Ringbearers: The Lord of the Rings Online as intertextual narrative is an edited collection by Tanya Krzywinska, Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Justin Parsler that discusses the titular game – also abbreviated as LOTRO. The book frames the highly intertextual meaning that results from the game space and that structures player experiences therein. Past any narratological or ludological debate, it tries to embrace and conceptualize the meaningful play that emerges in, and around, this popular MMO. It adequately shows that these experiences cannot be set apart from the previous installments and cultural fantasies that flourish around Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
The major strenght of the book resides in its conceptual depth, clarity and innovation. The authors all make good claims why new concepts are needed to tease out the vital experience of role-playing within this setting, but always develop these concepts within the field of game studies and cultural studies at large. For instance, Klastrup and Tosca’s idea of the “transmedia world” is developed further within this book and makes a strong claim to include “worldness” rather than a more generic idea of “transmedia storytelling” or events. The concept reaches new depth through LOTRO where the transmedia world is given shape by many intertextual instances and is above all playable.
Similarly, MacCallum-Stewart conceives a theory for signifying the individual imaginations of players as a type of “quiet role-playing”. This is not given shape by social codes or consensus but by individual musings and fantasies, which should be accounted for more systematically in game studies. (I can subscribe to this as during my own ethnography of role- and cosplaying, I was often confronted with player’s ideas and “head canon”). Role-playing is about much more than a game system or community negotiates, parts of it are forever private, not shared, but central to character’s actions. MacCallum-Stewart’s attention to objects that are “ephemeral” and have no real meaning in the game world is also worth exploring. The idea of the avatar as an “alterbiography” by Gordon Calleja also resonates with these concepts clearly as the avatar is written, conceived of and structured within the game system. Within these restrictions and liberties, players conceive a new alter ego. Rather than a sense of self, it provides a sense of otherness.
Other concepts are contributions to the field in a sense that they develop previous thoughts of cultural studies and re-purpose them in their game studies. Especially Frank Mäyrä’s ideas of “monster play” are a great example of this. Inspired by the performance studies, gothic and horror fiction, and broader theories, Mäyrä analyzes this phenomenon. He highlights the intense carnivalesque and liberating experience that monster play offers, situating it in a larger history of dark play.
The different essays offer much inspiration as they stem from different backgrounds. Justin Parsler’s design-oriented piece offers much precision in how crafting functions in this universe and what it contributes to the game’s design. Richard Bartle offers a rather ontological and even philosophical view about the game as fiction and its realism/correspondence to the Tolkien-verse. Gordon Calleja offers a timely view on the game’s narrativity and identity.
Though I have had little time to play LOTRO, the collection clearly shows that the game is a testing ground for much current game theory. What I found a great upside is that I could navigate through it with rudimentary knowledge from other MMO’s and some interest in the LOTR franchise. It seems to be a pleasant read for non-players, which is crucial in these times where there’s so many MMO’s, indie-games, apps and console games to play. My only critical note is that I would have liked seeing more player voices at times, rather than cultural readings, and possibly a stronger view of the scholars as players.
I can recommend this collection strongly for the theoretical and timely inspiration that it offers.