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Chapter 1: “I piss a lot of people off when I play dwarves like dwarves”: Race, Gender, and Critical Systems in Tabletop Role-Playing Games


by Antero Garcia - 2021

Background: This chapter explores player interactions and engagement in tabletop role-playing game settings.

Objective: Particularly focusing on the intersection of gaming systems, virtual settings, and player interactions, this chapter seeks to explore how implicit systems shape individuals’ experiences and behaviors. Through this focus, the chapter intentionally draws parallels between informal gaming settings and classroom-based interactions.

Setting: Though this study makes specific connections to classroom pedagogies, data were collected from a multiyear ethnographic study of playing tabletop role-playing games with adult participants in informal learning environments. Data were collected from within public gaming cafes and shops.

Research Design: Participant observation within a role-playing game community served as the primary approach to this ethnographic study. In addition to fieldnote-based observation, interviews with players and archival analysis of gaming artifacts helped triangulate meaning-making at the gaming table. Analysis was conducted through an inductive coding approach that focused on player interactions, systems, and settings.

Findings: Cultural values, including racism and sexism, shaped player experiences at the table, based on systemic designs and textual guidance from game-related fiction. While games speak to broad possibilities for exploring race and gender, these constructs become limited through the layers of player beliefs, designed rule sets, and depictions within narratives. The emancipatory possibilities of ludic imagination are flattened by cultural norms that may oppress.

Conclusions: Broadening the findings from this study, this chapter concludes with classroom-based recommendations. If a contemporary approach to critical pedagogy depends on dialogue and cultural understanding, this chapter points to the limitations of confining such work to traditional classroom settings. Instead, it suggests that an interrogation of these systems, alongside youth, is a necessary step in critically oriented classrooms.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a world. Of course this world is not complete. It needs organizers and adventurers to order and explore it. It needs you! —Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 1978, p. 7


These invitational words—from one of the early editions of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D)—bring together the various fabrics that quilt the possibilities of a virtual world with the agentic capacities of players. It elucidates the dialectical relationship between a system like D&D and its “organizers and adventurers.”


Over the course of more than two years, I explored, defined, and collaborated within myriad worlds of D&D and other tabletop role-playing games as a participant observer. As part of an ongoing study of learning practices within tabletop role-playing games, I also simultaneously read across the historical systems of these games and the media that shaped and influenced them over time. During this cultural-historical process of making meaning of the fictional worlds my fellow adventurers and I inhabited, I intentionally examined how the values embedded within gaming systems over time shaped how stories, actions, and conflict emerged at the gaming table each week.


The statement that opens this chapter—four concise, declarative sentences—suggests the liberatory and perhaps limitless potential of where and how a game of D&D could unfold. And yet, based on my experiences engaging with the texts, analyzing the cultural practices mediated by tabletop gaming communities, and playing regularly alongside a diverse community of participants, the ways that these games skewed toward specific beliefs and values was suspiciously cloaked at the table while still always present. Particularly in relation to my commitment to this research as a means of understanding school-based possibilities of gaming and storytelling, I explore how systemic representation of player identities—like race and gender—shaped player actions and performance. To adapt the concept of play illustrated by Brian Sutton-Smith (2001), this study suggests that systemic design “is never innocent” (p. 51).


Although games like Dungeons & Dragons may convey to readers light frippery, far too divorced from the consequential forms of power, learning, and oppression present in schools, it is precisely the possibilities of structured play and systemic engagement within this game that illuminate how systems of education are anchored by the heft of particular values and beliefs about students. This illumination, then, offers key guidance for reaffirming and pedagogically designing for youth agency even in the face of systems that are designed to thwart such efforts.


By focusing on culturally-historically grounded findings about systemic representation and player identity in gaming settings, this chapter includes an exploration into these implications for critical educators, designers, and researchers within the restrictive learning environments tied to high-stakes school accountability.


RELEVANT LITERATURE


DUNGEONS & DRAGONS AS INSTRUCTIONAL PLAYGROUND


As described in the current Player’s Handbook (Wizards of the Coast [WOTC], 2014), Dungeons & Dragons is “an exercise in collaborative creation” (p. 4). As a group, players of D&D take on roles as characters they each created, defining, exploring, and interacting within a world that they co-construct. One player serves as the facilitator of the game, called the Dungeon Master, mediating what happens when these player characters interact with other people, objects, and phenomena within the fantasy setting.


Recognized as the first tabletop role-playing game (Peterson, 2012), D&D ushered in a not-so-niche industry of gaming that persists in varied and diverse forms today. Unlike video games, the rules, resolution, and mechanics of play are arbitrated through dice rolls, discussion, and hardbound rulebooks. A typical session of D&D involves players sitting at a table, a playmat with dry erase marker renderings of a fictional space, plastic figurines, an assortment of polyhedral dice, and various piles of papers, books, and—often—digital tablets to quickly reference gaming rules. Though the key activities in D&D are often exploration and combat—building on the wargaming backgrounds that shaped the game’s design (Gygax & Perren, 1971; Peterson, 2012)—tabletop role-playing games today focus on various topics and play interests (Applecline, 2014), from interplanetary space operas (Paizo, 2017) to contemporary telenovelas (Leon-Gambetta, 2020).  


Unlike other analog games played at a table, a game of D&D does not usually end after an hour or two of play. Even though there may be story arcs and in-game goals and missions that players accomplish, D&D does not have a specific, culminating conclusion. Instead, playing D&D is often stretched across multiple sessions of a lengthy campaign that can last for years. As an equivalent, students do not typically do a single session or hour of school. Rather, this becomes a routine, a familiar process that one immerses themselves in for prescribed periods of time across a substantial stretch of their lives. Players in a D&D campaign explore, inhabit, and impact the setting, as a virtual world (Boellstorff et al., 2012), over the lengthy amount of time that their virtual characters will grow.


