The Elusive Shift

From Game Histories

The Elusive Shift

How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity

By Jon Peterson

How the early Dungeons & Dragons community grappled with the nature of role-playing games, theorizing a new game genre.





How the early Dungeons & Dragons community grappled with the nature of role-playing games, theorizing a new game genre.

When Dungeons & Dragons made its debut in the mid-1970s, followed shortly thereafter by other, similar tabletop games, it sparked a renaissance in game design and critical thinking about games. D&D is now popularly considered to be the first role-playing game. But in the original rules, the term “role-playing” is nowhere to be found; D&D was marketed as a wargame. In The Elusive Shift, Jon Peterson describes how players and scholars in the D&D community began to apply the term to D&D and similar games—and by doing so, established a new genre of games.

Peterson examines key essays by D&D early adopters, rescuing from obscurity many first published in now-defunct fanzines. He traces the evolution of how role-playing was theorized, as writers attempted to frame problems, define terms, and engage with prior literature. He describes the twin cultures of wargames and science fiction fandom that influence the first role-players; examines the dialogue at the core of the game; explains how game design began to accommodate role-playing; and considers the purpose of the referee or gamesmaster. By 1977, game scholars and critics began to theorize more systematically, and Peterson explores their discussions of the transformative nature of role-playing games, their responsibility to a mass audience, and other topics. Peterson finds that the foundational concepts defined in the 1970s helped theorize role-playing, laying the foundation for the genre's shift into maturity in the 1980s.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262044646 336 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 8 b&w photos


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262544900 336 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 8 b&w photos


  • “Peterson shows how the disparate sci-fi/fantasy and wargaming fandoms formed the collective discourse about RPGs in the 1970s, early discussions that have since determined today's RPG theory.”

    Evan Torner

    Associate Professor of German Studies, University of Cincinnati

  • “A terrific gem that articulates the richness and influence of early theorizing on our current understanding of RPGs. It's a contribution to role-playing game studies that neither scholars nor RPG fans should miss.”

    José P. Zagal

    Professor of Entertainment Arts Engineering, University of Utah; coeditor of Role-Playing Game Studies and DiGRA Distinguished Scholar

  • “The philosophical conundrums at the heart of role-playing in the 1970s that Peterson lays out in this book are still with us, still challenging us to meet them with fresh insights and new perspectives. An eye-opening and inspiring book!”

    D. Vincent Baker

    cocreator of Apocalypse World

  • “In Playing at the World, Peterson gave us the definitive history of how Dungeons & Dragons came to be. Now, he lays bare what happened next, as geek intellectuals wrestled to understand this dynamic new form of gaming let loose from its lair. A deep and fascinating look at the exciting, formative years of a new category of games searching for a way to define itself.”

    Peter D. Adkison

    Owner, Gen Con

  • “This book is required reading not just for scholars interested in game history and the tension between games and their players but for all role-players interested in learning how the debates about stories, systems, simulation, and immersion have been going on for decades.”

    Jaakko Stenros

    Center of Excellence in Game Culture Studies, Tampere University