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The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards A Critical Framework for RPGs

Notes: This article was first published in issue #1 of Inter*Action.

by Robin D. Laws

Role-playing games have existed for many years as an art form without a body of criticism. Reviews of RPGs have been common for nearly as long as the games themselves. Criticism, however, remains an unploughed field.

This means that we probably ought to look at the basics of criticism as applied to other art forms before we go charging off to rev up the metaphorical tractor. To start with, there's the above distinction between reviewing and criticism.

Both are valid and necessary forms of arts journalism, first of all. The distinction is in the ultimate purpose of each. A review is essentially a consumer report, aimed at (in this case) the potential buyer of the game or supplement. The item's technical merit -- production values, prose style, quality of the illustrations -- and its utility to the gamer are foregrounded. The crucial question of any review is, `Is this worth the money?' If the review is clearly written, and is written thoughtfully after a careful examination of the product -- ideally, the reviewer actually {plays} the thing -- it performs a valuable service to the people considering a purchase. If the review is entertainingly written, it may appeal also to readers who have no interest in buying the item in question. Some reviews may tip the balance in favour of entertainment value, employing, for example, an amusing slash and burn style that glosses over the basics. Thankfully, this is so far not as common in the gaming field as in, say, pop music reviewing.

Criticism takes a longer view, more interested in a piece's role in the development of the art form than in its immediate value to the consumer. The critic attempts to assess the ultimate worth of the work rather than its immediate worth. Despite the lofty aims of critics, they can be by no means assumed to be any more qualified to provide useful analyses than reviewers. In many well established and pedigreed fields, the reviewer is more likely to write clearly than the academic critic. Let's hope that, as we start to approach the criticism of interactive narrative games, we avoid the tendency of academic criticism to produce impenetrable brambles of jargon-laden prose designed to obscure the muddleheadedness of many of the thoughts it is allegedly expressing. Taking the long view doesn't mean tossing clarity and common sense off the balcony.

It does mean taking a systematic approach and asking a few more questions than are expected of the reviewer. As far as questions are concerned, Goethe's three questions to the critic provide a solid foundation for any piece of criticism, including gaming criticism.

The questions are:

1) What is the artist trying to do?

2) How well is it done?

3) Was it worth doing?

The beauty of this structure is that it forces critics to approach the work on its own terms before bringing their own value judgements or ideological agendas into the arena. Not that there's anything wrong with either subjective values or specific agendas. They give criticism its drive and bite as they clash with opposing expressions from other critics. Despite this, the work and the intention of the artist should remain central in criticism. Otherwise, the piece becomes a polemic or manifesto -- and although these have their place as well, they should not be confused with analysis.

Beyond Goethe's Big Three Questions, would-be gaming critics have a number of models from other fields of criticism available for adoption. Since interactive gaming centres around the creation of a narrative, it makes sense to look to the bodies of criticism that have developed in reaction to other narrative forms. Critical models from literature, drama, and cinema can all be applied here.

For example, let's look at the various critical approaches to film that have arisen in its rough one century of existence. A number of methods of analysis have sprung up over the years. Some have fallen into disuse, others have become hot new topics for debate, and a few have become standard approaches that have continued to be important decades after their inception.

Early film criticism drew its critical criteria from other fields -- specifically, from literary criticism. Films were compared to literature, and, at least at first, found severely wanting. Because they were a popular art form unapologetically tailored to the interests of the masses, serious critics treated them merely as a blot on the aesthetic landscape. Those films that were deemed acceptable were those that were most like literature. The search for serious films became a search for Great Themes, like those embodied in great literature. When sound films came in, the job of the literary film critic became easier. Now there was dialogue to analyze, much like the dialogue from literature and drama.

I think a parallel can be found between this stage of film criticism and current attitudes towards RPGs. On one hand, we have the argument as to whether they are an art form at all, even though writing a game product or moderating a game session clearly involve the same sorts of decisions about plot, characterization, pacing, atmosphere, imagery and so on that creators in other narrative art forms use in their work. Interestingly, those denying the seemingly obvious fact that RPGs more closely resemble storytelling or theatre than they do chess or bridge are most often the practitioners of the form -- gamers themselves. Perhaps the reasons for this are primarily sociological; gamers are disproportionately composed of people educated in math-, science-, and engineering-related fields. Many of these folks have traditionally been suspicious of pretensions associated with the humanities, and aren't comfortable thinking of themselves as artists. It is possible that we shouldn't spoil things by convincing them that they are. To get back to the film analogy, most of the great directors of the Hollywood studio era -- still the most fertile single period and milieu in film history -- were deeply reluctant to accept the label of artist, preferring instead the self-image of the hardworking craftsman.

