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The Fine Art of Role-Playing

Part 9: Conclusions

by Jonathan Walton
Jun 18,2004

 

The Fine Art of Roleplaying
A Column by Jonathan Walton


Part 9: Conclusions

I originally planned to write another column before wrapping up this series, but I decided that would simply be postponing the heavy-hitter with more build up. Let's just skip to the chase, instead. It's finally time for some conclusions. We've looked at roleplaying from the vantage point of modern art theory and covered nine different approaches, so it's about time to sum this whole topic up (for now) so we can move onto new things. Let's begin with one of the initial question we raised:

Is Roleplaying Art?

    Though this seems to be a very simple question, there are several problems:

Issue #1: What is roleplaying? What is art?

    People have been trying to define art for millennia and still don't have a single answer. Is art simply "an object of aesthetic appreciation?" What then is aesthetic appreciation? Do we identify and appreciate art because it has form and structure or because of some non-physical properties, such as its social and historic context? That issue aside, people within the roleplaying community have not yet agreed on a single definition of the hobby. Cooperative exploration of imaginary space? Yeah, but it's the details of that "exploration" that are important.

Issue #2: Does it matter what the players' intentions are?

    When I originally began writing this final article I wrote, "Roleplaying's ability to be analyzed in certain ways is not contingent on the intent of those involved; it can be analyzed as ritual, art, or storytelling (or any other paradigm) regardless of what the participants claim they are doing." However, I soon realized that this kind of stance is problematic. Traditionally, Western anthropologists (such as Levi-Strauss, who we mentioned earlier) observed other cultures and just made judgment calls as to the meaning and value of other people's rituals and behavior. Nowadays, we view this approach as being limited and arrogant, since outsiders are very likely to misinterpret what they see (though they also can provide a viewpoint not imbedded in the mindset of that culture in question, which can also be helpful).

    I assume the parallel here is pretty obvious. If I assert that all roleplaying can be understood best as art, yet very few roleplayers view it in these terms, what am I really saying? Am I saying that I understand roleplaying better than most roleplayers? Am I prepared to make that kind of blanket statement? Or is it I who am misunderstanding and trying to apply an alien model, here? Clearly the intentions of the players matter to some extent, but how far this goes is unclear. As my philosophy professor, Kate Thomson, put it: "Though a player may not intend to make 'art,' she may intend to engage in an activity which others would consider artistic. [I]t seems to me that the players' intentions and how they construe what they are doing are separate questions." Clearly, there is still work to be done on this issue.

Issue #3: What model do we use: Art, Ritual, Narrative, Performance, or Improvisation?

    Over the course of this art-focused column, we've stumbled across other models that explain some aspects of roleplaying better than art does. For instance, a ritual model (like the one put forward by Chris Lehrich) explains the unity of audience and performer. Also, aesthetic theories don't often take the plunge into examining narrative and what makes stories or plots captivating, leaving that for the English professors and narratologists. There are also ways of modeling roleplaying that involve comparing it to other performance-based media or other kinds of improvisation (jazz, dance, everyday conversations and human behaviors). As we noted in Issue #2, none of these models is going to be a perfect fit for roleplaying, because they are all metaphors and comparisons. Roleplaying is not exactly the same as other forms of art, ritual, narrative, performance, improvisation, or what have you. However, roleplaying is not something wholly unique either, unrelated to the rest of what humans do. So while these models are not perfect, they certainly can tell us a great deal about roleplaying. And that leads us to

A Few Theses

    Here are a few conclusions that I've drawn from exploring these perspectives with you:

The Grand Unification Thesis

    Roleplaying is not weird, strange, odd, or especially unique. It is a practice that is intrinsically connected with other human endeavors, such as ritual, art, and storytelling. This means that we can analyze roleplaying using many of the same tools and models (however modified) that we use to analyze ritual, art, and storytelling (i.e. ritual theory, aesthetics, narratology). We can certainly develop new tools and models as well, but we should not ignore the analyses that very intelligent people have been doing for thousands of years.

The Primal Thesis

    Roleplaying is more directly connected to the ancient origins of modern art forms than most contemporary creative mediums, due to its close connection with ritual (the primordial ancestor of all art). In this way, roleplaying might be considered a kind of primal theater, without a distinct separation between actor and audience.

The Transparency Thesis

    Roleplaying is different from many traditional art forms in the transparency of its reliance on borrowing and bricolage. It shares this characteristic with many contemporary media such as hip-hop/rap music, collage, found art, pop art, fan art, slash fiction, and any work that relies on sampling or remixing another person's creative work.

