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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Here's one I prepared earlier...

A quick introduction
Regular readers might remember my article 'Roleplaying as art? Not for me' from back in September 2006. Sometime thereafter, I realised that I was changing my mind. So, sometime last year, I wrote an article, recanting my previous opinion. I then lost interest in the subject, and the article wasn't published.

And just why have I finally decided to publish now? Because, as alert readers who've visited the site might've notice, I've started using facebook, the inspiration for which was my use of the widget which links your BGG account to your facebook account (BGG users can find this on their profile page). Looking for British gamers to network with, I met BGG's Angry Jedi, who turned out to be a fellow blogger. His I'm not Doctor Who has a title almost as snappy as my own! When you read the first post of Angry's that I read - Art/Fart, you'll see why I was prompted finally to post this piece from the rack where's it's been sat for at least a year.

I present the article exactly as it was written, so there's at least one reference to time which is out of joint. ;)

**********

It's art Jim, but not as we know it!
Remember, remember, what I wrote last September
Last year I wrote a post called 'Roleplaying as art? Not for me', in which I developed my basic criticisms of the idea that roleplaying games are a form of art. This was an issue which had been of interest to me one way or another for many years, but my taking it up at the time was motivated by Elliot Wilen's and John H. Kim's replies to an earlier post of mine on the same subject.

Those 2 articles, especially the 2nd, attracted more widespread attention and comment at the time than anything I've posted here at RD/KA! before or since. The reactions at the time were interesting.

Quite a few comments- eg. Eliot Wilen commenting on the Sept. 2006 piece, and others commenting on John Kim's notes on his replies to my posts- revolved around issues of semantic wrangling and of elitism. Eliot at least noted that the point at issue had to be about more than mere semantics, while both he and John shared the anti-elitism which underlay my arguments at the time. All the same I was left with the feeling way back then that neither of them had effectively come to grips with my core argument, which was a capsule sociohistorical account of how roleplaying games can't be art because they are part of the very 20th century cultural developments which have most decisively undermined the old 'high art' versus 'low culture' distinction which, I claimed, remains at the centre of artistic/cultural discussion these days. (This was a point more-or-less recognised by Thomas Robertson, in his own comment last September.)

If all of these comments were interesting, perhaps the most entertaining were those posted by Victor Gijsbers to his blog The Gaming Philosopher a few weeks later. Victor pronounced he found my article "infuriating", to which my immediate response was simple amusement.

I mean to say: I wrote what I thought was a fairly simple account of something I thought might be a bit controversial, but which would be ultimately hard to deny: namely that the artistic products of the high bourgeois period, and the theoretical reflections thereupon, were as much as an expression of the self-image of the bourgeoisie as they were of any genuine human or natural universality. Further, I asserted, from these flowed the distinction between 'high art' and 'low culture', which was the cultural world as seen from the viewpoint of that bourgeoise elite, and whose essential assumptions retain a strong influence to this very day.

Against this I tried to suggest that the past century or more of cultural development has rendered this dualistic conception increasingly bankrupt. This is partly because of its inherent elitism, which should offend the most basic egalitarian sensibility. It is also because the new cultural forms, eg. roleplaying games, simply cannot be understood through these outdated aesthetics. Metaphorically then: I was trying to argue that calling roleplaying games art amounts to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Now OK, I knew at the time that I wasn't being at all original in the core sociohistorical part of my argument. If I thought I was being at all original (and I wasn't that bothered about originality really- I was just trying to get something off my chest, as bloggers do), it was in using this argument to say that roleplaying couldn't be art because roleplaying games are a quintessential product of cultural developments which I had argued were completely incompatible with the idea of art as defined above. Like I said: not terribly original really.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read Victor accusing me of all sorts of things I wasn't aware I'd written about: the death of beauty, consumerist dumbing-down, children not doing their homework, anarchy- oh lord- anarchy! I was bemused by how my short article had inspired such a tizz in Victor, but I'll admit it was satisfying enough to be a pebble in his little pond.

But something wasn't right
I didn't pursue the discussions prompted by my article very far last year. There were various reasons for this.

