Category Archives: game play

Some recent media links: Civics and D&D

Nicole Mirra and I wrote an oped last month reflecting on the inauguration, insurrection, and the pathways for civic education.

Somewhat related, we gave a talk at UC Davis titled “I Hesitate But I Do Have Hope: Speculative Civic Literacies for Troubled Times.” The presentation and the links we mentioned are all available here.

I’ve also had a chance to talk about D&D, race, and contemporary culture recently. Here’s an appearance on KPCC, an article in Wired, and an article in the Los Angeles Times. Unsurprisingly, a handful of right wing publications have picked up on this (again). I try to share this research as broadly as possible and encourage folks to take a lot at what I actually wrote and the scholarship of other BIPOC gaming scholars.

SoCal Folks! – UC Irvine Presentation – Friday, February 21, 2020

A quick note:

I am presenting findings from my tabletop roleplaying ethnographic work as part of the UCI Informatics Seminar Series this Friday. I am using this as an excuse to finally finish the fourth paper related to this fieldwork.

The talk is open to the public and I’ll be loafing around campus if anyone wants to grab a coffee. Information here.

“What’s it all for?”: #AERA19 Schedule and Resources

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Like much of the rest of the educational research world, I’m in Toronto for the next few days for the annual AERA meeting. I’m sharing my presentation schedule below as well as some resources related to the address I’m giving on Saturday as the recipient of the Jan Hawkins Award. If you’re in town, please send me a tweet and let’s connect!

First, I’ll be speaking and sharing findings from several different elements related to the Letters to the Next President study Amber Levinson, Emma Gargroetzi, and I have been engaged in. Here are three sessions highlighting different aspects of this work:

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Additionally, I’ll be in conversations with friends as part of a presidential session on Sunday, “Forging a New Digital Commons: Youth Re-Imagining and Re-Claiming Public Life.”

I’m also part of a large crew of amazing critical literacies researchers for a working roundtable session. Raúl Alberto Mora made a flyer for this session:

Finally, on Saturday, I am giving a short address as the recipient of the Jan Hawkins Award. This talk, “electric word life: Learning, Play, and Power in an Era of Trumpism” is based on an in-progress essay that explores researcher responsibilities in an era of oppression and Trumpism. I’m planning on doing this by centering the meaning and history of Prince’s song, “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Hawkins Address Resources:

Because I don’t go deeply into the articles I reference in this address, I’m linking to them here for future reference (please reach out if you need access to any of these articles!):

Garcia & Philip, 2018: “Smoldering in the darkness: contextualizing learning, technology, and politics under the weight of ongoing fear and nationalism” 

(This is the introduction to this special issue of Learning, Media and Technology focused on “New Narratives for Solidarity, Resistance, and Indignation: The Intersections of Learning, Technology, & Politics in a Climate of Fear, Oppression”. More info on the whole issue here.)

Garcia, Stamatis, & Kelly, 2018: “Invisible Potential: The Social Contexts of Technology in Three 9th-Grade ELA Classrooms

Garcia, 2017: “Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial and Gender Identities in Tabletop Role-Playing Games”  

In press: “A Call for Healing Teachers: Loss, Ideological Unravelling, and the Healing Gap”

(This article, forthcoming talks about the need for healing in teacher education; I’ll post a link when it is available in the coming weeks. More as background than anything else, here are a few words and stories shared nearly a decade ago on this blog about my father.)

Garcia, 2018: “More than Taking Care: Literacies Research Within Legacies of Harm

Garcia & Dutro, 2018: “Electing to Heal: Trauma, Healing, and Politics in Classrooms

Garcia & Gomez, 2018: “Player professional development: A case study of teacher resiliency within a community of practice

Mirra & Garcia, 2017: “Civic Participation Reimagined: Youth Interrogation and Innovation in the Multimodal Public Sphere

And, because it feels relevant to the talk. I should share the official archive of Prince gifs. (I couldn’t compete for an audience’s attention with any of these looping during my talk, but hope they are useful for everyone!)

