I caught up with Nicholas Mizer, PhD candidate in anthropology at Texas A&M University, who is currently conducting a Kickstarter titled The Greatest Unreality: Story, Play, and Imagination in D&D, a fieldwork-based dissertation exploring the importance of storytelling, play, and the imagination in the modern world. It is currently at $1,277 of its $5,550 goal with 25 days to go. Nicholas caught my attention when he referenced my book as part of his research, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games.
Michael Tresca (MT): Tell us about your gaming background.
Nicholas Mizer (NM): I actually mostly played video games growing up, rather than tabletop. My first RPG was Phantasy Star for the Sega Master System. I’m not sure how I managed to play through that game without realizing that you were supposed to map the dungeons, but man I loved that game. As far as tabletop goes, I played a few times as a kid. My camp counselor in fourth grade introduced me to the Palladium TMNT game, and I had a sci-fi game called Shatterzone that I played with friends a few times. It wasn’t much, but the ideas stuck with me, and haunted every video game experience I had after that. I didn’t really start gaming regularly until college, during the 3.5 era. I still have a lot of affection for 3.X even though lately I’m mostly playing OSR stuff like Adventurer, Conqueror, King and Dungeon Crawl Classics.
MT: Tell us about your Kickstarter.
NM: Most academic studies of gaming have either focused on a single gaming group or told the overall history of the hobby. Those micro and macro studies have produced some really amazing insights, but in my work I’m trying to look at the places where the personal histories of gamers intersect with the history of the hobby as a whole. In order to do that well, I need to work with gamers from all over the country (I’m just focusing on American gaming at this point). As an anthropologist, my research necessarily involves observing people in their “natural” gaming setting, which means traveling costs. I’ve received a small research grant that helps with those costs, but not enough to do research on the scale I feel the subject deserves, which is why I’ve turned to Kickstarter. Apart from serving as a source of funding, though, I’m really excited about the way that Kickstarter is putting me in connection with other gamers, and making tangible the obligation I have to represent the community accurately in my research. Of course, at points I may find things about our subculture that are hard to hear, but doing my research in connection with the community means that this can be a more collaborative project.
MT: Why should backers contribute to your Kickstarter? What sets it apart?
NM: This is one of the most ambitious research projects on role-playing games yet attempted, at least in terms of the scope of where the data is coming from. By contributing to the Kickstarter, backers will be able to participate in the story of the project, not only through making it possible but by watching the research come together over the next year or so. I’m very committed to making the entire process open and transparent, which is why I’ll be posting a weekly video blog for all backers that will include news from the field, interesting tidbits of data, and my ongoing thoughts about what I’m encountering. I’ve seen a few other dissertation Kickstarters out there (on different topics than gaming), but I’m not aware of any others that are intended to be interactive in that way. Plus, one of the reward levels includes a handmade plushie crocheted by my wife, and she’s really good at those. We have a near complete set of Adventure Time dolls at the house. I think I can say with confidence that no other Kickstarter out there combines anthropology, gaming, and plushies in that exact way.
MT: What made you decide to focus on the Old School Renaissance of tabletop role-playing games?
NM: Anthropologically speaking, the Old School Renaissance is fascinating. One thing that anthropologists have noticed in cultures is the phenomenon we call “revitalization movements,” which is when a group of people within a culture make a push for going back to “the old ways,” however those are conceived. The Native American Ghost Dance movement is a famous example of this, but one of the trends in this sort of thing is that it is often the death of a movement’s founder that helps bring about the call for revitalization. So the fact that the OSR really got going around the time that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson passed away seems pretty significant.
Another thing that makes the Old School Renaissance a great fit for my research is that OSR gamers are very explicitly thinking a lot about the history of the hobby, and in some cases consciously re-imagining that history. As I mention in the Kickstarter video, the stories we tell about our past tell us a lot about our understanding of the present and our dreams about the future. Those issues have been really central in a lot of my conversations with OSR gamers. That said, I won’t be putting blinders on during the research process, and I’ll also be talking to gamers that might not identify themselves as old school.
