Friday, October 18, 2013

Playing at the World

I've been neglectful of my blog for a while...much has been going on, and I haven't made the time. But I want to take a moment today to share the fascinating book I'm now reading - Playing at the World, with the mouthful of a subtitle: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, From Chess to Role-playing Games. You can get it right here.

I won't do a proper review because I'm barely one-twelfth of the way through this massive tome. The history and development of tabletop wargaming, hobby boardgames, and role-playing games is given full, scholarly treatment. Author Jon Peterson is that rare, special sort of journalist who can weave together rhythmic prose, academic-level research, and deep understanding of his subject matter into an utterly absorbing narrative. It's not easy to pack in this level of obsessive detail, and if nothing else, Peterson's earned one solid fan of his writing style - me.

Here is a fair-minded review with a better look at the actual content of the book. Note Peterson's response to the review, which I'll quote here:

"One point, on the question of what the book is basically about. If you read it as a story of how wargaming systems inspired D&D, I can understand why some of the material might seem interesting but superfluous. But I aimed for something a bit larger. I wanted to show how the techniques of simulation invented for wargaming expanded beyond the point of just modeling conflict, and beyond modeling things that were real or even possible. D&D was the focal point in this transition, but by no means the end of the story. The ways that D&D simulated people and fantastic adventures have set the stage for a radically different kind of cultural product, a participatory form of media that is today exemplified by video games – but I think this revolution is still in its infancy. This book is thus written, in a sense, as a history of a form of media that is still evolving, so we can’t be entirely sure where it will end up, but we can see where it started: with D&D."

Wired also posted a review that's worth reading. For myself, I adore the almost obsessive level of detail; it's a triumph of research, as most of Peterson's sources are long-lost fanzines and periodicals, as well as private correspondence, and a ton of interviews. I don't know whether the development of such games "deserves" this level of treatment, but it's now got it, and from the reviews I've read, this book writes circles around similar books, which are often written through a lens of system/company bias and partisanship. He's not afraid to call "bullshit" to many claims of RPG industry luminaries or statements in similar books, and while he's always respectful to Gygax, for example, he's not above poking holes in some Gygaxian hyperbole about convention attendance and other matters.

But maybe what I like most about this book is how familiar seem the scenes it depicts and stories it tells. I like hearing about a "crisis" developing when a bunch of gamers realize they need different rules to govern the movement of mounted and regular troops, or the vociferous arguments that developed between adherents of fantastic vs. historical wargaming.

While the focus of the book is on the development of Dungeons and Dragons, much space is also devoted to the lengthy "prequel" of games development that went before it, beginning with the "kriegspiel" wargames played by the Prussian military in the 1800s, as well as H.G. Wells' "Little Wars," the rise of Avalon Hill boardgames in the 1960s, and the slow development of a wargaming/hobby/fantasy community in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Of course, I haven't read the whole thing yet. At 720 pages, with small type and copious footnotes, I could be at this a long time (I'm also reading some fiction and history simultaneously). But my "gut reaction" review so far is this: this is the ultimate gift for any game geek who happens to be a voracious reader. There is definitely "too much information" here, but it's all interesting to me, at least, and by the time I'm through with this book, I know I'll be an absolute expert on the development of this hobby - which, as Peterson implies in the quoted material above, goes far beyond "D&D."

Peterson is a thoughtful and intelligent blogger as well, and has much interesting supplemental material and insights here in his blog, which has all the extra stuff he couldn't fit into the main book.

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