situation to decide what the wizard would do, you are role-playing, because you pretend to be someone else and act according to this character.

This wizard example is one role-playing situation that I have experienced in the past five years of research. The fictional world was a fantasy world inhabited by wizards, cultists, and magic spells. My character’s task was to escape the three robed figures. As it was a game, the game rules offered several ways in which my character could interact with his world. What happened then? I decided to attack one of the cultists with a spell, but at the moment when I was casting the words, the cultists beat me down. I let my character fall and lie for an hour on the spot until my fellow players found me. This happened back in 2011, but I still tell the wizard’s story.

This example resonates with the definitions of role playing in the field of role-playing game studies. Heliö (2004) defines role-playing games as “games that offer implied motivation for creating narrative experiences,” such as the task of recording an audio book, “and encouraging players to tell stories about them” (p. 72). Role playing is a mindset, a mental process, which players can add to any game (Heliö, 2004). Heliö’s definition explains Gaiman’s trick as role playing, because the elements are the same. Role playing is an activity that includes the following elements. Narrative elements, such as character and world, describe what happens. Goals and rules are ludic elements that structure how it might happen. Together, narrative and ludic elements set up the activity as a game that challenges the character in the imagined world.

Gaiman’s trick hints at a third group of elements that definitions of role playing miss (Heliö, 2004; Hitchens & Drachen, 2009; Montola, 2012a). While role playing an audio book producer, she “put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped” (Gaiman, 2012). The notice and the studio wall form the third group: material elements. The group includes materials, such as the paper notice, the studio wall, or game materials that are part of a role-playing game.

By taking material elements into view, this dissertation explores an alternative understanding of how role playing works, because it is insufficient to understand role playing as a mindset or a social process between players alone (Heliö, 2004; Montola, 2012a). Role playing emerges in and by a group of heterogeneous elements. The process includes social relations between narrative, ludic, and material elements. This understanding of role playing challenges previous understandings on two levels. It is not enough to merely add a further element, in this case material, and expand the understanding on one ontological level. The understanding of role playing as a process that works in and by a group of elements demands rethinking what role playing is. I have to consider multiple ontologies, because it is insufficient to examine one ontology centered on players. If role playing emerges from the working of heterogeneous elements, how do these diverse elements collaborate? This encourages an investigation of the epistemological level, too. The epistemological question of how to know what role playing is, expands preconceived notions that define role playing as a mental process caused by players, because it requires studying collaborating elements not as post hoc phenomena but as they occur. Thus, it is necessary to examine materials in the process of relating to narrative and ludic elements.

By studying materials when and where role playing happens, this dissertation aims to solve the ontological and epistemological levels of the problem. The guiding question of this study is, how do materials make role playing work in role-playing games? I speak of guiding question, because “guidance” is in line with the methodological premise of actor-network theory, “follow the actors” (Latour, 1987). As the theoretical and methodological toolset, it helped me to solve the twofold problem and answer the questions: How do materials collaborate with narrative and ludic actors in role-playing games? What changes do materials demand for their collaboration from narrative and ludic actors? How do these inter-relational processes change role-playing game networks? The results of my actor-network studies of materials in role-playing games provide the content for the next chapters.

Structure of this book.Chapter 2 explains actor-network theory in more detail. When I follow materials in different role-playing game forms, I follow one of many elements that make role playing work. I decided to follow materials, because there is a lack of understanding on how materials work in role playing in the field of game studies in general and role-playing game studies in particular. The inclusion of narrative and ludic elements aims to expand the knowledge about role playing and bridge this dissertation with previous studies. The disadvantage of this approach is that I thereby limit one of the strengths of actor-network theory, that of entering the field with a small number of concepts. The advantage is that by using these concepts in my field work, I can bridge actor-network theory and previous studies of role-playing games. More important, the study becomes feasible in the given time frame of my dissertation project.

For the next empirical chapters, I selected three forms of role-playing games where different constellations of elements constitute role playing. These three forms are live action role play or larp (Chapter 3), mixed reality role-playing games (Chapter 4), and tabletop role-playing games (Chapter 5). The results draw on empirical data collected during field work conducted primarily in Germany from 2010 to 2015.