Let’s Talk about False Equivalency and Gamer Fragility

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Oh that? That’s a meme going around some corners of the internet. It’s building off of the Breitbart article that is ostensibly about my research. I wrote about the first time that went viral here.

This new remix on this headline suggests that the fear-mongering around Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s is somehow the same as critiquing the game’s reinforcement of gender and racial tropes and stereotypes. It’s usually brought up by people with brief hashtags or notes like this:


Let’s unpack this a bit. The Satanic Panic of the 1980s was a significant moment in gaming culture and highlights the threats to imagination manifesting in ways that look strange and unfamiliar to mainstream culture. It is also part of a cycle of fearing new forms of (generally youth) culture. Notable examples post ’80s include Marilyn Manson, the Matrix, video games, cell phones, Snapchat and many, many others. Within this context and as a part of the formative years for tabletop roleplaying games, the fear of 1980s remains an important moment for understanding the genre and the kinds of fragility that remain in tabletop and video gaming culture today.

At the same time, I also want to note that the fear of “demon worship” in the first headline of the meme is not the same as critiquing white and male privilege. I think this is a really important point and the fear of the 1980s is not the same as acknowledging—let alone critiquing–privilege 50 years into the history of D&D. As I note in the article that kicked off this dust storm, D&D is a gaming system that was made by white men, built on tropes and stories largely written by white men, and—at least at first—primarily played by other white men (who were being swayed to join the new genre of play, adapted from historical wargaming systems). To be clear this research isn’t focused on how D&D “perpetuates” problematic tropes—contrary to the Breitbart headline. It is instead looking at how histories adapt and shift and inform over time.

This later point gets to the other piece of this meme that really bugs me: the headline doesn’t actually represent what my work is about in the first place! One of the reasons I wrote this article was to both deeply excavate the historical systems that mediate every interaction at the Dungeons & Dragons gaming table and also to draw parallels to other—non-gaming—contexts. As some grumpy commenters noted, some of the language in the earlier editions of the game no longer exist in the current edition. What I want to recognize is that, smoothing over language, rules, and representation in previous versions of the game does not erase history. Further, race, gender, and privilege assert themselves within particular contexts.

Additionally, this article was focused on the niche context of illuminating cultural-historical research. I’m quoting slightly at length from the conclusions of this paper to highlight the methodological takeaways I focused on for this study:

Although there is an abundance of insightful research into how games shape socialization and learning (in both digital and nondigital contexts), such analyses cannot be studied as if games are isolated from the cultures that influence them or in which they are embedded. This study’s findings reveal two methodological stances to consider when looking at communities of gaming, schooling, and myriad other learning contexts:

  1. The cultural production and influence around a community must be explored. How individuals understand what happens within a gaming community, for example, is shaped and influenced by cultural factors external to the ecosystem being analyzed. In short, games are a part of culture, and culture seeps into their enactment.
  2. The cultural production and influence from within the systemic design of cultural artifacts must be explored. As illustrated in this study, the human biases and beliefs of individuals that construct systems are embedded within systems. These guide beliefs and influence specific “cultural-historical repertoires” (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003; p. 21).

Although cultural-historical analyses often attend to the preceding first point, the human-built foundations within systems may more easily be overlooked. Particularly as educational research considers biases, oppression, and equity in varied communities of practice, the role that cultural artifacts play in the shaping of meaning and understanding must be unpacked.

One task of researchers is translation. Explaining the practices, experiences, and analyses from one context and making them coherent for academic peers is central to how my work is evaluated. Unfortunately, this means that my translational work is focused on a community that’s historically elitist in our language practices and in the fences put up around our work; the article in question is behind an academic paywall (though there are plenty of online places that are sharing linked PDFs and I am happy to furnish this work for others). Taking the nuances of the cultural-historical research around tabletop roleplaying and explaining it to other educational researchers often means presenting things that are seemingly obvious to the tabletop community and explaining them to a new audience. And so I often explain this work to gamers and it’s pretty mundane to some. At the same time, acknowledging a history that was made by particular individuals with their own cultural values has posed as a threat to the closed off, protectionist practices of gaming spaces.