Playing a game like D&D is an exercise in deep learning and intellectual work, though it may not be the stated reason that players voluntarily consume complex matrices of rules and engage in detailed record keeping. A D&D session finds individuals, as a situated community of enthusiastic players, imagining, contesting, and sharing agents’ actions that impact a fantasy world. As both an act of critical world building and as a demonstration of players’ knowledge of navigating complex rules systems for their own purposes, playing D&D can offer clear possibilities for how individuals can develop critical approaches to questioning their role within a/the world. It is this systemic perspective of D&D as a kind of “social technology” (Flanagan, 2009) that provides a basis for considering how the voluntary and critical enactments of learning in this gaming context may offer pedagogical waypoints for school settings.


Writing in the Dungeon Master’s Guide of the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, D&D cocreator Gary Gygax (1979) explained the limitations of the printed tomes that explain how to play the game: “Naturally everything possible cannot be included in the whole of this work” (p. 7). Although Gygax and the designers of the D&D world that followed did not cover “everything possible,” their game does reflect implicit cultural values that these primarily white male American designers carried into the game. Like digital technologies and the systems of schooling that serve as a parallel for analysis in this chapter’s discussion, the system of D&D is “not neutral but radicalized, gendered, and classed in predictable ways” (Benjamin, 2019, p. 4).


VALUES, SYSTEMS, AND ANALOG GAMING IN CONTEMPORARY CULTURE


Portrayed in popular media as a niche community of nerdy players, the tabletop board gaming community has seen a growing “renaissance” in the past decade. Despite this proliferation of “analog” gaming (Garcia, 2018, 2020) as robust new ground for understanding meaning making occurring across physical spaces today, the vast majority of game studies scholarship has focused on video games, a multibillion-dollar industry that shadows nearly every other form of media entertainment today. In this sense, the literature that shapes how games are read, their pedagogical possibilities, and the critical contexts through which power is enacted in gaming draws from parallel scholarship in video game studies here. That said, digital and analog games both draw from tropes, from hegemonic cultural values, and from shared geek knowledge in ways that reinforce what is understood as an epistemological truth for the players of games.


From a literary perspective, a game requires “players to make sense of the multiple sites of interaction” (Booth, 2015, p. 3) between the material within a game and the multimodal texts that have informed it explicitly and implicitly. In a system like D&D, for example, gaming requires knowing the Eurocentric fantasy and pulp novel influences that shaped the game (see Gygax, 1979). At the same time, D&D also requires a reading of official gaming products such as rulebooks, novels, and other accoutrements. Finally, the broader gaming culture—references in media, representations in film and TV, and new phenomena such as podcasts—continually shapes how players understand D&D and how they perform within it. These are constantly shifting contexts of contemporary play, but they originated from the same well. While there are more diverse games available than ever before, the roots of tabletop role-playing games wind back to the Eurocentric male gaze that shaped D&D, as the first game in the genre (Garcia, 2017; Trammell, 2014). This shares a commonality with the “patrilineal timeline” of video game history as well (Nooney, 2013).


For educators, games can often be seen as providing players with unique opportunities for empathetic learning. As Shaw (2014) noted, “Players/audiences, owing to the complexity of their identities, are able to have strong connections to people unlike them on a regular basis” (p. 5). At the same time, the ways in which race and gender can be distilled to particular tropes or in-game mechanics mean that games can also serve as “shallow vehicles of identity tourism” (Trammell, 2018, p. 445). Understanding the problem space of identity in games requires considering the noted history of who made these games, for what audience, and based on what kinds of values. Like systems of schooling, this means that what happens within the systems of gaming reflects the cultural practices around these games as well. And while I refer here to gaming “culture” to reference the cultural-historical lens that guides this work, I also acknowledge Fickle’s (2019) explanation that the invocation of “culture” in describing gaming practices can function as “a palatable euphemism to obfuscate or naturalize thornier issues of structural inequality, particularly with regard to race and ethnicity” (p. 116).


The contested space of identity and politics within games is not simply relegated to what happens as players participate in the moment-to-moment gameplay of D&D. Rather, aspects of the “metagame” (Garfield, 2000) surrounding gaming—analog and digital—maintain an ongoing regressive context that has been at best inhospitable, and often outright violent, toward women players, LGBTQ+ players, and Black, Indigenous, and other players of color. These intersectional and multiple identities share the commonality of not reflecting the white male player pool that has claimed gaming as a meritocratic home for more than half a century (Garcia, 2017; Paul, 2018; Philips, 2020). Perhaps most recent in the public’s consciousness is the perpetuated violence and harassment known as Gamergate that largely targeted women for almost a decade as of this writing (Hurley, 2016). Though feminist scholarship in game studies guides how the academic community understands games, their audiences, and their purposes, the cultural contexts of play are never neutral and may actively harm some player communities (e.g., Gray, 2014; Ruberg & Shaw, 2017; Shaw, 2014). Alongside readings of gender, “embedded notions of race and ethnicity” (Fordyce et al., 2018, p. 240) constitute a topic in game studies that demands continual exploration and interrogation. As I argue later in this chapter, in analog settings, the enactments of race and gender are triangulated across three different aspects of tabletop role-playing games: the system, the setting, and player identity. This triangulation provides fundamental guidance for understanding power and student agency within systems of education today.


