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RPGs and Ideology?

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Dec. 19th, 2005 | 08:43 pm

I keep pushing around the big question: what would a solid basis for theorizing RPGs look like?

I’ve talked about ritual, myth, bricolage, and so forth. John Kim has talked about text and narrative. Obviously there’s also all that stuff about theater. Jonathan Walton has talked about art and aesthetic theory. The question, really, is the extent to which these things are analogy and that to which these are properly theoretical approaches, which is not entirely the same thing.

To go back to something I was talking about a couple of years ago on the Forge, there is this notion of “practice.” I’m thinking here of Pierre Bourdieu, as well as what came out of his work in the writings of Sherry Ortner, Catherine Bell, and so forth. Michel De Certeau did some nice things with this as well.

Unfortunately, Practice is stunningly difficult to summarize neatly or succinctly. But the basic notion is to take the structuralist mode of analysis, in which you perceive structures of a culture as systems of intertwined relations, and recognize that those caught within these structures can also manipulate them strategically. This strategic manipulation is fundamentally bounded by the acceptance of others caught in the same discourse: if they do not accept the manipulation, it is perceived as violation or even incomprehensibility; if they do accept it, it is as though the manipulation has never occurred because it was “logical” (or natural, or obvious). Thus we can talk about strategic practice as perpetually concealing itself from itself, which gets at the naturalization process under which entirely constructed, cultural perceptions are referred to nature.

It does seem to me that RPG play modes that emphasize some form of immersion, a kind of total experience (something I think is deeply embedded in Nordic larp discourse, although I do realize that the Turku Manifesto is an extreme), is surely an attempt to formulate a grounds of practice. But the interesting thing is that it does so in conscious recognition that games are not real life. There’s some sort of interesting ideological circle there, although I’m not sure how it works.

The thing is, I think some sort of procedure like this is going on in all RPG play that I know of, although immersion is clearly not generalizable. That is, if we take immersion to mean the kind of deep-in-character perception approach, clearly a lot of gaming isn’t interested in this. But the whole idea of an SIS (Shared Imaginary Space) presumes that there is some hypothetical perspective from which immersion would be obvious. To put that maybe a little more clearly, RPGs do seem to assume that immersion is always within the spectrum of possibility, even if we right here and now do not necessarily care to seek it as a goal. In some sense this is obvious, because role-play is at base a matter of entering into another perspective in which one could at least in theory immerse. But somehow this seems to me not quite so simple.

Thinking about it in terms of practice, the idea of constructing a common ground in which one could become entrapped, and of submitting to the arbitration of others for this purpose, is a somewhat strange thing to do, and it is stranger still when there is no specific point to it other than entertainment. The practice of everyday life, to borrow a phrase, is imposed upon us: the cultural situations in which we live impose these structures, and we have to make the best of it. But to choose as a mode of entertainment to further submit to this does seem odd, especially since it is commonly read as in some sense empowering.

People do talk a lot about story-telling and the like, usually with rather romantic notions of people sitting around campfires and telling stories, but that strikes me as an especially problematic notion where RPGs are concerned. Given that the story-telling is collaborative, that it has no lived implications (unlike myth, for example), and that it is structured by (usually) predetermined rules systems, it seems rather more unlike tribal story-telling than it is like it. Just so, comparisons to novels, plays, TV shows, films, comic books, and so on seem dramatically at odds with the form in question. All of which makes me wonder.

I’m not looking for a better metaphor or something. Who cares? What I wonder is why it should be these sorts of metaphors that seem to seize on RPG designers’ and players’ imaginations. I mean, there seems to be a kind of insistence that non-narrative art forms and practices are more or less out of court. Ron Edwards talks about playing bass and all, but he really doesn’t mean a whole lot by this: it’s an extremely limited analogy, and that deliberately so. By contrast, his insistence upon Lajos Egri seems founded on the assumption that at base, RPGs are a narrative form.

But are they? I increasingly doubt it. Narrative occurs, in some sense, but it seems to me that this is more the medium than the message, if you will. The idea of “narrativism” as an aesthetic agenda for play, in which all play is carefully tuned and honed toward creating stories, seems to me to indicate precisely that this is not normal and not intrinsic to the form. You can tell stories with RPGs, but that’s an arbitrary limitation.