To this last point, the title of this post is only trying to be slightly provocative. I do think there is a need to dig into the nuances of a gamer fragility and the explosion in interest, think pieces, and popular books around white fragility. Several recent books have been helpful in contextualizing gamer fragility, even if that’s not the vocabulary the authors use. Part of what—I think—contributes to the vitriolic response to the Breitbart article and the subsequent memes around my work is the insecurity of presumed outsiders critiquing or looking closely at history, culture, and power in games. It’s true of systems of writing, language, schooling, and youth popular culture. It’s largely the push against what much of my career has focused on to date.

An Origin Story on Empathy and Dungeons & Dragons

Earlier this week, my work was written up on an alt-right website:

That article and various reddit threads about it have garnered thousands of not-so-friendly comments. Not surprisingly, my inbox has been filled with a handful of nasty messages the last few days as well.

I’m not entirely sure why this happened now: the article described in that headline came out a year ago (it can be found here and I have talked through the paper in a handful of streamed presentations that also now have many unkind comments added to them). In case you’re wondering, I’m fine. Really. I think I got worse blowback a few years ago. As a bit of perspective, though, it might be worth offering a bit of an origin story to this work.

Why Study Dungeons & Dragons?

It is fitting that I  actually started studying tabletop roleplaying games because of the violence and discrimination that women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community experienced in video gaming culture. (The good reads on Gamergate are here and here and a segment of Reply All heard here.)

There’s a real conflict in educational research on games that persists today. Much of my doctoral work looked at the liberatory possibilities of games in the lives of the young people I was teaching and working with. As I continued to dig into the literature on games and learning, most of the key studies focused on video games. However, studies that praise the possibilities of games and learning tend to look blindly past the broader culture around gaming, issues of exclusion, and the cultural role these games play. (I write a bit about this in my chapter in this recent book.)

My hypothesis was that it would be harder for gaming culture to so openly reject the lives and experiences of some players if anonymity was removed and play happened face to face in analog gaming environments … like Dungeons & Dragons.

To be absolutely clear, I had only positive interactions with the participants and friends I was privileged to learn from in my two years of ethnographic research as part of this work. The article in question, though, points to how the mechanisms that led to Gamergate can be seen embedded in the systemic designs of the earliest editions of the first roleplaying game. In some ways it feels like coming full circle: I moved away from digital gaming research because of the negative culture attached to it, only to end up experiencing the brunt of it as a result (admittedly, a somewhat crowded inbox is nothing compared to the experiences of many Gamergate victims).

This is not all gloom and doom, though. There are an amazing variety of games (digital and non), designers, fans, and players interacting in a thriving and inclusive ecosystem today. The resilience of a minority of players that feel threatened by critique, by diversity, by change parallels broader resistance to progressive social change throughout history. Fittingly, as I write this, I am also in the midst of research tied to empathy, care, and healing in the lives of students and teachers.

At their best, tabletop roleplaying games imagine worlds unseen; they can spark revolutionary civic thought in the collaborative narratives of players around a table. Preparing the next manuscript tied to this work, I am excited to push for alternative worlds and possibilities in schools, in cultural contexts, and in the lives of players.

“If you weren’t reading this book it would still exist”: Alternate Reality in an Era of Alternative Facts


I am thrilled to announce the release of the recent edited volume, Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay, as part of Bloomsbury’s Approaches to Digital Game Studies series.

The book, co-edited with Greg Niemeyer examines foundational tropes in ARGs, pushes towards new conceptions within the genre, and challenges how “digital” game studies reconcile with games that take place in the physical world around us.