For this study, the ongoing cultural and historical framing of games as contexts in which diverse representation has been violently resisted by white male players substantially shapes my analytic lens. At the same time, as an opportunity to explore how systems are designed—with the presence of biased human agency (Benjamin, 2019; O’Connor et al., 2015)—analog games like D&D offer a lens for understanding how these enunciations of power shape participants’ experiences and beliefs about gaming. As a parallel for reading other systems on which particular ideologies are interfaced and reinforced, these interactions at the gaming table provide a critical perspective for designing, teaching, and participating in schools.


METHODOLOGY


STUDY CONTEXT


This chapter is built on data from a 26-month ethnographic study of a public tabletop gaming community in Northern Colorado. During the period in which I studied and participated in this community, I followed interactions and gaming sessions across two different game cafes, multiple gaming conventions, and other informal spaces such as libraries and coffee shops. All names of players, their characters, and locations are pseudonyms. Though I participated in many different role-playing game sessions, including non-D&D games, for this study, I purposely focused on interactions with a gaming group that met weekly for the second year of this study. With several returning players each week and a steady stream of new participants, this campaign allowed me to understand how seasoned players developed and shared practices, as well as how new players were taught the rules and style of play within a group setting; both of these topics were of particular interest to me because I entered this space to intentionally explore its possibilities in shaping pedagogical and agentic contexts in school settings.


Importantly, as a form of public and organized play, the campaign I describe here was a part of the D&D Adventure League program for official public play, and the group played through the recently published Out of the Abyss (WOTC, 2015) campaign. With room to accommodate player choice, the narrative and character attributes of foes encountered in the game were prescribed in a 254-page book. Using specific rules across all Adventure League sites throughout the world, the organized play system allowed players to enter into any game with available space, having a character that could fit into the Adventure League settings happening at any other store or public space.  


Further, although D&D is a game marketed toward and enjoyed by a diversity of player identities, I note that the players during this campaign were predominantly white and predominantly male. Not all players matched these characteristics, but I note these characteristics because the roles of gender and race are foci for my analysis that follows. Though the majority of the sessions I participated in had some (usually one or two) non-white and nonmale participants, my analysis also includes a multiweek period in which—other than myself—all six participants identified as white, and all of us identified as male. These characteristics mattered, and they are notable particularly in recognition that “toxic” gaming culture affected the affective gaming environment for myriad, intersecting identities of players at the sites where I studied and in the culture at large (e.g., Gray, 2014; Paul, 2018; Shaw, 2014)


Interacting with four of these participants in gaming campaigns that stretched over six months (and in two instances, over two years), I got to know several of these individuals well. Although individual attributes of these players might be pointed to as a rationale for at-the-table behavior, I am intentionally avoiding causal inferences in my analysis. For example, while Taylor offered nuanced insights into his intentional performances of race within D&D, I foreground his intimate knowledge and consumption of gaming culture and tropes. At the same time, I recognize that the lived experiences players carry into gaming systems (and into designing systems) matter, and I argue that further exploration into these links remains necessary.


At the same time that I built from data collected through participant observation within these communities, I also intentionally drew analysis from overlapping research focused on the cultural and historical background that shaped D&D (e.g., Garcia, 2017). I systematically read and analyzed the rules of more than a dozen different versions of D&D and other, similar gaming systems. I collected data through reading the primary texts, such as rulebooks and gaming magazines of historical precedents to D&D. One notable example is the game Chainmail (Gygax & Perren, 1971). Created by one of the cocreators of D&D, Chainmail is widely recognized as one of the first wargaming systems that provided rules for including fantasy elements such as mythical creatures and magical spells.


DATA COLLECTION


Participant observation (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995) within tabletop role-playing games meant sitting at and participating in the two- to four-hour game sessions each week. There is a growing body of scholarship on the learning and interactions within virtual worlds (e.g., Boellstorff et al., 2012). Although much of this scholarship focuses on digital worlds like World of Warcraft and other online gaming settings, the same values of entering into and exploring these worlds shaped my experiences as a researcher at the gaming table. As Pearce and Artemesia (2009) noted, “You cannot observe a virtual world without being inside it, and in order to be inside it, you have to be ‘embodied’” (p. 196). At the same time that players enter game spaces, the talk around the gaming table can also pull players out of these worlds. This dialectical experience of placing one’s gaze into a virtual world and then pulling back out to the “real” world is an important one that I noted throughout my data. Perhaps illuminating this point, Pearce and Artemesia’s scholarship (2009) reflects a coauthored ethnography by researcher Pearce and her in-game character, Artemesia; they both gaze at and make meaning of the worlds within the game and outside it.


Given that previous research from this study elucidated the ways that gender and race are shaped by the system, my intention with this chapter is to look at the links across published rules systems, gaming culture—as represented in texts and “beyond the table” literacy practices (Garcia, 2020)—and interactions at the gaming table. By looking at what was said about games and what could transpire within games, I sought to locate power and its enactment across these contexts.


For the sessions in this study, I developed field jottings (Emerson et al., 1995) that I later formed into lengthier, detailed field notes. In addition to these field notes, I conducted interviews at two different stages in this study with the recurring players in these sessions. These interviews were approximately 90 minutes, and players were asked, among other topics, for clarification on their understanding of D&D and their reasons for playing. Finally, I collected media artifacts related to D&D from the broader culture.


Further, as I intentionally explored the situated and the cultural practices entering into and flowing out of the gaming sessions (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nasir et al., 2006), I was reminded of the ways that the gaming systems shaped the interactions at the gaming table. As Comaroff and Comaroff (1992) reminded us, “Ethnography is historically contingent and culturally configured” (p. 9).


