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The Fine Art of Role-Playing

Part 6: The Uncertainty Principle

by Jonathan Walton
Mar 22,2004


The Fine Art of Roleplaying
A Column by Jonathan Walton

Part 6: The Uncertainty Principle

As I was preparing for this article, I came across a quote that rather annoyed me, written by a game designer that I respect a great deal:

      I think there are always folks who don't quite get what we're putting across. You know what? That's fine. The important thing is that they play games and have fun with them. It's when you get too serious about making gaming "art" that it starts to become not-fun.

      -- "Black Hat" Matt McFarland [1]

There seems to be a deeply held belief that art is, by definition, not fun. Art is that pretentious stuff that they put in museums or on stages or in opera houses or in galleries. Fun is that stuff that you do in the basement with your friends: pizza, video games, hanging out, etc. People who talk about fun things being art are obviously full of it, because, Lord knows, painting and acting and singing sure aren't fun, while games and comics and sports certainly have no artistic aspects to them. No offense to Matt, but I think that's nonsense. Drawing artificial distinctions between things that are "fun amusement" and things that are "serious art" does a disservice to both. People create art for any number of reasons, but one popular one is because creating art can be great fun.

You want to talk about some art? I mean, something that is "serious" art? How about Tetris? Alexey Pazhitnov created one of the greatest pieces of computer art that anyone has ever seen, yet most people would consider it a work of "fun amusement" not "serious art." But what actually makes something art? Is it enough that the creator considers it art? If the creator thinks it's something other than art, what happens when other people treat it like art? If you think roleplaying is just about having fun and I think roleplaying is art, who's right?

Aesthetician of the Week

In an attempt to answer these questions, this week we're going to look at James C. Anderson's effort to save the aesthetic theory of art. Lately, many art theories have begun talking about artworks as abstract things, embedded in cultural contexts and not really based on any physical properties or inherent beauty. , Anderson (an associate faculty member at the University of Wisconsin's Teaching Academy) has attempted to create an aesthetic theory that mirrors the way normal people actually think about art, including situations in which they are uncertain. After all, the average person on the street has an instinctive understanding of what art is, so Anderson's goal is to articulate a theory that explains that "natural" understanding.

He begins by drawing a distinction between two kinds of definitions:

      In The Principles of Art, [Robin] Collingwood contrasts "having a clear idea of [a] thing" and "defin[ing] any given thing." The former is the notion of recognizing something as an instance of a kind when one sees it, being able to enter [an imaginary] warehouse and pick out works of art. ...Defining a concept goes beyond that ability to provide an articulation of the concept in terms of other related concepts...

      -- James C. Anderson [2]

Anderson sees these two projects, identifying which things are art and defining what art is, as being independent, but mutually helpful. After all, he argues, if we know what art is, we might be able to use that understanding to help us determine which things are art, or, if we're not sure whether something is art or not, the definition might help us figure out where that uncertainty comes from. Likewise, I would suggest that our understanding of what art is is constantly evolving, based on the body of work which has been accepted to be art. In this way, if there are some things that are unquestionably art, some things that are possibly art, and some things that are definitely not art, examining the complex situation of which things are art may help us discover more about what art is.

In roleplaying, you see similar discussions all the time. Even in the few decades that roleplaying has been around, there have been repeated efforts to define what roleplaying is and identify which things are roleplaying. Often times, people will appeal to understandings of what roleplaying is to include activities such as make-believe, collaborative fiction writing, or even collaborative nonfiction [3] under the broadened auspices of roleplaying. At the same time, other people will appeal to those same understandings to exclude live action roleplaying, freeform play, or the very things that the first group of people were trying to include. However, Anderson's comments remind us that attempting to define roleplaying not only helps us identify which things are roleplaying, but also helps us better understand the nature of our endeavors.

Aesthetic Appreciation

In that spirit, Anderson dives head-first into difficult waters, building on the work of another philosopher who I swear I'm not related to:

      Kendall Walton has recently provided an account of a family of aesthetic concepts including aesthetic pleasure [and] aesthetic appreciation... [I]t should be noted that the definitions offered by Walton do not sufficiently distinguish aesthetic pleasure from aesthetic appreciation... [A]esthetic appreciation need not involve pleasure at all. One can aesthetically appreciate Mozart's Requiem while feeling sad, and, more important, because one is saddened by it. ...We can, thus, define aesthetic appreciation as believing the experience of the properties of an object to be intrinsically valuable.