I keep coming back to the notion of ritual and myth, which are in a loose sense flip-sides of the same coin. It seems to me that the one constant in RPGs is that they are a way of thinking, of setting up a kind of problem and then working through it. In myth or ritual, people do this sort of work to achieve something, but in RPGs the working-through is itself the point, and they are understood not to have larger implications. Why? Why the insistence on such a barrier, an insistence made the more forceful by the fact that almost nobody ever thinks about it otherwise?

By this logic, it seems that RPGs as a mode of practice within our various cultures help to entrench a number of fairly deeply-rooted assumptions about reality and fantasy, about culture and nature, and so forth. RPGs would, in that sense, depend upon an initial acceptance of a rough ideological framework. In my “Ritual Discourse” essay I noted that this kind of thinking raises the specter of Victor Turner’s freedom/constraint model, and I think it’s worth noting that in the many positive responses to that essay I have not seen people take up these more worrisome implications. Doesn’t that sort of demonstrate the point?

I’m musing in the abstract here. To be clearer, what I mean is that by constructing an artificial cultural framework in which certain kinds of rules apply, arbitrated by the group (and sometimes especially a GM), don’t RPGs ask us to transform a system of ideological dominance into a matter of entertainment? I find it particularly striking that so many RPG enthusiasts clearly think of themselves as in some sense counter-cultural, a subgroup. Certainly the hobby is, in the US, on the whole made up of people from the liberal, educated minority of Americans. This makes me wonder about the attraction. What is it that attracts this particular stratum of American society to an entertainment form of this kind?

In parallel to this, I find especially disconcerting the handling of culture within gaming. The possibility of free exploration should in theory permit serious engagement with cultural problems: race, gender, sex, religion, authority, etc. But if you look, most games are founded on stunningly naïve models of these things. Fantasy worlds tend to be made up of a series of “races” who are assigned cultures, whereas the human “race” is normally made up of a number of separate and distinct cultures—which are in their turn largely monolithic and more or less univocal. Religion is, just as the Bushies would insist, primarily a matter of belief in god or gods, with a series of fixed precepts tacked on, and the relationship between so-called “myth” and these precepts is normally projected as transparent. In the end, an awful lot of games accept, without even thinking about it, some really scary old notions that even elementary school social-studies classes ought to have transcended. And in order to participate in the games, normally, you have to buy into these notions yourself—and you tell yourself it’s just a game so it doesn’t count.

Anyway, just some mumblings.

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Comments {36}

chadu

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from: chadu
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 08:12 am (UTC)
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But are they? I increasingly doubt it. Narrative occurs, in some sense, but it seems to me that this is more the medium than the message, if you will. The idea of “narrativism” as an aesthetic agenda for play, in which all play is carefully tuned and honed toward creating stories, seems to me to indicate precisely that this is not normal and not intrinsic to the form. You can tell stories with RPGs, but that’s an arbitrary limitation.

I think explicit story-creation is becoming an aesthetic agenda for play -- what you sit down to the table for -- but on the whole, it's a different type of story-telling, built out of the "found objects and artifacts" of the gameplay.

IMAO, RPGs started as the equivalent of making up a story to explain a chess game -- why did the Knight kill the Bishop, and when did the King switch places with his Rook bodyguard, and such.

I think what we're doing more and more today is less "explain a chess game via a story" as "tell a story using a chess game as the basis."

CU

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Jonathan Walton

(no subject)

from: foreign_devilry
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 06:52 pm (UTC)
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What Chad said. I fully agree that narrative is a mode and not entailed in the medium.

Also, I would find it interesting to construct a non-narrative "tabletop" roleplaying game. Take guided meditation, for instance, which could be a model for non-narrative, small group, socially-constrained imagination. The purpose of such activities seems to be experiencing the imagined experience (sorry for the redundancy, but English is awkward), often in an immersive way, but not always in character-centered immersion. I think a strongly Gamist non-narrative game, based on an abstract German-boardgame style, might be quite fun. The question would be: will players, especially people used to roleplaying, construe whatever occurs as narrative? If we move stones along mendering paths and, when they intersect, imagine images or scenes based on some system of associations (for example), will the players naturally look for a progression and development? Will it become a story of the red stone winning over the other stones?

