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From Media to Medium: Claiming a Stake for RPGs

By J.S. Majer

In which the author discusses the question 'is it art'?

Is a role playing game art? A daft question if there ever was one, but a useful target. The first thing the question hits is a version of the dictionary paradox, "Rimmer's Opening Paragraph," for you Red Dwarf fans out there. To answer the initial question, a series of questions must be asked: what is art, what is a game, what is a role, what is play, what is a role playing game – and each of those questions results in more questions so that an answer to the initial question can never be brought to bear.

The worst of them all is the question about what art is. Being a grubby member of the intelligentsia, I break the bottle on the bar when someone says, "What is art, anyway?" and get ready for the scrum. Words like that are asking for trouble. It is especially troublesome since they tend to draw in all manner of lumpy minds, since everyone can talk about it. So Dr. Rotwang! calls out slight imprecations upon the subtle definitions of the black turtleneck brigade. Well, just consider me the avenger of the "Village Yahoos."

As I understand it, back in the early days of Hollywood, the notion of whether a movie could be art was in doubt as well. It was a secondary question to whether the medium had any longevity in it, or even money. The relevance of this to the topic at hand comes in the way the editors thought about things. Editors certainly did not see what they did as art. Editing was a task, a skill, and a job that they did. It was a craft, a profession that involved a certain kind of skill, and many actually resented the idea that they were artists. They considered themselves only tradesmen. They were not even called editors, but instead "cutters," as that was what they did: cut film. This term later acquired derogatory overtones, so be mindful of how you bandy it about.

Now, did movie editing have any less art to it than it would acquire later on? Perhaps, but to an important degree the answer is no. And did editing have any less skill to it when it became considered an art form? Don't answer that in the affirmative if there are any editors in the room. Craft and Artistry, Form and Function; these concepts are Corsican twins: hurt one and you hurt the other, and they together go with linked hands up the hills of truth and beauty.

Do I mean to say that, some day, in analogy with the above story, all those people who deny their games are art are going to start considering themselves artists? To Hades with the labels! What matters most is how good your game is. To put it one way, the best artists have no idea what art is, the worst critics always do. Far better to not call it art and run a game so beautiful as to make the gods weep than to call it art and play games that have more to do with showing off your mastery of tropes and character than entertainment.

However, this feeds into an important point. A definitive answer to the question of whether games are art would not do much. If I conceived the ultimate logical proof stating that role playing games were art, you would not be moved. Why? Next Saturday you still have to figure out how you are going make the players meet up with the prince's dogs, or whether you will finally catch up to those pirates who took your ship. Even if you knew, you still have to run or play in a game. And since the correlation between theory and practice is slim in the least, the basic problem of creating that good game hangs around like a dead bat.

No, I'm serious. Combine "As I Lay Dying" and "Absolom, Absolom," switch all the female characters to Phoebe Cates, and turn it into a song sung by The Bloodhound Gang, and that's Dr. Rotwang!. Of course, reading me is like reading a bad translation of a Sanskrit catalogue of humorously obscene pottery. But those are our "wrists," as they call it in the trade. It's why your reading this.

"Yet," as I am certain that both of you still reading this are now thinking, "Dr. Rotwang! has already Faulknerianally pointed out these things (that's stream of consciousness for those of us who aren't Village Yahoos. Ed.). He has already written on what we can get from art. What purpose do you serve in reiteration?" Ah, but I do not intend for a reiteration, I plan for a further exposition. While I like his article, I do not like his basic theory.

Dr. Rotwang! has approached the matter with a sheer look to practicality. Take this, don't take that. Take this movie convention and this theatrical style, and don't take this bad one. I do not like practicality. Why is this? I agree with David Thomas in his article prior to the Doctor's. Gaming is a matter of its own, and to let it be too corrupted by other artistic forms is heresy. However, as I am a theorist, I see more connections.

What makes good playwrights or screenwriters or actors or directors or storytellers or writers or even painters is the same as what makes Referees: a mastery of specific technique, plus a sense of composition. However, artistic forms of all sorts had the greatest effect on where games are now. This then is my investigation.