Those currently working in the RPG field who wish to consider themselves artists, and RPGs an art form, can be seen as similar to early, literary-oriented film critics. They consider a successful or `artistic' game session to be one that most closely imitates novelistic or cinematic structure. I submit that if RPG criticism becomes an active and growing field, that it will likely identify unique criteria that mark high achievement in gaming. Like the glossy, over-serious Hollywood literary adaptations that once won praise from critics, games that win acclaim today for their adherence to criteria from other narrative forms may eventually come to be regarded as dated and naive.

However, we have no choice but to go through a period of naivety and searching if we are to arrive at that point. It took years for a visually oriented approach to film to develop, one that attempted to discover a new vocabulary to describe the visual grammar of film. The artistic decision behind the making of a film was not confined to the writing of its dialogue, but also included editing, set design, shot composition, camera movement, and many other elements that had previously been considered only subliminally. At the forefront of this movement were French critics, who had an advantage of distance. Most often working with unsubtitled prints of the films from the Hollywood studio period, their indifference to the dialogue led them to concentrate more fully on the uniquely filmic elements at play in the films' construction.

One area of criticism that would-be RPG critics should similarly be looking hard at is the grammar of a gaming session. Films tell their stories through a variety of technical means, as do plays and prose stories. One fruitful avenue of exploration would be the issue of game mechanics, and how they hamper or hinder the narrative building process. Does a critical hit table or a skill resolution roll fulfil the same sort of purpose as a camera angle? A hard cut between scenes? A fade-out? Is there a useful distinction to be drawn between a scene that uses rules resolution and a scene that does not, as film critics distinguish between montage (effects produced through the use of the camera, editing consoles and so on) and mise en scene (effects produced in real time and space before the camera)?

Another famous development in film criticism fostered by the French critics of the 1950s was the development of the auteur theory, which placed the director at the centre of the analysis of cinema. Certain directors of classic Hollywood were singled out as having produced distinguished bodies of work. Looking at all of their films enriched each of them, as certain running themes and approaches became apparent. Many, if not all, of these directors worked in the field of the popular genre film, which had heretofore been considered to lack sufficient seriousness to be worthy of consideration: Alfred Hitchcock in suspense, John Ford in the western, Howard Hawks in virtually every pop genre. Auteurist critics found high art in these films, which used the rigid and well loved structures of their genres to explore themes just as important as those tackled by self-consciously literary films. More importantly, they did so with a surpassing subtlety, without sacrificing the pleasure principle of great entertainment. Hitchcock wove complex parables of voyeurism and paranoia. Ford ritualized a notion of community and honour. Hawks played energetic havoc with gender construction.

Certain lessons of the auteurist movement are indispensable for our attempts to construct a framework for RPG criticism. To my knowledge, there are no RPGs that correspond to the glossy `A' productions that were overthrown by the genre-driven auteur theory. All RPGs draw heavily on popular genres -- various sub-categories of fantasy, science fiction, comic book-inspired superheroes, horror, the mystery, the spoof, and so on. If there is proof anywhere that pop genres can be dragooned into the service of great art, it is in the work of so-called `auteur' directors such as those cited above. High art contained in a genre package often functions more on the allegorical or symbolic level than in the realist mode often favoured by critics of more self-conscious art structures. This is not to say that all or even most genre material exceeds the level of enthusiastic nonsense. One of the main points we can draw from the auteur approach in film criticism is merely that works in a genre mould can have legitimacy as important work.

Beyond this lies the question of whether we wish to study the work of particular game authors for common threads, and single out certain of them for a pantheon of achievement based on our discoveries. The answer to this question surely will depend on a careful examination of the work itself.

To return once more to our film criticism model, we can find various new modes of criticism that grew from the auteurist notion that pop culture was worthy of serious analysis. These new modes reduced their emphasis on evaluation -- deciding which works were better than others -- and searched instead for social or political insight reflected in pop construction.

Marxist critics searched genre films for hidden critiques of the very capitalist system that gave rise to their production. While films that most strenuously damn the western economic structure, either openly or in code, are considered to be better than other films according to these criteria, even the study of films which are not intentionally critical of capitalism can be useful. The main objective is not to create a hierarchy of films and directors according to their aesthetic value, but to use the study of film as a means to arriving at the best way of subverting or changing the existing social order.

Psychological critics searched films to see how their characters and structures could be categorized according to a preferred mode of psychoanalysis. Freud has always been the sexiest and most popular guru for psychologically oriented film critics. For our purposes, given the degree to which fantasy and mythic imagery permeates popular RPGs, I'd suggest that a Jungian approach to gaming might be extremely fruitful.

Marxist and Freudian criticism have often dovetailed into one another, paralleling a feminist critique of traditional family construction with a similar attack on hierarchical economic structures. This approach (which no doubt would have old Sigmund spinning in his grave at the discovery that he'd been posthumously appointed patron saint of feminists and Marxists) loosely identifies an enemy, labels it `patriarchy', values films that somehow fight that enemy, and attack those that reinforce it. In this framework, the fact that a work is from a pop genre may be in its favour. The allegorical mode of genre, with its broad characterization and its constant reiteration of the same narrative structures, lends itself to this sort of symbolic interpretation.

