by Edmond Y. Chang and Sarah Kate Moore
Many thanks to everyone that attended last week’s Keywords session on “fantasy” and games. Special thanks to the Medieval Studies Graduate Interest Group (MSGIG) for co-presenting and co-sponsoring!
The afternoon’s discussion opened with a set of provocations from the suggested readings starting with Gary Alan Fine’s “Introduction” to Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. We raised initial questions about what is “fantasy,” what is the value of fantasy, and why the preoccupation and perpetuation of certain kinds of fantasy, reaching back toward the first games including text adventures like Adventure and Zork and analog games like Dungeons and Dragons and military simulation board games. The conversation then explored the further antecedents of these games locating them in a genealogy that includes J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, fairy tales, fables, and mythology, and the (a)historical desire for the “medieval.”
Fine argues, “Fantasy is constrained by the social expectations of players and their world. The game fantasy, then, is an integration of twentieth-century American reality and the player’s understanding of the medieval or futuristic setting in which their characters are placed” (3). But if games are about the imagination, then why keep imagining the same thing, the same tropes over and over again? Fine offers, “Since these games involve fantasy–content divorced from everyday experience–it might be assumed that anything is possible within the cultural system. Since fantasy is a free play of a creative imagination, the limits of fantasy should be as broad as the limits of one’s mind. This is not the case, as each fantasy world is a fairly tight transformation by the players of their mundane, shared realities” (3).
But why the medieval? How did the genre conventions of fantasy get attached to the medieval, real or imagined, a la the Elder Scrolls series or Dragon Age? Moreover, what about other kinds of fantasy set in non-medieval settings (e.g. wild west or space opera)? The conversation meditated on the connection between fantasy and the medieval. Kim Selling argues in “‘Fantastic Neomedievalism: The Image of the Middle Ages in Popular Fantasy” that “out of all the imaginary landscapes one could place a fantasy in, a consistent choice of setting is one resembling a simplified version of the Western European Middle Ages” (212) and that the “Middle Ages are well known and comfortable…filling in the background without having to make up a new fantasy world from scratch” (212). Clearly, the medieval functions as a kind of shorthand for a safe, familiar “other” time. Moreover, we considered (at least in the first generation games) what was programmable, representable, and easier to put into play.
The Medieval Studies group further contextualized the discussion turning to questions regarding the “authenticity” of video games set in a medieval-esque world, as well as a measured assessment of whether that is a useful way to approach fantasy games (and literature and movies, for that matter). One of the MSGIG participants said,
Particularly interesting to me, as a medievalist, were the insights from gamers and scholars of video games into the elements of “medievalish” games that are dictated both by the exigencies of programming and the interests of people playing the games. For example, we discussed the “hero’s quest” approach or narrative in many games, a sort of rags-to-riches plot line in which the gamer, as center of the storyline, makes his or her own way up the social scale from serf to god/king and the ways in which that says much more about us as a culture than any imagined medieval world, in which social networks and dependence on family and community would have been paramount.
The conversation also covered the push for even more realistic renderings of medieval-esque settings, weaponry, and architecture (though picking and choosing without regard to historical accuracy, whatever that means). We talked about medieval fantasy games and violence given that such games tend to focus on swords, spells, and the repetitive smiting of foes, monsters, and others. And we discussed the privileging of the Western European as the only medieval aesthetic to the near exclusion of other parts of the world during the same historical era (e.g. the Prince of Persia series provides a flattened and stereotypical vision of a bygone Middle East).
Finally, the discussion turned toward the pedagogical and the ways that “medieval” fantasy games like the Civilization franchise or The Sims Medieval could be “educational” — the idea that this can be achieved (as Stefan of the MSGIG also suggested) not through “learning history” from games but from a post-play, meta-aware analysis of game play itself (i.e. how did I as a player interact with the world of this game?). In other words, as Daniel T. Kline argues in “Metamedievalism, Videogaming, and Teaching Medieval Literature in the Digital Age” that there is a “productive tension between the contemporary and the medieval…which considers the metamedieval image in contemporary videogaming as a theoretical problem, a creative opportunity, and a pedagogical challenge” (148). Again, as per the past Keywords session on teaching and games, the challenge is not only developing better “educational” games but also better ways to engage, talk about, and play them in educational settings and practices.
Overall, the session was thoughtful, illuminating, and even a little nostalgic. The collaboration between the MSGIG and the Keywords group proved to be rich and generated many interesting intersections. For those interested in upcoming MSGIG sessions:
- February 13th (Wednesday) 4-6 pm in COM 202–Slide-show/presentation by two representatives from the EMP/Sci-Fi Museum about their upcoming exhibit “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic” which opens in April. This exhibit will have “hands-on installations that include world building and mapmaking, and pop culture artifacts from literature, film, television, video games, and comics.”
- March 6th (Wednesday) 4:30-6 pm in COM 226–Reading group focused on Tolkien and a medieval Welsh text, TBD. We’ll also talk about Tolkien in general and his influence on fantasy/medieval studies.
Otherwise, the next Keywords session will be Thursday, February 21 on the terms “BODIES/SEX.”
Moreover, the Keywords group is hosting THATCamp Epic Play, May 24-25, 2013, an unconference and year-end colloquium. Building on previous years’ colloquia, this year’s THATCamp, broadly themed by the keyword “EPIC,” is the capstone event to a year-long series of workshop sessions on violence, history, fantasy, bodies/sex, and close/distant. THATCamp Epic Play hopes to foster the growing engagement with what it means to study or make or play games. For more information and registration: http://epicplay2013.thatcamp.org/