An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 14, 2013

Krzywinska, MacCallum-Stewart, and Parsler, eds: Ringbearers: The Lord of the Rings Online as Intertextual Narrative

Tanya Krzywinska, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, and Justin Parsler, eds. Ring Bearers: The Lord of the Rings Online as Intertextual Narrative. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2011.

Reviewed by: Carol L. Robinson (

On April 24, 2007, Turbine, Inc.[1] launched its originally subscription-based (but now free to play) Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), to North America, Australia, Japan and Europe. It continues to remain an actively played game, with plans for the latest (fifth) game expansion packet, “Helm's Deep” set to be released in Fall 2013. Thus it is exciting to find a book devoted to this tasteful alternative to the more comic (but not necessarily comical) medievalist and neo-Tolkienist MMORPGs available, such as World of Warcraft. According to its “Introduction,” the goal of the collection of essays in RingBearers: The Lord of the Rings Online as Intertextual Narrative, is to address “LOTRO across all its communicative dimensions, albeit from different perspectives,” while also focusing upon “the nature of LOTRO's transmediation in one way or another” (3). This focus appears to be dominated by a theoretical approach emphasizing popular culture and/or narratology, including Transmedial World Theory, and under this focus, much of the book undertakes a comparison/contrast with the more popular, perhaps better known neo-Tolkienist game, World of Warcraft (WoW). The book contains seven essays, and each one seems to be stronger (deeper and more efficiently written) than the one before it.

For example, in some aspects, Douglas Brown and Tanya Krzywinska's “Following in the footsteps of fellowship: A Tale of There and Back Again — Text/Translation/Tolkienisation” serves as a nice review of the game, and part of its evaluative conclusion states that “this is a very well-crafted game, with craft thoroughly inscribed into the care taken with music, game mechanics, animation, voice work and art work. In this regard the game provides an interesting case study for adaptation and transmedial studies as well as students of design and contemporary digital aesthetics” (43). But more than a simple review of the game, the essay is a solid textual description and analysis of what it is like playing the game, with organized particulars: landscape, mapping, language, characterization, citizenship and community, fellowship, combat, beauty, and the marketing of it all into a neat little videogame package. Using textual analysis, they attempt to “critically navigate this gamescape” (42), discovering (at the very least) that Turbine's trick for direct involvement with a well-established and limiting story world (Tolkien's Middle-earth tales) is the unique use of the epic chain. What seems to make LOTRO unique, according to Brown and Krzywinska, is the use of an epic chain of quests that directly ties the books and films to the game:
The epic books follow on from one another in a loose continuum punctuated by the major storyline events. By the end of the first volume of epic quests, players will have: aided the rangers' stronghold of Esteldin; hunted down a Nazgûl that survived the flooding of the Bruinen; dodged fear-inducing watchers in Angmar similar to those outside of Minas Morgul; conversed with all the members of the original Fellowship; honed their battle skills; and, in undertaking such quests, will probably have found fellowship with other players. (31)
The chapter points out many overlaps and divergences between J. R. R. Tolkien's books, Peter Jackson's movies, and Turbine's game. For example, they point out that in LOTRO, “it is not a map that the new player first encounters; instead, it is a character creation screen” (15). Maps, they further argue, not only serve to tease the gamer with a never-ending scope of landscape, but “also play an important role in terms of authorship in the franchise” (17). Most RPGs, particularly online, are very concerned with environment, particularly landscaping. One of the central objectives of any MORPG is questing, which requires landscaping, and thus the landscaping in LOTRO is not just an echo of Tolkien’s original devotion to creating a detailed landscape. They acknowledge this fact that the chicken (the game's landscape) doesn't necessarily come before the egg (the mapping): “The inclusion of distinctive landscapes that hark back to the actual past reminds us that digital game form is symbiotically tied to the creation and design of space. This is evident in the fact that often games begin in their development as maps and that games regularly make use of environmental features to tell stories” (26). In their initial review of the game's structure, Brown and Krzywinska set both the tone for the entire book as well as the scene for the next chapter: blending personal experiences with professional analyses (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) and focusing upon transmedia concepts more specifically.

Transmedial World Theory, apparently formalized by Lisbeth Lkastrup and Susan Tosca, seems to be very similar to Russian Formalism, except that the “story world” is further contained in a structure that they refer to as “the transmedia world.” Indeed, the study seems to be a popular culture analysis application of their Transmedial World Theory, but they also admittedly make use of Reader Response Theory (Umberto Eco) and Reception Theory (Wolfgang Iser). Their Transmedial World Theory shows a great deal of promise: the implied conclusion that the transmedia story world is complicated by layers and layers of factors, including “a brief analysis of how LOTRO relates to the mythos, topos and logos of the Middle-earth transmedia world universe” (53). The quoting of various players is, at the very least, interesting, if not also useful, in that it provides an anecdotal light into the darkness of who and what populates this gaming experience. Their Transmedial World Theory shows a great deal of promise, recognizing the complexities of the relationships between forms and contents of various plots of a story world, and such recognition allows for a deeper appreciation for how players and their character avatars function — I look forward to seeing its application in future studies.