Chapter 3 follows the costume in German larp. I participated in larps that involved hundreds of players dressing up as characters in a fantasy world. We role-played for four days at a former military camp that was rented for this event. The wizard example above was taken from one of these larps. In this chapter, I show how the costume takes part in role playing during a larp. By following the costume, I learned that it consists of a changing group of material elements. These changing materials have co-created German larp throughout the past 25 years and are responsible for its current shape.

Chapter 4 moves to the emerging form of mixed reality role-playing games. These games use mobile computing devices and headsets which construct augmented and virtual reality systems. For role playing with augmented reality systems, I followed the smartphone as a mobile computing device. It brought me to a larp about criminals in a darker version of the contemporary world. The players used their smartphones to access digital information in the larp world, but several things went wrong. I discuss the tensions to examine the social relations between the heterogeneous elements involved. For role playing with virtual reality systems, I followed the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, the prototype of a virtual reality headset. Playing a computer role-playing game with this headset, I realized that role playing reveals relations that are necessary to make the headset work in a game. Tracing these relations not only showed how they intertwine machine, player, and role-playing game, but revealed opportunities for further relations that require work with the current prototype of the virtual reality system. On the basis of these two examples, I argue that the requirements for role playing show how augmented and virtual reality systems might merge in future technological developments.

Chapter 5 is about tabletop role-playing games where people sit around a table. The core activity for players is telling each other what the character does in the shared world. Thus, the group experiences vicariously their characters’ adventures. However, tabletop role-playing games involve not only people, but also the table, sheets of paper, and more material elements. To examine how these materials participate, I take a more radical step in this chapter with a methodological experiment. I explore the actions of materials in tabletop role-playing games by letting materials speak. One result is that I am able to describe what happens between materials that seem neutral during role playing. The experiment shows how future researchers can use role playing of materials as an ethnographic method. There have been forerunners in actor-network theory, but no study of role-playing games to date has investigated materials in this way.

In the concluding chapter (Chapter 6), I present an alternative understanding of how materials make role playing work not on the basis of one element, physical or material, mental or creative, but how heterogeneous elements collaborate at specific sites of role playing.

Chapter 2


2.1 Introduction, or Following Materials to Multiple Role-Playing Game Sites

This book is about role-playing games, a genre of games played and enjoyed in various forms around the globe. Games are the central unit of analysis of game studies, a field which emerged at the turn of this millennium (Aarseth, 2001). Although the field focuses mainly on digital games, more and more researchers have been asking for the inclusion of analog games in recent years. These discussions take place among members of the Digital Game Research Association (DiGRA), the largest international academic association on games. As a pun, discussions about analog games bear the tag “GRA,” omitting the “Di” for Digital in the association name DiGRA. Additionally, journals have emerged that focus on non-digital games, such as Analog Game Studies (since 2014). When this study includes role-playing games with digital technology (Chapter 4) as well as those without the necessary use of computers (Chapters 3 and 5), it avoids the digital/analog dichotomy with an alternative theoretical and methodological toolset: actor-network theory. As an inter-disciplinary field, game studies draws theories and methodologies mainly from the humanities and social sciences, but few studies to date have worked with actor-network theory. In Chapter 4 of this dissertation, I discuss the dichotomy between digital and non-digital games, and explain my approach that includes digital and analog role-playing games. I return to game studies later in this chapter, but I need first to explicate how this study is situated in actor-work theory, and then introduce the relevant methodological principles in more detail.

The main methodological principle of actor-network theory is to “follow the actors,” so I had to go where “the structural effects actually [are] being produced” (Latour, 2005, p. 175). Since I was interested in those structural effects that produce role playing or make it work, I followed material actors to sites where they took part in three forms of role-playing games: larp, mixed reality role-playing games, and tabletop role-playing games.

