American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Collaborative Storytelling 2.0: A framework for studying forum-based role-playing games

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Kristine Blair (Committee Co-Chair)

Second Advisor

Radhika Gajjala (Committee Co-Chair)

Third Advisor

Jeremy Wallach (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lisa Gruenhagen (Other)


Forum-based role-playing games are a rich, yet barely researched subset of textbased digital gaming. They are a form of storytelling where narratives are created through acts of play by multiple people in an online space, combining collaboration and improvisation. This dissertation acts as a pilot study for exploring these games in their full complexity at the intersection of play, narrative, and fandom. Building on theories of interactivity, digital storytelling, and fan fiction studies, it highlights forum games' most unique features, and proves that they are is in no way liminal or secondary to more popular forms of role-playing. The research is based on data drawn from a large sample of forums of various genres. One hundred sites were explored through close textual analysis in order to outline their most common features. The second phase of the project consisted of nine months of participant observation on select forums, in order to gain a better understanding of how their rules and practices influence the emergent narratives. Participants from various sites contributed their own interpretations of forum gaming through a series of ethnographic interviews. This did not only allow agency to the observed communities to voice their thoughts and explain their practices, but also spoke directly to the key research question of why people are drawn to forum gaming. The main drawing power of forum games is their focus on creative, collaborative writing. Players interested in writing with others in a playful setting, and engaging with their favorite popular culture texts through composition, are drawn to these sites because of the narrative freedom they offer compared to other gaming platforms. In addition, their narratives born from play are consciously, intentionally, and enthusiastically multimodal. Multimodality offers a wide range of creative opportunities for telling stories in a digital space, and it also has connections to older, oral forms of communal storytelling. This study creates a framework for theorizing forum-based role-playing games as a distinct style of gaming, worthy of scholarly attention. It also opens up new opportunities for future research, as well as applications including ESL education, collaborative writing, literary studies, and graphic design.