DATA ANALYSIS


Like my previous analysis of this fieldwork and historical reading (Garcia, 2017), I coded the data for this study thematically. Building from a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1965), I coded for specific themes related to systems, narrative, and group interactions. Because this chapter’s focus considers the school-based possibilities of world building within D&D, I coded these data through looking at the kinds of talk, implicit values, and forms of interactions that transpired across these sessions.


The analog virtual worlds in this study are created and explored by multiple players simultaneously. The processes of working toward common understanding take place through rules discussion and clarification at the table as well as by the fictional characters within the virtual world. Building on previous research on the literacy practices of tabletop role-playing games (Garcia, 2020), my analysis differentiates talk, interactions, and meaning making across three domains: within the game, such as when the characters of a virtual world converse, fight, or cast spells; at the table, such as when players talk to one another about content outside the game or discuss the complex gaming rules of D&D; and beyond the table, such as preparing for sessions, reading fantasy texts, or listening to gaming podcasts. As I delved into the data for this study, my coding primarily focused on player interactions within the game and at the table.


FINDINGS


As we look across the critical literature of game studies noted previously, analysis of the settings of tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons makes clear how nonneutral values shape the systems of play. As my analysis reflects, entire sets of cultural practices and assumed character behavior drove what and how players experienced the fantasy worlds of analog play; cultural values—including racism and sexism (Garcia 2017, Trammell, 2014)—were injected into the world that players traversed. During gaming sessions, these values functioned in ways that were both always present in the gaming decisions and dynamics of players, and often cloaked from ever being the foci of players’ attention. Perhaps like the muscle memory of a musician reaching for the right note on an instrument without looking, players navigated gaming sessions that intentionally invoked race and gender without either of these concepts functioning deliberately for players. The findings that follow detail key cultural-historical patterns around race and gender as they entered from the texts of games and into player decisions. After reviewing how these explicit, yet invisible, phenomena shaped players, I conclude this section by sharing the ways that perception, imagination, and visualization shaped these experiences. The cultural values shaping play and the ways that play was mediated and visualized demonstrated systemic enactments of power and imagination. In this way, these overlapping foci shape the schooling experiences of youth today. Though these findings focus on the informal practices voluntarily shared by players, I interrogate their meanings as they relate to justice-centered approaches to education in schools that sit on unceded Indigenous land and profit from the labor of working-class Black families, Indigenous families, and other families of color.


TRIANGULATING RACE ACROSS SYSTEM, SETTING, AND PLAYER


As one of their very first actions in playing Dungeons & Dragons, a player is expected to select their character’s race. These choices—a human, an elf, a dwarf, a dragonborn, and so on—have distinct ramifications for a player’s agency within the game. One character may have more strength, have a stronger connection to forms of magic, or be able to see more clearly in the dark. These are mechanical differences based on race that are designed into the D&D system. In addition, these decisions come with nonneutral values ascribed to them. A tiefling, a human with “infernal heritage,” for example, is described as follows:


Tieflings subsist in small minorities found mostly in human cities or towns, often in the roughest quarters of those places, where they grow up to be swindlers, thieves, or crime lords. Sometimes they live among other minority populations in enclaves where they are treated with more respect. (WOTC, 2014, pp. 42–34)  


Though players may choose to play tieflings as good- or evil natured, the preceding description and depictions across fantasy media convey these characters as dangerous. The Player’s Handbook notes that they “might not have an innate tendency toward evil, but many end up there” (WOTC, 2014, p. 43). As an extreme example, the tiefling is not tied to specific rules that make them evil. However, the descriptions here require players to treat tieflings within the game with suspicion.


In one gaming campaign, one participant played a tiefling thief. Without doing more than announcing their race, this character shaped the ludic experience at the table, as players spoke gruffly and acted distrustfully toward this fictional character. Narrating their characters’ actions, these players expressed wariness, with some keeping a physical distance from the character (as represented with figurines on the gaming table). These players were not being intentionally mean, and the individual who was playing the tiefling knew the lore and narrative heft that this race carried with it. Players were performing as expected based on knowing this character’s race; these players knew and trusted that the participant was playing toward the same, shared goals as everyone else, but they also knew how to perform the expected racism toward this player’s character. Though there were not mechanical rules in place, these players were enacting racism within D&D as the game guided them.


From sample names to personality traits, the essence of a character is often distilled by their race within D&D. Sure, players in my observations often played against the predetermined characteristics that are described within the D&D rulebooks. However, such choices are enacted within the virtual world that operates on the logic of race-based hierarchies and values. This in itself is not novel; most fantasy novels, films, games, and texts rely on racial stereotypes to convey a believable, readable context. Further, the racial tropes within D&D are familiar and informed by the Eurocentric fantasy titles of texts like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.


Players typically knew the simple facts of the D&D world, although they were never an explicit function within the gaming sessions I observed. In the campaign at the focus of this study, Out of the Abyss, drow—dark skinned elves (among other attributes)—were the primary antagonists of the adventure. Drow are a particularly illuminating case of how race functions across the current edition of D&D. Though a major and well-received character in the fiction and transmedia of D&D is a good-natured Drow named Drizzt, the Player’s Handbook (WOTC, 2014) is unambiguous about their lot in life:  


Were it not for one renowned exception [Drizzt], the race of drow would be universally reviled. To most, they are a race of demon-worshiping marauders dwelling in the subterranean depths of the Underdark, emerging online on the blackest nights to pillage and slaughter the surface dwellers they despise. (p. 24)


Their dark skin and their pernicious, cunning attempts at kidnapping, terrorizing, and hunting the adventurers were intertwined characteristics. With notable exceptions such as Drizzt, the race of these characters—drow—and their evil intentions were one and the same. Though the rules of D&D do not require these characters to act in ways that make them reviled, the systemic design and narrative make this a part of the ontological reality within the virtual world. This was indisputable from within the game, and it is from the gaze outside the world that we can best see how race and intention are tied together.


