IN AUGUST 1979, James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from Michigan State University. His disappearance, his characterization as a science fiction and fantasy fan and player of Dungeons & Dragons, and the subsequent investigation by Texas private investigator William C. Dear spawned newspaper speculations, made-for-TV movies, and urban legends of university students playing live-action role-playing games in the steam tunnels of their school--they became cautionary tales often ending in tragedy, loss, or death. It is this sensationalist and paranoid attitude toward fantasy and science fiction, toward role-playing games like D&D, especially toward live-action RPGs that this focus group will take up and analyze as problematic. Though the Egbert case eventually revealed no causal connection between his disappearance, attempted suicide, and D&D, prejudice and the demonization of fantasy and RPGs became firmly fixed as a cultural logic about the real, the normal, the acceptable, and the responsible.
IN RESPONSE, Ursula K. Le Guin's 1979 essay "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" argued, "For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy...They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom." How might we understand live-action RPGS or LARPs as more than just a misanthrope's escape? What are the possibilities of LARPs?
OUR FOCUS GROUP, as part of a continuing series on RPGs generated by the Critical Gaming Project at UW, will attempt to broadly historicize and contextualize live-action role-playing games in the US and will focus on the critical question of why this particular kind of gaming and fantasy is of cultural value. We will look at the cultural treatment of live-action gaming, including academic scholarship, news and apocryphal tales, documentary films like Darkon (2006) and Monster Camp (2007), and popular treatments like Role Models (2008) and The Wild Hunt (2009). Most importantly, the focus group will engage in actual live-action game play from basic mechanics to character creation to role-playing to adventuring. The course will meet once a week for 2 hours to engage guided discussion and observation, reflective writing, and play.
THE GAME SYSTEM we will play is Archaea, an independent, high-fantasy live action role-playing and wargaming system developed by Edmond Y. Chang.