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The Fine Art of Role-Playing

Part 5: Gaming Ain't a Thing

by Jonathan Walton
Mar 08,2004


The Fine Art of Roleplaying
A Column by Jonathan Walton

Part 5: Gaming Ain't a Thing

In response to my last article on Brecht, John Kim ended another round of exciting discussion with this comment:

While we're not going to be able to completely address John's concerns in this article, I think we're going to be one step closer by the end. Additionally, he brings up a good point. Things don't have to be "artsy" to be considered art. In other words, they don't have to be "capital-A" Art to be art. Is Nobilis more of a work of art than Hackmaster? I'd be inclined to say "no." Is one of the two more intentional about claiming the cultural status of "art"? Probably. But that doesn't mean that you can't experience a good Hackmaster session as a thing of true, unquestionable beauty. But that's a topic for next time

To put aside issues of aesthetic judgments until the next article, this week we're going to look at the theories of Joseph Margolis, a philosophy professor at Temple University and well known relativist. During the past several years, Margolis has put forward a theory of art that requires drawing a distinction between the physical artifact itself (the words on the page, the collection of pigments, the movements and voices of actors) and all the interpretations, associations, and other cultural properties which people ascribe to the artifact. Both types of properties, the physical and the ascribed, he claims, are absolutely necessary for an artwork's existence and, in fact, are directly related to each other.

In other words, we're going to be looking at the relationship between the physical and non-physical properties of roleplaying.

How do people normally talk about roleplaying? It has been my experience that several very different aspects of roleplaying are often conflated in casual conversation.

First, there are the things you can buy in a store, the commercial artifacts of roleplaying: books that contain suggested rules, detailed settings, character concepts, plot ideas, and thoughts on how to interact with the other participants. These are physical things, though they are often treated as works of art independent from their use in actual play. Illustrations and elements of graphic design steal one's imagination, story excerpts or setting descriptions are enjoyed just like good fiction, and the physical object itself is treasured as a possession (which entails a whole host of different cultural properties).

Second, you have actual play, what happens when a group of people sit down and decide to create an experience together. At the basic level, you have just a bunch of people moving about and making sounds in a meaningless fashion. That's what's actually occurring. But then, there is the initial level of interpretation, when people begin to ascribe meaning and intention to these movements and sounds, turning them into actions and language. Players talk, they gesture, they make expressions, sometimes they act out scenes, sometimes they roll dice or move miniatures around on a map, and sometimes they eat pizza and drink beer.

All of these things are part of the most basic level of interpretation, but every action or bit of language also has another host of cultural connotations to go with it. This covers everything from thumbs up (indicating "I agree" or "good") to saying When you get back to your house you find that your room has been ransacked (indicating "everyone should now imagine themselves walking into a room that has been ransacked and try to experience the emotional reaction you would have to such an event").

What is it about a collection of lines and colors that makes us (1) recognize it as an illustration and (2) enjoy looking at it? What is it about a movement that (1) makes it a gesture and (2) allows it to express an emotion? What is it about the sounds exchanged during a roleplaying session that (1) enables communication and (2) supports a shared imaginary experience? According to Margolis, the answer is the non-physical, cultural properties of these things. But what does it mean to say that something has non-physical properties, and how can we talk about such things?

To run through that last quote a little slower, let's take a look at the kinds of properties that Margolis assigns to artworks and see what kinds of equivalents they have in roleplaying. Note that Margolis doesn't bother explaining the types of properties in detail, assuming that task has already been done for him by centuries of art theory. But since this is roleplaying and the parallels aren't always obvious, I'm going to take a shot at fleshing out some examples:

Representational Properties describe the degree to which roleplaying experiences simulate or mimic other kinds of real-world experiences. If a roleplaying session recreated the feel of a murder mystery or action movie or the kinds of things you encounter in your day to day life, you might be drawn to talk about how representational it was. When people discuss "realism" and "simulation" in gaming, they're often discussing issues of representation.

Expressive Properties describe how well play was able to express the emotions and desires of the participants who created the experience. Did the experience seem to have any emotional qualities to it, either by evoking emotions in the participants or by simply indicating emotions (in the way in which music can "sound mournful" without making you feel mournful)? Were the players able to communicate their own emotions through the medium of the game?