Further, in addition to using race as a marker of goodness or evilness, players, too, took up the racial cues of the D&D world for how they explained their actions—both within the game and as personality markers at the table. For example, contextualizing the gruff nature of the character he plays, Taylor reflected in an interview, “I know I piss a lot of people off when I play dwarves like dwarves.” Taylor’s comment reflects the untrusting nature dwarves typically hold toward “flighty and frivolous” elves and halflings that can’t be taken “seriously” (WOTC, 2014, p. 19). Playing a dwarf requires enacting these accepted, racist beliefs within the game and reflects the behavior of dwarves as “decisive in action, sometimes to the point of stubbornness. Many dwarves have a strong sense of justice, and they are slow to forget wrongs they have suffered” (WOTC, 2014, pp. 18–19). Taylor’s performance as a dwarf—gruff and cautiously tolerant of others—acknowledges the in-game racial attitudes he embodies while also providing some space for collaboration and engagement with the other players around the table; Taylor participates in one way at the table while his character acts in another.


Reflecting on the attitudes he embodies, Taylor also admitted that the hardheaded nature of dwarves is one that aligns with his own perspectives in the real world and that such parallels are a lost opportunity in what he chooses to role-play: “You should probably play stuff to stretch you. It’s very easy for me to see the dwarven attitude: You’re either competent or you’re not, and if you’re not competent, get the hell out of my way.”


Just as the drow and tiefling examples from my data illuminate the ways that the system and its setting glue race and racism together, Taylor articulates how the system’s construction of race also glues players’ identities to attributes within the game. Taylor identifies aspects of his personality as related to how he enacts his dwarf’s characteristics. This triangle of components—player identity, gaming system, and narrative—builds overlapping pathways for race to be understood and enacted across D&D.


IMPLIED GENDER THROUGH SYSTEM PRESENTATION


Though the early editions of D&D included systemic differences in the abilities of male and female characters (e.g., a female adventurer had a lower maximum possible strength), the recent editions have excised any systemic difference across gender. As noted in the Player’s Handbook (WOTC, 2014), “You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances” (p. 121). Likewise, the game intentionally explains that players are not “confined to binary notions of sex and gender” and that a character’s sexual orientation “is for you to decide” (p. 121). This guidance presents a clear image of D&D as an open, inclusive system for all players—language that is reflected throughout the game and in various social media posts I noted throughout the study.


At the same time, gender, sex, and sexuality are flattened within the system’s presentation: The entirety of the handbook’s discussion of these topics is relegated to two paragraphs of a more than 300-page book, and the character sheets at the back of the book do not offer a specific place to even note a character’s gender (or sexual orientation). This brevity in the Player’s Handbook and this exclusion from the character record sheets make clear how obfuscated gender is within the game. And yet, gender always felt present in the sessions I observed.


Importantly, part of the ways that gender was performed at the table—despite having no mechanical difference for player agency—stemmed from representation of gender within the Player’s Handbook beyond the two paragraphs that seemingly open up the range of gender performance. In the section that reviews all the racial options for players, sample names are offered, and these are presented as “Child Names,” “Male Adult Names,” “Female Adult Names,” and “Family Names.” Even though the fantasy world of D&D is stated as intentionally supporting varied gendered identities, the racial categories within the rulebook make implicit assumptions clear. First, race informs the kinds of gendered naming traditions within the game. For example, names such as Adran, Varis, and Peren are suggested for a male elf, while a female elf could go by Adrie, Birel, or Theia (WOTC, 2014).  Additionally, across all races described within the rulebook, gender is binary by default. Inclusion of these choices may help with the verisimilitude of the game for a majority of players, but it does so by also subtly guiding how players interpret the normed expectations of gender performance.


In contrast to the role of race that often propelled narrative and systemic traits, the absence of gender within the gaming system I participated in meant that I predominantly noted the role of gender at the gaming table via player enactment and discussion of gender. Though the Player’s Handbook offers ludic space for nonbinary gender representation, every player in this study played either a male- or female-identifying character, and the pronouns heard at the table within the game were only he/him or she/her. Further, within the weekly D&D campaign that I participated in, characters were of varied genders, regardless of a player. Two male players at my table played as both male and female characters at times.


Even when representation at the table was occasionally all male, gender representation within the gaming world always had some diversity. However, while this fluid gender presentation occurred, it was often subtle. At one session, Kenneth was playing a female monk, Valanthe. Noting that “she” was about to take a particular action, a player who had been present for multiple gaming sessions said, “Wait, Valanthe is a girl?” Kenneth confirmed this—the only time that gender was raised in this session other than through the use of gendered pronouns by players. Arguably, this could be read as the flattening of gender as an equitable representation of what is possible with D&D; no one needed to know Valanthe’s gender, and it didn’t matter. A growing, necessary focus of game studies considers the bias of the male gaze on gaming (e.g., Gray et al., 2018; Kafai et al., 2016). The overly sexualized representation of women in analog and digital games remains a necessary area to address and push beyond (e.g., Sarkeesian, 2013). However, the experiences I observed often glossed over female representation and identity within the game. In squashing all genders together vaguely, participation at this table reflected ways that male-created gaming systems choose to make race matter for gaming contexts while largely erasing any role that gender might play, denying culpability for the patriarchal design origins that have shaped this system. And yet, while gender did not have the same in-game ramifications that race did, it did shape the nature of interactions for players at the table.


