Saturday 24 September 2011

Roleplaying games as art {RPG Philosophy}

The roleplaying game is a strange beast. Right from the get-go we usually have the author of the rulebook describe to us what exactly a roleplaying game is, and it's often along the lines of, 'It's part storytelling, part dice-rolling, where YOU are the hero of the story'. Clearly, the act of weaving a narrative is a traditional art form that dates back to the dawn of humanity; so there's no disparity there. However, a game is not thought of as an art form. You cannot say that basketball or tennis is art, yet there is probably an art to certain aspects of those sports. So are roleplaying games, as part-storytelling, part game, art? 

Firstly, we need to determine the term 'art'. Really, it's an expression of arrangement that evokes emotion and thought. A film constitutes various aspects, such as actors, camera people and the director, arranged in such a way as to present the audience with a product which elicits one or multiple responses. Similarly, a painter arranges her paint of different colours, thicknesses and styles in order to create her painting. The term 'art' has leaked out from these more traditional outlets recently into the digital realm of video games, where the question I'm posing for roleplaying games rages on.

Which bring us to the crux of the matter. If video games can widely be considered an art form, can roleplaying games? After all, they are essentially the same product, just with different modes of interactivity and presentation. A video game is created by a developer who usually creates a story, a character for the audience to control, and interactive elements. Clearly, the main point of the medium is to be a game, like basketball or tennis, but what sets a video game apart from these are the narrative and stylistic aspects.

Roleplaying games are the same. The GM creates a narrative, NPCs and a world. While there is art style in terms of paintings in sourcebooks, most of it comes  from the GM and the players' descriptions of the roleplaying universe they inhabit. Can these games elicit emotion? Of course they can. A player can become sad if a trusted NPC dies, or happy when they finally solve the puzzle. Of course, all good art carries some kind of message, which is something that usually doesn't come into RPG adventures other than 'good is better than evil', unless the game has an integrated setting that is awash with allegory and metaphor.

So yes, the roleplaying game is an art form for all the reasons stated above, but what does this actually mean? To be honest, it doesn't mean much. The reason why the question is such a big one in the video games world is because it's such a massive industry and there are still people who don't see what use it has in comparison to cinema. The artistic integrity of the roleplaying gaming industry is never brought up in the mainstream and really there is no need for it to be. It's just an interesting question where the answer can define how we look at the hobby.


  1. Here's another consideration. Art invokes different reactions from different people and some of those may be disgusted, dismayed, or overjoyed. This mixed bag of reactions to a piece of art is what gives it power and logevity. Safe to say this applies to RPGs - just read any forum. There is no single interpretation and no single result. How I feel about a game and the emotional response varies from others at the same table. That's what I love about it. There is no one answer.

  2. @The Warden Great observation there. You're absolutely right.

  3. I'm not entirely sure I'm on board here. I'm a fan of both video games and RPGs, but for some reason I don't like to think of them as art.

    I guess I see it this way: some films are art, and some aren't. When I go to see an art film, I go to see something challenging, or beautiful, or provocative or whatever.

    ...sometimes, I want to grab some popcorn and see TRON: Legacy. (Or whatever) I don't watch Schindler's List to be entertained, but I do watch The Big Lebowski for that very reason.

    When I game, I do it to have fun. To me, the creative/collaborative process is entertaining, and there's a social element in RPGs that isn't present when I take in other forms of media. (In fact, socialization during a movie usually irritates me, since I'm trying to watch the damn movie)

    Art, to me, is something that enriches you.
    Gaming, to me, is recreation.

    Hell, maybe that means I'm doing art wrong. Maybe it means I'm doing recreation wrong.
    I enjoy myself with both, but I don't consider them the same thing. That's just me, though.