Symbolic Properties describe the connection between the imaginary events, things, and people that are created during play and the real world outside. Was the behavior of a certain character related to problems or frustrations in the life of a player? Was the exaggerated persona of a villain supposed to remind players of modern day cultural or political figures? Is there a real-world counterpart to some of the imaginary cultures or groups in the gameworld, a culture that, intentionally or not, is commented upon by what happens in the game.

Semiotic Properties describe the meanings ascribed to individual bits of roleplaying. What do certain words or actions really mean? If the player expresses the desire for something to happen, and the rest of the group assumes they mean something different, you've got problems. All in all, was the game able to "say" anything? Were there one or more messages or themes that emerged from the imagined events?

Stylistic Properties describe the distinctive manners in which things can be accomplished in roleplaying, and the diversity of different styles that can be chosen. After all, a game that is meant to express dark and brooding emotions can be approached in a light and nonchalant style. Trying to match style with other content or properties is critical in trying to create the type of experience that you want.

Genre-Bound Properties describe how different aspects of roleplaying are categorized, and how certain properties are related together in large "genre" groups. If you're playing in a cinematic spy game, you're going to expect the main villain to tell you all his plans before sticking you in some impossibly complex deathtrap. That's just one of the expectations involved with the genre. These would also come into play when trying to determine which genres specific sessions or games should be lumped into.

Traditional Properties describe the ways in which certain aspects of roleplaying are related to the 30+ year history of the medium, and all the roleplaying that has been done before. This includes calling specific games or sessions "traditional," "innovative," "reactionary" (both in the sense of reacting against tradition and reacting against newer developments) and the like.

Historic Properties describe how roleplaying is related to the larger cultural context and history as a whole. For instance, Castle Falkenstein was published in 1994 by the American company R. Talsorian Games, and exhibits other properties that are related to it being an early-mid 90's American game.

Note that there are no solid boundary lines that separate these groups of properties. Margolis is ultimately saying that properties in these categories are, by definition, connected with human interpretation and not with actual physical objects or events. Dividing them into categories is already adding a layer of interpretation. Furthermore, there is nothing about the physical events of a game that can be said to be "realistic" or "tragic." Those traits are properties that we have ascribed to roleplaying, handing them out in such a way that they are often seem related to certain physical properties, but there are many cases where they are applied arbitrarily. For instance, a session of Call of Cthulhu might be considered "horror" or "horrific," not because it actually inspires terror, but because it contains monsters and dark cellars.

In a connected point, Margolis also says that there can be no claims of objectivity when talking about these kinds of "Intentional" properties. This is evident in the genre-based arguments that people get into all the time, talking about whether Vampire: The Masquerade is a classic horror game or just thinly-disguised attempt to create blood-drinking superheroes. Individuals can try to make an argument for a specific interpretation, but that's all it is ultimately, an interpretation. Margolis is saying that you can't talk about an artwork or roleplaying session's Intentional properties without interpreting them, without imputing that the object or event has those properties in the first place.

However, Margolis argues this degree of relativity doesn't mean that the properties are any less real or significant. There may be no "right way" to interpret Shakespeare or the American Civil War, but this doesn't mean that you can claim that the ghost of Hamlet's father is really an alien from outer space and expect to be taken seriously. Instead, we are able to impute cultural properties to objects and events through an established system, based on past interpretations and the standards that have been agreed upon by the greater community. Readers have generally agreed that aliens have no place in interpretations of Shakespeare. No one has to tell anyone that. It's simply an understood standard for talking about certain types of literature. The same holds true for roleplaying, obviously. Just because Intentional properties aren't static in the way that physical properties are thought to be, there are still cultural and consensual standards that you can refer to.

One of Margolis' chief contributions to art theory is this idea that artworks are cultural entities "embodied" in physical entities, like a ghost in a shell or a self in a body. To paraphrase R. Sean Borgstrom, cultural entities are the lightning in the meat. Now you may be thinking, "This is all well and good, but what does that mean for roleplaying and actual play?" Well, here's what I'm getting at:

When you sit down to roleplaying with a group of people, you all experience, more or less, the same physical events. You hear the same people talking, you watch the same movements, you eat the same cheap pizza. Whatever. While you experience things from a slightly different perspective, everything is more or less the same. The only significant difference comes from the private thoughts you have about the game, which is where you begin to ascribe Intentional properties to what's taking place, but that's a pretty big difference. In the end, each participant walks away from the experience with a very different idea of what went on. The events are the same, but the way those events are interpreted varies across individuals and groups.