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Going to bed, but a few questions.

from: icecreamemperor
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 09:09 am (UTC)
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To be clearer, what I mean is that by constructing an artificial cultural framework in which certain kinds of rules apply, arbitrated by the group (and sometimes especially a GM), don’t RPGs ask us to transform a system of ideological dominance into a matter of entertainment?

It seems to me that there are a few assumptions worth questioning here (in the statement you present as a possibility, not that you are necessarily making): one, that the goal of RPGs is 'entertainment' in the sense of something trivial, of 'just entertainment'; two, that trivializing what in everyday life is an oppressive dynamic cannot be seen as a gesture of defiance against that dynamic.

In further support of the first, it doesn't seem that hard to talk about play as something more than 'mere' entertainment (see: all those ludologist types/)As you mention, RPGs seem to have an element of 'working through' things, which to me suggests possibilities for both therapy and insight. If RPGs are a recreation of the social dynamics we deal with in our culture, but relatively free of the true consequences of those dynamics, then they can be a useful venue for questioning and confronting those dynamics.

As for the second one, one approach could tie into what I just said, about RPGs being used as a tool or means of giving those dynamics the finger. But perhaps more bluntly, it could just be a matter of privelege. By analogy: consider the difference between somebody who is starving and somebody who chooses to starve themselves, 'to see what it's like.' I could just be repeating what you meant when you talked about gamers being predominantly liberal and educated. In any case it's not that RPGs could not have this 'to see what it's like' value -- I think they totally do -- only that there is a certain power dynamic on display when people pretend to be slaves. (To use a hyperbolic analogy.)

I agree that the 'RPGs are about stories' approach is currently not doing a lot, from what I can tell, other than frustrating gamers when they can't seem to produce spontaneous novels at the table. But part of that may just be the 'storytellers around the fire' thing; there are a lot more complicated, modern theories of narrative out there that could probably say quite a bit about RPGs. If only we had a few dozen cultural theory doctorate students sitting around with nothing better to do than help us formulate a helpfully-incoherent theory of roleplaying!

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clehrich

Re: Going to bed, but a few questions.

from: clehrich
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 10:57 pm (UTC)
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The thing is, I don't actually think RPGs are much used for working through things, although they sometimes give the appearance of doing so. That was what I was sort of trying to get at about race and culture and so on. In theory, certainly RPGs could have an intellectually liberating function, but I think in reality they mostly serve to underscore a lot of dubious and worrisome notions under the mask of entertainment (read as "just entertainment"). This was also what I was playing with in my article on ritual, with Turner's notion of freedom and constraint. I think, in short, that one could look at RPGs as a very useful (from an authoritarian stance) way of granting an illusionary freedom to rethink and challenge mainstream cultural assumptions while actually encouraging adherence to normative values. I could see lots of interesting Bakhtin stuff here, with games as carnivalesque and so on, but with the typically Bakhtinian insistence that in the end this mostly diffuses revolutionary force.

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Kenneth Hite

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from: princeofcairo
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 10:21 am (UTC)
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Certainly the hobby is, in the US, on the whole made up of people from the liberal, educated minority of Americans.

Do you have any evidence whatsoever (besides the anecdotal, of course) for this startling assertion, given that RPGs began in the suburban Midwest and remain strong in, among other places, the South and the U.S. military, none of these three being particularly known for their liberalism?

Certainly my anecdotal evidence differs from yours, and I think my sample set is a bit bigger to boot.

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jhkimrpg

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from: jhkimrpg
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 06:28 pm (UTC)
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Yes. My impression is that role-players are generally college-educated (or headed there). However, I'm with Ken that I don't think they're liberal in a political sense (even though I'm a damn tree-hugging liberal myself). Role-players are predominantly white and active in the military and on college campuses, and regionally in the Midwest and South -- though also in the Northwest.

It's worth noting that there is a set of games which come out of the liberal Bay Area -- the most influential being Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford's RuneQuest and George MacDonald and Steve Peterson's Champions. These are distinct from many prior (and subsequent) games in their lack of alignment or classes. RuneQuest explicitly makes class something which is socially constructed -- you find a cult and join it during the course of play, rather than creating a character with a class.

I think it is an important notion of how games construct culture. I agree that it is predominantly conservative, but I think that is consistent with the sensibilities of gamers.