So consider this a genealogy. A genealogy is not a history. If you want history, well, look at the earlier issues of this 'zine. Instead, it is an attempt to relate gaming to its forebears, which more often than not were artistic endeavours. Whether or not they are all art could be debated, but they were all media, and they all had an influence. This is not how gaming itself developed, but what it was that made gaming what it is. I shall be looking at the roles played by literature, movies, TV and video games.

For more on the notion of camp, see the second helping of Christopher Kubasik's cool but more-than-slightly dated series, "The Interactive Toolkit" (currently available on the Oracle).

Literature told us what sorts of games would be played. May the probabilities bless you, Prof. Tolkien. Fiction gave us worlds, or the seeds of worlds, on which the bare bones of function could be hung. Fiction gave us ideas, and inspired our already extant ideas. But also we must examine what sorts of fiction were chosen. It was always, or almost always, genre fiction as it is derisively called: sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etcetera. Most genre fiction has its roots in the world of pulp fiction. Pulp fiction was cheaply produced, wholly gratuitous stories that generally held little so-called artistic merit although as camp they possessed a worth of their own. I suspect that it is from pulp fiction that we get such notions as the "adventure," as well as the notion that adventures were supposed to be strung together in some manner of episodic structure typically one that centred on a central character or characters. It also granted us strong notions of good and evil, although perhaps that would be better seen as a clear protagonist and equally clear antagonist. It was the creation of a new symbolism. While some of it came from more ancient precedents like Homer or Mallory, most of it was fresh, and got sucked up into RPGs. A four-year old could be read a piece of the story and know exactly what sides everyone was on. There were just a multitude of tropes developed over the years regarding who was the central character and who "wore the red shirt," to be slightly anachronistic. I do not think the notion of the evil overlord has ever been quite shaken, and its strongest roots are in the pulps. There is also an emphasis on combat, and on a specific form of combat that got taken into RPGs, that I would call the "swarms of minions" approach, think the old Batman ("In color!!!") television show. Finally, there are the campy attitudes of gaming that have never been quite shaken. I get shivers whenever I see an anatomically violate painting by Boris "how does she stand?" Vallejo. Larry Elmore, despite some people's strong protests to the contrary, is not much better. It is not only a matter of broad-shoulders and buxomness, but a matter of convention and stereotype. Why would you go into a melee battle wearing nothing but a loincloth? Why does every wizard have a beard, regardless of its length or color, and excepting for "the young apprentice"? Why is everyone white? Answers to such questions lie in campy genre fiction and unthinking racist, sexist and agist attitudes more common in the 50's morality.

Television and the cinema had similar effects. Most movies that got gamer attention were rather pulpy, and so created the same sorts of influence as the pulps before. Both media, after all, were taking about as many cues from the pulps as gaming was. They opened up more genera to more people, thus giving more people more impetuous to game. The difference rests in the matter of scale. Putting aside any dismay at the death of literacy aside, the fact that they could be consumed with much more ease opened up more people to the realms that genre fiction had carved out.

And don't even begin to consider the "artist intention" aspect of this; that's another fight altogether.

Pulp fiction, for all its virtues, never (with notable exceptions) considered itself mainstream. It never tried for it. There was an audience, and the audience was kept sated. Movies were, or became after two extremely successful pieces of genre fiction big-ticket mass-culture items (Star Wars and Jaws for you cultural trivia types). Television did this too, but the ways that it made a mono-culture are slightly different in character. By their epic natures, movies had more of a story to tell. Those stories have stuck with us, within our minds and in our culture. We, all of us, know very well what to expect from a interstellar empire and those expectations play out in our games. Even when they are not met, the gap between the expectations and their fulfilment is important because our ideas are being challenged. The absence of a fulfilment makes the aberrance stand out even more. Take Traveller for instance. Due to Star Wars…well, and Christianity, empire means evil empire. Most people do not even know what an empire is other than evil. Yet, in the Traveller universe, the Imperium is neutral if not good, and just as ho-hum as any other form of interstellar government. Thus the expectation has been blown.

The stories in movies provided one important set of templates as to how a story in a game should go, and what it should be about. Television achieved this as well, but in a different sort of way. Television lent its episodic structure to games. Pulps may have had this aspect, but the role of television is more persuasive by its greater spread, but also because of its limits. A book can and will be as long as it needs to be, especially since the authors of the pulps were being paid by the word. A television program has a specific limit of time, and episode, fixed within another limit of time, the season. There is no coincidence that these two things relate closely to session and campaign. However, games had more power than television programs, not being limited to such a specific period of time. In fact, it could be argued that each individual session of a game has more to do with a movie's structure, the play out of themes beyond a single session fits well within television.

