American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Constructing Elysium and Playing Ugly: Methods of Intimacy in Fantasy Role-Playing Game Communities

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Radhika Gajjala (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Sandra Faulkner (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Kristine Blair (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lesa Lockford (Other)


Using Johan Huizinga's concept of the magic circle as a context for understanding how sacred spaces reserved for play manifest within role-playing game (RPG) environments both digital and table-top, this dissertation argues that while certain elements of the magic circle are still present, the vast amount of work produced to monitor the boundaries of sacred game space stem from the intimate relationships between players. Online RPG environments are open to critique due to the seemingly wide-spread use of hostility as a gate-keeping tactic. Numerous studies and digital media scholars have examined how bullying, harassment, and bodily threats present within toxic digital gaming cultures act as a means of limiting access to participation. Because marginalized players, whether due to gender, race, or sexual identity, are often playing in gaming environments that get coded as toxic, this dissertation chooses to interrogate the ways in which some players negotiate game environments that are complicated at best and overtly hostile at worst. While the dissertation is careful to note the distinctions between online RPGs and offline table-top RPGs, the core argument made stems from the consistencies present between both: both the online and table-top groups who participated in the study use tools of intimacy both actively and passively as a means of fostering individual as well as group identity. In so doing, the use of intimacy acts as a buffer against hostile acts that would otherwise inhibit participation.

But this dissertation does not just attempt to understand how players weather and negotiate hostility outside of their gaming groups. It also seeks to understand how some players are able to absorb the hostility and redirect it as a creative play-style. In this case, "playing ugly" becomes a means of performance not directed outward, but rather, inward. Taboo play, in this case, becomes a cathartic way in which players process hostility by becoming hostile. While this play-style may seem to mirror the online toxic environments that can further separate marginalized players from a larger online gaming ecology, playing ugly strives to make its members immune to the aggression—although whether that achievement is attainable is tenuous.