The next four essays together provide numerous fantastic observations about role-playing (and its particular limitations and liberations in an MMORPG), character narrative identity, community (both within and without the game), visual aesthetics, narrative structure (on-going narratives caused by player interactions vs. scripts), gamer identity as it relates to character development, demonic traditions embraced by the game (particularly LOTRO in Monster Play mode), binary dialectic structures of the narrative, superficiality vs. realism, character props and craftsmanship, the labor of the characters and the massive labor of the players behind them. The authors of these four chapters make numerous fascinatingly constructive points that allow the reader to better see how the game functions, thrives, and takes on life in the cyberworld.

Each of these chapters speaks to themes established in the first two chapters, both in terms of textual analysis, ludic traditions of role playing, and the expanse of Tolkien's transmedial world mythos. Esther MacCallum-Stewart puts forth a brilliant analysis of how a player might respond to the limited variables of role-playing character development in LOTRO, including a comparison/contrast with table-top games and live action role playing (LARPs). One of the stronger guiding points she makes early on (and follows) is that “it is extremely important to note that players have different expectations of what role play actually means” and that “MMORPG role play does not have clear definitions” of role play, “nor is it entirely understood as a cohesive behavior by those wishing to take part” (76). Gordon Calleja makes a comprehensive analysis of the epic chains that build the narrative structure of LOTRO in terms how this game has succeeded in narrative structuring (better than most MMORPGs) and yet has also suffered for that success (limited by Tolkien's mythos). Frans Mäyrä successfully demonstrates why “it is useful to study game play from a perspective informed by the analysis of demonic and liminal phenomena” while also acknowledging the importance of recognizing “that approaching games from a cultural anthropological (liminal or liminoid) perspective does not mean to claim that games are totally separated into some symbolic or ritual reality of their own” (114). Finally, Justin Parsler examines props use and crafting systems in LOTRO and how these are similar to use in other MMORPGs, including a hint at how character labor is franchised into player labor, applying the Three-Sector Hypothesis economic theory developed by Alan Fisher, Colin Clark and Jean Fourastié. He argues that LOTRO goes beyond the Journeyman/Master structure of most MMORPGs, seeking “to exploit [with limited success] the idea of the guild as a mutual support group and as a source of secret knowledge” (152). Like the first two essays, these four essays also serve as reviews of the strengths and weaknesses of LOTRO.

The final essay of the book also appears to serve as a conclusion to the other essays, tying the book together nicely. “Unrealistic expectations,” by Richard A. Bartle is a fabulously witty comparison/contrast between MMORPGs of today — particularly LOTRO — and multi-user dungeons (MUDs) of decades gone by. He argues “that a player of an early MUD who time-travelled to the present day would nevertheless regard LOTRO's ‘realisticness’ as a joke” (155). In so doing, he provides an analysis of how “realism” has changed over time (just as cultural senses of beauty have changed over time), as well as how cultural values of the relationship between fiction and reality have also changed over time. Having somewhat explored this issue, he then suddenly shifts to an analysis of why a player would “not want” her “virtual world to be realistic” (161). In his conclusion, he observes that a game's “realistic” aspect refers to “consistency with their fiction” as well as with “their non-fiction” (171).

As the “Introduction” is careful to emphasize, “the authors of the essays collected here have all published work on videogames,” and it is true that many of them “are pioneers of the academic study of videogames, particularly online games” (1). It is equally clear, however, that at least several (if not all) of these scholars played Lord of the Rings Online[2] together, in a kinship. Indeed, it is clear, in each of the essays, that they are each enthusiastic about the game, that they are eager to share how much they enjoyed the game — perhaps even at the expense of deeper analysis, which Douglas Brown and Tanya Krzywinska admit as a possibility: “Our formal analysis is certainly coloured by our experience of playing the game, which has been largely very pleasurable” (42). Throughout the book, there also appear to be a lot of generalizations made about the gaming population, probably made from personal experiences but undocumented nonetheless, and thus may cast doubts upon the conclusions reached by the authors. In particular, Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca's essay (“When fans become players: The Lord of the Rings Online in a transmedial world perspective”) seems marred by their dependence upon unreliable data. Lkastrup and Tosca posted a survey “in July 2009 on the official forums for the European LOTRO community” (49). In the two weeks that the survey was run, 315 people responded, with 214 responses being actually completed; however, at the time of this survey, “a Turbine designer stated that the game had around 250,000 users” (50). For a sample of this size, more statistical information is needed, particularly regarding confidence levels. Beyond acknowledging the European location of the players, it is likely they did not take into account the type of players responding to this survey: not all 250,000 players of the world join these official European forums; the scope was not world-wide, only limited to parts of Europe, and only limited to people who tend to respond to surveys. Indeed, of that number, according to Lkastrup and Tosca, 46% of those surveyed were German. The sample is probably biased; it is unlikely representative of the entire LOTRO gaming population, which makes the analysis invalid. They conclude that, beyond the Frodo franchise agenda,
LOTRO players experience intertextual play not as a targeted brand experience that makes them desire and consume other products, but as direct references to their own repertoire of knowledge and understanding of the transmedial world, Middle-earth. They have already appropriated all the texts; what this MMOG gives them is the opportunity to dwell in their own memories and expand their horizon of expectations and significance by an act of performance that gives even more value to what they treasure. (65)
This is a fantastic observation, but because of the limitations of their survey and data, this conclusion is only valid for those who responded to the survey and may not apply to all LOTRO players. They almost acknowledge this issue: “We might speculate, though we cannot demonstrate it with our current empirical data, that what makes MMOGs unique as games is also the possibility to carry out the interpretative activity, which relates the gameworld story (layer two) to the transmedial world mythos (layer three) as a collective or shared endeavor” (62-63). If they had scrapped the survey, they could have demonstrated most of their excellent points by more closely examining the narrative structures of the LOTRO game world. While anecdotal evidence has its place, and may add to the pleasure of the scholarship, it should never become the scholarship.

