Serious Play: Exploring Role-Playing Games as Practice-Led Research

Series Conveners

Oliver Thurley (Music)

Asa Roast (Geography)

Liz Stainforth (FAHACS)

Dominic O’Key (English)


Research Context

In recent years, tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) have risen to prominence in both the cultural imaginary and academic scholarship.

TTRPGs such as the “classic” Dungeons & Dragons (1974) have seen an influx of new players due to live-streams, podcasts, and TV series such as Stranger Things.

Meanwhile, newer indie games like The Quiet Year (2013) and Apocalypse World (2010) have broken away from the commercial model, remodelling TTRPG mechanics in order to address contemporary socio-political questions of organisation, community, and agency.

We, the conveners of this series, have been playing TTRPGs together on a weekly basis throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this experience of collaboration outside of a typical research setting, we have come to believe that there is considerable scope for critically interrogating role-playing as a pathway towards new practice-led research methods.

Put simply, we think that playing games might also be a way of doing research.

Rather than considering TTRPGs as mere objects of study, then, we wish to think about game-playing as a method, one that might complicate the still-dominant idea of the lone humanities researcher and make possible new processes of interdisciplinary problem-solving.


Series Aims

This Sadler Seminar series will investigate how TTRPGs can model new ways of conducting academic research. We will explore how the immersive, collaborative and improvisational aspects of role-playing games constitute forms of serious play that might fundamentally transform prevailing research method.


Podcasts related to this Seminar Series

(Semester 1—2, 2021—22) The Conveners hosted a series of conversations with game designers, players and academics that will lay the intellectual foundations for our focus on research practices.

Episode 1 – In this first episode, we lay out the project at hand: how might tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) inform the practice of doing academic research.

Episode 2 – In this episode, we talk to Jo Lindsay Walton (@jowalton) about the Applied Hope games jam and Utopia on the Tabletop project

Episode 3 -In this episode, we speak to Natalia Stroika, existential game maker/destroyer and founder of Ludic Liberation.

Episode 4 – In this episode, we speak to sociologist Gabriele de Seta about his ethnography of Magic: The Gathering players in Taiwan, and a Nordic LARP as part of an ERC-funded research project on Machine Vision.

Episode 5 – In this episode, we speak to C. Thi Nguyen, philosophy professor at University of Utah and author of Games: Agency As Art (OUP, 2020). We discuss point systems; agency in play; rules and constraints; and the problems of gamification.

Project Events

Workshop (February 2022): a reflective workshop with PGRs exploring role-playing as practice-led research.

Roundtable (June 2022): a roundtable event on TTRPGs and research practices.