Monday, 24 February 2014

Art And Roleplaying (Part One)

There was scant interest in superhero roleplaying (or maybe it's Marvel superhero roleplaying?) last week, based on the feedback I received on my five columns, so let's change it up this week. How about I start out by throwing down a little ideological hand grenade, and we'll see where the shrapnel lands?

Roleplaying games as art. 

I recently introduced this idea on our podcast, SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLEPLAY, (which, if you haven't been listening to it, is really smashing and full of lively discussion of roleplaying issues both provocative and practical) with a mention of that Pablo Picasso quote I love: "Bad artists copy, great artists steal." That was part of a conversation about borrowing techniques from various places as part of building a roleplaying style. One of my co-hosts was reluctant to accept the mantle of artist, or the idea that what we did at the roleplaying table was art.

A lot of people in the hobby feel this way. There seems to be a prevailing sense that people who look at roleplaying games as art (or themselves as artists) are Pretentious Arseholes who smoke Gauloise cigarettes and linger in coffee shops loudly declaiming the death of literature / film / theatre etc. This image was often attributed to those who dared to play White Wolf games in the early 1990s, and the way those games described roleplaying (which, twenty years on, seems less outre and pretentious, as many games have since acquired many of the same self-conscious narrative-building / drama-centric techniques that White Wolf was aiming for -- whether or not you think they "stuck the landing"). What seemed like heresy Back In The Day is now so common as to barely merit discussion at all, especially if you play any of the "storygames" that have evolved since -- but even mainstream games today readily acknowledge that they are about constructing a kind of narrative and provide tools to do just that.  

In short, there is a very large part of the hobby that considers itself proudly and firmly in the "beer and pretzels" camp -- they play roleplaying games to goof around with their friends (and possibly enjoy games that feature Killing Things And Taking Their Stuff) full stop. That would be fine, except that many who see the hobby this way also seem to be openly hostile to anyone who doesn't play games for the same reasons they do, the One True Way of Roleplaying. Curiously, those who claim to be most interested in the "game" part of roleplaying games are also the ones most likely to assume the mantle of oppressive orthodoxy. Your brand of fun is not sanctioned, heretics, so grab some polyhedrals and make with the ha-ha already; don't let the sun set on your "art" in these here parts.

I could go on about how this seems to be part-and-parcel of an insidious modern contempt for anything intellectual, and the curious fact that this attitude exists even inside a -- let's face it -- pretty nerdy, niche hobby, but let's stay on point.

What this argument seems to boil down to is two questions: Could roleplaying be art? And should it be art? (And, incidentally, we probably need to ask ourselves how we define art to begin with.)

To be continued...


  1. So, if I may clarify what I meant on the podcast: I was rejecting the image of myself as an artist, specifically. I certainly do think that games and the act of roleplaying can both be art.

    Not that I don't think this is worth discussing, of course!

  2. Part of my point is that *a lot* of people feel like that, unnecessarily, when art is a democratic, accessible thing that needn't be seen as existing in an ivory tower. *Why not* call yourself an artist?

  3. Well, I guess I don't feel that it's for me to decide, you know? It's like deciding that I'm cool.

    But perhaps you will convince me!

  4. Well, it's not passive consumption of entertainment, nor a competitive contest.The GM and players create something, much like dance, theatre or writing. It's art. Just like tagging bathroom mirrors and Shakespeare are both art, the fact that it's art doesn't make it always "good" or "high" art, but it's a perfectly valid cultural product created by the group.

    Besides, in a post-Dada world, it's art if you say it is. And if you say it isn't, I can say it is, and my statement becomes art in it's own right. :)

  5. Clearly, our brains are receiving the same zeta-rays on this subject, Matt! :D