Television's role may now be changing. Well, perhaps not changing, but there was one event that absolutely changed things for RPGs, and that is Babylon 5. Now, I've only seen one season of this show so I'm no expert, but the day that I heard Mike Pondsmith (the R. Talsorian head man) going on about it and how wonderful the plot arc concept was, I knew there was going to be trouble. Nowadays, it is damnably hard to find a game that does not have a plot arc (or meta-plot as these young kids are calling it) of some sort. In fact, it is equally hard to find a television series that does not have one of these running though it.

I do not see any ways that theater has influenced RPGs, not greatly at least. The physicality of theater tends to frighten off most gamers. It is a whole different sort of acting found in the theater, where one must not merely intellectually be the character in question, but also be the physical avatar of the character. In fact, I would tentatively argue that we have done more for theater than it has for us. After all, we have at least introduced many more to the notion of playing a character, and experience in doing so. On the other hand, some of the best players that I've had were of the crossbreed type. In fact, that may be part of the problem, that the notions of RPGs and of theatrical production are so implicitly similar in tone. After all, how many times have you heard the definition of RPGs as "acting with rules?" Certainly theater encouraged the LARP movement, as a LARP, no matter the variety, is awfully close to theater, to the point of them being indistinguishable at some times.

The most important influence nowadays is video games; games that RPGs helped define in the first place. RPGs did not necessarily create video games, but they did change how they developed. There is even a genera of video games called RPGs, which we all know has about as little to do with an actual RPG as chickens do to monkeys. I do mean video games or platform games as opposed to computer games. It is more about Space Invaders than King's Quest. While the latter may have opened up the field for the former, it was the former that ended up being more important. Video games had the advantage of being more common, due to their lower entry cost, and were forced to be simpler by nature. Video games took a lot of the RPG conventions: dungeons, level based character development, and so on, redefining them all the while admittedly their development was close together, but the notion of conventions is key. Character may be obvious, a logical mutual development. That there were different fantasy races, or that wizards must rest to regain spells, perhaps they could have been taken from some of the mutual artistic forebears. But the notion that those things were so highly codified, with specific rules governing them, is a role playing game notion. Still, there are a host of other little things, like Trolls regenerating or spellcasters being unable to use serious weaponry, that can only have their roots in our field.

Now that video games have become their own thing, the influences are returned. I've heard people say in games, "this must be the level boss," or "wait a minute, hit save, hit save," and so on. But the biggest sign of this I see in the new edition of D&D. Now, I will admit, I have only a cursory knowledge of the rules for 3E as I have yet to work a deep examination, but what I have seen points in this direction. The most egregious is one of the new notions of the way that level and class interrelate. That there are certain classes that open up when a character achieves different levels in several is as old as 1E. However, the new rules make it more far more common and palatable, and include the idea that some exist that the makers have not told you about. More than just a simple way to get more supplements out, it has that wonderfully video game-ish notion of hidden abilities if you do the right things.

So what of it? What is the point? Part of it was a desire on my part to make my own addition to the argument about games and media, but, as you must wonder, the article is not about that question. It must use that question, however. I have enumerated the ways that art has changed us, has changed what it means to be a gamer and the ways that games themselves run. What I seek to propose is the discovery of the next logical step for role playing games to take.

There is one immense way that art and gaming are similar, and this transcends the mechanical facts I have already cited. Games and art are at their best when being reflective. Art, at its finest, has so much more to it than beauty. When art is at its best it not only speaks to mere aesthetics but reaches for something greater. Now, I am not trying to say what art is, merely what it does. Be it capturing a zeitgeist or an eloquent assertion of human truth, or both for that matter, good art achieves this. Art is powerful when it reflects the culture that it comes from, when it somehow explains who we are.

