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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

General gamism

Roleplaying as art? Not for me

John Kim recently posted a reply to an old post in which I wrote about my first encounters with the idea that roleplaying is art. Answering John's comments I said he'd spurred me to return to the subject. Before pursuing that though, I'll comment in more detail on some of John's remarks.

Replying to my thoughts, John asked me if I could "suggest... any other case of an imaginative, creative endeavor which is categorically never art?" Yes: science. Although a lot of scientific spadework is technical and repetitive, developing new scientific theories is pretty much as creative and imaginative an activity as writing a novel or painting a picture. This is pretty much a truism of scientific literature these days AFAIK.

That question aside, John also noted that "by saying that RPGs can never be art, you are judging them by inappropriate standards. Playing RPGs... is an imaginative, creative endeavor, and I think it should be looked at the same way that other imaginative, creative endeavors are." To which my reply is: my point exactly!

The concept of 'art'
My fundamental objection to the idea that roleplaying is art is that I believe roleplaying games to be part of a cultural development that has undermined the very concept of 'art'.

What I mean here is this: it is pretty difficult to avoid the conclusion that the concept of 'art' has always existed in contrast to its other- ie. 'high' culture versus 'low' culture, and that this contrast has always served a priori to elevate the so-called 'art' above whatever it was being contrasted against. That is to say: the very idea of 'art' is that there is a realm of creative expression which- by its very nature- is more sublime and somehow more insightful than anything from outside that realm. The inherent elitism of this is something that I feel I need not belabour here.

A historical example of this is the difference between what we now call 'classical music' and 'folk music'. The cultural wall between these 2 kinds of music was so strong that, unless my memory utterly fails me, a composer like Smetana created controversy by including native folk tunes in his orchestral compositions. Readers with greater knowledge of cultural history could enumerate further examples I am sure.

Now my aim here is not to write up a capsule social history of culture. Rather it is to highlight how the very term 'art' contradicts the nature of roleplaying so that the term is worse than meaningless when applied to rpg's. To this end I want to bring the issue of 'art' bang up to date, to modern art. I have to confess that I'm one of those people who really doesn't 'get' most of modern art. All the same, I would like to suggest that, if there is one thing that has been proved by the trajectory of modern art, then it is that the concept of 'art' to which I have pointed is completely and utterly bankrupt, because the world has quite simply passed it by.

I mean to say: whatever you might think about Damien Hirst's pickled animal carcasses (or a personal favourite of mine from the early 70's: a 1 mile-long brass rod buried in a hole in an American desert somewhere... really!), the very terms in which works of this kind are explained strip the term 'art' of any real meaning. What else can we say when artists eschew content, preferring instead to let the viewer project their own meanings onto whatever passes before their eyes?

My point here is more than just a rant against flatulent subjectivism. What I believe this development represents is the exhaustion of the classic- high bourgeois- concept of 'art' in the face of a culture predicated on industrial mass production whose immeasurable richness simply cannot be embraced via the cultural concepts of an fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins. This point about the richness of contemporary culture cannot be over-emphasised IMO, because it is the basis of what I believe to be one thing that the postmodernists got right and that everyone else barely noticed- namely that 'art' is dead because it's all largely a matter of personal taste now.

Stripping away the old conceptions of high culture enjoying a special pre-eminence over low culture we find ourselves in the situation of living in a mass culture consisting of a range of more-or-less widespread particular popular cultures. Roleplaying, it seems to me, expresses the dynamics of this rather nicely, with its distillation of themes enjoying a mass audience (eg. movies) into what is, let's face it, a minority interest- a particularly particular culture, if you will.

Wordplay aside, what I'm getting at then is the idea that roleplaying is a quintessential product of the developments of late 20th century consumerist capitalism which have rendered the concept of 'art' obsolete. Hence my opinion that the artistic conception of roleplaying is an attempt to judge rpg's by inappropriate standards.