One was that I wasn't sure what the topic was worth. I mean to say: I was still running my WFRP campaign back then, and I was facing various issues about which I could've used some fruitful discussion. And that was one thing that I couldn't see coming out of any discussion about roleplaying and art: practical ideas which would help me actually improve my game.

Another problem I had with the discussion at the time was that it was tainted by the so-called 'war on the Swine' launched by that infamous internet self-publicist the RPGpundit. It was the Pundit's anti-Swine rants which had revived my interest in the whole debate about roleplaying games and art in the first place, and I thought that the RPGpundit has had one or two good points to make. But the longer the Pundit went on, stating and restating his same old points, posting and reposting his tired old diatribes, the more deranged I felt he was becoming as he sank ever deeper into his own private sump of vitriol.

So, when I posted my article last September, I was a bit disenchanted with the very notion of the debate I was joining because I was thoroughly fed up after too many months of pointless internet trolling. I wanted less heat and more light but wasn't sanguine that internet discourse could provide this to an effective degree which would make all the time spent at the monitor and keyboard at all worthwhile.

My doubts about the practical value of the debate about roleplaying and art, and my frustrations at the online culture in general were circumstantial though. There was a far more serious reason why I didn't follow through on the discussion last year: I was beginning to wonder if I really believed what I had written.

The seeds of this doubt had been in my mind all the time I was writing on the topic of roleplaying games and art. They go back to an article I first read online several years ago, 'I Have No Words & I Must Design', by noted games designer Greg Costikyan. A man who still commands my respect because of his RPG design work from the early 80's, Costikyan's opinion that games are- or can aspire to become- art was one that I could never quite put behind me.

It was Costikyan again who was responsible for the germination of the very seeds of doubt he'd been responsible for planting. This time it was his January 2007 article 'Super Columbine Massacre: Artwork or Menace?', written in defence of a controversial computer game. Costikyan's account of why a game like this one should be recognised as a work of art hit me right between the eyes: I simply didn't want to argue the toss with him on that one. I could see where I was heading already.

The inevitable flowering of my change of mind came in April, when Shamus posted 'Games Are Art' over on Twenty Sided, the home of the his wonderful DM of the Rings webtoon. After reading that article I not only knew that I'd changed my mind on the matter of roleplaying games and art, I also knew that sooner or later I'd be posting my recantation here at RD/KA!.

And the final countdown to this post started a couple of months ago, when I posted about the return of Katana in the supers game Bill ran. Writing about the genesis of the character, I talked of his creation being an act of "pure self expression". If you'd followed the original discussion you could easily've missed this remark made in passing, but the cat was out of the bag I felt, and I wanted to set the record straight as soon as possible.

And yet, strangely enough
So, I've accepted the proposition that roleplaying games are art. So what? Seriously: precisely what is this proposition worth? Exactly what does it contribute to our capacity to organise, play and enjoy our roleplaying? I have no idea myself. Commenting on my Sept. 2006 post, Jonathan Walton suggested 4 benefits:
  1. Raises its social status in certain circles.
  2. Enables the government funding occasionally enjoyed by our Nordic friends.
  3. Sticks it to elitist art snobs.
  4. Reclaims art for the geeks.
Without commenting on any one of these in particular, notice that they all have one thing in common: having nothing to do with actually doing roleplaying. So again: what's the point of roleplaying being art?

And as if accepting a proposition which appears to have no practical consequence for an eminently practical activity isn't enough, there is a final irony, although one I admit I find strangely satisfactory. If you actually go back and read my Sept. 2006 article (go on, give it a go if you haven't already- this next bit'll make more sense if you do), what I hope you'll find is that most of it still stands up even though I've changed my mind on the matter of where roleplaying sits in relation to art. Just to make myself clear here: most of what I wrote can be used to argue that roleplaying is art even though my arguments were marshalled in support of the view that roleplaying isn't art.

What I mean is that I was arguing that roleplaying games aren't art because it was wrong to aspire to be brought under the wing of a bankrupt elitist aesthetic whose decline is caused by a long historical development to which RPG's are a recent addition. In other words: by being part of a trend slowly but surely overturning the old 'high art' versus 'low culture' duality, roleplaying games are part of a movement towards the unity of what was held in an artificially forced polarisation under the reign of the classic high bourgeois aesthetic. Oddly enough it makes just as much sense (or should I say more, now, I hope?!) to argue that roleplaying games are art on the basis that they are part of that recent period of cultural innovation which has pushed that long historical development forward into entirely new territory, namely the art of games.

