Friday, January 26, 2007

Thesis to Pieces

I notice that a lot of other graduate students blog about their schoolwork, so I'm going to do the same. Right now I'm working on an overdue paper for ENG 5018 (Literary Criticism I, Professor Martin) analyzing roleplaying games -- real roleplaying games, not video or computer games that *call* themselves roleplaying games but really aren't -- as a form of improvisational theater. (I don't think this counts, for the opposite reason: it's roleplaying but not a game.)

I. Introduction

Literary theory and criticism is conventionally assumed to deal with the written word, i.e., with stories, novels, and poems; but it also deals with other forms of literature including theater. In fact, the earliest examples of literary criticism, Plato's _Ion_ and _Republic_ and Aristotle's _Poetics_, deal with theater, the famous "classical Greek drama." In addition, contemporary literary theory and criticism deals with other media such as films, radio, television, performance art, and now even the Internet.

Roleplaying games are a new art form and a new medium. Therefore it is appropriate to apply literary theory to roleplaying games. Conventionally, roleplaying games are generally classified as a form of fantasy literature; in essence, they are lumped in with standard stories and novels. To quote an early article from Different Worlds magazine, the assumption is that "If someone wrote down everything that happened in one of our Dungeons & Dragons games, it would make a pretty good fantasy story." A standard definition (courtesy of White Wolf Game Studio) describes roleplaying games as "collaborative storytelling."

My thesis is that, because of the interactive, multi-player nature of the games it is more useful to treat them as a form of collaborative improvisational theater. This is true for standard "tabletop" roleplaying games as well as live-action roleplaying games (LARPs). A roleplaying game can be defined, quite simply, as a form of collaborative improvisational theater in which each actor (player) plays a single character, while the gamemaster/referee/dungeonmaster plays all the other characters. (27=1 p.)

In this paper I intend to follow this theory by attempting to analyze roleplaying games as theater, using classical literary theory (Plato and Aristotle) as well as Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" and Lewis' "On Science Fiction." If I have time, I also intend to use Michael Moorcock's book Wizardry and Wild Romance and Ursula LeGuin's The Language of the Night. Finally, I will look at some of the new critical theories that have been developed specifically to deal with roleplaying games, including the Fourfold Way and GNS Theory.

There have been other attempts to study roleplaying games using critical theory; some examples include Role Playing Games As Culture and The Roleplaying Game: A New Performing Art as well as Man, Play, and Games which deals with games in general as well as "social simulation games" in particular; but as far as I know it is the only attempt which is done using literary theory, as opposed to some other form of critical theory.

II. Roleplaying Games as Theatre

Andrew Rilstone provides a concise definition of roleplaying games: "A role-playing game is a formalized verbal interaction between a referee and a player or players, with the intention of producing a narrative."

Perhaps the best way to understand roleplaying games is to define them as improvisational theater, much like the commedia cell'arte. Each of the participants plays the part of a single major character, except for the gamemaster (also known as a “referee” or “storyteller” or occasionally other terms based on the specific game – for example, West End Games’ Tales From the Crypt calls the gamemaster the “Crypt-Keeper”) who plays all the other characters as well as describing the scenery and directing the overall plot. (Some roleplaying games vary this in trivial ways; for example, players may be allowed to portray more than one character at a time, or the gamemaster may be assisted by one or more assistants who help portray the non-protagonist characters). (The difference between a conventional "tabletop" roleplaying game and a live-action roleplaying game [LARP] is that in the former, the actions of the characters are described rather than acted-out -- like the difference between radio theater and conventional theater.)

What distinguishes roleplaying games from other forms of improvisation, and forms part of their essential definition, is that the improvisations are performed within the limits set by the rules or “game mechanics” of the particular game. These rules, like the rules of any conventional game, are used to resolve disputes. For example, if two characters are in physical combat, the rules determine which one is victorious; if a player declares that his character undertakes some non-trivial action such as jumping over a chasm, picking someone’s pocket, or disarming a bomb, the rules determine the outcome – how far he can jump, whether his crime is detected, whether the bomb is disarmed or detonates.

III. Classical Greek Theories of Drama

Aristotle defines poetry (including theater) and other arts in terms of their medium, mode, and object; Under the category of object, Aristotle lists three of the components of tragedy: plot (the representation of the actions of the characters), character (the representation of the personalities of the characters), and thought (the representation of the intellectual processes of the characters as well as the values and beliefs articulated in the play.

The medium of a role-playing game is primarily speech, varying between “in-character” (spoken directly by the characters) and “out-of-character” (narration of the character’s actions, or other exposition); but many roleplaying games also include either physical activity miming or acting out a character’s behavior, or small-scale miniature figures to depict the scene.

The mode is delivery by the individual participants; stereotypically the gamemaster describes the scene and each player describes the reaction of their character, generally in turn according to the character’s speed or “initiative” according to the rules; at the end of the turn the cycle repeats. This directly corresponds to Aristotle’s comparison of telling a story with a single voice, reciting the Iliad in several voices, and having several actors.

The object of roleplaying games can be any protagonist, but generally they are much as China Mieville described them in Perdido Street Station: "They were immediately and absolutely recognisable as adventurers[...]They were hardy and dangerous, lawless, stripped of allegiance or morality, living off their wits, stealing and killing, hiring themselves out to whoever or whatever came. They were inspired by dubious virtues.[...]They were scum who died violent deaths, hanging on to a certain cachet among the impressionable through their undeniable bravery and their occassionally impressive exploits."