I have been familiar with role-playing games as a player since the early 1990s. The first games that I played were on an Atari computer, such as Ultima Underworld: Stygian Abyss (Looking Glass Studios and Origin Systems, 1992) and Ambermoon (Thalion Software, 1993). In January 1995, I bought my first tabletop role-playing game Das Schwarze Auge (Schmidt Spiele / FanPro, 1992). Around this time, I read about larps that took place in the Czech Republic and were advertised in computer game magazines (PowerPlay, 1995). It was eleven years, however, before I participated in my first larp (Alcyon 10, Fantasiewelten e.V., 2006). In the meantime, my perspective on these games changed when I began to modify and design my own games. I changed from being a role-player to a designer. The first design attempt was a tabletop role-playing game in 1998. I involved myself in creating a fictional world that drew upon the works of fantasy literature and 19th century gothic novel. I then wrote several fantasy choose-your-own-path games for DOS with the Pascal programming language, and later I created mods for the computer role-playing game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks, 2006). Mods are software units that add content which “modifies” the core game. Moving on to designing larps, I co-organized Schwarzbernstein 1 (Utopion, Schwarzbernstein Orga, 2010) and wrote the mini larp Death Buddies about dying in contemporary Western society (2012).1 Compared to my background as a player, my activities as a designer have been limited, but they do provide me with a second perspective on the games that I studied for this book.

The field work for the three role-playing game forms provided a range of opportunities to study material actors in action. Each game session took from four hours (in the case of mixed reality role-playing games) to several days of constant play (in the case of larp). In total, I participated in hundreds of hours of different kinds of role playing from 2010 until 2014.2 During this time, I played each role-playing game form several times at different sites, because I wanted to compare how material work differs. Due to the amount and diversity of my participation, I classify this field work as multi-sited ethnography (Falzon, 2012; Marcus, 1995). Multi-sited ethnography encouraged me to visit multiple sites to uncover the spatio–temporal relationships between the three forms in order to deepen the understanding of role-playing processes and to observe how materials make them work.

I followed materials to sites before and after game sessions, because I was interested in further processes that related to sites of role playing. Some players spend hours on preparation during weekends and evenings. Following material actors to sites of discourse, where players discuss what they do to prepare game sessions or discuss past games, I learned about the demands of materials and gained considerable understanding of the negotiation work that is necessary to include materials. I observed these processes in meetings of players and on online platforms where they discuss and distribute knowledge, for example how to build and modify game materials. My engagement in online forums helped me to position myself “beyond mere observing or lurking” (Michielse, 2015, p. 35), because I was active in discussing hands on experience and theoretical knowledge about role-playing games.

I visited player, designer, and academic meetings dedicated to these games, taking me to the cities of Haarlem (NL), Tampere (FIN), Gothenburg (S), Helsinki (FIN), Offenbach (GER), Köln (GER), and Wiesbaden (GER). At conventions, where players and designers meet, I got in touch with key figures in the contemporary culture involved in the hobby. At these meetings, I participated actively in game sessions but also contributed in reflective discussions on role playing either by sharing preliminary results of this book or by presenting about topics of general interest, such as how to take pictures without disturbing players (Solmukohta, Helsinki, 2012). Being an active part of the processes of player, designer, and academic work allowed me also to observe different types of organizations and to take their point of view on role playing. The insights from these visits helped inform my thought processes in the following chapters, as I selected data about certain phenomena instead of others.

To strengthen my relations with the communities, I became a member of DiGRA in 2013. Within the German larp association Deutscher Live-Rollenspiel Verband (D.L.R.V.), I initiated the founding of the larp research group Deutsche Larp-Forschung in the same year. I established relations between international larp communities, tying East European organizers from Poland with German, French, and American organizers. Appendix A provides a list of conventions and conferences that I participated in.

In terms of following the actors, the question remains what I concretely did to trace material work at these diverse sites of role playing and discussion. The principle “follow the actors” necessitated my going to various sites where role playing happens, including living rooms, pubs (Zu den vier Winden, Bochum), former military areas (Utopion, Saarland, Germany), and youth hostels (Burg Bilstein, Sauerland, Germany). When I arrived there as a researcher, I had to participate in the game session, because role-playing games are rarely played with a non-participating audience. To trace material work in role-playing processes during game sessions, I drew upon the specifics of “follow the actors,” a concept rooted in ethnography (Latour, 1987, 1999). In the following sections, I elaborate upon this principle.

Section 2.2 introduces actor-network theory as the methodological and theoretical toolbox of this study, because I need to explain this study’s alternative take on games in more detail. I elaborate that actor-network theory should not be considered as a framework, but more of an infra-language that works only with empirical data. The section presents key vocabulary that helped me to write about the selected data in the three empirical chapters.

Section 2.3 elaborates on the specifics of the chosen ethnographic tools that helped me to work with actor-network theory during my multi-sited study. The tools included field notes and semi-structured interviews as the main categories of qualitative empirical data. At the end of this section, I elaborate on ethical considerations of this study.