At most game sessions where a new player joined, players often went around the table introducing themselves, their characters’ names, and the race and class of their character. Each character’s gender was also revealed in these moments. In the excerpt that follows, four regular players are introducing themselves to a new player, Sarah:


Sarah:

[looking at the figurine in placed on the table in front of Taylor] You seem like a dwarfy guy.


Taylor:

I play a little dwarf.


Stephen:

I’m a wood elf druid named Al. Al Albertson.


Jaime:

You could call him Albert, but Albert is dead. [referring to the previous

character that Stephen was playing]


Stephen:

A fallen brother.


Kenneth:

[raising hand] Cellophane. He’s a wood elf ranger.


Though Sarah doesn’t formally introduce her character, Althaea, until midway through this session, players assumed the character was female. Three weeks later, Sarah’s absence was noted and discussed by the players present:


Stephen:

It was unfortunate, we should have tried getting her to do more.


Kenneth:

I even asked her after what did she want to play?


Richard:

She came in really support style, I was looking at her spells the first day.


Jaime:

“I am not a confrontational person.” And I was like, “This whole game is about that.” Encounter! Encounter!


Antero:

It is an intimidating game if you have never played, and if everyone is older

than you and mainly male.


Stephen:

You guys sound like you are writing her off.


Jaime:

Me? No. I feel like she is showing up and trying to play.


Kenneth:

If she gave up on D&D, I would get it.


The context of playing—with older and male players—likely played a role in why Sarah never returned to the gaming table. However, as this discussion suggests, Sarah’s efforts at “trying to play” conflicted with the game’s presentation of one “encounter” after another. The loss of a new player—regardless of gender—was something this group reflected on, seeming to genuinely care about how people discovered and entered into the role-playing game hobby. However, with Sarah in particular, this discussion reflects an assumption that her interests didn’t fit within the game’s system. Though gender representation within the game was flattened and did little to shape the narrative that was co-constructed, the dynamics of gender at the table mattered greatly.  


WORLDBUILDING AS A COLLABORATIVE ENDEAVOR


Nearly every moment of in-game interactions in D&D sessions hinges on a collective understanding of the world, players’ positions within it, the historical and cultural backgrounds of the current context, and additional details that allow players to coherently and meaningfully navigate the in-game narrative terrain. These are complex and multiple literacies at work. With a playmat on the table, abstract figurines, and a table full of papers and reference books, constructing this world is messy and noisy.


As an exchange typical of a session of D&D, the following excerpt finds players reconstructing the play-space they inhabited in the previous week’s session. As they prepare for combat, the players negotiate, clarify, and remember the contexts of the setting. Like actual memory, the details are both uncertain, and renegotiated and reified in the present.


Antero:

This is the xorn [a large monster]. There is a large duergar [a dwarf that lives

underground] here who basically has a rope on a pulley system. He’s standing

next to that, and then there’s a not large one yet, over here. You grabbed her.


Kenneth:

Yes, remember she was hanging on the rope, so I jumped over the xorn,

because I’m a monk.


Antero:

Of course.


Kenneth:

I was able to knock her all the way down, and then right on the other side,

basically you . . .


Jaime:

Oh, I put Tripp on the first level.


Antero:

Kenneth, I’d imagine you had either run this way and jump over, or this way

and jump over. We hadn’t drawn this last time.


Taylor:

This is the door?


Antero:

This is the door.


Taylor:

We came in from the door. I’m probably standing on the other side of the

room.


Antero:

This side? Okay, so this is her. I’m going to put you next to her.


Jaime:

I was in front of her.


Antero:

Can I put you here?


Jaime:

Sure.


In the chaos of mediating talk, a semblance of coherence forms through negotiation and shared recollection. Like many mediating activities within D&D, identities collapse and get anchored to individuals in this exchange. The “you” in the first statement refers to Kenneth’s in-game monk. Likewise, Jaime refers to his character in the third person, noting “Tripp” is on the first level of this spatial setting. The uncertainty in these exchanges allows for flexibility and room for players to negotiate and contest the situation. When Taylor says he “probably” is located near one side of the room, he positions the comment to allow his position to be advantageous for his character while also giving space for others to clarify or challenge the statement. As complex meaning making through dialogue, pronouns and identity allow players to embody the in-game actions that are occurring. At the same time that the “you” sitting at the table points and gestures at abstract representations at the table, another “you” “jump[s] over the xorn.” This messiness allows players to feel immersed within the world while also maintaining clinical distance from it (e.g., Mizer, 2015; Murray, 1997).


Perhaps as important in the games I played was the use of visual and textual aids. For example, in a separate gaming campaign, the DM, Erick, was running a prewritten campaign published several years earlier in Dungeon Magazine. This magazine was full of illustrations and maps, and Erick would use what was published as an aid for him to guide players. For example, when demonstrating a potential adversary while the group explored a city, Erick did not stop at simply explaining that our foe was a well-dressed hobgoblin. He described him and said, “He looks like this.” Covering the campaign text with his hand so that we could not see the scripted adventure, Erick turned his magazine toward us and allowed us to “see” the character we were interacting with. Though this could be interpreted as limiting the experiences of readers because we did not imagine this character’s appearance whole cloth, it was also an opportunity to draw in learning and immersion through visual cues. Erick demonstrated how in-game characters understood their virtual world and shaped the mediated talk about this world around the table. Further, Erick’s reading of Dungeon Magazine also highlights how literacies beyond the gaming table ultimately shaped the meaning making at the table.