Now, consider how most roleplaying texts are written. What do they focus on? In my experience, I'd say that most books focus on generating physical events in play, that is, they focus on getting the players to do certain things: roll dice, verbally manipulate the imagined events, interact with each other, imagine things together, and construct a chain of events into a plot. The vast majority of the time, there is very little talk about how to ensure that events get interpreted in a similar fashion. Instead, games rely on descriptions and illustrations to convey things like style, genre, symbolism, and expression. And since, often times, not all the players will have read the book, the text relies on one or more players to communicate the "rules of interpretation" to the rest of the participants, either before or during the actual game. Very few suggestions are then given as to how these interpretation guidelines should be explained.

Often times, it happens like this:

Player A: "So it's this post-apocalyptic game with angels, right. Except the angels are children who've been brainwashed and made into androgynous pseudo-angels with forbidden science. The science keeps them from developing naturally and they get really confused around puberty, with the hormones battling the technology."

Player B: "Um, okay. So what do we do?"

Player A: "Fight these giant insect creatures and serve the Church."

Player B: "Right. Got it."

And those are all the tools that the players get for interpreting events: a few genre suggestions, a few themes, and then they're forced to fend for themselves. Is this enough to ensure that the players will know how to respond to in-game events? Probably not. How can you possibly expect people to interpret something as "cool," or "scary," or "exciting" if you don't give them any guidelines for making those judgments? You're going to have to constantly educate them in a trial-and-error way over the course of the game. How many times have you experienced interactions like this:

Player B: "Well, I'm going to denounce the old man for heresy and tell the villagers to lock him up in the stocks."

Player A: "Actually, as a member of the Order of Gabriel, you're entrusted to kill all heretics and enemies of the Church whenever you encounter them."

Player B: "Oh. Well, I guess I'll just kill him then."

Not only does the cultural world emerge from the physical world, but interpretations of events inform future actions. If people are interpreting things in very different ways, it's difficult to get their actions to support a common goal (in this case, creating satisfying play). Roleplaying texts that focus on how to get specific events to occur are coming at things from the wrong direction. If players are educated in the context of the game and know the guidelines for how to interpret in-game events, their actions should naturally fit into that context and be interpretable in similar ways. This isn't to say that their actions will be predictable, but they will "fit" within pre-established norms of expression, symbolism, style, genre, tradition, and others. The actions that individual players take will "make sense."

In other words, Margolis' writing points to the need for shared standards with which to evaluate play and ways of effectively communicating those standards, both within your own gaming group and in the larger community. This isn't to say that everyone needs to agree that players should bang on the table if they're unhappy with what's going on, or other such arbitrary things. It means that we need to get better at articulating why we think (or should think) action X means interpretation Y. Art theory has centuries of thought to draw from. When you say a painting by Picasso shows proto-Cubist influences, you are appealing to terms that have been agreed upon. Roleplaying, however, has not yet developed this kind of language. You're lucky if the people you regularly play with share a common way of talking about roleplaying.

For instance, if I say I want to play a cinematic, high-contrast game that tries to support deep immersion and player investment, what does that mean, really? Do people agree on what makes a particular game "cinematic"? I don't think so. What about "immersion" and "player investment"? Are there established ways for making those things happen? Is there even a consensus about what the terms actually mean? No, not really. Ignoring the larger context, this matters on a game-to-game basis, as shown by my examples from an imaginary Engel game. Having no shared standards means having minimal help in evaluating and choosing appropriate actions. To quote John Kim yet again:

If I had to articulate the purpose of this column, that might be it. Many roleplayers don't see the point of talking about roleplaying theory. It's abstract, they say, and has no direct connection to what goes on in play. I hope I've managed to make a solid case for the importance and inevitability of interpretation, with the help of Margolis.

What's Next?

Next time, we're finally going to discuss aesthetic appreciation, as John Kim suggested, "to look at what makes [roleplaying] *good* as art, and develop that." Our guide will be James C. Anderson, who is desperately trying to save the idea that we can measure art by how (and whether) people appreciate it. How traditional of him.

Until then, I'll see you in the forums.

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