Normally, this kind of post, having been inspired from something on the internet, would be a Thursday post, but this week is a little topsy turvey, so you get this one today, and something related to tabletop campaigns on Thursday!
I try not to rely too heavily on content from Geek and Sundry to spark posts here, but sometimes they have things that are just too good to pass up. Such as this article that starts a discussion of whether RPGs are a form of Art (capital “A”). It’s a quick to read article that taps a bunch of game designers for their opinions on the matter. I want to tackle this question from the perspectives of writer and player rather than a designer though. – And I will warn you that this is a bit of an esoteric post. I’m setting aside my typical, light hearted tone and the peppering of self deprecating humor to earnestly discuss a topic that I feel very strongly about.
But first, I define terms. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Art is many things. Their simple definition is: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings. The page goes on to expand upon this with: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced. And so, the first thing we notice is that there is essentially “Art” as a verb, and “Art” as a noun. In a moment of existential crisis, we can ask whether something that is Art can be created by a process that isn’t Art, or vice versa. Can the act of Art create something that is not Art? For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll start from the premise that each can beget the other.
I don’t think it is so hard to see that the act of writing and playing games are a conscious use of skill and creative imagination. Like any other writing project, writing and playing tabletops and larps must be a deliberate, intentional project. We don’t accidentally write games. We don’t wake up one day and fundamentally wonder how we ended up playing a character in a a game.
Writing and playing is a skill. It isn’t easy. The same way that it it isn’t easy to write a novel. It can look that way from the outside, but there is so much more to it than what first appears. You could just sit down and make a bunch of stuff up on the spot, but those aren’t the stories that stick. Good games take time to plan. Days, weeks, months, or even, yes, years. The LARP I am proudest of took me and a friend a year and a half to write. You have to be serious, committed to the project, and not intimidated. You have to be focused and organized, otherwise you’ll forget important parts like what the villain’s motivations are, or what your own character’s motivations are.
We create entire new worlds, sometimes down to their own rules of physics. We build new magic systems. we design new fantastical creatures. We write histories for entire nations. We are creative and imaginative. We do borrow characters and tropes it is true, but what are these things if not the tools of the trade? A painter uses light and dark to tap into our collective consciousness and evoke feelings of hope and despair. They can use a circle to suggest inclusiveness, or a brick wall to suggest a cruel barrier. Such choices do not cause us to view the final product as “not real art” because it is copying from things we know. The best artists are the ones that effectively use these tools to convey something new and powerful. Writing and playing games is no different.
As hinted at, I think it is not such a far stretch to say that our games express important ideas and feelings. Setting aside the highly subjective nature of the word “important” for the moment, there is no argument to be had as to whether our games explore ideas and feelings. Games give us a chance to face situations that we wouldn’t normally. Sexism, racism, religious persecution, etc. Being challenged by such worlds builds empathy. Games also give us the opportunity to wrestle with emotions like hate, grief and betrayal.
Retrieving the concept of important ideas and feelings, I turn attention outward to find a definition of “important”. Once again, I ask google to define the word. In this case, I embrace the definition that Google provides as being more useful than what I get from MW: of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being. And so the question becomes are the ideas and feelings that we evoke with and explore through games likely to have profound effect on success, survival or well-being of our writers and players? Hard to say. How do you measure the impact of empathy on your career? How do you quantify the effect of new troubleshooting skills in relationships? I like to think that empathy and the other skills we develop while gaming are of significant use in the rest of our lives.
Taking another step back, and returning to the original definition of Art, there is a portion yet to be addressed. The first definition identifies Art as “beautiful” and the second as “aesthetic objects.” I must embrace the “or” and “especially” that modify these claims respectively. Not all Art is beautiful. To claim that would be to say that things that are heartrendingly sad, or utterly disgusting and leave your stomach queasy, are not Art. But I would absolutely count photos and stories from the Topaz Internment Camp as Art. Poignancy is a fundamental part of some Art.
The second MW definition of beauty offers some reconciliation regardless: the qualities in a person or a thing that give pleasure to the senses or the mind. Rather than fall down the rabbit hole of trying to define subjective words with other subjective words, I wish to appeal to our own individual standards of what is pleasing to us. We know intuitively what resonates with us and what doesn’t, even if we can’t explain it. And I deliberately use the word “resonate.” Art imitates life is a common adage. Topics that do not resonate with their audience – can find no common history, no common thread of emotion – will fall flat.
Games allow us to experience emotionally moving stories and scenes. These resonate with the GM and the players. But they are transitory. Even if the memory lingers in the minds of those involved, there is precious little record for the outside world. We do not normally create permanent objects of the kind that you could hang in a gallery or look up on YouTube. And so I wonder, how much of being Art is about staying power? A spontaneous dance may be beautiful, but is the dance itself Art, or just the video taken of it? Or in the act of recording, do we make the dance into Art?
And at this point, I think we might have hit the core this philosophical discussion. Fundamentally we are now asking whether Art is subjective or objective. Given how many subjective definitions we had to wade through to get here, I’m inclined to claim it is subjective and pack it up for the day. But even if Art is fundamentally subjective, this is still an important discussion.
Gaming is not necessarily a widespread cultural phenomenon yet, but the accusation that it “isn’t Art” is already a potent weapon wielded against writers. Despite the fact that we pour ridiculous amounts of time into our games, and often produce content in excess of a few hundred pages, I know I certainly couldn’t get the time of day from a publisher. Heaven forbid that an actor be given credit for years and years of improv work in games. So even if Art is subjective, we should figure out how to convince other people to accept games as an Art form.