The problem that most art has in the current world is a fight over just whose culture the art represents. Those of us in the States are suffering the greatest ravages of this as a nation attempts to force a definition of itself from its art. What does this have to do with gaming? Games too reflect culture. The most wonderful example of this comes in the form of the "New School" of gaming. Anyone who was there may get to brag about it to his or her children some day. I refer to the great upsurgence of White Wolf. What is the New School? Just what it is proves hard to nail down, because it is as much about ideological allegiances than any specific tenets. Principally, it is the division between story and character oriented games and those that are not, but also totes about a categorical rejection of older, more game and numerical oriented ways. See, it is the New School because it chose to define itself as such, placing itself against an Old School. It is the New School because it stressed an gap of ideals as to what had gone on before.

Is White Wolf, a long decade since its original strides, still New School? Yes, because as long as the gaming populace still divides itself along these party lines the schools still count for something. Until one is swept away completely or another significant division appears, they still are the New School, or are its standard bearer at least. Who cares about a bunch of Goths? Let me tell you why you should care.

Games have always had an important aspect of popularism to them, that is to say, the power to appeal on a most generic level. This is furthered by the fact that each game is an instrument in and of itself. Two people could both play Star Frontiers and have completely different experiences of what that game was like, simply because so much depends on the Referee and the players. But the archetype of what a game should consist of was still the way it had already been. Certainly there were games that broke the rules. Amber was diceless. Pendragon was severe in its story emphasis. Yet such games were a subculture of a subculture. A rulebook was a rulebook, and picking up a new one you still had a very good notion of how it was going to read, how it was going to be designed.

White Wolf did not change that last point, not entirely anyway. There are ways but rulebook taxonomy is not my forte. What they did manage to do was to have their own little folk revolution. They viciously broke the rules about who was supposed to be playing RPGs and what sorts of foci those games were to have. For instance, while all good Referees before had the notion that there really were no unbreakable rules, to enshrine that rule as White Wolf's Golden Rule was meant to change the way that people thought about why and what they were playing. More importantly, unlike the other adventurous games that had come out, White Wolf knew where its doggie treats were coming from. They did not just bank on a revolutionary idea - revolutionary ideas had been banked on before - they banked on a subculture. Suddenly there was a game that was by Goths and for Goths. White Wolf teamed up with a growing subculture, and broke the stranglehold of the old subculture of gaming. This allowed them many liberties to do things that were not done before, and we are blessed to have had some wise souls on the helm. Of course nowadays they themselves have become the establishment that is rallied against, but that is a tale that has yet to fully play out. Games now had to all grow as games; since someone had proved that a big idea could work in ways that no one had expected possible.

We, as Steve has pointed out, would not have all these arguments about story and narrative and so on if not for White Wolf. And the change in semantics between "role/roll playing" and "storytelling/gaming" is drastically important. The notion enshrined in "roll playing" is that it is some sort of deviation from a mean of what we all do, role playing. To say there is an essential difference between storytelling and gaming marks a far greater split. So many things have changed, and the reason why they have changed is only partially due to the fact that the notions that White Wolf brought with them were new and revolutionary, but largely due to the fact that they knew how to interact with the world at large. They knew the way to formulate their New School to be immensely attractive, one relevant to a large group of people in the way that other games that could have been the harbingers of the New School, had not. They knew it took more than a good idea, but also a manifesto.

So, brothers and sisters know of your origins. Discern how your games are to be articles of the now, as opposed to the relics from which we came. We have a long history and the new trick is to see how to live past those origins. There are ideas for games out there that are revolutionary, but just publishing a game in the genre of "Victorian Undersea Fantasy" will not cut muster anymore. The ideas that we need now do not derive from art, but are ideas that are wholly appropriate for the times we are living in now. The trick is to find them. And that is the finest thing that we can draw from the other arts that surround us. It is not a concrete piece of advice, but a metaphorical way of seeing the world.

It may be that you think that all art nowadays is dribble. Other than doubting your claim's veracity, all I can say is that your game will never have the brilliance of a well-timed game. It is not, for instance, that science fiction is the "next big thing", but there is an expression of a science fiction game that is wholly appropriate and necessary for the way that we live now. It could be a science fiction or urban fantasy or post-apocalyptic game; or perhaps it does rest in a single genre, but that is not what is important. It is that there is a way of expressing that genre that fits with who we are as humans, living in the world that we do live in now. And it is our duty, either as designers or as Referees to forge and as players and critics to support, that vision.

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