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Review: Jon Peterson's The Elusive Shift

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I realized that I never did an actual review of Jon Peterson's The Elusive Shift: How Role Playing Games Forged Their Identity. It's not his most recent book, Game Wizards, which I reviewed here. But it was released at the very end of 2020 (very end of December) so you might have missed it.

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The one thing I know a lot of people hate about reviews for books they are thinking of reading is when the lede gets buried- you end up reading all the sopiler-y stuff before the recommendation. I'm not going to do that. This review is going to be pretty simple-

This review will start with my recommendation (the overall review). Then it's going to discuss, briefly, what the book is about. Then the third and final part will have my thoughts- general opinions about the book, etc. If you want to buy it without knowing what's in it, this will be the part to avoid.

Finally, I will be writing a more in-depth series of posts based on this book starting this week.

Disclaimer: I do not know Jon Peterson. I have read and enjoyed his prior books and love his work, and generally read his far-too-infrequent blog posts. If you read my review of Game Wizards, you know that I admire the work he does for the game's history.


A. Should you buy this book?

Yes. I give this book my whole-hearted recommendation. Is it still on the expensive side? Yeah, it is. I just checked, and it's still listing at $35 for the hardcover, $22 for the kindle version. But this is the type of book that you will not only read once, but will likely be referring to repeatedly over the years. If you're familiar with his other work, this is approximately half-way between the "tell a story" mode of Game Wizards and the more historical-driven analysis of Playing at the World.

I think that if enjoy talking about D&D, if you enjoy talking about RPGs ... and if you're on this forum, you probably do ... then you need to get this book.


B. Okay, so what is this book about?

Simply put- it explains what RPGs are about by providing the receipts from the history of RPGs from the 1970s. The blurbs on the back are from people like Evan Torner, Vincent Baker, and Jaakko Stenros- and if those names mean anything to you, you immediately understand that this is some important reading. I think that Stenros says it best- This book is required reading not just for scholars interested in the game history and the tension between games and their players but for all role-players interested in learning how the debates about stories, simulation, and immersion have been going on for decades."

This makes it sound dry and academic; of those two adjectives, only one applies. This book does have an academic and historic bent. As always. Peterson brought the receipts- here, he uses his unparalleled access to the "zines" of the 70s as primary documents to show the intellectual ferment and debate over RPGs, and how different communities (especially the wargaming and sci-fi/fantasy communities) determined the debates that we continue to have today.

But if I had to put it in the most simple terms- this book looks at the shift from war-games to roleplaying games, and whether that shift is decisive (albeit elusive) or doesn't exist (and illusive ... ahem). More importantly, it looks at the history of the communities that grew up around the early RPGs, and how these communities engaged in conversations about what RPGs were... and by conversations, I mean .... debates. Finally, we see that these debates continue to echo over and over again- I would say that looking at enworld, a good number of the conversations we are currently having about D&D and RPGs in general would not look out of place in Alarums & Excursions in the 1970s.

If you want a slightly different take, I suggest looking at Talien's review, posted some time ago (which I missed at the time, unfortunately).


C. Okay, but do you have any more Snarf-in observations?

I do! But I think the topics are big enough that I'm going to develop them as separate posts, not just this review. Instead, I'm going to make three general points- two I'm not planning on developing, and one I am, but I will tease out with a fun example.

The first is the most obvious- I think we all suffer from "Calvin-itis." There was a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip from a long time ago when Calvin asks his dad why all the old photos and TV shows are in black & white; his dad responds that the world was in black & white back then. A lot of us (myself included) tend to fall into this mistake- we view history not as the wild diversity that it was, but in terms of what current media tells it is- usually a monolith. The 1960s were nothing except for Woodstock and Haight Ashbury, even though though that was only a small period of time and a small part of the country (and the US- other countries had similar, yet different, things going on). When it comes to discussing the past with D&D and other early RPGs, I think we often fall into this trap as well; we either get people lecturing us about the rules (even though we know the rules were rarely observed in full), or lecturing us about the way "everyone" played. If nothing else, this book serves as a great corrective for that- OD&D was not just about hobomurder, or dungeons, or anything that a person today tells you it was about; instead, it was a rich tapestry (or as many would put it- a toolkit to create games) that invited debate.

The second is that I have to again talk about the receipts. One thing that you will either love, or hate, about Peterson is that the always brings the receipts. It is incredibly rare for there to be unsupported assertions- instead, almost every point in this book is made through the judicious use of the words of the people at the time. This is a specific style of writing- it's not always as smooth as the popular history writer who crafts a narrative out of their research and that you have to assume is portraying things correctly. But I think that one of the amazing things is that Peterson has become much better at this specific style of writing- this is more readable, with arguably a denser thesis, than Playing at the World. It's not always perfect (sometimes you have to pay attention to the chronology), but when it works you not only have that sense of authority, you feel the people at the time talking to you.

Finally, and as a preview to a series of posts I have been contemplating, the best thing about the book is that it shows you that none of this is new. Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. After all, how many times have you read a thread at enworld, and thought to yourself, "Self, I saw that thread last year!" Or maybe you saw it three years ago. Or five years ago. Or ten years ago. The thing is, with the internet, we can finally search out these old threads and say, "Aha, we did, in fact, have this exact conversation 38 times in the last ten years." But this is the first time I've seen the work done to show that not only were these conversations happening in the 70s- they were repeating then, too. :)

I knew I was in for a treat by the end of the first chapter when there a quote from an early issue of Alarums & Excusions- "I have seen in A&E quite a bit of what I call the 'One True Way' syndrome." That was ....1976.
 

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eyeheartawk

Works 60% of the time, every time
But I think that one of the amazing things is that Peterson has become much better at this specific style of writing- this is more readable, with arguably a denser thesis, than Playing at the World.
That's good to hear. It could really be a chore to read at points. Like reading the driest textbook.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
That's good to hear. It could really be a chore to read at points. Like reading the driest textbook.

So, I don't want to oversell this too much- this is very much still an academic work as well as being something I would recommend as a popular work for gamers.

But I think that Peterson has greatly improved his style since 2012 and PaTW. I read the first chapter of this when I received it at night, and then devoured the rest the next afternoon. That doesn't mean it's a beach read, but if you're interested in the subject, Peterson seems to be finding his voice and his balance between showing the receipts and telling the story. IMO.
 


I enjoyed it quite a bit. One thing that struck me was how important Alarums & Excursions was to the hobby's discourse in the early days. I had never seen an issue before, but I finally got a copy off of eBay. It's way denser and thicker than I could've imagines, easily clocking in at 150+ pages. Looking forward to diving into it.

I knew I was in for a treat by the end of the first chapter when there a quote from an early issue of Alarums & Excursions- "I have seen in A&E quite a bit of what I call the 'One True Way' syndrome." That was ....1976.

The Elusive Shift still displays Peterson's trademark scholarly approach, but I found it more accessible than Playing at The World.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist

Levels of Awesome (in ascending orders of AWESOMENESS):

1. Finding that the topic you think you are totally awesome and original for starting was already done.

2. Finding that the topic you think you are totally awesome and original for starting was already done, and you participated in that thread.

3. Finding that the topic you think you are totally awesome and original for starting was already done, and you STARTED the topic.

4. Finding that the topic you think you are totally awesome and original for starting was already done, and you not only STARTED the topic, but the last time you started it, you took the OPPOSITE position.
 

Level Up!

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