The Fine Art of Role-Playing
Part 8: In & Outby Jonathan Walton
The Fine Art of Role-Playing
Part 8: In & Outby Jonathan Walton
The Fine Art of Roleplaying
Part 8: In & Out
This week, we're finally going to tackle one of the major sources of tension in roleplaying design and practice: are you In or are you Out? This tension is often approached in other places as immersion vs. storytelling, self vs. the group, experience vs. expression, or spectator vs. performer. All of these are variations on the same basic question: are you focusing on your own personal experience of the game or trying to work with the rest of the group to create a cohesive whole? Certainly, most players practice a combination of both, switching focus back and forth, trying to experience the imaginary world through the eyes of their character while also appreciating the game on a "meta" level, watching the story emerge, making out-of-character connections and observations, interacting with other players and the game system. The tension comes from not being able to focus on one or the other, and trying to find a balance that will make the experience both valuable and consistent with expectations.
In examining the complexities of In vs. Out, we're going to look at a few articles from the recently published book, Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys, and Theories for Harnessing the Imagination, which was put together by a group of Nordic roleplaying enthusiasts for Scandinavia's largest game convention.  The Nordic roleplaying scene, if it can be generalized as such, has a strong focus on live action play, so a large portion of the book focused on larps and, consequently, immersion and personal experience as the focus of play. Some writers even went so far as to suggest that the Out perspective was wrong-headed for roleplaying as a whole, resulting from the influence of more traditional art forms:
Role-playing games tend to produce stupid stories. ...What on paper looks silly, and sounds silly when explained afterwards, may still be an extremely meaningful experience. It is a stupid story – and a good game. The story doesn't carry the impact of the game because the impact of the game doesn't fit into narratives... Forget narratives, forget how the game might appear or sound later. The player experience is the only relevant thing.
-- Juhana Pettersson 
This is clearly a push for the In side of things, which is interesting as an idea to consider, but not necessarily reflective of what most players expect to get out of their games. The vast majority of roleplayers still want to be able to look back on a roleplaying session or extended campaign and see a cohesive narrative. As long as this desire remains and players work to tell stories (however "silly" or "stupid" the results may often be), I don't think we can afford to advocate a completely In perspective on roleplaying. The problem is not that a completely In perspective would not be viable, since it's certainly an approach worth experimenting with, but that Pettersson's claim is universal: all roleplaying should be all In and no Out. John Kim takes a more balanced approach in his own article on immersion and story creation, explaining the give-and-take that comes with focusing on either storytelling or personal experience:
...there are related trade-offs between possibilities for story and visible breaking of the illusion. In immersionist play, the player thinks only about the in-game reality of her character. This means that the experience of story is more encompassing. However, it also means that it is difficult to arrange for events to achieve closure or fit into a distinctive theme.
-- John Kim 
It seems that not only are the goals of the In and Out perspectives different, but the methods used to achieve them are antagonistic to one another. Stepping back from the imagined reality runs the risk of breaking the illusion, the suspension of disbelief that makes immersion possible. Similarly, what's been called "deep" immersion, where the player attempts to stay in character as much as possible, tends to limit the kinds of "meta" connections that can be made between game entities, constricting the structure required for a larger narrative. For example, if your story is about the ultimate triumph of good over evil, it might be important for the good characters to fail several times in the beginning, so that their ultimate triumph at the end has more of an impact. However, the characters don't want to fail and might not suffer failure unless someone makes that "meta" connection between a key theme of the story and what needs to happen to the characters. The desire to make those kinds of connections is what leads to the compromise of shifting perspectives, since the hope is that switching between In and Out will allow for the illusion of realism and the structure of a proper narrative, without crippling either one. However, there is the risk that focusing too much on In aspects might make the narrative shallow and simplistic or that focusing on Out aspects might lead to 2-dimensional characters and no real emotional investment.
Similar situations exist in other narrative media, where the author or performers try to balance storytelling with realism and believability. The events that make for the most enthralling story are not always the types of events that happen in everyday life. Audiences enjoy the thrill of something new or unusual, but this can sometimes destroy the credibility of the story, when the strangeness becomes too strange or the sequence of events seems contrived. Kim draws on traditional discussions of drama in literature, specifically the works of Lajos Egri, to talk about how roleplaying achieves emotional involvement through the use of protagonists:
In the view of theorists like Egri, the work of a dramatic story is an emotional reaction. The end product of an author is not simply text, but the mental state of the reader... the sum of what the reader feels and imagines wile reading the story, not simply an objective interpretation of the statements. The protagonist is a tool to achieve this emotional involvement, through audience identification (or "transference") to the fictional character.
-- John Kim 
Though roleplaying, traditionally, has built-in protagonists in the form of player characters, using a central character to woo the audience to invest emotion is an old trick. Think about the last book, movie, or play that you let yourself get really involved in. Most likely, the work used a protagonist who you could identify with, sharing their emotions, imagining what it would be like to be in their shoes, living vicariously through them as they wandered about in their fictional world. Certain tricks can help support an audience's identification with the protagonist, such as writing in the first (or even second) person or filming a scene as if the camera were the eyes of the main character, both of which allow the audience to "look out" through the character's eyes.
