Interview with Sarah Lynne Bowman Ph.D.

Sarah, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. Your work with games has taken an academic and research bent, publishing such books and articles as The Functions of Role Playing: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity, “Educational Larp in the Middle-School Classroom” and “The Psychological Power of the Role Playing Experience.” How did your background in English, media and communication lead into your study of role playing games? And what advice might you have for students and researchers looking to approach recreational games for their area of study?

S: Thanks for your interest in my work, Emily! I received my B.S. and M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin in Radio-TV-Film where I studied fandom and popular culture. Media studies is fairly interdisciplinary. I did some early ethnographic research on the role-playing motivations of my Dungeons & Dragons group for a class in my undergraduate program. I was shocked to realize that what I considered the appealing aspects of gaming were so different from the motivations of other people in my group. I conducted this research in isolation; I had no exposure to creative agendas or any other concepts in role-playing studies.

I then attended the University of Texas at Dallas for my Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities, which is even more interdisciplinary than media studies. When I was preparing my dissertation proposal, I was initially interested in writing about archetypes in fantasy, studying role-players in only one chapter. My advisor, Thomas Riccio, suggested that I write the whole dissertation on role-playing, as the field was wide open in terms of existing research. I consider myself a generalist academically, enjoying dabbling in psychology, literary analysis, theatre, reception studies, comparative religion, and many other interests. Arts and Humanities was a perfect fit for me, as they allowed me free rein to explore whatever topics I found interesting. My committee consisted of two game studies professors; a theatre and tribal ritual specialist; and a classicist who also studies fantasy and science fiction. The dissertation was eventually published as a book by McFarland, under The Functions of Role-playing. McFarland is a great publisher for popular culture and role-playing studies; many of our core texts in the field were published through them.

Most graduate students are in a more difficult position in their relative departments. Role-playing is not widely known in academia, except with scholars interested in using it as a pedagogical tool or who have a background in acting and improv. Traditionally, many scholars have considered popular culture unworthy of study -- especially anything associated with games or fantastic genres. Thankfully, this situation is changing slowly over time, as game and pop culture studies are increasing in popularity and esteem in academic institutions. Still, even if an advisor is sympathetic and interested in supporting research on RPGs, they often have little understanding of the form itself, which is difficult to describe to people who have not experienced it.

In order to help the next generation of academics in the field, I have several goals as a scholar. First, I work to establish foundational texts written by myself and others through writing and editing. I try to publish regularly in academic journals and popular media and I edit the Wyrd Con Companion Book, an annual collection of journalistic and peer-reviewed academic essays. That way, when students contact me, I have a list of texts to send them so that they have a sense of where to start research. I also help organize the Living Games Conference, a place for scholars and practitioners to converge and speak seriously about larp. Other conferences/conventions such as Knudepunkt, Wyrd Con, Metatopia, and Intercon are great places to organize panels to discuss role-playing.

Ultimately, we need to mentor and support each other remotely at this stage, as we do not have established academic departments specializing in role-play studies… yet. Therefore, my main advice for new scholars in the field is to find someone under whom to mentor who understands role-playing and knows the existing works. Groups on Facebook and Google+ are excellent places to get started.

Can you tell us how you got interested in role-playing games? You play both tabletop and larp, did you start with one or the other?

S: I actually started in online role-playing with MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes.  My first subculture was a local BBS when I was 15 -- back when we still had dial up modems. All of my friends migrated to a Wheel of Time-themed MUD on the Internet and I had to learn how to play in order to interact with my group. I soon became fascinated with role-playing and fantasy, transitioning into more freeform online play. I played my first Vampire larp at 19, drawn in by the idea of improvisation and costuming. I played my first tabletop Dungeons & Dragons at 21. I was always mostly interested in rich character development with complicated backstories and costuming. The kind of play that drew me in the most -- and still does -- centers upon romance, philosophy, spirituality, and metaphysics.

In your article "Jungian Theory and Role-Playing Immersion" in the book Immersive Gameplay, you make comparisons of the immersive quality of character experience in role playing games and Jung’s concept of active imagination. Can you explain how active imagination functions in the development of the psyche and what potential role playing games may offer individuals for psychological growth and self-improvement?

S: Sure! Jung theorized through psychoanalysis and personal exploration that when we enter creative, imaginative states, we delve into deep parts of the psyche that are normally repressed -- parts of our personal unconscious and of the collective unconscious. Our personal unconscious contains aspects of our psyche that make us anxious or fearful, but also secret wishes and desires. The collective unconscious taps into fundamental aspects of the human psyche that are inherent in our language structures and the ways in which we make meaning. He postulated that not only do we have the same basic building blocks of language and mythic meaning cross-culturally -- which he called archetypes, building on the Platonic notion of the pure form or essence of a concept -- but, we also may be linked to one another on an unconscious level.

Active imagination includes any creative activity that allows our ego identity to relax: painting, creative writing, performance, etc. While many of these forms of expression are common as artistic professions, the idea behind active imagination is that the subject should feel free to create without excessive constraints or societal pressures to perform. Role-playing is a wonderful way to engage in active imagination because of its spontaneous, improvisational nature, but also because we role-play in groups, not just alone, which can offer added stimuli and insights.