These attempts at conveying at the table what was happening within the game are unique to analog games. Whereas digital games have graphic renderings, musical scores, and professional voice actors conveying the in-game details, the abstract approaches to understanding (and being understood) within a tabletop game require a collaborative, improvised performance from all players, often in face-to-face settings. An emphasis on analog meaning making highlights for classroom educators the human stakes of hearing, being heard, and empathetic engagement. Further, this is not simply a performance for systemic and tactical understanding. While grids, dice, and detailed rules help arbitrate how players strategize within this imagined world, the descriptions of characters, showing character renderings, and describing a world’s atmosphere are also about what Swink (2009) described as “game feel.” Swink’s work functions as guidance for digital game design, explaining that game feel comprises a game’s controls, its simulation of space, and its polished details. This finesse across how a world is constructed and one’s agency within it is what is at stake in the largely verbal construction of worlds in D&D. Though worldbuilding may seem like a unique practice for niche communities of geeks, the environments of learning—schools, classrooms, informal and politicized settings—require imagination, strategies, and patience for voices to be heard and acted on.


DISCUSSION: LEARNING FROM GAMING FREEDOM AND SUPPRESSED AGENCY


A mixture of words, gestures, embodiment, and materials constructs the gaming space as the kind of messy assemblage that cannot help but reflect similar constructed contexts of schools and learning settings. In this way, what can be learned about the hierarchies of power, aligned and competing goals within the game, and how individual interpretation and desire are put in conflict with the reified assumptions of undergirding governance? Race and gender, as much as they may appear unrestricted and benign, actually continually encumber the agency of players. By considering how invisible, always-present aspects of gaming shaped what happened in gaming sessions and the ways that race and gender were molded and enacted by players, I sought to question how similar undergirding values shape young people’s schooling experiences.


In light of lasting educational “debt” (Ladson-Billings, 2006), I build on the findings in this chapter in two ways. First, I name the ways that race and gender within gaming systems—systemic racism and sexism—function in similar, less ludic ways in schools. From this, I build on the conceptual distance of analyzing the hobbyist environments and virtual worlds of D&D to offer guidance for a contemporary critical pedagogy that seeks to ally teachers and students for liberatory education.


RACISM IS CONSTANTLY BUBBLING


As reflected in Taylor’s comments and in the observations I made across nearly every session for this study, players were aware of in-game races and commonly held beliefs about racism. For players who had experiences with the texts and cultural practices of fantasy gaming, the racial tensions between groups like elves and dwarves were established as canonical based on transmedia franchises such as Lord of the Rings. Without having to be stated and without overt, violent actions, racism was an always-present and implicitly endorsed aspect of play. Granted, the “race” described here differs from the ethnic and cultural aspects of racial identity in U.S. schools. However, there is little fantastical about the recognition that race is also persistent in schools in ways similar to its presence in games. It seeps into every crevice of a virtual world, like the racial “smog” that shapes school spaces (Tatum, 2003).


I do not think that most educators have illusions about the presence of race in schools, in academic achievement disparities, or in the social contexts of where and how systems of education operate. However, what I want to draw out are the mechanisms that make racist practices not only feasible, but necessary in education systems. Reviewing the Player’s Handbook for D&D, it is clear that racial strife and differences function as playful affordances; for example, some races have special abilities, and players also have the option of playing a reviled race, like a tiefling, as a fun challenge. Understanding that strife between races exists and not having to know the fictional origins of this strife constitute a key way that race functions in the D&D system and setting. In schools, too, the disproportionate number of students of color who are disciplined, who are designated as “below grade level,” and who are penalized for their multilingualism represents the mechanics of school systems that center hegemonic, white, settler-colonial values.


Just like in the history of U.S. society and schooling, there are rationales and historical readings that could shape why certain fictional races are trusted and others deemed evil in D&D. However, these hypothetical possibilities are not central in the game, are not addressed within the primary rulebooks of the game, and require reading varied texts that are not central to most players’ experiences. Though the participants I played with were able to articulate the beliefs about other races within D&D, they did not explain the origins or the in-game justification for these beliefs. Games and schools do not have to function this way. Recognizing the subjugated role that students of color are too often placed in, we can teach alongside them, engaging in a dialectical, problem-posing approach that builds toward emancipation (Freire, 1970). Like gaming, the process of acquiring knowledge in schools can be about understanding the world around you. As long as the systems of schooling are shaping this history to invisibly reinforce differences and amplify the effects of societal racism, historically marginalized youth will also be presently marginalized youth. In this way, a key challenge of modern, liberatory schooling could be framed around gaming-related questions: What new stories might be imagined and enacted? With whom? What hacks to the systems of schooling might courageous communities undergo?


TRIANGULATING DIFFERENCES: GENDER AND THE UNASKED


Meaning for players and the acquisition of understanding was triangulated. As noted in the findings earlier in this chapter, the system, the narrative world within it, and the ideas held by players all worked in tandem toward common, reified beliefs. For Taylor, for example, the gaming system worked alongside the fictional narrative about dwarves and Taylor’s own “dwarves attitude” personality. Each of these elements works synergistically for Taylor to illuminate a commonly held—but arbitrarily created—set of beliefs about dwarves. These elements within tabletop games (system, setting, and player) function in similar ways across any platform where interaction and learning transpire. For formal schooling settings, the systems of schools also have deeply held systemic rules around what is allowed, how individuals are sorted, and the kinds of procedures that are allowed or not allowed.