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(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)

SIS / Immersion

from: victorgijsbers
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 10:31 am (UTC)
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Dear Chris,

Good post, which contains a lot to think about. Let me focus for now on two paragraphs. What I will use as a background is Walton's idea that works of fiction function as props in games of make-believe, and the natural extension of this idea to roleplaying games. If you wish to strike at the presuppositions of my position, this is probably the place to start.

The practice of everyday life, to borrow a phrase, is imposed upon us: the cultural situations in which we live impose these structures, and we have to make the best of it. But to choose as a mode of entertainment to further submit to this does seem odd, especially since it is commonly read as in some sense empowering.

If reading a work of fiction and playing a roleplaying game are both forms of engaging in a game of make-believe, it is clear that playing a roleplaying game is the more empowering of the two. He who reads a book is utterly at the mercy of the book's author as far as the prescribed imaginings are concerned; likewise he who watches a movie or a play. But he who plays a roleplaying game has some power over the prescirbed imaginings of the entire group; and even though he is in turn asked to submit to the prescriptions suggested by the other players. So is there anything especially strange about RPGs, or are they rather less mystifying than novels and movies?

Why do we read books, even though it is a form of submission? Well, first of all it would be good to notice that it is a non-serious form of submission: the author has no real power over us (and our fellow players have no real power over us). The moment we no longer find the book or the game rewarding, we can stop reading/playing. Second, we submit to the prescriptions of others because we think they can reach effects our self-created prescriptions can not. These effects can range from learning wisdom/gaining insight to being entertained.


The thing is, I think some sort of procedure like this is going on in all RPG play that I know of, although immersion is clearly not generalizable. That is, if we take immersion to mean the kind of deep-in-character perception approach, clearly a lot of gaming isn’t interested in this. But the whole idea of an SIS (Shared Imaginary Space) presumes that there is some hypothetical perspective from which immersion would be obvious. To put that maybe a little more clearly, RPGs do seem to assume that immersion is always within the spectrum of possibility, even if we right here and now do not necessarily care to seek it as a goal. In some sense this is obvious, because role-play is at base a matter of entering into another perspective in which one could at least in theory immerse. But somehow this seems to me not quite so simple.

I think you are putting the cart before the horse when you assume that the idea of an SIS is somehow based on or derived from that of immersion. In a recent thread in my blog, I suggested that immersion is the fictional identification of the player and the character. (This is something quite different from the identification of the player with the fictional character.) If I am immersed, I not only imagine that character A is doing this or that action, I also imagine that I am doing that action, and that I am character A. In fact, given that immersion is a shared understanding in the group, it is fictional (part of the SIS) that I am the character.

But this is merely a special case of something being fictional, a special case of imagining. Roleplaying is not taking a perspective in which immersion is possible, because I can (and often will) roleplay using a narrator-perspective. When I do so, I'm not immersed, but not because I have somehow failed to go through on the path I have taken. Rather, I am simply not imagining an identitiy between me and a character. As long as I have not immersed, I have a perspective in the fictional world that is not that of a character; immersion and having a perspective that is a character's perspective are identical.

Does that make sense?

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clehrich

Re: SIS / Immersion

from: clehrich
date: Dec. 21st, 2005 04:22 am (UTC)
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Hmm. Interesting post on your blog, too.

I think what I'm getting at isn't clear, because (looking back at my post) I sort of wandered from my train of thought. And so I'm not sure whether we agree or disagree or what.

The point is that I do not think immersion (or whatever term you like) is what it claims to be, or what people claim of it. Here I'm with Fang: I don't think people immerse in quite the way they imagine themselves to do, at least not generally. The interesting thing is precisely the disjuncture between that they say and what they do.

In other words, if "being" the character in whatever sense is valuable or interesting, it is so precisely because one is not the character. It is the fact that immersion does not occur radically that generates power and tension. And this is quite normal: it's how quite a lot of ritual behaviors work. There is a kind of meditation on the difference between what is idealized as "supposed to happen" and what has in fact actually happened that helps prop up the ideals themselves. That's simplistic, but accurate enough in its way. (There are of course ritual processes that are utterly immersive in a strong sense, but many of these use physiological techniques to assist: sleep deprivation, drugs, physical punishment, etc.) So I do think that something nebulously like "immersion" is embedded in the ideology of the SIS.

I think I'm going to have to go all the way back to Durkheim and think it through over again.