Jung believed that we can interact with our personal and collective unconscious in these states. He spent sixteen years engaging in active imagination through painting and trance work, which culminated in The Red Book (Liber Novus), which was made public in 2009. Much of his theory of the collective unconscious and archetypes arose from these experiments. When reading through the Introduction and looking through the images, I found it striking how similar these experiences were to the scenes I was currently role-playing in text-based forums, many of which featured enacting deity-like beings and using spiritual/religious imagery to help guide the player-characters through psychic transformations. For example, in one role-play scene, I helped guide a player-character to find her spirit animal: a phoenix. The player ended up tattooing the phoenix on her back, as the process of interacting with that archetype in the role-playing game -- which symbolizes death and rebirth -- became a personally meaningful symbol to her in her daily life.  

Jung refers to this process as individuation. While engaged in active imagination, we can dialogue and interact with these archetypal aspects and confront the darker parts of our personal unconscious, which he called Shadow qualities. This dialoguing or interfacing offers us the potential to learn more about ourselves. We can choose to grow as individuals, becoming more than the simple ego that we were before, evolving into something he called the Self as we integrate aspects of the archetypal experience into our self-concept.

Many role-players express experiencing personal transformation as the result of gaming, learning valuable things about themselves, important social skills, empathy, and other forms of growth. I believe we can understand these reports better through the mechanism of individuation. If you’d like to learn more, Whitney Strix Beltrán has also applied Jungian theory to role-playing studies in two articles I highly recommend from the Wyrd Con Companion Books: “Yearning for the Hero Within: Live Action Role-playing as Engagement with Mythical Archetypes“ and “Shadow Work: A Jungian Perspective on the Underside of Live Action Role-playing in the United States.”

What are ideas that have come out of rpg theory, or discussion of narrative and psychology that you’ve found important? Are there particular discussions or schools of thought that you draw on?

S: My interests are strongest in regard to the phenomenology of the role-playing experience and the enactment of creativity and imagination. I try to remain open to any concepts that tie into those areas from any field, especially from psychology, but also in media studies, social psychology, theatre, or others.

I find that some of the most salient theories actually arise from the role-playing community itself, as in some ways, the experience of role-playing is unique. We play persistent characters different from ourselves with spontaneously generated content and agency in fictional worlds for long amounts of time. While we can gain a lot of insight from studying the experiences of stage and improv actors, as I’ve investigated in a recent article for Analog Game studies, we can also learn quite a bit from studying our own participants, which is why I favor participant-observation ethnography as a research method. From our own communities, we’ve developed useful terminology such as bleed, alibi, steering, creative agendas, first-person audience, etc. Emily, you’ve been a great help in the domain of helping to establish common terminology over the years, so thanks to you!

As far as theories in codified academic disciplines, I find several concepts of great interest in addition to the Jungian concepts I described above. I agree with Lauri Lukka in understanding role-playing as a dissociative state in which we shift consciousness. I especially am interested in the relationship between dissociation and identity as connected to the creative process. We can study dissociative identity in individuals who have experienced extreme trauma, but I think the process of splitting consciousness into multiple identities is probably quite common and not a “disorder” as such, as we see authors, comedians, and other creative people exhibiting this ability as well.

What’s particularly fascinating about role-playing is not only do we enact these other identities, we do so with full or partial consciousness, often acting as an observer to the actions of the character, a process which we call dual consciousness. A couple of other useful psychological theories may help us understand how that process works. One is metacognition, which means thinking about thinking, or knowing about knowing. In other words, we are aware of our altered state of consciousness and can operate at both levels cognitively. Another is Piaget’s theory of mind, which is the ability to conceptualize another person’s consciousness and predict their thoughts, feelings, and behavior based on existing mental schema, or frameworks. Young children have difficulty developing the theory of mind, as their consciousness is rather limited and egocentric. The theory goes that we become more sophisticated at theory of mind hypothesizing as we grow older. I think that the theory of mind is one of the core abilities that allows us to conceptualize and enact a character. It can also lead to a greater sense of self-awareness and empathy. As we enact a consciousness different than our own while still retaining our sense of self, we build an emotional connection to that person and can reflect upon how their experience relates to our own.

I’m also highly interested in childhood pretend play.  Many young people are able to build paracosms, which are pretend worlds that can become quite detailed. Some develop imaginary friends, which are projected, imagined identities with which the child interacts. Pretend play in groups often centers upon practicing social roles, such as playing house, Cops and Robbers, etc. Many cognitivists and evolutionary psychologists link this early pretend play -- which we can also consider an early form of simulation -- as a way for the organism to practice important skills and roles necessary for survival later in life or entrance into the social order. Therefore, play also may serve a pedagogical function in these games, even when unstructured or unsupervised.