It would be interesting to see a Marxist critique of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, for example. An enterprising critic could have a field day with the way its experience point system primarily rewards killing enemies and stealing their gold. Its hierarchical character development system, with characters going up `levels' and thereby becoming more effective at killing enemies and stealing their gold, would be further grist for the academic Marxist's mill. Although I'm certain that the furthest thing from the minds of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson when they developed Dungeons & Dragons was to create a training kit for the budding robber baron, a politicized critic might argue that the game is significant not for any aesthetic reasons, but because its success in the marketplace makes it a barometer of social and political attitudes, even those held at a subconscious level. The same critic would also find a lovely Brechtian resonance in Ray Winninger's overtly subversive Underground RPG.

Finally, wrapping up our woefully simplified survey of the history of film criticism, we come to semiotics, the study of pop culture for its constituent images. Semiotics takes Marxist criticism to a new level of Byzantine complexity, reading pop culture's use of imagery as a new language in need of decoding. In my own personal opinion, semiotics seems to be a procedure for taking images we all understand on a visceral level and then rendering them incomprehensible. However, while undertaking an introductory overview of this sort, I'd be remiss in not pointing out that the RPG field is an untouched smorgasbord for the semiotician hungry for more signs and tropes to freeze-dry and pin to the butterfly board.

These modes of criticism should provide enough entry points from which potential RPG critics can start their examination of gaming. If the form is indeed a unique one, it will soon force those critics to diverge from these borrowed criteria and hammer out new ones suited specifically for it.

However, before doing so, an interesting obstacle remains to be surmounted. Interactive gaming is in its very essence highly resistant to critical analysis. This is because the gaming experience itself is not set up to be observed by outsiders. Unlike the other traditional narrative forms we have been drawing analogies to, gaming does not draw a line between artist and audience. In a gaming session, all participants are creators. They are not passively watching a predetermined work of art unfold before them. They are collaborating together to create a work that exists only for a moment, without the eyes of non-participants upon them. (It is true that a rare few RPG events at conventions permit or even encourage spectators, but this is the exception to the rule.) RPGs are not set up so that other people may watch. Most sessions occur in peoples' living rooms, or at gaming clubs, or in classrooms, far from the analytical eye of the critic. If critics do take the unusual step of arranging to watch a session, they will change its very nature. The participants are likely to either change their session to add some entertainment for the passive viewer, or be cowed by the unaccustomed attention. Criticism of the actual RPG experience is the Schr.dinger's Cat of art criticism. Lift the lid to look at the cat, and you may well destroy it.

What is available for study are second-hand sources. Participants may make written records of sessions played; these are known among fans as `write-ups'. If published at all, they're likely to be found in Amateur Press Associations (APAs) like Alarums and Excursions or The Wild Hunt. Write-ups are about as representative of the original gaming experience as the press kit for a film is of the film itself. They may be entertaining in themselves, or even artful. But they have certainly been arranged in a new way for the benefit of outsiders, and are by no means a reliable portrayal of the nature of events that transpired during the game session.

Reviews in the gaming field are most often of new games and supplements and adventures published for them. But these too are second or third-hand sources, not the actual art-making experience themselves. They are a mere part of a collaboration, written by authors who do not know who their collaborators will be, and are unlikely ever to meet them or communicate with them directly.

To return to the `game mechanics as cameras and lighting equipment' analogy, studying a game book to evaluate the RPG experience as art is rather like using a technical manual of cinematography to write about Rashomon instead of actually watching Rashomon itself. Rules mechanics are the virtual equipment for the story creation process, but are not the process itself. Sourcebooks, which provide additional information on the fictional settings in which game narratives are to be set, aren't the experience either, though those of us who write them for a living endeavour to make them readable and entertaining in their own right. They are perhaps analogous to the notes made by an author of speculative fiction before sitting down to write a novel set in an imaginary world; they are not the novel itself.

It is interesting that even the writer's guidelines for this very publication propose that game books will be reviewed, and that supplements and adventures will not. For it is adventures -- pre-planned story outlines for GMs to adapt to their own use -- that most closely approximate the actual narrative spun during actual gaming. They still aren't the experience itself, but they are the closest documents available. The analogy here would be to reading the screenplay of Rashomon instead of watching Rashomon.

So perhaps this entire survey of possible critical approaches is premature. The interactive art of RPGs is an elusive one, hidden from the observing eye of the critic. Perhaps before we figure out which criteria to apply to it, we should attempt to figure out how to observe it at all.

Copyright 1995 Robin D. Laws

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