In conjunction with this release, Greg and I are hosting a day-long symposium on ARGs on May 23 at Stanford University. This free event begins with a morning of panels and academic talks related to the contemporary state of ARGs, includes a session of ARG-related playtests on campus, and culminates in an afternoon talk by Jane McGonigal. The event is free (flyer above) and you can register here.

A bit more about the book:

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) challenge what players understand as “real.” Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay is the first collection to explore and define the possibilities of ARGs. Though prominent examples have existed for more than two decades, only recently have ARGs come to the prominence as a unique and highly visible digital game genre. Adopting many of the same strategies as online video games, ARGs blur the distinction between real and fictional.

With ARGs continuing to be an important and blurred space between digital and physical gameplay, this volume offers clear analysis of game design, implementation, and ramifications for game studies. Divided into three distinct sections, the contributions include first hand accounts by leading ARG creators, scholarly analysis of the meaning behind ARGs, and explorations of how ARGs are extending digital tools for analysis. By balancing the voices of designers, players, and researchers, this collection highlights how the Alternate Reality Game genre is transforming the ways we play and interact today.

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(While the hardcover version of our recent volume is pricey, a paperback copy is forthcoming – this edition makes a great library acquisition!)

Please get in touch if you have questions or want to learn more about either the book or the event!

Invite: June 13-14, 2015 – The Critical Design and Gaming School Game Jam



If you will at all be in the LA area next weekend, I highly encourage you to come to the first C:/DAGS Game Jam. Directions, team-sign ups, and other information can be found here.

Urgently educate and empower the teenagers of South Central Los Angeles to excel through college and become transformative leaders of our local and global communities.

The Game Jam is going to be an awesome step towards transformative, and humanizing game design in South Central Los Angeles. Funded by the LRNG Innovation Challenge, the two-day Game Jam is open to the public. If you find yourself looking for something to do while in town for DML 2015*, head a couple miles south to the beautiful Augustus Hawkins campus! We’ll see you there!



* Speaking of DML, I’ll be in a handful of awesome sessions there. If you’ll be at the conference and I can’t twist you’re arm to come to the Game Jam, say hello nonetheless.

Call for Chapters: Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay

Please feel free to get in touch if you are interested/have questions. And please share and distribute widely!

Call for Chapters: Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay

Series: Approaches to Digital Game Studies, Bloomsbury

Editors: Antero Garcia, Colorado State University & Greg Niemeyer, University of California, Berkeley

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) challenge what players understand as “real.”
Though prominent examples of ARGs have persisted over the past two decades, only recently have ARGs come to the prominence as a unique and highly visible digital game genre. Adopting many of the same strategies as online video games, ARGs blur the distinction between the “real” and the “virtual.”

We seek chapter proposals for a proposed collection that explores and defines the possibilities of ARGs. With ARGs continuing to be an important and blurred space between digital and physical gameplay, this collection offers clear analysis of game design, implementation, and ramifications for game studies. Divided into three distinct sections (noted below), this collection emphasizes first hand accounts by leading ARG creators, scholarly analysis of the meaning behind ARGs from noted critics and researchers, and explication of emerging visualization and data collection methodologies. We are particularly interested in cultivating research from various disciplinary perspectives; by balancing the voices of designers, players, and researchers, this work highlights how the Alternate Reality Game genre is transforming the ways we play and interact today.

We seek chapter proposals that fit within one of the following three book sections:

Section One – Development and Execution
Chapters in this section of the book detail the design and implementation of ARGs. Authors pay attention to specific fictions, audiences, and goals within these ARGs and offer a clear step-by-step behind the scenes look at how these game designers engineer new modes of play and participation.

Section Two – Alternating Reality – how ARGs are changing games and society
These chapters focus on analysis and critique of ARGs. While some chapters may focus on specific games, other chapters in this section invoke larger trends in ARGs.