Section 2.4 refines the vocabulary that I use in the following chapters by bridging the vocabulary of actor-network theory with concepts from role-playing game theory, which brings me back to game studies. Table 1 summarizes the refined vocabulary for the following chapters. Finally, I situate this study of materials in the wider field of game studies.

2.2 Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, or Building a Vocabulary

Having addressed what I did to select data when I followed materials to the three sites, the next question is how I selected and presented the results of data analysis. This is a question of how to talk about data. I suggest actor-network theory to solve the problem, because it is also considered an infra-language that helps us to talk about data in an alternative way.

2.2.1 Actors, or various sites of action. The book that you hold in your hands or the text on a screen before you is the work of different elements that came together at certain sites. When I look around the book’s place of birth, my desktop, there is the Oxford Short Dictionary, Latour’s Reassembling the Social, Copier’s dissertation, printed articles and book chapters on actor-network theory, books on role-playing games, but also everything I need to actually write these words: a keyboard under my ten fingertips, a mouse, an LCD display, a personal computer, a modem, pencils, and scrap paper.

For the past four years, the goal has been to make all these elements collaborate and submit the result in form of a dissertation. Some of them were easy to work with, such as pencils and scrap paper, while others disobeyed from time to time, such as my computer when the system crashed while I was writing, because there was an update of the operating system. The content of the articles and books on my table was more volatile. Sometimes, I had to reread a sentence, page, or the entire book to understand. Of course, understanding itself was a mental process of linking new information to what I knew. Just like the audio book producer in the Introduction, however, I pretended to be someone who could write a dissertation and experimented with materials. I assembled books and dedicated a set of writing tools only for the dissertation. Thus, I added materials to the mental processes that were part of reading about the topic and writing this book.

One example for how even words change is the “correct” spelling of role playing. The Oxford dictionary standing on my desktop tells me to hyphenate the verb “to role-play,” the adjective “role-playing” in role-playing games, and also the noun “role-playing” (Brown, 1993, p. 2618). However, in 2012, the Oxford Online Dictionary changed the spelling of the gerund, omitting the hyphen (2012). Someone who is role-playing is written “role player” without a hyphen. Thus, I have retained the hyphens for the verb and adjective, but write the gerund form “role playing” and “role player” without a hyphen.3

The book next to the dictionary is Latour’s (2005) Reassembling the Social. I use it as my tour guide in working with actor-network theory. Actor-network theory roots in the work of Callon (1986a), Latour (1987, 2005), and Law (1987, 2004) from the fields of science, technology, and society studies. It is in the tradition of social constructivist studies that do not primarily answer the question “What is technology?” but rather seek to trace the process of “how to make technology” (emphasis in original, Bijker, 2010, p. 63). Following these roots, this study does not aim to answer what role playing is in general or what a role-playing game is in particular, but aims to answer the guiding question how materials make role playing work. To answer this question, this study required qualitative empirical data and links its results to specific sites instead of generalizations. The focus is on role playing as a process. Actor-network theory helps to reconstruct how processes came into being, and to recognize how they changed in order to produce role playing. Role playing comes into being in and by a collective of heterogeneous actors. With the word heterogeneous I stress the point that any element can be an actor when it effects social change, be it the fictional world, game rules, or materials.

Although actor-network theory scholars emphasize the agnostic position of a researcher towards preconceived notions of processes and ask that the researcher start the study by following the actor, there is a small group of “concepts”. I present the following concepts in more detail, because I want to create a bridge to readers from game studies who might not be familiar with actor-network theory. The first difficulty of actor-network theory is that it is less a theory than a methodology (follow the actors) or a language. The following concepts—actor, network, agency, mediator, and intermediary—are not definitions but words that can refer to empirical phenomena. They are empty shells without empirical evidence that the researcher has to gather in field work (Latour, 2005; Sayes, 2014; Venturini, 2010). Therefore, I put concepts into quotation marks, because they are words. These words form an infra-language or vocabulary with which the analyst can describe an empirical phenomenon, such as role playing, because “they don’t designate what is being mapped, but how it is possible to map anything from such a territory” (Latour, 2005, p. 174). In this regard, actor-network theory continues the tradition of social constructivism in that it provides a vocabulary for methodology. Moreover, the legacy of post-structuralism in actor-network theory becomes apparent with the necessity to reflect language when it connects concrete reality with abstract ideas. Law (2009) suggests that “actor-network theory can also be understood as an empirical version of post-structuralism.” (p. 6). Thus, the examination of concepts as words is one methodological step, because the relation between words and what is being mapped should not be taken for granted. Before I can use a word as an analytical tool, I need to establish a relation to an empirical fact and reflect instead of looking for data that fits to established concepts.