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Re: SIS / Immersion - (Anonymous) - Expand

fang_langford

Let's See How This Idea Plays Out

from: fang_langford
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 05:31 pm (UTC)
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Wow...just oh wow.

Every time I turn around you bring a clarity and depth to these discussions that just knocks my socks off.

But I think this whole discussion is missing something fairly tangible. Basic human nature. Instead of looking at gaming as something artificial outside of human experience, it might be more informative to consider what may naturally lead to gaming. Let me make try and this point; but first a bit about terminology.

As far as I believe, it's not 'immersion;' as far as the word is concerned, it would then be a deep mental absorption or being placed in a situation where no other alternative are readily available (as in learning a language by immersion). I know it is a semantic argument, but I see the subtleties of the difference causing problems with discussing something we all collectively 'know' already.

I think it is projection or possibly ego projection. It's funny you should bring up myth, because some of the work on myth done by Joseph Campbell described that heroes of myth triggered a kind of ego projection in that everyone wants to struggle and succeed as mythological heroes do. I believe gaming takes this to the next level and actually allows that on some level. It doesn't just allow you to identify with the hero, but your (fictitious) actions are his.

This is why the issue of constructively disbelieving 'reality' isn't so problematic. With projection, you're aware of reality and all its responsibilities, but choose to focus on your personal projection into the game. With immersion, you'd be struggling against things real that detract from your sensorium of game. Hence the semantic difference. We're all talking about the same core idea; it's the additional implied aspects of the terminology that causes unusual comprehensions. (I'm just not that good at explaining this; forgive me.)

Anyway, with that in mind, you're right. Constructing this common ground to become entrapped, purely for entertainment is hard to fathom. But let's look further into human nature to see if we can find related behaviours. It's remarkably easy compared to your description for two people to enter into a hypothetical discourse, but I think that's more another version of something that goes much deeper, and much further back.

It's play.

Kids do it. Kittens do it. So do many other young animals. They enter into a hypothetical situation and act within it. They test results, they explore perspectives, and they also enjoy it. Now, I'm not in a position where I could discuss play as a form of learning, but I think it is safe to say humans are geared to play and enjoy it instinctively. I think pleasure in this hypothesizing is inherent in the human being.

But we're adults now so our desires to play are tempered by our sophistication. Things need to be more 'convincing.' Things need to be based upon a more consistent hypothesis than the constantly evolving world of child's play. Fumbling their way into this practice the early RPGers reached toward literature, no surprise. However, much like D&D's other artifacts (like levels or hit points) literature taints current perspectives on gaming as well.

I'm a little worried about your perceived barrier to "larger implications." I'm surprised that you see the crafting and tuning of gaming towards 'narrativism' as demonstrating its underlying superfluousness, and not the same thing for this. If you want role-playing games that have larger implications, just walk into the psychologist's office or a human resources training. I'd have to say that in the same way that narrative is not intrinsic, so to would larger purposefulness.

I believe that hypothesizing "a system of ideological dominance" for the practice of explorative play is instinctively pleasurable. Just like 'playing house' isn't a study in home economics; gaming isn't so focused on any kind of result. As you said the act itself is the attractor, not the result.

Fang

p.s. Hey Victor, I believe that role-playing gaming is a form of play and narratives are a form of instruction. I'm not a behavioural or developmental psychologist, but I resist the idea that play is merely a platform for learning. However, it always seems to be a form of indulgence.

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clehrich

Re: Let's See How This Idea Plays Out

from: clehrich
date: Dec. 21st, 2005 04:28 am (UTC)
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Yes, but the thing is that imaginative play is in part a training mechanism. The question is thus what is being trained. I do not believe for a minute that when my son explores his world, he is not having structures of this culture and this society impressed upon him. Of course he is: he has to learn to adapt to them. Kittens do it too, in part because it's a great way to learn how to hunt, fight, and generally stay alive. So what are we teaching ourselves with RPGs, and why (and how) do we so readily convince ourselves that we are "just" playing?

My concern with narrative is relatively narrow. Narrativism isn't about producing narrative, but about producing story, where "story" has a fairly specific set of structural and aesthetic criteria. My feeling is that RPGs can do this, but that this is an arbitrary limitation of what they do; quite possibly, it also acts as a mechanism to disguise what else they do.