Section Three – Data Visualization and Collection
As the ARG genre is dependent on responding to the ways participants interact with one another and with a story’s content, this section of the book looks at how we interpret and construct data. In particular, the genre of digital games is reinventing new data visualization methodologies and this section should illuminate ways games display information during play and as synopsis after a game concludes.

This edited volume has received initial interest from the Digital Game Studies series editors and we are currently seeking additional chapters to share with the editors and secure a book contract. The deadline for proposals of 300-500 words is August 15, 2014. Please email your abstract and a 100 word biography to (please indicate to which section of the book your proposal is directed). All authors will be notified of acceptance by September 2nd and full chapter manuscripts would be due in April, 2015. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions at the above address.

LRA Research to Practice: Gaming

Today I joined the Literacy Research Association’s Research to Practice webinar focused on gaming. Though it was fun talking to a bunch of other researchers, the highlight was definitely learning from bonafide students/YouTube star “Wild Card Garth.” Check out the webinar below (my comments deliberately focused on the role of critical theory in using games in classroom contexts):


The show notes can be found here.

“Now is the summer of our”… RPG content: Why you should care about D&D right now


[tl;dr version: The next few months are going to redefine how we understand roleplaying games in popular culture. A sub-culture war of opinions and capitalism is playing out in a small sector of the board game industry and it will reverberate throughout society.]


Next month, the first in a series of releases will usher in the Fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The game will be published by Wizards of the Coast (publisher of the Magic: the Gathering collectible card game). Wizards, in turn, is owned by Hasbro (yes, like the publisher of Transformers and Monopoly products). For both companies, D&D is a relatively small-potatoes product. However, the game is engrained in today’s society in ways that extend far beyond the line of hardbound books that are the basic rules set for the game.

For example, when I have been telling people I have been studying roleplaying games lately, I usually have to offer a bit more context. It typically goes like this:

 Me: “Lately, my research has focused on stuff related to roleplaying games.”

Other person: blank look

Me: “Like Dungeons & Dragons… y’know, nerds rolling dice.”

Other person: look of recognition

For the general public, RPGs are tied to this specific brand: Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, Jon Peterson’s book makes the argument that the term “roleplaying game” was basically created so competitors in the ‘70s could publish products and claim they were “like D&D” without worry of litigation (even in those early days, D&D’s owners knew the value of brand recognition). For those not entrenched in the litany of robust titles and games available today, D&D is a signifier of a genre, a disposition, and a product rolled up in one. D&D is how most people understand RPGs (even vaguely) and its popularity – in recent books, TV shows like Community, and immeasurable influence on game and film industries – is huge.

However, if you haven’t been playing RPGs in the past few years you would be surprised to know that D&D – by the few, foggy metrics available – is not the top-selling or most popular RPG being played. Though there are many reasons behind the dwindling in popularity, the most central one is that D&D’s creators ended up fracturing their market base. Different editions of the game are more popular to different players. As illustration, note that when your phone or your computer’s operating system gets updated you inevitably shift over to the new platform (often when the dwindling lifecycle of your current device requires you to buy new hardware). We are naturally predisposed to upgrading to the next OS with digital tools. However, when your operating system is a set of books, these shifts aren’t required and – if you take umbrage with new system mechanics (such as many did when D&D 4th edition seemed to be paralleling game mechanics seen in World of Warcraft) – you could always just go back to an earlier, more familiar edition of the game.¹


The Rise of Pathfinder and OSR

At the same time that D&D’s creators fractured their market, they also opened the door to 3rd party publishing. This, by all accounts, was a good thing: it allowed other publishers to share their material and expand what is available for the game without fear of lawsuit.²  However, in doing so, one company, Paizo (once a publisher of official D&D magazines) published a cleaner, more refined version of the 3.5 edition ruleset. By setting a new path away from the 4th edition changes, this new game, Pathfinder, has become the dominating market force in RPGs. Pathfinder is a legal remix of D&D and is currently played and bought by more players than D&D products.