The book Reassembling the Social leans against my computer monitor that stores most of my notes, data samples, and previous versions of this book. I say “most” because in 2012 I began to draft my chapters with pencil and paper. What happened was that my writing slowed down. I am a fast writer with a typewriter or computer keyboard, but writing by hand forced the word count to drop. I gained time to think more before I wrote down the words. This new collaboration—hand, pencil, and paper—changed the way I was writing the book. In its core, this example of writing makes a point about an “actor”.

An actor makes a difference to other elements. Actor is a word that refers to an element that is part of a process, for example a pencil in the process of writing. Again, actor is a word that requires empirical evidence to be of analytical value, because an actor ties to a process that the researcher observes at a specific site. A researcher can only speak of an actor when there is empirical evidence of its action. Evidence or trace of an action is observable, because “anything that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor” (Latour, 2005, p. 71). Thus, it remains uncertain what an actor is unless there is a trace of action. When there is a trace, it is not because there is an actor, but because an actor works.

Because of this uncertainty, actor-network theory is not a theory in the sense of a stable framework that answers ontological questions, such as what an actor is, but a mode of inquiry or a tool that encourages rethinking whether the phenomenon is what it seems to be. In the example of writing with pen and paper, is it the human who is the sole actor responsible for the process of writing, or could it be otherwise?

An actor is “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general” (Latour, 1996b, p. 375). The pencil is an actor, because it made me write differently. The paper itself can be an actor, too. But actor-network theory makes me aware that effects do not originate in an intrinsic essence of one element but result from the collaboration or cooperation of actors (Latour, 2011). It is the pencil, paper, and hand that change my writing compared to typing on a keyboard.

An actor has a recognizable identity only through its actions in collaboration with other actors. I can speak of the pencil as an actor in relation to hand and paper when they write together. At this point, the inter-relation between vocabulary and empirical data becomes apparent. When I sit at my desktop and remove one of these collaborators from the process, writing does not work anymore. The pencil does not write without paper or hand, the paper does not show traces of words without pencil or hand, the hand does not write without a writing device or a piece of paper. I cannot talk about a collaboration of actors anymore, because the identity-giving action of writing is missing here, and it is the identity-giving action in a collective that allows me to speak of actors, be they pencils or (later) materials in role-playing games.

This is the reason why actor-network theory does not define an actor as an element that has an intrinsic essence. An analyst refers to a pencil as a material actor, when there is a trace of action. When the graphite core that is part of the pencil collaborates with the paper and follows the movements and pressure of the hand. Non-human actors, such as pencils, “are endowed with a certain set of competencies by the network that they have lined up behind them,” for example the graphite that makes the pencil, and at “the same time, they demand a certain set of competencies by the actors they line up, in turn” (Sayes, 2014, p. 138). The pencil demands from the hand the competency to write. This competency is not inherent in a hand but is the result of years of training.

Before I introduce “network”, which refers here to the inter-relation of pencil and hand, in more detail, I need to explain how it is possible to say that unconscious elements like pencils demand something.

Human, non-human, and material actors. Above, I wrote that an actor is any element that acts in relation to other elements. This understanding works to recognize actors that act, but are non-humans. So far, players, designers, and researchers have understood role playing as a human endeavor, as I will elaborate in more detail below. But if non-human actors can be part of action, this study needs not only to explore how the group of non-human actors cooperate with other actors in role-playing processes, but also how to talk about this process without replacing anthropocentricism with materialism.

Actor-network theory does not claim “that objects do things ‘instead’ of human actors” (Latour, 2005, p. 72). The point is to examine how action emerges as a process in and by heterogeneous relations. This is the reason why I wrote in Chapter 1 that it is not enough to solve the ontological problem of what role playing is in general, and how materials collaborate. The inclusion of heterogeneous actors, referring also to non-human actors, addresses the epistemological level of the problem, how to know about role playing. When I use the adjective heterogeneous, I refer to a group of actors that includes different actors, be they human or non-human. The point is not to replace human action with non-human action to understand role playing, but to start with the assumption that anything could be part of the process. To avoid the dichotomy that the word “non-human” evokes, I use the word material.