Most roleplaying games do things a bit differently, of course. Since the player is typically encouraged to make decisions for the character and express the character's personality to the rest of the group, there is perhaps a more immediate bond, something slightly different from the way an audience identifies with protagonist in traditional media. However, theater (and especially improvisational theater) is inevitably the exception. As in roleplaying, actors do experience an immediate bond with their characters and are responsible for expressing a character's identity. Many character choices are scripted or proscribed by others (such as the director), of course, but I would argue that there are thousands of things that are not, even in the most tightly controlled environment imaginable. While authors and directors may decide where and how a character stands, what expressions they make, and how they interact with other characters, a host of other little decisions, such as how the actor expresses emotions, what tone to give to their characterization, and the exact details of the performance itself are left almost entirely in their hands, suggesting that actors experience the same immediate connection that occurs in roleplaying.
However, Kim (like many roleplaying theorists, myself included) wants to find the ways in which roleplaying is different from all other creative media, including theater, and claims that this comes in its combination of the roles typically reserved for actors and audiences:
[Roleplaying] is a format unique from other arts, in that it is directed solely at other performers and that each is simultaneously audience and actor. ...the player is entertained by the performances of other players and in turn actively entertains via her own performance.
-- John Kim 
The question I have is: how is this different from what happens in theater, dance, music, or any other group-based, collaborative performing art? Surely individual actors, dancers, and musicians are entertained by the performances of their collaborators and also actively entertain their collaborators through their own performances. It just so happens that (in theater, music, and dance) there's also an independent audience of non-performers in addition to the audience of performers. An actor or musician might even claim that they perform as much for their fellow collaborators as they do for the audience, and that their reception of their fellows' performances (their being "audience" to each other) allows their own performances to achieve a higher degree of success.
Additionally, there are many theorists, especially in the performing arts, who question how removed and uninvolved an audience can be in the creation process. Michael Babbitt raised this very issue in the Fine Art forum when he wrote, "You ask any actor, dancer or musician, and they will certainly tell you that their performance is HIGHLY influenced by the audience. ...If an audience is passive then you've done something wrong. In any production (and I'm sure dancers and musicians would say the same thing) if the audience doesn't ACTIVELY engage, then you're dead in the water."  In fact, many modern scholars, especially in anthropology, have begun seeing audiences as performers in their own right, with their own part to play in performance-based art forms. However, Kim states that the relationship between a player and their character (or, presumably, characters, in the case where more than one is involved) is paramount:
In a RPG, the player emotionally identifies most with his own player character. So the center of the story in his view is not how the other characters are portrayed, but the emotions and decisions of his own character. ...These thoughts are not necessarily expressed visibly to the other players, however. ...Each player sees a slightly different story, one where their PC is the protagonist. The actions of the other characters may be interesting and relevant, but they are not where the power of the story lies.
-- John Kim 
Kim's assumption is that a player's character(s) inevitably provides the chief conduit for emotional investment and identification. I find this questionable. Since the players are all audience to each other, can't we also identify with each other's characters? Isn't this mutual identification, in fact, critical for reading motivations and intent, and for creating interesting situations and larger narratives? For example, in Michael Babbitt's Vampire game (which I had the distinct pleasure of playing in several years ago), I often found myself identifying with other player's characters more than my own, just because their characterization was more interesting and nuanced than my own. I felt I knew who these characters were, like they were my friends, while my own character was a somewhat bland, empty slate in comparison. I didn't come to the game to explore my own character, really, I came to see what the other players would do with their characters and what great things Michael was cooking up. That's where the power of the story was for me.
When you consider it, the way that audiences identify with characters and the way that performers or players identify with characters isn't especially different. How many times have you seen kids or young people walking out of a movie quoting lines and acting like characters from the film they've just seen? How many games are based on licensed properties (movies, television, cartoons, comic books, etc.), basically assuming that audiences will ultimately want to become performers and take on the roles that they've seen others portray? It seems as if Kim doesn't take into account that there is a long history of performance in which the distinction between actor and audience was not really evident at all:
The gist is that it looks bloody likely that stage theatre arose from practices where no clear distinction can be made between performer and spectator; from processions, magic rites, feasts, and initiations.
-- Martin Ericsson 
Ritual is the missing piece. As Ericsson states above, many scholars now believe that the origins of all performing arts (and perhaps the visual and musical arts as well) lie in rituals, most likely religious rituals, that held meaning for early humans and later evolved into spectacles and then art proper. There is a unity of actor and audience in ritual, at least in small scale rituals in which those enacting the ritual are also the only witnesses. There is a potential for "uninvolved" audiences in a ritual (such as in large, public events), but this is not necessary by any means. The ritual would work just as well and have the same impact if 1 or 20,000 people were watching. Likewise, it would be totally possible to have "uninvolved" audiences in roleplaying (who would sit back and enjoy watching other people play), or to have no audience for a theater or dance performance. Indeed, some modern dance forms, such as Contact Improv or the dancing that goes on in clubs and bars, is performed just for the other people there who are also participating in the performance (though, as with most roleplayers, they probably would call it "play" instead of "performance"). The "natural" division between audience and actor and the decision of whether or not to have a non-participating audience is based on the traditions associated with individual media, and not some innate quality of the artforms themselves.
Speaking of Contact Improv and modern dance, next time we're going to look at two articles on dance and improvisation in the performing arts. That'll be column #9. Then, I'm planning to wrap up this whole series with #10, which will look back on everything we've learned and try to draw some practical conclusions. What'll I be up to once Fine Art is no more? Well, besides getting my games published, there will be a new column with a new focus. But more news on that later.
Until then, I'll see you in the forums.