For example (and here is my anecdotal piece), I have played this game, as well as its predecessor, Turbine Inc.'s Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO).[3] Much to my surprise (and now comes my scholarly observations), none of the book's contributors even mention this first game. Indeed, except for what is mentioned in Bartle's essay, there seems to be a lack of appreciation for gaming history, causing a weakness in the arguments made. There is a long love affair between geeks and Tolkien's world that has fueled the development of all Tolkienist games (beyond the table and land, into the computer). In addition to William Crowther's famous game adaptation (Colossal Cave, or Colossal Cave Adventure, which Bartle mentions in his essay), there is also the documented direct ties between Tolkien's mythological world and the geek world: according to Rick Adams, the computer labs at SAIL “were given to whimsical names that fit into a Lord of the Rings theme,” and printers were programmed with an optional “Elvish font” system.[4] I am sure that these esteemed scholars are very aware of this history (particularly Turbine’s development of LOTRO elements in the previously created DDO), and I am baffled by their ignoring it in this particular collective analysis of LOTRO. My complaints might be a little unfair in that I am asking a mostly textual and popular culture response to be also historically grounded; however, the authors of the essays bring historical context into each of their analyses in other ways, and they make numerous comparisons and contrasts with other neo-Tolkienist games, particularly WoW.

Aside from these issues, I found the book's collection to be most inspiring and delightfully amusing. During the entire time that I read through the lovely essays of this book, Felicia Day's song, “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar?” — a song she wrote for her hit online series The Guild,[5] which has been running since 2007 — ran through my mind:
Hang with me in my MMO
So many places we can go
You'll never see my actual face
Our love, our love will be in virtual space
It is not at all because there was any sort of hanky-panky happening, or even implied as happening, between the scholars. Rather, I think the song started going through my head at the first mention that the book was conceived as a player-involvement first, a scholarly text second. In other words, the only applicable part of the above mentioned song is the above quoted first set of lyrics, and in this case, “our love” refers to the purely platonic love affair that each scholar apparently had as a player with both the game and fellow gamers. The collection of essays in this book come dangerously close to crossing the fuzzy line between sharing a delightfully contagious enthusiasm for the game and providing logical, factually supported argumentative analyses of the game. But they manage not to cross it, and perhaps because of this pre-scholarly playing, not only further establishes the scholars' authority as experienced players, but causes the book to hold together fantastically well, and I must confess that I wish that I could have more directly joined in on their fun. The apparent fellowship of these player-scholars brings a very special intuitively developed unity to their consciously collected collaborative scholarship, and at the end of the last essay of the book, even I felt a little sorry that both the gaming and scholarly adventures had to come to an end. It is unfortunate: the book seems to be too short — “It is challenging in a paper of this length to both outline a sound framework and conduct a full analysis of LOTRO's narrative,” complained Gordon Calleja (108). Yet as it is, the book is enjoyably interesting, delightfully stimulating. Like a gamer who has come to the end of a game, the reader of this volume wants more: more in-depth development of some of the brilliant points and the fascinating ideas each essay makes. This collection of essays is certainly groundbreaking, no doubt about it, but I look forward to seeing the “expansion package” of this book.
Hang with me in my MMO
So many places we can go...[7]

Carol L. Robinson
Kent State University Trumbull

[1] Turbine, Inc.
[2] Lord of the Rings Online
[3] Dungeons & Dragons Online (Turbine, Inc.)
[4] Rick Adams has since removed his observation about the rooms and the printer from his web page, "The Crowther and Woods 'Colossal Cave Adventure' Game; Here's Where It All Began..." (Rick Adams' Little Cornero of Cyberspace: The Colossal Cave Adventure Page,, but in an email he confirmed to me, “It wasn't incorrect” (Rick Adams. “Email: 7/16/08”).
[5] The Guild. Written and Directed by Felicia Day. Perf. Felicia Day, Sandeep Parikh, Jeffrey Lewis, Fince Caso, Amy Okuda, and Robin Thorsen. (2007-2011)
[6] "Do You Wanna to Date My Avatar?" (The Guild, 2009)
[7] Ibid.