The group of material actors includes “things, objects” (Latour, 1993, p. 13), “microbes, scallops, rocks, and ships” (Latour, 2005, p. 11), tools and technical artifacts, material structures, transportation devices, texts, and economic goods (Sayes, 2014, p. 136). Material actors include the scale between objects and raw materials. Objects designate elements that are physically constituted, spatially defined and functionally determined. Examples in this book are paper, computers, and clothes. Some of them can be labelled as toys, but the word toy as well as object does not help, because I want to look at raw materials, too.4 Raw materials, such as rocks, water, or metal, lack a predefined functional determination.

When I refer material actors or materials, I have observed action on the physical level and noted a trace of their actions. The pencil, for example, might have a nostalgic meaning for me, because it was a present from my former employer, but when I speak of the pencil as a material actor, I refer to the physical actions of the pencil. The pencil has a certain weight, shape, and durability, because the pencil consists of other material actors that are lined up behind it.

I do not use the word object, because I refer in this study to elements that do not have a defined function. For example, the leather that makes a costume in live action role playing is a component. Using the term material allows me to refer to players themselves as material actors, because players last and consist of matter that could be part of role playing, such as skin, hair, etc. Thus, material actors differ from symbolic, emotional, and similarly abstract actors, not because they are not able to act in these ways, but because the focus is on their physicality.

Material action does not mean that I refer only to action that the laws of causality can express, but physical action that can collaborate with mental processes. Formulating sentences and physical gravity might seem unconnected, but they need no longer be when I think about a sentence and use a pencil that leaves graphite traces on paper. The gain is an alternative understanding of writing as a process that involves material and mental action alike, where the mind/matter dichotomy dissolves because such a dichotomy is not helpful to understand how a graphite core cooperates with the rephrasing of a sentence.

The inclusion of non-humans as potentially equal actors in social processes has been a significant contribution of actor-network theory to studies of the social (Sayes, 2014). The task is to avoid reductionism that words like materials or matter might carry. “To make this possible, we have to free the matters of fact from their reduction by ‘Nature’, exactly as much as we should liberate objects and things from their ‘explanation’ by society” (Latour, 2005, p. 109). To mark that I go beyond the dichotomy between physical matters of fact and socially explicable objects or things, I use the word materials instead of physical actors or objects. Thus, I do not understand actor-network theory “as a sociology ‘extended to non-humans,’” (Latour, 2005, p. 109) because I keep material actors open on a symmetric level until field work shows what clothes, rain, computer hardware, and light account for. Thinking about social processes beyond solely human actions, expands the understanding of role playing as a social process between players to a social process between actors.

The question remains, why actors act in the way they act, when they do not need or “have” an intrinsic essence or a human consciousness. An actor effects social change, but the point is that this capacity to change is not rooted always in a conscious human decision, but emerges from a relation to other actors, which can be other elements that do something. Therefore, I name elements as actors when they do something, when they make a difference in a network.

2.2.2 Network or action at a distance. A network is a gathering, an assemblage, a group of actors that act together. A network gains its stability when actors repeat their actions in a certain manner. When I refer to a role-playing game as a network, I refer to the collaborative work of heterogeneous actors.

Actor-network theory points out a capacity of non-human actors that highlights a spatial and temporal capacity of action. Callon (1991) ascribes the capacity of gathering actors over time and space to non-human actors, better known in the formula “acting at a distance” (Latour, 1987, p. 222). Stability in a network is gained when non-human actors, such as role-playing materials, repeat an action of a temporary gathering. For example, I want to say the word “network.” I do not want to repeat the word myself, so I write the word with a pencil on a piece of paper. The paper bears the graphite marks that show the word “network.” I do not have to say “network” anymore, because the paper repeats the action, saying the word network, of the temporary gathering of me, pencil, and paper.

