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The Contract

It's pretty...

by J.S. Majer
Oct 21,2002


"It's pretty..."

Whenever role playing games are called art, someone responds with, "it's not art, it's a game." This always reminds me of the Truman Capote quote about Jack Kerouac: "that's not writing, it's typing." There is the skill of doing something and the art of doing something. The proper skills can make a pot, but the skill of making a pot is not the skill of making a museum-worthy pot. All a movie takes is money and time, but a film is something else entirely. Just because you're a woman doesn't mean you're a lady.

The quote does not fit precisely with the tenor of the argument. Okay, sometimes it does when people say things like, "well, maybe you're arting/gaming, but I'm gaming/arting." I find such comments silly and divisive, far too ideologically charged to be useful. I have trouble seeing how it could be the case. If you paint a picture, it is classified as art, even if it is a bad picture. If you play bocce, you are playing a game, not participating in the art of bocce, or, if it is the latter, I don't see how that is any different than the game of bocce spoken of differently.

If not that, then what? How could the question be better expressed? Try: "it is not sculpture, it is baseball." The ugly and inevitable questions underpinning everything are "what is art" and "what is a game?" It's that simple, really.

The quest to answer those two questions has spawned philosophical lineages. Thus, I find the odds distinctly not in our favor. Yet, we can try to at least futz around with the dilemma. More importantly, we can start from a much simpler perspective: which is a role playing game more similar to, sculpture or baseball? Theater or chess? (1)

Doubtlessly, game takes an early lead, because rules exist to determine and define actions. A player has free will to undertake any number of choices coherent in the game-world (move a piece, pick a lock). Those actions are both controlled (bishops move diagonally, class restricts abilities) and determined (three strikes and you lose your scoring privileges, a one means you succeed) by the rules of the game. Art has conventions (don't recognize the existence of the audience), which are highly malleable and primarily used to differentiate between media.

Wait a moment - all these rules exist for another reason: to determine who wins. Role playing games have goals as well. A game may have any sort of means of tallying score, but there has to be one or there's no won. What makes the goal of a game special is that it feeds off the rules, and is meaningful only in-game.

Winning a game of chess means getting checkmate positioning the pieces on the board so as you are set to capture the piece known as the "king," a definition that only makes sense in terms of the rules of the game. A "run" in baseball only exists in the context of a baseball game. You may tie real things to it (money, fame) but those are unnatural linkages.

Can on win a role playing game? Are their goals? Yes, both meta-game (10th level) and gamewold (seducing the prince) goals appear and are attainable through the process of the game. The goals may be trivial (chatting to stave off boredom at a cocktail party) but they are goals. They exist only as part of the game, and do not exist outside of the game. The victory however is entirely less clear.

For instance, winning a game of baseball means that you have scored more points than the opposing team. This game you have won. The rules define the steps. All other matters (each individual tactical decision made by player or coach) flow hierarchically from that single motive. Victory in a role playing game never exists in a state coherent with the rules. 10th level is a concept accepted by the individual as a victory, and the seduction doesn't fit into the framework at all. Non-rule coherent goals are as orderly and sensible as those in life. You can play the teleology card and say something like: fun is the objective of role playing games, and like the hierarchy of activity in baseball, these other goals are steps to get there. But fun is the objective of everything, so the premise is dubious.

Rules in role playing games, because they lack discreet ends, act more like conventions in artistic media. Rules and conventions share a few elements, keeping a body of work together (this is pottery, this is painting/ this is Traveller, this is Star Wars) and presenting a basic level of challenge ("writing poetry without meter is like playing tennis without a net," quoth Robert Frost). Art may have purpose or message, but it does not have specific goals. There is no way to win a painting, and sometimes a film where the characters lose is a better one than a victory. You can't even say that the conventions lead to the victory of a completed work, because the flaunting of those conventions is almost mandatory for something eye-popping.

