Review: Playing at the World

Playing at the World

Jon Peterson

Remember the first time you crawled a dungeon, slayed the dragon and stuffed as playing_worldmuch treasure as you could into your “bag of holding”? Felt good, right? But the true prize wasn’t the booty. Sure, I enjoyed counting the gold and platinum coins, drooling over the prospects of upgraded armor, a magic-enhanced broad sword and whatever mischief I could scare up with a few copper pieces at the local tavern.

But what intrigued me most were the tattered spell scrolls, mysterious tomes and the secrets of the ancients.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. A rabid imagination is the primary tool that all fans of role-playing games bring to the table, and a trove of yellowed parchment and faded maps makes us froth at the mouth. Just how powerful is that fireball incantation? What wisdom could be discovered in that old paladin’s codex?

That’s what it feels like digging into Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games. For any experienced gamer, this is a hoard worthy of any dungeon campaign.

It’s no longer groundbreaking to think of gaming as a topic for academic or cultural studies, but while many books have been written about gaming and gamers, they tend to be focused on a particular aspect of the genre, rather than presenting a comprehensive history. Peterson spent more than five years of archival research and writing creating Playing at the World, the definitive history of gaming and, by far, the most ambitious.

Though originally published in 2012, Peterson’s book has been reissued in honor of D&D’s 40th birthday. Four decades can offer a lot of history, but Peterson goes even further, tracing its lineage back to chess and existing war games.

By Peterson’s own admission, this book isn’t necessarily intended for a mainstream audience. It is a dense, detailed work of history and, if I dare say, sociology. It belongs on the book shelf (or e-reader) of any serious gamer, and though it may not be a front-to-back page-turner, it is an important resource for anyone who geeks out on geeking out.

The book’s most important contribution, though, has yet to be realized. In the decades to come, as gaming and gaming studies grow even bigger, Playing at the World will serve as both source material and historical lockbox upon which the future of gaming is framed and its past is preserved.

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