Thus, materials can “allow an actor that is no longer present to exert a palpable influence” (Sayes, 2014, p. 140). A palpable influence is what makes a difference, although the word “influence” can be misleading when influence is not understood as a process emerging from inter-relational actions. However, the preserving of a relation over space and time is one of the actions that humans desire of non-human actors. What I aim to examine is what happens when materials transport desired actions, or to reformulate the guiding question in this context, how does role playing change over space and time when materials become part of the process?

Actor-network theory as a constructivist paradigm within science, technology, and society studies allows multiple truths instead of one, multiple truths that are constructed by and between actors. Thus, what is studied and how, is a responsibility of the actor-network analyst. It is relevant that an actor-network refers to what is studied, in this case role playing, but it is also a tool to study role playing.

Ontology and epistemology. Network has two meanings according to Latour (2011):

You see that I take the word network not simply to designate things in the world that have the shape of a net […] but mainly to designate a mode of inquiry that learns to list, at the occasion of a trial, the unexpected beings necessary for any entity to exist. A network, in this second meaning of the word, is more like what you record through a Geiger counter that clicks every time a new element, invisible before, has been made visible to the inquirer. (p. 799)

The ontological meaning of network is the network as a collaboration of heterogeneous actors. Until now, I have referred to this meaning when I talked about actors. The epistemological meaning of network is the network of relational processes that become visible when the inquirer recognizes, thinks, and writes them down. The network helps to reveal material actors, because it is an epistemological tool that helps to grow a sense of what is involved in a process. In this sense, researchers like Mol (2010) refuse to apply actor-network theory as a theory, and treat it more like a sensibility to approach a phenomenon while increasing one’s understanding. This twofold understanding of a network is the reason why actor-network theory is apt to answer the two levels of this dissertation’s problem: the ontological, what is role playing, and the epistemological, how to know about role playing.

It is not enough to re-think role playing as a phenomenon that includes narrative, ludic, and material actors. Tracing relational work between these actors, actor-network theory aims to change how a researcher learns to know and justify this knowledge about collaborating actors. Instead of referring phenomena back to concepts, I use words that have emerged from inside field work. The vocabulary at the end of this chapter is the result of my field work. It has changed in the past years when I refined it to keep my preconceived notions at bay. When I observed and analyzed what happened during game sessions, my understanding changed from role-playing games that some define as games with, for example, the mindset of role playing, to role-playing games as processes, as actor-networks that gather diverse actors and make them work together at specific sites. Using network as a mode of inquiry provides the researcher with a methodological toolbox that at the same time changes the theoretical framework. Thus, a theoretical framework is less a context than a toolbox. With the tool mode of inquiry I localized role playing in the process between actors. In this regard, the theory adds itself as an actor to the researcher’s work, and as an actor, it changes its own work of constructing ontological meaning. Having explained the two meanings of network, I now return to the process, the “making a difference,” because it also explains the how actors gather, or organize, other actors to form networks that last over time.

2.2.3 Agency, or making a difference. Actors “can be made to act through the agency of a magic wand, a dwarf, a thought in the fairy’s mind, or a knight killing two dozen dragons” (Latour, 2005, p. 54). Latour does not refer here to fantasy role-playing games, but to actors that they share with fairy tales. He points out that actors act on behalf of sometimes surprising actors. Agency is the word used when referring to heterogeneous actors that act according to the same goal, such as role playing. The difference between actor and agency is that the actor does something and agency explains “the different ways to make actors do things” (Latour, 2005, p. 55).

“Making a difference” is conceptualized as agency, which is a much contested concept in social theory, but in game studies is defined as a human capacity (Wardrip-Fruin et al., 2009). While this different definition shares the understanding of agency as ability, it differs in explaining how this ability comes into action, whether it is possible to think of agency as ability, and whether the ability is an inward power, or rather a relational effect. Actor-network theory diverges from these definitions by viewing agency not as a concept that the researcher has to trace, but again as a word for a difference making process that only exists when the researcher observes an empirical trace. Agency is a source for inquiry or uncertainty about what is part of what happens. Thus, agency aims at an observable capacity to act and matter and make a difference in the world, a capacity that comes into action when actors relate with each other. Instead of an inward power in game studies’ sense of agency, agency in actor-network theory refers to streamlining actions to one action. When I refer to role playing as agency, role playing is the “streamlining” action that emerges from and constitutes the inter-relational actions of heterogeneous actors. These actors’ actions form connections and when enough connections flow together, they create the role-playing game network and role playing works.