Similarly, with the rules for new editions of D&D getting evermore complex, older players have romanticized the simplicity of earlier incarnations of the game. The Old School Renaissance (OSR) movement also refines earlier rules from D&D and makes them more accessible.³

Throw into this mix popular RPGs related to recognized otaku culture like Star Wars and Firefly4 and you can see the way D&D has diminished for players. I should briefly add that the indie-RPG market is also booming. Kickstarter and crowd funding have done amazing work at democratizing the RPG industry in generally positive ways (my friend Calvin’s Kickstarter, for example, has a few more days to go!).


The Prodigal Son Returns

And so here we are in 2014:

It is the 40th anniversary of “the world’s oldest fantasy roleplaying game.”5 Starting this summer, D&D is returning with a new, fifth edition (simply called Dungeons and Dragons – probably in an effort to avoid the edition wars). Info about the new edition and an extensive open playtest of it have made this a speculative time for the RPG industry. When new products that are not D&D are announced to be released this summer (usually at the industry’s main convention, Gen Con) they do so not so much with an elephant in the room as with an elder red dragon that is devouring the elephant and lighting the room on fire.

By the time the game comes out there will be seven different editions of the game available (the pre-“advanced version, 1st, 2nd, 3, 3.5, 4, and then fifth) digitally6 . This new edition looks like it may simplify the rules for newer players and add flexibility for players to adjust complexity.

D&D has many different markets it is trying to address with this new edition and it will be interesting to see if it can reunite its fractured kingdom. As a researcher that’s been primarily interested in what happens at the gaming table (and less at the macro-level of RPG industry described in this post) I’m curious about a few things related to the release of the new edition:

  • How will the market power of Hasbro help expand the audience and reach of RPGs? (There aren’t any other companies in this industry that regularly sell in places like Target and Walmart.)
  • How will players of Pathfinder and other OGL-licenses respond to or pay attention to the new edition? (Pathfinder’s publisher, Paizo is basically taking an official stance of ignoring the new release and letting the buzz from the summer ride out while still releasing their own products like their new superdungeon.)
  • More generally, how will third part publishers affect my fifth edition experiences at the game table? (Wizards of the Coast has yet to explain what kind of 3rd part publisher support they will have for the new version of the game but have essentially said they are working on it.)
  • With added attention to the high fantasy world of D&D, will the stories and tropes being taken up by players shift? (In addition to my footnoted Sword and Sorcery game, I currently play in a Deadlands campaign (think Lovecraft meets the wild west… and coming to a TV near you!)
  • How will D&D support players’ use of technology? (Players today use tablets, dice-rolling apps, video conferencing, and a bevy of other tools to make playing analog RPGs easier than ever before. D&D’s character sheets used to be hidden behind a user login screen for earlier editions of the game, further isolating one market.)


For the niche market and culture of RPGs (which is actually a growing market along with board games), D&D’s new edition is not a big deal. It is the big deal of the summer.


  1. By the way, there is no easier way to incite nerd rage in a game store than by asking players to discuss if D&D 3.5 or D&D 4th edition is better. The times I’ve seen this happen I have been embarrassed by all parties.
  2. There is a longer post to write at some point about copyright, the Open Gaming License, and parallels with open source software.
  3. Point in fact, I have been running a D&D game this summer for friends and have been using a system called Swords and Sorcery it is an accessible, free text built on the backs of D&D’s original creators.
  4. Firefly is also caught up in confusing licensing deals, meaning there are two different RPG systems: one related to the film license for Serenity and one for the television show.
  5. That quote is an interesting one. Pathfinder can’t legally say D&D, so it hints at the product it is based upon. It signals to consumers that it is a D&D product to draw business to itself. And it works.
  6. Check out that pitch-line: “Every Edition Available Again!”