What is it about roleplaying that is really novel?
Discussions about the nature of roleplaying abound, and theories about how they work are ten-a-penny. Speaking for myself, one thing which is pretty damn inescapably important is the shift from audience to participant as you enter into a world of adventure or drama. Regardless of which faction(s) of roleplaying you might situate yourself in, no matter which kind of game you are playing, it seems to me that at the end of the day you are motivated by the desire to stop 'watching' the action that thrills you, and to get stuck in.

The flip side of this- and something which I believe to be profoundly tied-in to the games in roleplaying games- is that roleplaying is about mutual entertainment pure and simple. This is not just the obvious point that rpg's typically don't have winners and losers as do competitive games. More than just that, I would say that at its best roleplaying is not just about having fun for yourself, it is also about being fun for your fellow players.

This is no longer a particularly novel point I'll happily admit, even in terms of the way that the shift from audience to participant parallels, highlights and carries forward the democratisation of culture implicit in my perspective on the decline of the concept of 'art'. Perhaps just a bit more novel is the idea that the advance that this movement represents is simultaneously a return, albeit one which recreates its point of departure in a more complex and sophisticated form.

What I'm talking about here is the feeling that roleplaying often gives me of having 'returned' to the venerable tradition of fireside storytelling. Or, in even more grandiose terms, I sometimes find myself wondering if those legendary PC's whose adventures live on in the 'fish-stories' you and your gaming buddies share down the years don't represent the revival- in an appropriate modern form- of the epic narratives of the ancient cultures of man.

Over the top completely? I'd like to think not. But if there is even a nugget of rationality in these speculations, then they pose another serious problem for the idea that roleplaying is art. Why? Because unless my basic understanding of history is profoundly mistaken, the narrative traditions to which I refer predate the very existence of 'art' as a distinct feature of culture which existed in reference to some external, inferior mere culture. Whatever the precise details of this history, people would have been sitting around fires telling each other stories for a very long time before storytelling could have become a speciality which could take on airs and graces.

Conclusion
John Kim's remarks quoted above were in response to my own comment that "[f]ar from highlighting roleplaying's distinct virtues, the artistic conception submerges those virtues by choosing to evaluate rpg's according to standards that are quite simply inappropriate to what rpg's are."

In taking up John's challenge I put forward a sketch of a concept of art arguing that the term is intrinsically elitist and a historical relic of no real value in understanding the modern culture without which rpg's simply wouldn't even exist. I continued by putting forward some thoughts about the nature of roleplaying suggesting that it enjoys novel features profoundly at odds with structure and history of 'art' as an aspect of human society.

I expect that many readers cleaving to the artistic concept of roleplaying won't be convinced by the barely fleshed-out bones of the case I have put forward. In particular, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some were to protest that they have no truck with artistic elitism, that they were instead concerned more deeply to understand how their experience of roleplaying meshes with their enjoyment of reading, movies, and so on- with "other imaginative, creative endeavors" in other words. Some might even agree with my opinion of what 'art' has meant in the past, but argue that the very development to which I refer means that the term has a new, more inclusive meaning.

Presumptious enough to answer imagined counter-arguments in advance, to the former I would say: fair enough, but the viewpoint I have put forward suggests that it is quixotic at best to attempt to achieve these perfectly reasonable goals by accomodating to aesthetic conceptions which bear no proven relationship to the specific features of rpg's. I mean to say: what are you trying to achieve by asserting the artistic conception of roleplaying? Are you trying to improve your gaming experience? To achieve for your gaming some dignity you feel it lacks? Or to explore purposes other than simple entertainment that rpg's might be adapted to? What exactly? And how exactly does the artistic conception of roleplaying assist you?

And to the latter I would suggest that such a line of argument would inevitably end up as mere semantic wranglings. If my basic historical case for the elitism of 'art' as a concept holds water, then attempting to argue that 'everything is art now' is hardly a step forward. Instead of grasping the novel features of the present situation in their own terms it is an effort which can only spread intellectual confusion by maintaining the old cultural jargon in a persistent vegetative state.

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