      -- James C. Anderson [4]

That's a bit dense, especially with the heavy cutting. Basically, Anderson is refuting the traditional assumption that our appreciation of art is based on pleasure. Like Brecht, he's suggesting that we need not enjoy an experience to find the experience valuable. If we appreciate watching a movie, or reading a book, or listening to a piece of music, or participating in a roleplaying session, it's not necessarily because we felt pleasure during the experience of it. Anderson suggests that we could have any number of complex emotional responses to a work or session and still appreciate the work on an aesthetic level. As long as we feel the experience of something is valuable for its own sake, just for having had the experience and not for any sort of practical considerations, then we're talking about an aesthetic appreciation. Note, however, that this does not keep people from enjoying experiences and finding them valuable because they are pleasurable. It's simply saying that this is not necessary for things to be appreciated aesthetically.

Notice that this definition of aesthetic appreciation doesn't discriminate between paintings, sunsets, people laughting, video games, roleplaying, the sound of water, the grace with which an animal moves, the rich tone of Garrison Keillor's voice, or any other aspect of human experience. As long as you are appreciating a piece of music for the intrinsic value of the experience, you're participating in an aesthetic appreciation. However, while this allows us to put art and roleplaying in the same category as other objects that we appreciate aesthetically, it does mean that we eventually have to separate art from aesthetic experiences of the natural world. We think about natural objects, however aesthetically valuable, very differently from art objects, and whatever theory we end up with needs to account for that.

Complementary Definitions

After presenting his definition of aesthetic appreciation, Anderson remarks that there have traditionally been two different ways of approaching the definition of art. The first one, which he calls the aesthetic intention strategy, focuses on the intentions of a work's creator, while the second, the aesthetic function strategy, focuses on how the work is received by others. Each approach produces its own definition:

      [1. Intention:] O is a work of art... [i]f O is an artifact created with the intention of being an object of aesthetic appreciation

      [2. Function:] O is a work of art... [i]f O is an artifact and O functions to provide for aesthetic appreciation.

      -- James C. Anderson [5]

Before we delve too deeply into these definitions, let's spend a moment on "artifacts." Defining works of art as artifacts is a traditional way of excluding sunsets, pretty rocks, and animals from the world of art. Anderson doesn't waste time talking about what an artifact is, since plenty of other philosophers have already covered that area pretty thoroughly. He does, however, state that "artifactuality [involves] some level of intentional human activity"and "[s]ince the creation of an artifact is an intentional activity, it follows that all works of art are intentionally produced." [6]

That said, looking at the two definitions above, artifacts don't need to be created with primarily aesthetic intentions in order to be art . According to Anderson's dual definition, it is possible for something to be art in the second sense (because people appreciate it aesthetically) but not in the first sense (because it wasn't created for that purpose). This development in art theory came about to explain our appreciation of artworks whose chief purpose was originally not aesthetic in nature, such as religious art, found art, archeological discoveries, and objects with specific cultural meanings, such as masks, monuments, or tombs.

Getting back to roleplaying, it's easy to see how a roleplaying text or collaboratively-created session could be art under the first definition. For instance, it's highly likely that Greg Costikyan (designer) and Warren Spector (developer) and Kyle Miller (illustrator) intended the text of Toon to be an object of aesthetic appreciation. People who read the book are supposed to enjoy the humorous tone, the witty writing, the appropriateness of the pictures, and so on, just like they would in any other piece of literature. Even if you consider the aesthetic appreciation of Toon to be a secondary aim or a side effect instead of the primary intention of its creators (who intended the book to facilitate entertaining play), it could still be considered art according to the second definition, as long as some people treat it as an aesthetic object.

Looking at actual play, things become a bit more complicated. Is most roleplaying primarily intended, by the players involved in it, to serve as the object of aesthetic appreciation? I don't think do. Sure, there are plenty of aesthetic considerations that go into creating a session (colorful descriptions, appropriate plot twists, choosing themes, etc.), but they are usually not the primary focus of play. Additionally, since there's no outside audience in roleplaying, evaluating a session in terms of the second definition requires examining the experiences of the players themselves, varying and subjective as they are.

Is it possible to aesthetically appreciate an experience that you are so closely invested in, instead of something you "step back" to examine (like a book, movie, or piece of music)? Traditionally, some scholars have claimed that aesthetic appreciation requires a certain degree of "distance" from the work in question. Anderson is silent on this issue, but I tend to think that distance is either (1) unnecessary, or (2) achievable in roleplaying, especially in situations where you are not as actively engaged in the creative process and can fully appreciate previous events and the play that's currently taking place. For instance, if a player makes a choice based on aesthetic considerations ("To make the story seem plausible, this is what needs to happen now"), aren't they participating in aesthetic appreciation, which then lets them know how their appreciation can best be supported?