The Diversity of Structure Thesis

    Historically, most roleplaying has involved a fairly equal blend of structured and improvised elements. If you were to plot most examples of play on a line, where the right side was completely improvised play and the left was completely scripted play, most games would fall near the center. This is the traditional comfort zone for most players, but not representative of the range of possible play styles that can be successful.

    The High-Structure Hypothesis

      There are diverse possibilities in high-structure gaming, especially for people who have the strong desire to create cohesive narratives. High-structure doesn't mean that there are no improvised elements, just that the balance is swung more towards structure than the kind of play style most often encouraged by traditional games. What does high-structure mean?

      Recently, I proposed a technique called Through-Framing, where, instead of simply framing the beginning of the scene ("Holly and Ben are sitting together in the living room") you also frame the end of the scene ("Holly walks out on Ben") and several important events in between ("Ben throws his wedding ring back at Holly"). This is the kind of technique used by Holy Virgin High, a "semi-improvised teen drama" put on by a group of students at Oberlin College (which I graduated from a couple of weeks ago). The actors know how the scenes will begin and end, and maybe a few things in between, but it's up to them to get the characters from Point A to Point B in a way that seems realistic and natural. Additionally, many interesting things are simply invented along the way (which is why the show is partially improvised and not just scripted out).

      Other high-structure options include limiting the inherent open-endedness of most mainstream roleplaying games. Don't let the players create whatever character they want. Let them choose between a few available options (the pirate king, the first mate, the captain's daughter, etc.), all of the details of which have been worked out in advance. The challenge then is to present an already established role, more like playing Hamlet than inventing a character and presenting them on the fly. There's also the possibility of playing through stories that everyone already knows, or playing through the same story over and over again, watching how it unfolds differently each time. Games like Paul Czege's gem, My Life With Master, begin to hint at this kind of play, but no one's really nailed it yet. Imagine a Matrix or Star Wars game where you actually played Trinity & Neo or Luke & Leia during the actual events of the movies, choosing to deviate from established events to see how the outcomes might have differed or simply fleshing out established events more thoroughly than Lucas did during the limited on-screen presentation of the story.

      I've already heard strong arguments against this type of play, mostly from people dismissing it without having explored this option. It would be boring, people complain. It wouldn't provide the excitement and sense of mystery that comes with less restricted forms of improvisation. However, these same people probably enjoy reading the same books and watching the same movies over and over again? Is it any less cool when you know what's going to happen? Sometimes. But sometimes it provides an even more interesting experience or one that is entirely different. Imagine, watching one of M. Knight Shaymalan's movies (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village) for the second time, when you already know the details of the trademark twist ending.

      Again, this is a suggestion. Until somebody actually makes a high-structure game that really succeeds in play, I don't think we can know for sure what the experience would be like. But I argue that the potential is definitely there.

    The Low-Structure Hypothesis

      Riffing on Juhana Petersson's claim that roleplaying shouldn't have to achieve narrative at all, there are equally interesting possibilities in low-structure, high-improv roleplaying. For starters, many Game Masters use a technique that's been dubbed "No Myth," where the game world has no fixed features or plots in the GM's mind and is simply created on the fly based on the input and interests of the players. There's no map that says, "Here's New York, here's your apartment, and here's the Korean grocery store." If the characters decide to go to the Korean grocery store, then the Korean grocery store pops into existence. If they think the mysterious happenings might be the work of a ghost or serial killer, then the GM can start thinking about creating a ghost or serial killer. Now, this is still based on traditional GM-player structures and narrative, but there are other paths that lead further in this direction.

      Consider the dance form known as Contact Improv. Dancers move about as their whims dictate, but interact collaboratively, bouncing off each other, pushing, dancing around, through, and with the movements of other participants. Now imagine a roleplaying style that took this form. There are many text-based games (played over email or in forums or wikis) that do something very similar. One participant writes a short section and then the other players riff off of it, interacting and pushing against the established characters and events, while also taking things in new and interesting directions. Face-to-face games could work similarly, in a social contract environment where there was no central authority (GM) and players felt comfortable enough (or were supported by the game system enough) to float ideas and create a kind of "emotional contact improv," in which you would read each other's feelings and interests and create play based on these perceptions.

      Additionally, I think there's plenty of room in roleplaying for high-trust, low-structure games that border on being freeform. I think that one of the reasons that structure has been so strongly valued in roleplaying is because of the imagined sense of balance, fairness, and security that people feel it provides. They know that one player won't be able to abuse the system if there are enough codified rules arrayed against them. However, in a play situation where you are operating at very high levels of trust, where everyone is on the same page about what the game is about and willing to let their established relationships (as friends, for example, or family) govern their interactions, then the game itself doesn't need to provide much system at all. People can simply interact, come to agreements, and build consensus using their everyday behavior patterns. In this type of situation, where the game system drops away or merges with normal behavior and conversations, the focus can certainly be on the experience of play, both as individuals and a group, and, I imagine, more experimental concepts, such as those based on non-literary or non-narrative sources, could emerge.

