To Play with Spirits: Fluidity and Distinction in Role-Playing Game Shamans

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2017-08

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Abstract

Shamans, a category of spiritual specialist that bridges this world and others to heal, are fixtures in many cultures and religions across the world. Meanwhile, tabletop roleplaying games are a storied pastime which transports participants to fanciful worlds. Some of those fanciful worlds contain shamans as a class of character that players may choose to assume. Through this option, the cultural concept of shaman is repurposed into an aspect of entertaining fiction. The tabletop roleplaying games employ rulebooks that codify, outline and establish their world and its many aspects, of which shamans are one. Through qualitative content analysis of their rulebooks, I study how tabletop role-playing games depict shamans in flexible and fluid ways that encourage player participation toward constructing the role and function of the shaman. Utilizing a social constructionist framework, this thesis illuminates the symbolic boundary work that defines shamans by their connection to spirits and distinguishes shamans from other classes as they are made into a cultural tool. My findings bring new insights into the ways individuals are able to navigate and negotiate the sacred in secular entertainment. Moreover, through showing that boundaries can be fluid and flexible in entertainment and that they can serve to differentiate while not judging, the importance of entertainment as a context for exploring boundaries due to the structure of escapism is indicated.

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Keywords

Shamans, Boundary Work, Fantasy, Cyberpunk, Culture, Gaming, Role-play, Cultural tool kit, Social constructs, Entertainment, Fun, Spirits, Magic

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