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Role-playing: An ethnographic exploration

, The University of Texas at Dallas, United States

The University of Texas at Dallas . Awarded


This volume explores the various social and psychological functions of role-playing, with a specific emphasis on role-playing games. I posit that the activity of role-playing finds its roots in essential aspects of human social behavior, including childhood pretend play, storytelling, and ritual. The subcultural practice of role-playing games emerged from these age-old practices, but also from several cultural shifts inherent to American life in the latter half of the twentieth century. These shifts include culture-wide paradigm shifts regarding diversity, religion, and alternative lifestyles; an increased interest in the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres; the heightened sense of cynicism and self-awareness characteristic of Generation X; and the large-scale technological advances characteristic of the computer and information age.

While these cultural shifts specifically contributed to the popularity of role-playing games as a subculture, people engage in the practice of role-playing in a variety of different contexts, including business, education, military training, improvisational theater, drama therapy, health care, and leisure. The practice of role-playing offers three basic functions. First, role-playing enhances a group‘s sense of communal cohesiveness by providing narrative enactment within a ritual framework. Second, role-playing often encourages complex problem-solving and provides participants with the opportunity to learn an extensive array of skills through the enactment of scenarios. Third, role-playing offers participants a safe space to enact alternate personas through a process known as identity alteration.

This volume explores these three concepts with regard to the various forms of role-playing. The study then offers a detailed, participant-observer ethnography involving extensive, qualitative interviews with nineteen respondents. I conclude that the benefits offered by role-playing in more traditional environments are also offered through the leisure activity of role-playing games. Though mainstream American media channels often dismisses involvement in role-playing games as escapist and potentially dangerous, this volume posits the notion that role-playing encourages creativity, self-awareness, empathy, group cohesion, and “out-of-the-box” thinking. The role-playing game platform facilitates the development of various cognitive and social skills that remain useful in the “real world.” Thus, participation in role-playing games should incur a lesser amount of stigma from the larger culture.


Bowman, S.L. Role-playing: An ethnographic exploration. Ph.D. thesis, The University of Texas at Dallas. Retrieved October 21, 2019 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

Citation reproduced with permission of ProQuest LLC.

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