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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. ;)

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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
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