So it seems I might've arguing a bit at cross purposes eh? Maybe that's why Victor Gijsbers' response was so amusingly overwrought? I mean to say: I have to grant him that he picked out some contradictions in my argument, even if I'm not sure he gave a very good account of them. Funny thing, eh? ;)

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
- Roleplaying as art? Not for me

5 comments:

gnome said...

Funny and very interesting, really. Not absolutely sure where I stand though, as I'm pretty sure art is incredibly difficult to define. Yes, even as a social construct. Oh, and cheers!

Victor Gijsbers said...

I'm glad we amused each other. :)

It now seems to me that I was primarily seeing art as something opposed to "mere entertainment", whereas you were seeing art as something opposed to "that which is accessible to the masses". For you, art was connected to bourgeois elitism; for me, it was connected to humanist universalism.

What does the label of "art" change in practice? A lot, I suppose. If you decide to make an RPG and you see yourself as part of a tradition that includes Gary Gygax and his successors, you will make something that is very different than when you see yourself as part of a tradition that includes Shakespeare, Goya and Artaud. You will ask different questions, try different approaches, use different measures of success. You are still making an RPG, but you will be working in one of two incompatible paradigms.

My argument would certainly not be that all RPGs must be made in the art-paradigm rather than the tactical-game-paradigm; but I will certainly write overwrought, rhetorical blog posts against those who claim that no RPGs must be made in the art-paraidgm. ;)

Kind regards,
Victor

JMcL63 said...

Hello Victor, and what a pleasant surprise to see you posting here after all this time. Welcome to RD/KA!.

I'm glad we amused each other. :)
Entertaining and thought-provoking? What more can a blogger ask for?

It now seems to me that I was primarily seeing art as something opposed to "mere entertainment", whereas you were seeing art as something opposed to "that which is accessible to the masses". For you, art was connected to bourgeois elitism; for me, it was connected to humanist universalism.
I have to say that I'd see "mere entertainment" and "that which is accessible to the masses" as variations on a theme, if not actually synonymous. This suggests to me the "cross purposes" to which I referred. To make myself clear: I was arguing at cross purposes myself (ie. I was confused and my arguments were self-contradictory), with the result that I was similarly arguing at cross purposes with my correspondants.

The irony is that, as I recently commented, 30 years ago I was arguing that a simple cardgame - Nuclear War - is satirical. So the idea of games being art is hardly alien to me.

What does the label of "art" change in practice? A lot, I suppose. If you decide to make an RPG and you see yourself as part of a tradition that includes Gary Gygax and his successors, you will make something that is very different than when you see yourself as part of a tradition that includes Shakespeare, Goya and Artaud. You will ask different questions, try different approaches, use different measures of success. You are still making an RPG, but you will be working in one of two incompatible paradigms.
I can't accept your notion of there being a paradigmatic difference here. I'd have to suggest that your own argument here falls foul of your holding on to the difference between 'art' and 'mere entertainment'. This is exactly the dualistic aesthetic against which I inveighed during my last rearguard against the notion of rpg's as art. I certainly haven't abandoned that particular critical viewpoint just because I've changed my mind about the nature of art in our postmodern age. That is to say: I ended up accepting that roleplaying games are art because they contributed to a change in the cultural landscape so sweeping that it has forced us to revise our idea of what art actually is.

My argument would certainly not be that all RPGs must be made in the art-paradigm rather than the tactical-game-paradigm; but I will certainly write overwrought, rhetorical blog posts against those who claim that no RPGs must be made in the art-paraidgm. ;)
Again, I'd have to suggest that you're erecting a false dichotomy, because you seem intent on the old dualism, which I continue to criticise despite my volte face on the point at issue.

Kind regards,
Victor

Thanks for taking the time to comment Victor.
cheers,
John ;)

Victor Gijsbers said...