Adolescent psychology is equally fascinating to me. While identity is rather fluid in children, adult life demands the establishment of a stable ego identity, which Erikson believes occurs during adolescence. The adolescent experiments with multiple ways to self-identify, trying on various preferences, attitudes, and social cliques to see which fit them best. If the adolescent is unable to find a place in which they feel they fit, they experience role confusion, which can extend throughout life and cause an identity crisis. This phase corresponds with the mythic hero’s journey, in which the hero must leave the comfort of home, face internal and external fears, and triumph, bringing wisdom back to the community. Each individual must go through their own hero’s journey as they transition to adulthood, which makes the motif so powerful. Much of the original RPG content from Dungeons & Dragons centers upon the hero’s journey, even if the adventurers do not consider their actions heroic. The process is more about the transition from the passive dependency of childhood to the empowered agency of adulthood.

Also fascinating during adolescence are the concepts of the personal fable and the imaginary audience. With the personal fable, the adolescent feels a sense of uniqueness and invulnerability that corresponds nicely with the hero myth. This personal fable can lead to high risk behavior and even depression if the individual experiences disappointment or failure, so the adolescent must learn to moderate this impulse with self-compassion: the ability to empathize with and comfort the self. The imaginary audience is similar to the imaginary friend in that the adolescent consciousness projects a peanut gallery of sorts, imagining all the comments and criticisms their behavior might elicit from others, including parents, their peers, their teachers, etc. This imaginary audience is linked to the personal fable in that it assumes that the adolescent is unique and important enough to be constantly watched and evaluated. I suspect the mechanism also has to do with the fact that children and adolescents are under near constant surveillance from their parental figures and the educational system, which, when combined with the theory of mind, results in hyper-awareness.

In role-playing games, both the personal fable and the imaginary audience can become true. Each player-character is unique and plays an important part of the fiction. We often say “everyone is the hero in their own story” when we describe the role-playing experience, which works to validate the personal fable. Also, we have a first person audience, which means that we both play and observe. [NB: Markus Montola discusses First Person Audience.] Everyone in the game is significant and everyone receives “spotlight” time to greater and lesser degrees. I suspect that play can affirm our desires to feel unique, socially significant, take risks, and have an audience for our actions in a relatively safe atmosphere. Ultimately, adult pretend play features more complex character constructs, systems, and projections of imagination than childhood and adolescent fantasy ideation, but likely arises from the same impulses.

Sarah, you are one of the organizers of the Living Games Conference being planned for May 2016 in your town, Austin, Texas. This conference began as the brainchild and thesis project of Shoshana Kessock to foster the academic study of live games in the United States and North America. Inspired in large part by the Nordic conference Knutpunkt which has occupied a similar role in the Nordic countries since 1997. What are your hopes for the conference, and what are you personally looking forward to most about it?

S: Yes! I’m extremely excited. I hope we can continue the work of the first Living Games Conference by providing a more extended and expansive experience. We’re renting out a hotel with many rooms of conference space, on-site sleeping, and communal eating. The conference will feature keynotes, workshops, show and tell sessions, round tables, social activities, larps, and academic presentations. We will also feature A Week in Austin activities leading up to and closing out the conference in order to provide out-of-towners more opportunities to experience the city. We’re happy to announce, for example, the Role-playing and Simulation in Education mini conference on Thursday, May 19, 2016, which will transpire right before the start of Living Games at the St. David’s School of Nursing at Texas State University in Round Rock, TX. This day-long conference is a great way to get everyone interested in using role-playing as an educational tool in the same place in order to share research and best practices.

Overall, we want everyone to feel welcome from all communities and experience levels: designers, academics, players, crafters, etc. We hope to foster a discourse with larp-adjacent fields such as interactive theatre and others. Personally, I would like to establish a lasting conference in North America in order for academics and practitioners to share their work with others involved in this field for years to come.

What conventions, festivals or online communities do you most enjoy? Which are your favorite for discussion of games and game design?

S: I spend a lot of time in Facebook discussion groups, particularly Larp Haven, North American and Nordic Larp Exchange, Larpers BFF, and others. I also enjoy conversations on Google+. I find that contrary to popular belief, Facebook can be a great venue to check the pulse of various communities, share insights, and connect. I can collaborate with colleagues all over the world with unprecedented speed and ease of communication through social media, which is a huge asset for research and discourse.

For on-ground connections, I most enjoy Knudepunkt, Intercon, Dreamation, Wyrd Con, Big Bad Con, and OwlCon, although I know I need to visit more communities. As far as academic conferences, I consider the Popular Culture Association a great place to share research and connect with colleagues in a low-pressure, mutually supportive environment.

Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D., teaches as adjunct faculty in English, Communication, and Humanities for several institutions including Austin Community College. McFarland Press published her dissertation in 2010 as The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity. Bowman edits the The Wyrd Con Companion Book and publishes in various collections such as The International Journal of Role-playing. Her current research interests include studying the benefits of edu-larp; examining social conflict and bleed within role-playing communities; applying Jungian theory to role-playing studies; and comparing the enactment of role-playing characters with other creative phenomena such as drag performance and improv acting. Visit her website at: