Could a roleplaying game be Art? Should it?
According to my modest definition of the term, let's see if a roleplaying game could fit. The first consideration is Craftsmanship. I think the fact that I'm writing a column about roleplaying establishes that for some of us, we put a great deal of thought into the techniques involved in the hobby, and indeed the possibilities that tabletop roleplaying presents as a narrative/performance medium. Look at great books like Graham Walmsley's PLAY UNSAFE and Robin Laws's HAMLET'S HIT POINTS, which consider the medium from the performance and narrative perspectives, and you'll likely agree that there are at least a handful of people in the hobby who really do think about the craftsmanship involved in a good game.
Content. Although not all roleplaying games are going to fulfill this requirement, beyond perhaps exploring the human condition through the experiences of several characters, there are certainly games that explore central themes -- Kagematsu and gender, for example, or the way Tribe 8 explores religion. I also think that the improvisational nature of the medium means that some of the themes that evolve do so organically, through play and development, rather than as an "authorial intention" of the GM and players.
Audience. This is one of the things that makes roleplaying games unique, in that the artists and audience are the same people. Does that count? I would argue that it does. Roleplaying games don't make good spectator sports, in my opinion and experience, but there are many times over the course of an average session when a player is called on to pay attention to scenes where other players are playing out a scene, as opposed to acting in it himself. I have presented the idea previously that a high-functioning roleplaying group has much in common with jazz musicians, playing together and building on the riffs that each person brings into the mix, using the central song (the game rules would be the analogy here) as a springboard for personal expression. An improv theatre company probably operates in much the same way.
So I think it's possible, according to this definition, to see a roleplaying game as Art. But should it be Art?
This brings us full circle to the beer and pretzels guys, looking askance at anyone bringing deeper meanings into their goofing around, and the bashfulness that a lot of players feel for attaching that highfalutin word to the hobby. This, I think, is a problem not of the word or the hobby, but of perception.
People that don't like the word Art seem to think of Art as something remote, exalted, intellectual. Surely you couldn't call something that's fun and entertaining Art? Surely someone who's sitting at a kitchen table, possibly with a handful of dice close at hand, shouldn't be called an artist?
But Art isn't just a word that describes dusty, fussy old statues in museums and experimental theatre performed by people in black turtlenecks. Art can be a crowd-pleaser, like Shakespeare or Martin Scorsese, or sublimely weird and sometimes goofy like Salvador Dali or David Lynch. Art is a window into a part of the human experience, the imagination, the spirit. It tells us something true about the world and about ourselves.
I like roleplaying games that are full of laughs and goofiness. I like to roll dice and eat Doritos and drink beer. And I'm okay with the idea that a lot of people are going to scoff at the notion of roleplaying games as Art. I get that people don't think of themselves as Artists, even if you reassure them that Artists are people who eat Doritos and drink beer and enjoy goofing with their buddies too.
But I have played games that were full of powerful dramatic moments, like a good stage play or a televison show or a novel or a movie. I've walked away from the table some nights emotionally spent, exhilarated, sad, my head boiling with ideas. Just exactly what happens when I've enjoyed an effective piece of Art.
You can call it bad Art, or low Art, or whatever you want. You can call it pretentious nonsense.
But why not call it Art? Why not be an Artist?