There are quite a few more similarities. "Interactive fiction" is a term with resonance, because the results of a role playing game are decidedly fiction-like. Take a game of Risk and there is a story that comes from it ("but then I invaded Manchuria, and rolled a..."). You could even convert such a story into something you might see on a shelf. A role playing game is more in tune with the book on the shelf. The conversion factor would be minimal. Role play as a concept has most specific applications in the theater, where actors play roles, pretending to be other people for entertainment, enlightenment and amusement. Role playing games are creative, or perhaps imaginative or artistic is the better word, endeavors.

All of this sounds very true, but also sounds very vague. Are the similarities enough to for a definition of role playing games as art? (2) Should we stick with game? Or is it, in fact, not the true nature of the debate at all?

I have never read or heard anyone arguing the art/game topic that was actually arguing that point. The concepts of art and game are not exclusive, if for no other reason that neither concept is well-fixed in definition. Much like the pro-life or pro-choice augments (which have little to do with a philosophical position of supporting life or choice), the terminology has always been frustrated and the argument is about something else entirely: meaning and - dare I type it - faith in the medium.

We are not accustomed to having meaning put in games. In fact, part of the point of games has been their lack of meaning. Somebody wins at baseball; you all shake hands and go home. If means something, it means whatever social or material things you attach to the victory, but the victory itself means nothing. However, when you start putting artistic qualities into a game, meaning comes along too. Art has always been about meaning - not that every piece is meaningful, not that every culture has looked at a topic like meaning in the same way, but creativity spends a lot of time linking to message.

Being a hybrid, role playing games stand to be extremely important. No, role playing games are important. Role playing games not only can have meaning, but they do have meaning. Role playing games are something new and vital, useful for the discourse, provide unlimited opportunities to blow away Structural motifs and consummately re-narratize the entire co/re-lative system of post-industrial-

Oh, you get the picture. Is this elitism? Sometimes, but sometimes the opposite is self-deception. Meaning gets attributed to games in order to justify meaning being emplaced. Some people are extremely reactionary to the notion of meaning. They are pathetically un-self-critical. But (Rule Six) if you're solidly in one of the camps, you're so wrapped up in the lies you tell each other that you're not going to listen.

So are role playing games art? The comprise answer is, "A role playing game is a game that has enough artistic conventions as to permit aesthetic evaluations and interpretations." People aiming for art are trying to recognize and realize the ties of art to role playing games in order to invest beauty and meaning. Because games (in some sort of natural state) do not allow for this, they have to recognize the artistic qualities of all games, estranging and occasionally offending those who don't recognize and invest, at least consciously.

A pragmatic answer is that they are what you call them. Since there are both qualities, both poetry and baseball, call a role playing game what suits the situation. This is the inverse of my original gripe. You can describe role playing games from either direction, as wargames with character or theater with rules. Different circumstances i.e. different groups of people - mandate different sorts of explanations. (3)

The best way to answer the question, "are role playing games art?" is "Thursdays and Sundays, some Wednesdays." As it happens, this is also the stupidest answer. This may be the point.

1 - I owe my thoughts on this subject (no, not in an Ambrose way) from three cites: Greg Costikyan's "I Have No Words & I Must Design," Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens and Steven Poole's Trigger Happy. The last is the one I unreservedly support, the other two I have quibbles with but all should be read if you want to understand this concept of "game" better.

2 - I'm about to diverge, so let me answer the question in a private sort of way. See, the truth here is that whether role playing games are art is less a matter for and more for, because the answer should have little to do with RPGs and everything to do with art. Under Sumner's System of Art (patent pending), mostly derived from the Joyce-Campbell (you knew he'd show back up sooner or later) System (see Wings of Art), RPGs are not art. Character creation and world design, even designing a RPG itself is. But the actual thing? Well, unless you want to argue that the conceptualization creates a sort of ephemeral framing, but it's too damn personal.

3 - To wit: Barbara still thinks I'm involved with some sort of national gambling circuit, and Cal thinks I'm itching to be involved in on of his performance art "pieces." These people got sold to the wrong direction. Of course, I could also complain about how it makes Paul act kinkier-than-thou and Donna act geekier-than-thou as various other ways that the revelation/explanation of being a gamer has hurt me.

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What do you think?

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