The correspondences with classical theater continue; for example, the gamemaster’s portrayal of the non-protagonist characters (NPCs) in the game corresponds exactly to the role of the chorus. Other features (courtesy of Wikipedia) include:
* Deus ex machina, a crane that gave the impression of a flying actor
* Trap doors, or similar openings in the ground to lift people onto the stage
* Pinakes, pictures hung into the scene to show a scene's scenery.
* Thyromata, more complex pictures built into the second-level scene (3rd level from ground)
Each of these has a clear corresponding element in roleplaying games.

Plato said that poets are dangerous to society; and exactly the same criticisms apply to roleplaying games -- and in fact have been applied, by groups such as B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons)! According to Plato poets are disorderly and chaotic because they are inspired by the Muses (rather than being governed by conscious logic), are emotional in their performances, and thereby inspire dangerous emotions in their audience; according to B.A.D.D., some roleplayers are so obsessed or overwhelmed by the game that they commit suicide when it goes badly for them. Plato also claimed that poets encourage disrespect for authority by depicting rulers and gods as having flaws, or even as figures of fun; certainly the same occurs quite often in roleplaying games. (One example from a roleplaying game of my own is the Governor of Sensak, who is based on the vigilante Judge Roy Bean.)

Plato also said that poetry encourages bad behavior by depicting vice and/or "persons of low character" which gives the audience ideas about imitating their deeds, especially when they are depicted as heroes. Roleplaying games are filled with characters who are rogues, criminals, cowards, and tomb robbers; in fact, one of the "core" or primary character types in Dungeons & Dragons is the "rogue" or "thief" character class, and it is even possible to play a professional assassin! Of course, B.A.D.D. has claimed several different cases in which teenagers were supposedly inspired to commit crimes because they played Dungeons & Dragons and wanted to "act out" these deeds, just like children (at least according to urban legend) once jumped off rooftops with bath towels as capes, in imitation of Superman.

Finally, to Plato, poets and dramatists are merely third-hand imitators, as opposed to real craftsmen, such as those who make chariots; and fantasists are even worse -- they are liars because their stories are false, and in some cases impossible. Similarly, Ursula LeGuin has pointed out in "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" contemporary fantasists are also pilloried because their works are "impractical" (i.e., not about success in business) and "unrealistic" (because they deal with ideals, and a better world than our own); and the same sort of criticisms are often levied about roleplaying games and those who play them. And just as Plato wished to see poetry banned from the Republic, there was also a movement to prohibit roleplaying games.

Aristotle disagreed with Plato on all of these points, and his defense of poetry and classical Greek theater can also be applied directly to roleplaying games.

(1) D&D games (and other literature) can be socially useful because they produce catharsis, so the players and audience don't need to get those emotions from real actions/events;
(2) they can inspire virtue by depicting heroism and nobility in a positive light;
(3) they can prevent vice by depicting it and "persons of inferior character" in a negative light, either seriously showing the problems caused by such behavior or by using comedy to mock such persons so everyone will want to avoid emulating them (thus providing a stick to the carrot of point #2);
(4) they are actually closer to the Mind of God (or the Platonic forms) by acting _in imitatio Dei_ to create something superior to the fallen (real) world;
(5) they may be false in the particulars, but can demonstrate important "higher truths" of human nature or other concepts. (+130=5pp)

IV. 20th-Century Theories of Fantasy

In "On Fairy Stories," J. R. R. Tolkien discusses fantasy fiction. This essay is of course a classic, and its principles can be applied to the analysis of other media besides the written story and the oral folk tale; for example, to fantasy films, theater, and to roleplaying games.

In the essay, Professor Tolkien defines fairy stories as stories about the adventures of mortal men in -- that is, their interaction and relationship with -- the "perilous realm" of faerie, i.e. the supernatural. He also sketches the principles behind the concept of world-building -- what Tolkien calls "sub-creation" -- which certainly apply to the creation of settings for roleplaying games!

Again to quote Tolkien, "a 'fairy-story' is one which touches on or uses Faerie," a term which in turn "may perhaps be most nearly translated by Magic--but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician." This is in stark contrast with the practical thaumaturgy of most characters in most _Dungeons & Dragons_ games! These player-characters are generally examples of the "greed for self-centered power which is the mark of the mere Magician" rather than the enchanter (storyteller or dungeon-master).

In Tolkien's opinion, the world depicted, although it has supernatural elements -- perhaps even because of this (quote about how Magic must not be satirized) -- must be consistent and rational. This sort of logic and consistency allows "Secondary Belief" or "willing suspension of disbelief" in the Secondary World, which is absolutely necessary for enchantment.

"Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted."

This allows us to see aspects of our own world with a different perspective: "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

This enchantment is the true purpose of the fantasy story: "The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself; its virtue is in its operations; among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things." "To the Elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches."

Tolkien also, following Aristotle, discusses the practical psychological benefits of fantasy fiction -- specifically, the creation of the psychological states of "Recovery," "Consolation," and "Escape."

V. Theories Developed Explicitly for Gaming

The two most prominent theories developed specifically to analyze roleplaying games are known as "The Fourfold Way" and "GNS Theory." There have been several other theories developed, but all are either less-prominent, less-well-developed, or simply derivative variations of one of these two primary theories.