Hi John,

I'm making a distinction, but that doesn't imply a dichotomy--I can certainly talk about the difference between art and entertainment while also claiming that the two can easily mix and even, perhaps, that the best art is also profoundly entertaining.

But maybe talking about this on a high level of abstraction is not going to help us?

So more concretely, I'd say there is a clear difference between playing a D&D dungeon crawl (which can be very enjoyable) and playing My Life with Master or Dogs in the Vineyard (which can also be very enjoyable, but in addition significantly increases the chance that you'll learn something interesting about yourself or your fellow players). This difference seems to me more or less the same as that between playing some Quake and reading some Shakespeare, though it is less pronounced.

Do we agree at that level of concreteness? :)

Regards,
Victor

JMcL63 said...

Victor,
my apologies for having taken so long to reply. This has been down the pressures of everyday life, and not to another drop-off of interest in the discourse.

I'm making a distinction, but that doesn't imply a dichotomy--I can certainly talk about the difference between art and entertainment while also claiming that the two can easily mix and even, perhaps, that the best art is also profoundly entertaining.

I'll be blunt Victor: I am unpersuaded that your distinction is less than the dualism of a dichotomy. Your formulation above admits that "perhaps" art and entertainment mix, posing this one-sidedly in terms of art being entertaining without being subsumed under the category of entertainment per se. So I find myself thinking that you still prefer to elevate art above the rest of culture.

To reiterate a key feature of my recantation: the realisation that my sociohistorical argument could work both ways (ie. both for and against the idea that rpg's are art) led me to ask myself if remarks made in reply to my September 2006 post - about apparent mere semantic wrangling - might be true. This is what led me kicking and struggling towards the realisation that it might actually be counterproductive to avoid using the word 'art', because that would obscure the profound depth of the cultural changes unleashed by the exploding of the old aesthetics in the 2nd half of the 20th century and into the early years of this 21st.

In other words: I could either rail against the new being subsumed under the alien values of the old; or I could recognise that the old had indeed been knocked off its pedestal, as I was arguing all along after all.

But maybe talking about this on a high level of abstraction is not going to help us?

Only if we can't move from the abstact to the concrete to demonstrate our viewpoints! :)

So more concretely, I'd say there is a clear difference between playing a D&D dungeon crawl (which can be very enjoyable) and playing My Life with Master or Dogs in the Vineyard (which can also be very enjoyable, but in addition significantly increases the chance that you'll learn something interesting about yourself or your fellow players). This difference seems to me more or less the same as that between playing some Quake and reading some Shakespeare, though it is less pronounced.

Do we agree at that level of concreteness? :)


No, I have to say that we don't. Quite apart from the general point that I am simply no longer willing to take for granted comparisons like the one you make between Quake and Shakespeare, it's also the case that my roleplaying experience is simply different from yours.

In the first instance, I have never played a single indie/Forgist rpg. I own only 1: Ron Edwards' Sorceror. I confess I'm not impressed. It's nicely presented (I mean the neat little hardback), but it's poorly written so that's it just too difficult to understand for the simple mechanics at its core. But that's really an aside, because I'm not interested in the RPGpundit's 'war on swine', which turns out to be just another sales pitch.

More than that though, I have enjoyed in years gone by precisely the transformative experience to which you refer, while playing a variety of games: Aftermath, Traveller, HERO, SF homebrew, to name the most significant. What marked those games out was a group of players committed to 1 thing: melodrama, often with a heavy dash of romance (we were single guys projecting, but we didn't care!). The upshot of this then is that I'm still not convinced by the essential sales pitch about how systems like the ones you mention manipulate play to generate gaming which is more than merely enjoyable. I suspect that it might still be as much down to a solid group of players as much as anything else.

That said, I will note that I see no reason why it should prove impossible successfully to design an rpg whose rules incorporate dramatic techniques of which I am but dimly aware. I'm talking about techniques used in improvisational theatre, educational roleplay, and so on. These are all about setting up and/or challenging participants to elicit a response. Like I said, I know nothing about these techniques other than that they exist. But I do believe that rpg design might benefit as much from these techniques as it patently does from a knowledge of statistics sufficient to design stable dice engines.

And that's about the size of it.

Regards,
Victor

cheers,
John ;)