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Thursday, January 19, 2006

General gamism

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory #1
This is a subject I have mostly avoided here at RD/KA!, which is perhaps a bit odd, since I was partly inspired to start this blog by another blogger's remarks on this very subject, namely RPGpundit. The pundit's pithy and often scatalogical comments on this and other gaming and non-gaming topics can be found at TheUruguayanGamer.

Also, particularly dedicated readers might remember that my inaugural post here at RD/KA! made reference to the roleplaying theory of Ron Edwards and The Forge. At the time I commented favourably on Edwards' ideas, although later visits to The Forge forum changed that opinion a bit. Readers who know me as opinionated with a fondness for theorising might therefore be surprised that I have had so little to say about ideas which are anathema to me.

Whatever the reason, having checked this stuff out, I decided to leave it alone. Instead I turned my attention to keeping my WFRP campaign rolling and to maintaining this blog.

Recently though a post by RPGpundit- on the topic of The Forge forums, and an email a friend sent me about an article by games designer Rebecca Borgstrom have conspired to change that studied indifference. Since then the idea has been burrowing away that I should venture forth with my opinions on this stuff.

Before going on to comment further I should make a few points. First: I amn't trying to suggest that absolutely everything said by people I refer to directly or indirectly is simple rubbish. I am quite prepared to accept that there are useful insights to be found even if I might disagree strongly with people's overall theoretical framework, or with key premises of their thinking. Second: I wouldn't like people to think that I am sweeping everyone I disagree with into a single camp, the better to criticise them. It's far too early for me to make sweeping generalisations like that. Third: there is no way that I can here do more than scratch the surface of the various theories out there these days. Anything more would be to leap to conclusions by way of sweeping generalisations.

With that in mind, what I am going to do in this article is make 3 basic points:
  1. This line of theorising is, in essence, not really all that novel
  2. It is based on a false premise
  3. Its exponents make ridiculous false assertions that undermine the credibilty of their wider theorising.
Not quite the next big thing
To pre-empt my next point: a key underlying idea widespread across roleplaying theorising is that roleplaying is an artform. AFAIK, this idea was introduced to the rpg industry with the publication of White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade in 1991. Its history thereafter can perhaps be judged by the fact that noted games designer and writer Robin D. Laws referred to rpg's as 'the hidden art' in an essay 'The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards A Critical Framework for RPGs', dated 1995.

The precise history of this concept in the rpg community and industry would need more research, but these examples suggest that it first came to real prominence in the 1990's. Even then, and taking the publication of V:tM as a dateline, the idea that roleplaying is art was then already more than a decade old.

I first encountered the idea in 1982. Back then it didn't have a section of the rpg industry and associated names to give it credibility. When I encountered the idea it was thankfully the outlook of just one person, with perhaps a few hangers-on. Already well established in the local student roleplaying circles (so the idea predates my own encounter with it), this person was essentially a dysfunctional roleplayer.

In my own experience, this person was: an air-time hog; a player of favourites quite willing to screw over other players' characters to make the designated hero of the piece look good (even when the player of said PC was absent); and a petulant egotist with no qualms about actively sabotaging someone else's game it was deemed of no interest. On the few occasions when this person and I discussed roleplaying in general I soon became aware that we were talking across an intellectual gulf whose nature I couldn't fathom. It was only when I learned that this person believed that roleplaying is art that I came to understand the nature of this gulf.

Now I'll freely admit that my experiences of this first encounter with the idea that roleplaying is art hardly amount to a refutation of the idea. That's not the point yet in any case. These reminiscences aim to put the history of the idea itself in some kind of context. Back in the early 80's, the idea was very easy to ignore because it was the outlook of just one person. Since then it has become established in the roleplaying industry; it has been adopted and propagated by a bevvy of the current generation of industry names; and it seems to enjoy a certain cachet, as the outlook of the hip and trendy 'alternative' roleplayer.

I could put forward several suggestions about the whys and wherefores of this development. Here I will restrict myself to just 2. First, and most obviously I would suggest, is the success of White Wolf. Whatever else you might think about this (which is surely a subject in its own right), one thing it did was show that there was a market for roleplaying product advocating the elevation of a gaming hobby to the level of art.

White Wolf aside, I would suggest that the rise of the internet has also been significant. This has surely made it much easier for proponents of the roleplaying as art theories to publish their ideas and to win an audience for them, while at the same time ennabling the formation of communities dedicated to pursuing these theories. For example, Ron Edwards' GNS model was developed through his participation in an online discussion group.

For whatever reasons then, the idea that roleplaying is an artform has surely become predominant among those who think about rpg design in the abstract; as opposed, that is, to thinking in terms of the nuts and bolts of systems design, or of better ways to present backgrounds, and so on. What I have tried to do here is to point out that the idea that roleplaying is art is almost as old as rpgs themselves. As a result of this, whatever particular insights this kind of thinking might enjoy, one thing its proponents cannot claim is that this idea is somehow novel or radical.

Of course, people who disagree with me here could turn this very point against me, arguing that the fact that the idea that roleplaying is art is as old as rpgs means that the idea is both true and useful, and therefore here to stay. But, as any familiarity with history shows, bad thinking can be very persistent. As for the truth and utility of the artistic conception of roleplaying, I'll return to those just as soon as I can.

Related@RD/KA!
The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory
- #2: A funny thing happened on my way to this article
- Roleplaying as art? Not for me
- It's art Jim, but not as we know it!
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