MT: What was the reaction from the academic community about the subject of your dissertation?
NM: It’s actually been very positive, although I frequently have to explain that I’m studying tabletop gaming rather than video games, which a lot of people tend to assume. It’s not as strange as you might think for an anthropologist to be studying a group mostly composed of middle class white folk; the field has changed a lot since the days when all anthropologists went and studied in remote villages. One of my main challenges has been showing people that this kind of research is more than a quirky side project. I think that the effects of gaming on our culture are much more wide-reaching than people tend to assume, and we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of understanding those connections. As people may or may not know, I’m far from alone in pursuing these ideas. There’s a small but rapidly growing interest in analog (i.e., non-electronic) gaming. It seems like every time I open my browser there’s an exciting new book or article coming out on the topic.
MT: How do you feel about the state of the gaming industry today?
NM: We’re living in exciting times! I think it’s easier than ever for someone to get into gaming, with so many rule sets and resources freely distributed on the web, and that’s really great. I think there’s also a growing interest in gaming; so many people I talk to about my research tell me that they’ve really wanted to try out gaming ever since they saw it on an episode of Community or Big Bang Theory. I’m not an economist, so I can’t comment very well on that side of things, but from a cultural analysis standpoint, things like print on demand publishing and Kickstarter seem to have brought a lot of vitality to the community. I think the big question in the years to come is what role major publishers like Wizards of the Coast will continue to play. That’s not a loaded statement; I don’t mean to imply that they’ll be fading away, but the ecosystem of the industry seems very different than when I started gaming, and it will be interesting to see how everyone continues adapting to those circumstances.
MT: What has been the reaction from the gaming community?
NM: One thing that seems common among gamers is that we love to pontificate about the hobby almost as much as we love playing, so the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I think people are excited to see that I take play seriously and that I’m trying to understand what we do rather than simply explaining it away. Some of the things people have shared with me are very touching, and my interactions with the community outside of my personal gaming group have really expanded my understanding of how much gaming can mean in people’s lives.
MT: Who do you plan to interview, when, and where?
NM: Although I’ve learned a lot from talking with “the great old ones” of the hobby like Tim Kask or Michael Mornard, the bulk of my interviews are with everyday garden variety gamers like myself, because I’m really trying to get at what we’d call the folk history of the hobby. Up to this point my interviewing has been limited to Gary Con and North Texas RPG Con, but over the course of the next year I’ll be following people I’ve met at cons back to their home gaming groups and meeting people in those areas that don’t make it out to the conventions. It looks like my first trip will be to New York City, which sounds like a really exciting scene. You’ve got stuff like Stefan Pokorny from Dwarven Forge running a regular game at a bar and drawing in all sorts of new people to the hobby, Tim Hutchings from PlaGMaDA putting together hybrid art exhibition/gaming sessions, and all kinds of other fascinating projects going on. After New York, my plans are in a holding pattern until the Kickstarter closes and I know how many sites I’ll be able to visit.
MT: Have you participated in other any other Kickstarters in the past?
NM: This is my first time running a Kickstarter, but I’ve been able to back a few and look longingly at others I wish I had the money for.
MT: What conventions will you be at next?
NM: I just found out that Wolfcon in Chicago starts just a few days after an anthropology conference I’m presenting at, also in Chicago, so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to stay on and check that out. The two conventions I’m absolutely certain to be at are Gary Con in March and North Texas RPG Con in June. They’re great conventions, and have really been the core of my research experience so far.
MT: Where can we find out more about you online?
MT: Anything else you'd like to share?
NM: I’m not much for teasers, but I will say that there are some interesting things in the pipeline that I’ll be adding in to the reward structure for the Kickstarter. I’d encourage people to keep an eye on it in the weeks to come, as I should be able to sweeten the deal a little for potential backers in the near future.
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