The Five Values Model

    One of the major themes of this column has been this: there are many different ways that roleplaying can be valuable; it's not necessarily just about "having fun" or creating a narrative. What I'm going to suggest here is a model for the ways roleplaying can be valuable. None of these are necessarily connected to a certain style of play, since many different people could value the same play experience for wholly different reasons.

Pleasure & Escapism

    We value play that is enjoyable or takes us away from our daily lives. This is what people mean when they say that roleplaying is about "having fun," and that any other concern is secondary. This is probably the value that drew most of us to roleplaying in the first place. We didn't come to roleplaying because it allowed us a medium for creative expression or taught us things; we came because pretending to be other people and creating imaginary stories is fun.

Meaning & Appreciation

    We value play that addresses themes or creates a rare experience. This is how we can enjoy games of tragedy or true horror, where everything eventually goes wrong for our characters and they sink into a pit of despair. Is this the same kind of "fun" that comes from escapism and stories of success and great victories? No, but we value it because it speaks to some essential components of the human condition. Likewise, when play "says something," when it seeks to explore essential questions, when it creates an overall theme that is reinforced and approached from several different angles, it has an additional level of meaning and value that goes beyond visceral enjoyment.

Challenge & Difficulty

    We value play that surmounts obstacles and makes us feel successful. Most of us play, to some extent or another, for the feeling of accomplishment, so we can look back on what we've done, the challenges we've overcome, and be satisfied with our progress and success. Now, there are several distinctions that can be made based on how people enjoy being challenged and whether the challenge really forces them to change and adapt. For instance, there are certainly players who enjoy having their characters' lives in danger, but don't like being challenged to roleplay the death of a loved one. Still, to each their own.

Knowledge & Experimentation

    We value play that teaches us about games, situations, ourselves. Often this can come from unsuccessful play, which can teach us about the kinds of experiences that we don't enjoy and how to avoid them in the future. However, we can learn a great deal from successful play too, not just the kinds of experiences we value, but how to achieve them on a regular basis and how to create valuable play for others. Also, playing any game can teach you about the nuances and subtleties of play that aren't necessarily obvious on first pass. People become more familiar and comfortable with the game rules and become better players. Finally, we shouldn't discount the possibility that roleplaying can lead to real insights into the nature of people, human experience, the world, or impart real knowledge on a variety of subjects, just like a work of theatre or literature.

Creation & Memory

    We value play for its reflection of ourselves and what we put into it, even if we value it for no other reason. Play is simply valuable because we did it, because it becomes part of our memories and informs the rest of our experiences. Additionally, roleplaying is a form of creative expression. Unlike visual mediums such as painting or sculpture, there is usually no physical record that roleplaying ever took place (though see Neel Krishnaswami's Lexicon for a counter-example). Unlike theatre, there is no outside audience to preserve the performance in their memories. Instead, it is up to the players to remember the game and value it.

The Value of Bad Play

    Note that the last three types of value listed here can be found in play that is otherwise unsuccessful, at least in creating pleasure or addressing themes or facilitating a unique experience. Yes, roleplaying has traditionally valued what some might call "bad play," often for its educational value ("Don't do that again"), but also for the experience itself. We aestheticize unsatisfying play. If you don't believe me, just think of all the times your friends have recounted horror stories for the amusement of everyone listening. Non-functional games or those with communication problems or massive differences in expectations are still valued, somehow.

    In fact, think about many of your own early experiences in roleplaying, when you (and probably the people you were playing with too) were only beginning to get used to how traditional playing styles worked, who had narrative control, what kinds of things were acceptable, and how to improvise when things weren't adequately explained by the rules. I expect that many of those early roleplaying experiences weren't especially satisfying. There were likely many disagreements, sources of confusion, and other things that just didn't click. However, instead of getting frustrated and abandoning roleplaying forever (though many people, I'm sure, did just that), you looked past the larger picture towards the things that did work and the possibility that truly satisfying play could occur. You came back because you thought things might possibly be better the next time.

What's Next?

A new column. I'm done philosophizing for a while, so it's time to see how this all can be put into action. I've tried to set out a few ideas and new directions here, but (as the forum critics have suggested over and over) I didn't often offer practical hands-on advice on how this could improve or change existing gaming practices. Well, let's prepare to explore that together, okay? So, in two weeks, we say goodbye to Fine Art and say hello to Push.

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

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