A Healthy Uncertainty

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Anderson's work is his disinterest in combining the two definitions of art into one Grand Unified Theory or in resolving many of the remaining questions. After all, what does it mean for a work to be art according to one definition, but not the other? Does that make it "less art" than a work that fulfills both requirements? Does it make it semi- or pseudo-art? Anderson sees no need to render a verdict issues, because the uncertainty may be justified. As he writes:

      If, for example, a work of art is necessarily an artifact, [a] person might not know whether a given object is a work of art because the person might not know whether the object in question is an artifact (as opposed to a rock thrown through the warehouse window). If a work of art is necessarily created with some specific intention, the person might not know whether a given object is a work of art because the person might not be able, from the appearance of the object, to discern the intention with which it was made (even if the person is certain that the object is an artifact).

      -- James C. Anderson [7]

In the end, Anderson appreciates the uncertainty inherent in the definition because he feels it mimics our own uncertainty about some artworks. If we can't tell whether something is an artifact or not (for instance, if you find a odd-shaped rock that may or may not have been shaped by human hands), shouldn't our definitions of art also reflect our uncertainty about their status? Likewise, if a work ends up being art by the second, functional definition, but not based on the creator's intentions, doesn't that explain why many people might object to calling the work art? Many philosophers have rejected any art theory that relies heavily on the intentions of the artist, simply because it's often difficult to know the artist's intentions or extrapolate them from the resulting work. Anderson, however, thinks this is just dandy, since it seems natural for us to wonder about the author's intention for creating a work and, in many cases, withhold judgment until more information can be gained. Consequently, Anderson's model may not help clear up any of the well trodden controversies of art theory, but that's not his purpose. Instead, he's happy to have provided a model that, for the most part, parallels the way we think and talk about art.

As you may have guessed, one of the main benefits of Anderson embracing uncertainty is what it means for us in the world of roleplaying. This is old news after the last paragraph, but try it on for size anyway: the uncertainty that exists about what is and isn't roleplaying may actually be beneficial, not problematic. After all, the degree of uncertainty that exists around works like De Profundis, Lexicon, and make-believe encourages us to keep exploring issues of identification and pushing the boundaries as much as we can. If we end up with things that only might be roleplaying as the result, who cares, as long as they're rewarding to participate in? I don't see why any practical problems (i.e. those occurring during actual play or exploration of these "potentially roleplaying" works) would arise from our uncertainty about their nature.

Finally (and here's the real kicker of the article), the uncertainty that exists over whether or not roleplaying is or can be art... that's not necessarily problematic either. If I think that they are and analyze them as such, it doesn't mean you have to agree with me. In fact, any tension that exists over the issue is probably beneficial to the community in the long run, since it challenges us to state our opinions clearly, weigh the evidence, and learn more about roleplaying in the process, forced to examine it more closely than we otherwise would have. Likewise, I consistently struggle with how I feel about all roleplaying being art, as opposed to just some roleplaying. I feel it's a mistake to say that your stereotypical D&D ork-killing session is less a work of art than some high-concept emotional angst-fest (though, of course, that doesn't keep one from possibly being a better work of art than the other), but then I also feel like the intentions of the players involved should count for something. If I take Anderson's word for it, that struggle is validated, not out of anxiety or confusion, but because struggling with issues of definition and identification help us understand roleplaying more thoroughly. The struggle doesn't end, but now it has a clear purpose.

What's Next?

Next time, we're going to look at a cutting-edge, just-published-two-months-ago theory of art: namely, excerpts from David Davies' Art as Performance. [8] I don't know much about it aside from the blurb on the website, which reads "Beginning with a discussion of the difficulties that audiences experience in their attempts to grasp and appreciate much modern and contemporary art, Davies continues with considerations of important and influential works of art from a broad range of artistic media -- painting, music, literature, film, sculpture, theater and dance -- steadily mounting a theory of the arts that construes artworks as performances." Sounds like fun, don't you think?

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

[1] Wolfspoor Interview (Wolfspoor.org, 2004).
[2] James C. Anderson, "Aesthetic Concepts of Art," Theories of Art Today, ed. Nol Carroll (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), pp. 67-68.
[3] Lexicon (Neel Krishnaswami, 2003).
[4] Anderson, "Aesthetic Concepts," pp. 70-71.
[5] Anderson, "Aesthetic Concepts," pp. 79-80.
[6] Anderson, "Aesthetic Concepts," p. 78.
[7] Anderson, "Aesthetic Concepts," p. 69.
[8] See this page for a preview. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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