A Book by Jon Peterson

Playing at the World

A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, From Chess to Role-Playing Games.

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About the Book

In the second half of the twentieth century, a new form of popular entertainment captivated the youth of America: games of simulation. The first commercial form of these games, the board wargames sold by Avalon Hill and others, reached a small but devoted audience in the 1950s. Two decades later, growing interest in fantasy genre fiction combined with the principles of wargaming to create the new category of role-playing games, which began with the hugely successful Dungeons & Dragons (1974). These new games matured simultaneously with the personal computer revolution, and the principles of simulation pioneered by role-playing games laid the groundwork for much of the multi-billion dollar computer gaming industry.

Playing at the World presents the history of the simulation gaming phenomenon. Despite the growing prominence of these games in modern culture, previous attempts to capture its history have approached the subject as folklore, drawing primarily on the recollection of early adopters and key designers of the seminal works in this tradition. To provide the basis for a more scholarly narrative, Playing at the World relies on an unprecedented survey of thousands of contemporary periodicals, letters, drafts and ephemera relating to the games and their fans. Focusing on these resources alone, however, would ignore a vital point of context—the roots of these games extend far beyond American hobby wargaming, and to unco ver them, Playing at the World pursues three historical threads. First, it reaches into eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe to explore how chess variants evolved into the earliest games of simulation: systems of deciding fictional events randomly within a statistical model. Second, it isolates the elements of the fantasy genre that inspired enthusiasts to want more than just to read about the exploits of heroes, but to experience them, to visit fantastic worlds. Third, it traces how the practice of role-playing integrated with fantasy and gaming cultures to allow access to those sorts of adventures: to approximate the freedom of a character in a story within the framework of a simulation.

The cornerstone of this history is the game Dungeons & Dragons, which represents the culmination of two centuries of the discipline of simulation. Dungeons & Dragons had the audacity to move beyond modeling battles into the more ambitious realm of simulating people and ultimately entire worlds. Playing at the World examines the individuals, clubs and conventions that contributed to the design and dissemination of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as its reception, competition, popularization and impact. The story reveals how a small community of hobbyists, through their infectious enthusiasm, triggered a fundamental change in the way we interact with stories, one that is certain to be central to the future of entertainment. From their niche hobby was born a mainstream activity, one that has since evolved—in ways that could not have been anticipated at the time of its creation—to enthrall new generations of gamers. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, these games would no longer live in the margins of our culture: from FarmVille to World of Warcraft, Internet-based simulation games brought these ideas to an audience of hundreds of millions.

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Explore the conceptual origins of wargames and role-playing games in this unprecedented history of simulating the real and the impossible.

From a vast survey of primary sources ranging from eighteenth-century strategists to modern hobbyists, Playing at the World distills the story of how gamers first decided fictional battles with boards and dice, and how they moved from simulating wars to simulating people.

The invention of role-playing games serves as a touchstone for exploring the ways that the literary concept of character, the lure of fantastic adventure and the principles of gaming combined into the signature cultural innovation of the late twentieth century.

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    About the Author

    Jon Peterson is an author researching the history of wargames and role-playing games.

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