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.

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!


gnome said...

Another excellent article... Let me just add though that RPGlike rules could be used to keep improvisational theater together... I've seen it happen and it's definetely interesting

gnome said...

Oh, and you will love this:

Elliot Wilen said...

I'm enjoying your blog (which I just found through a web search--that's why I'm commenting on an old post).

Maybe you get to it later, but at this point I'm wondering what you see as the significance of the fact some people are advocating RPing as an art? And have you seen the working-over this topic got back in December, in places such as the 20x20 room, John Kim's RPG journal, and Brand Robins's blog?

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Hello there Elliot. Thanks for your kind words. Finding RD/KA! through a web search? I hope you'll forgive me a moment's warm glow of satisfaction at that. :)

Meanwhile, as for your question. Yes, I hope to say more about the 'rpg's as art' issue later. For now, I guess I could sum my thoughts up by saying that I believe this view is ultimately a defensive one. That is to say: an unwillingness to accept that rpg's are simply more sophisticated games of make-believe is filtered through a one-sided interpretation of the novelty of the narrative dimension of roleplaying so as to create a self-affirming belief that roleplaying is not merely a novel but also a higher form of modern popular culture.

I haven't read all the material you refer to because I only started to follow the current debates very recently. But I could add that, faced with precisely the issues of 'power' to which Brand Robins refers, my answer is hell no! With opinions in the same ballpark as Robins, why on earth would I want to get caught up in that kind of powergaming?

I can quite happily admit that the games I play say something about me (and not just rpg's btw), and I'm well aware of the weirdness of some of what roleplaying games have said about me. These are issues I have been aware of for many years, one way or another. At the same time I feel not the slightest need to start talking about 'art' just because I treasure these experiences and am bloody glad that I had them.

I hope all that makes sense, and thanks in any event for pointing me at that material. Cheers,
John ;)

Elliot Wilen said... is a great way of turning up all sorts of stuff.

What interested me about your "games as art" comments is that the context really brings up an important power dynamic that was hinted at but not fully developed in one of the discussions at the 20x20 room. That is, the guy you met back in 1982 wasn't just using the "art" idea as a defensive measure to avoid feeling silly for playing make-believe--he was also using the power of "Art" to delegitimize any criticism of his social behavior. E.g., "You're ruining my (and other people's) fun by behaving that way." "So what. The point of roleplaying isn't fun, it's Art." Once things reach the point of creating an (IMO false) dichotomy between fun and art, for the sake of privileging your kind of enjoyment at the expense of others'...well, at that point, things are pretty f-d up. Especially if you continue to believe that your activity is a fundamentally social one: it means you may now regard others as mere tools for the realization of your personal vision, and if they don't go along with it, there's something wrong with them.

This extends, pretty cleanly, into game designers who take up banner of Art out of the same motive. Games thrive in a social-commercial environment. The value of a given game, to either the designer or any prospective player, is strongly related to the existence of a network of players who will be receptive to that game. So the construction of "Gaming as Art" as part of a designer or player's frustration at the lack of market penetration is basically the same phenomenon, writ large, as you encountered in 1982.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Thanks for the 20x20 room link Elliot. That's a useful exchange of opinions on the subject. Jonathan Walton puts his case clearly and simply and in a manner that is easy to engage with, for which he deserves credit.

Your own comments make a lot of sense to me. You have caught exactly the conclusions that I and others drew about our 'artistic' roleplaying companion, especially with your statement that this outlook means that "you may now regard others as mere tools for the realization of your personal vision, and if they don't go along with it, there's something wrong with them."

I also think you are on the mark with your parallels to today's indie rpg scene.

How would you feel if I suggested that this latter point of yours lends credence to my argument that this artistic conception of roleplaying is ultimately defensive? I mean to say: your own remarks about games designers all but state the point explicitly- the artistic conception is taken up as a reaction to commercial frustrations. Is this not defensive by definition?

Similarly: some people might well be intellectually and socially quite aggressive in their efforts to privilege their own gaming through this line of thinking. All the same, wouldn't you agree that this kind of arrogance smacks more of insecurity than self-assurance? Hence defensive again.

What does this all amount to? Well, a lot of people argue that rpg's are art, and believe that they are saying something strong about the virtues of roleplaying, something to its benefit. I think that this is instead a weak statement about rpg's. Far 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. I just cannot believe that this is a good thing for roleplaying.


Elliot Wilen said...

No, not really defensive, at least when it comes to those specific behaviors/motives. Defensiveness is certainly there in response to attacks, real or imagined, or even personal insecurities about the value of one's hobby. I think it's also an understandable response if someone comes by and denigrates what you're doing by saying "it's not roleplaying", "it's not fun", "it's just wankery". Then you can comfort yourself by dismissing them as philistines.

But when the "art card" is played on a receptive audience, it's more of an offensive maneuver. Ultimately, what we're pointing to is power. And this why I think Brand makes the wrong call in the end. Because while I appreciate the assertion that "games are worthwhile social/cultural activities" against the implication that games are just fluff, I reject the further implication of "games as art". Namely, "art" sets up an internal hierarchy of value as a prologue to making some games more worthwhile than others, and some people's opinions about games more worthwhile than others'. So given all the stuff that swirls around The Forge, I unfortunately take comments about "Art" (such as this one) as attempts to justify judging other people's fun under the guise of saying something more profound than "That's not fun for me." If people let you get away with it, then you now have the power to define what's worthwhile and control (to some extent) what gets played and what doesn't.

Unknown said...

Well, a lot of people argue that rpg's are art, and believe that they are saying something strong about the virtues of roleplaying, something to its benefit. I think that this is instead a weak statement about rpg's. Far 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.

Hello. John Kim here. I had several LJ posts about RPGs as art.

So the body of your posts seems to establish that RPGs as art are an old idea. However, the argument against it just seems to be "I knew a guy once who thought RPGs were art, and he was a jerk." I don't see how that's anything other than an amusing anecdote. I have known plenty of guys who didn't think that RPGs were art who were jerks. I don't think it shows anything either way.

As far as standards go, can you suggest to me any other case of an imaginative, creative endeavor which is categorically never art? It seems to me that by saying that RPGs can never be art, you are judging them by inappropriate standards. Playing RPGs is not digging ditches. It is an imaginative, creative endeavor, and I think it should be looked at the same way that other imaginative, creative endeavors are.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Hello John. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this old post of mine. Thank you too for your comments which show that you understood my remarks nicely. I was more concerned to challenge the presumed novelty of the artistic conception of roleplaying than anything else. And I freely admit that my little anecdote contributes nothing to the discussion of the issue other than perhaps some insight into the origins of my feelings on the matter.

As for the issue itself, you ask some pertinent questions. I hope you will forgive me if all I say at the moment is that we are clearly operating under different understandings of the nature of the very concept of 'art', and therefore of where rpg's fit into the history of 'imaginative, creative endeavour' in general. I beg your indulgence here because your comments spur me to address the issues in a post that I hope will be more thorough than anything I could say in a reply to your own comment.

Thanks again for reading and commenting.

PS. I read on your own blog that games suitable for young children are of interest to you. Even if we were never to agree on the question of rpg's and art, I hope you might never regret taking up my suggestion to take a look at Days of Wonder's Memoir'44 and any other games in this series by Richard Borg. My own enthusiasm for these games are writ large all across RD/KA!. Cheers.