If we recognize that a gaming setting—the story and the world in which it takes place—functions as curriculum and disciplinary instruction, these three branches also govern school-based approaches to power and ideology. We can see how schooling pushes female representation into and out of specific spaces, like Sarah eventually no longer showing up to D&D sessions. Systemic messages may affirm a female student’s belief about her limitations in a STEM-related class, for example, and this belief may be further reinforced by the representation of female innovators in textbooks, in prescribed curriculum, and in teacher representation across a student’s schooling experience. Like the nexus in D&D, systems, content, and student identities perpetuate practices that provide narratives of meritocratic performance, while still suppressing female excellence in some subjects.


Naming the system, the content, and the ideologies of individuals within schools can function as a pedagogical act for critically shifting these systems. Importantly, this work is not about taking away these systems, but about altering them. Young people need to see that systems can change, and curriculum can evolve. As much as the rules of D&D seem fixed in place for current players, they are the iteration of more than a dozen published editions. What does a new iteration of the system of schooling look like if we imagine and design it alongside youth?


KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW


The difference between what a character within a game knows and what the player at the table knows is more than a semantic clarification; a cognitive gap must be addressed. Just as a player knows that the actions and words to cast magical spells are not possible outside the D&D world, so too does the player know that their character is likely destined for greatness as part of an epic campaign around which players come together to achieve each week.


At the same time, what makes the actions within the game, like casting spells or fighting dragons, ontologically true is the collaborative process of conforming, confirming, and clarifying. Like the messy exchange of knowledge and placement described earlier in this chapter, players work together to shape their knowledge. At the same time, this knowledge does not occur in total seclusion from the truths of virtual world or the society that players sit in. Rather, the expectations and logic of Western civilization guide what is permissible, allowed, expected in gaming. As Hutchins (1995) noted about group sailing and navigation practices, “The cognitive properties of groups are produced by interaction between structures internal to individuals and structures external to individuals” (p. 262).


Individual agency may be capable of changing the world and working toward liberation. However, it often does so both in collaboration with allies and, importantly, via navigating and changing systems that are presently in place. We may get to explore a fictional world, a set of disciplinary knowledge, or whatever else a particular system may be built to enable. However, as we get to know the boundaries of what a system is set to do and what may be mutable, inquiry and investigation may be required. Discussing open-world video games, Patterson (2020) wrote, “This open world vision of freedom reiterates the desire to conquer and dominate foreign spaces and in many ways circles back to an old definition of freedom as travel and dominance” (pp. 3–4). The knowledge conveyed and constructed within and around virtual worlds is shaped by the systems that govern them. Patterson’s reading of online virtual worlds helps illustrate that one kind of gaming practice is reinforced by a settler-colonial heuristic of land, identity, and freedom. The commingling of fantasy, race, and gender also helps distort these signifiers in the real world, promoting an ethos of pillage and heraldry as the foundational goals within D&D. Further, because gender is nowhere to be found on individuals’ character sheets (aside from naming conventions) and because race is distanced from the kinds of ethnic identities of the real world, D&D obfuscates its relationship to these identity markers.


CONCLUSION


One reason that the systems of gaming and schooling persist in reinforcing forms of power that oppress varied identities is the false narrative of meritocratic exceptionalism that drives them. Within the world of Dungeons & Dragons, for example, players often seek to build exceptionally skilled characters: Perhaps they are powerful wizards, or brute fighters, or charismatic leaders. In essence, the players I sat with helped their characters grow over the course of months. These characters gained power and would substantively address a land-altering crisis. Within the setting of the game, the imperiled world is only saved because of the exceptionalism of these characters. And, to an extent, that is often how players viewed the purpose of the game: be the main character in an ultimate adventure. That is not to say that some participants brought to the table flawed characters that transgressed these narratives. However, even if seen as weaker contributors to the adventuring party, these players would still attain the same telos-like achievements within the game alongside their other players.


Schools don’t have these same mechanisms for arbitrarily centering the unique possibilities of every student. Educational research makes clear that not only do far too many students fall behind, but, insidiously, these students are disproportionately students of color from historically marginalized communities.


Connecting the lessons of how values such as race and gender within gaming systems shape player experiences provides key understanding for exploring similar values in schools. Further, when we connect these forces of power to enactments across systems, settings, and player agency, it becomes clear how teachers and students—like gamers—might contextualize and change these systems and their functions. However, sometimes working within a system is not enough.


As I noted in the overview of D&D, while this particular role-playing game is the subject of scrutiny in this chapter, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only tabletop role-playing game. When some determined that the explicit and implicit articulations of race and gender in this game were not palatable, rather than attempting to adjust an individual comfort level to an existing system, entire communities of independent game designers and players wrote and published new systems with new possibilities. The systems in place can be changed and, if that does not go far enough for the needs and perspectives of communities, discarded entirely. Public schooling in the United States, too, is a system that can be tweaked, hacked, and, as necessary, replaced. Imagination, agency, and a collective will of the people sitting together at a table—these are the elements needed for critical social change in virtual and real worlds alike.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23736, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:11:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Antero Garcia
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    ANTERO GARCIA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. His work explores how technology and gaming shape learning, literacy practices, and civic identities. Based on his research focused on equitable teaching and learning opportunities for urban youth through the use of participatory media and gameplay, Antero codesigned the Critical Design and Gaming School, a public high school in South Central Los Angeles.
 
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