Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Peter McDonald reviews The Privilege of Play

Aaron Trammell. The Privilege of Play: A History of Hobby Games, Race, and Geek Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2023. 240 pp.

24 July 2023

Review by Peter McDonald

For nearly a decade, Aaron Trammell has been a leading voice calling for the field of game studies to attend to analog games’ (board games, card games, and tabletop roleplaying games) deep history and thriving present. The Privilege of Play grows naturally out of Trammell’s prior writing that examines how racial and gender ideologies are encoded in the rules, illustrations, and community practices of games like Dungeons and Dragons. The Privilege of Play, however, is methodologically riskier and more focused, with Trammell turning his attention away from the games themselves to examine the social world of play. It is, in multiple senses, an intimate book. The first four chapters each patiently unfold a different hobbyist community from the 1960s and 1970s through letters, cheaply published zines, interviews, and member lists. These unfoldings include Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s hobby railroad group; the wargaming practices promulgated through Avalon Hills’s promotional magazine The General; a national play-by-mail game of Diplomacy; and the Dungeons and Dragons fan newsletter Alarums & Excursions. Trammell is careful with these stories and attentive to the fragile bonds, passionate labor, and outsider identities at work in each. At moments, Trammell brings his own personal history of gaming to bear, telling us about the magic of walking into a New Jersey hobby store as a child, or the feeling of hearing other players use coded racial language “like ‘urban’ and ‘ghetto’ to discriminate against the kind of person who wasn’t welcome” in a Magic: The Gathering tournament (p. xii).

I emphasize this intimate aspect of Trammell’s project because it is important to his sense of justice in exposing the racism and sexism prevalent in each hobby space. This book does not give us a general theory of racism and play—a project Trammell explores in Repairing Play released earlier this year. Instead, it inhabits the micro-politics of exclusion and stereotyping present in the most mundane moments of communication. His chapters dig into the dog whistles embedded in magazine covers, the procedural misogyny of trying to create game rules for sex work, and editorial debates about the use of diegetic slurs. At the same time, Trammell constantly keeps in view larger social and economic shifts that shaped these communities, particularly how white flight caused hobby stores to relocate to suburban areas and cemented physical and economic barriers to access.

The final section of the book skips forward in time to the 2000s and then to the present moment. Here, Trammell works to translate the postal networks of the 1970s to new technical and economic conditions, drawing his case studies from the BoardGameGeek website and the rise of crowdfunding as a central publishing model for analog games. It is an important effort, but there is a lot of terrain to cover. In these last chapters, Trammell trades out his small-scale focus for broader claims about the shifting role of player identity and labor under neoliberalism. That choice shows the ongoing relevance of his hobbyist genealogies, but one feels the need for future work filling in the gaps of the 1980s and ’90s and attending to internet hobby forums with the same level of intimate specificity. Overall, The Privilege of Play expands a nascent but growing movement to study race within game cultures and provides a powerful demonstration of what archival work about play communities can reveal.