2023 Abstracts Stage 2

Dungeons & Dragons or Enlightenment and Play

This project socially critiques the tabletop fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. To this end, I engage with game studies to clarify notions of play and Joseph P. Laycock’s account of meaning production within D&D specifically. For these thinkers, play provides a space constitutively separated from and opposed to external life. This is an imaginative activity. Laycock highlights quasi-religious function of engaging in imagined worlds through a sacred order in D&D. I critique these accounts for their undeveloped social theory, which foreshortens their analysis, taking play or the religious sentiment as historically invariant rather than as social and historical products. As a background to this critique, I engage with the critical theory of Adorno and Horkheimer. For them, the self-defeat of the Enlightenment characterises the contemporary social world. The former failed to realise its promise of liberation and instead continued the domination it sought to overcome.
I go on to unfold the historical dialectic of D&D. From its inception, it has been a product of bourgeois society which serves its work process, despite its ostensible separation from external life. Play and narrative, in the form of the novel, both have utopian possibilities in turning against the world as it is; I contend that D&D regresses from these into an appendage of the work process which disappoints the existent possibilities of games and novels in truly opposing the ruling order. Rather than overcome magic, D&D mimics the magical practice of sacrifice in sacrificing the player’s own prohibited desires which would contradict the social process. Yet it does so in a form thoroughly characteristic of the Enlightenment; therefore, it can only be classed as regression.

2008 Abstracts Stage 3

Do games hold the key to exposing underlying power structures or are they simply a product and therefore impetus of the culture industry?

In his online book, Gamer Theory, McKenzie Wark posits the idea that games reflect a more perfect world. He argues that real life has become a gamespace and that it proclaims itself to be fair, promising an ideology that it can’t deliver. This ideology masks the underlying status quos and oppression present in our society. Games, he argues, because they follow exactly those rules that they promise, are a means by which to uncover this schism. Adorno too thought there was a conflict between ideology and actuality. He proposed a theory of negative dialectics and art in order to expose this. Adorno believed that the consumerism that motivates current capitalism was part and parcel of this trend. I will explore both of these thinker’s theory through my territory of games and gaming. The change I will chart is that of the progression of games themselves from the most basic text-based games, such as Zork, to fully-rendered graphic 3D worlds. The pictures above are examples of this. This will become important in my discussion of gaming and how its progression relates to mass culture and the problems Adorno foresaw within mass culture. Gaming ostensibly seems to feed into Adorno’s notion of the culture industry. New consoles, such as the Wii and DS sell 100,000 units every month in Europe and the international games market is expected to reach a gross of £23bn by 2010. I will examine McKenzie Wark’s theory thoroughly to discover if this has any bearing on his claims. I will also look at open source software, such as the Lassie and AGS engines, as a possible solution to this.