But I may be missing your point: I don't really understand the sentence beginning, "I'm surprised that you see...."

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Jonathan Walton

(no subject)

from: foreign_devilry
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 07:10 pm (UTC)
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Yo. Here's an excerpt from "Roleplaying in Practice," where I basically try to say the same thing that you just did:
    In Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, “the primary unit of analysis is neither the individual or the social institution but rather the informal ‘communities of practice’ that people form as they pursue shared enterprises over time” (abstract). But what exactly constitutes a practice?

    According to Wenger, “practices are [1] histories of mutual engagement, [2] negotiation of an enterprise, and [3] development of a shared repertoire” (95). Wenger’s histories of mutual engagement includes what we just discussed as the social experience, the history of the people in the group interacting with each other...

    Wenger is most interested in examining how businesses and committees fuction, but the idea of different people coming together to form a community and, as a consequence, developing a new way of communicating and a new way of viewing the world has found support in many disciplines. Nicolas Standaert, a scholar of cultural exchange, describes something called the interaction and communication framework, based on the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin and Martin Buber, which focuses on the questions “to what extent did the transmitter and reciever create something new through their mutual exchange…? To what extent did they construct a new [view of] reality using the knowledge offered by the other?” (40). This framework, according to Standaert, posits that disparate people, upon encountering one another, are drawn to mutually create a means by which intercommunication is possible. This means of communication, in turn, becomes both the medium of exchange and a byproduct of the encounter. In his own words:
      …cultural creativity comes into being due to the existence of space “between” the transmitter and the reciever, between the object and the subject, between the self and the other. This space is often mediated by symbols (language, various forms of text and images, in our example, a world map). This space acts both as that which allows an encounter to take place (leading to interaction and communication) and that which is produced by the encounter as such. (Standaert, 40)


    [Cut some stuff about White's "Middle Ground" and recent developments in aesthetics]

    ...Since we live in a society permeated with conversations and personal interactions that deal with art and its appreciation, our individual histories of performance and reception have already been, to some extent, reconciled and made more similar, providing us with an imperfectly shared context within which to understand traditional visual and performing arts. We are, in this sense, already part of many different communities of aesthetic practice, which provide the guidelines by which we appreciate many different media. The larger roleplaying community, assuming that the players are involved in it, is one such community of practice. However, groups of players form their own micro-communities and serve as their own communities of practice, which is one of the primary methods for normalizing individual experiences to create a context for understanding play.

    ...The community creates both a practice and a way of practicing, methods of communication and organizational structures that enable them to accomplish their chosen task. They do this, in most cases, instinctively, solving problems and making adjustments as they go. As Wenger notes, “that members interact, do things together, negotiate new meanings, and learn from each other is already inherant in practice – this is how practices evolve” (102).

    ...the details of how roleplaying is done in [a] particular group are negotiated and adjusted while roleplaying is going on, not just before play begins. While it’s certainly correct to say that “possibilities for our participation are marked out in advance, so to speak, by the discourse and by our material conditions” (Langellier & Peterson, 4), the possibilities for participation are also subject to negotiation during play.

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clehrich

(no subject)

from: clehrich
date: Dec. 21st, 2005 04:28 am (UTC)
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I'm going to want to see the whole article. Looks like something I will have to sit down and think about slowly.

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The sleep of reason

from: anonymous
date: Dec. 20th, 2005 07:18 pm (UTC)
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(Matthijs here. I don't have a LiveJournal ID.)

I'm coming at this from a whole different angle than Chris.

In myth or ritual, people do this sort of work to achieve something, but in RPGs the working-through is itself the point, and they are understood not to have larger implications.

In my comparison of the roles of GM and facilitator (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facilitator) I found that while the two are strikingly similar (in a functional group), having a facilitator normally assumes that the group has a specific goal that it's working towards, and that the facilitator is there to help the group reach this goal. This, to me, indicates that RPG groups may be trying to achieve something specific. However, most groups' inability to articulate what they want (fun, entertainment and immersion all being incredibly hard to define) should make it clear that the goal isn't at a conscious level.

I find especially disconcerting the handling of culture within gaming. (...) But if you look, most games are founded on stunningly naïve models of these things. (...) you tell yourself it’s just a game so it doesn’t count.

The sleep of reason produces monsters :) Through play, other personality processes than the higher-level rational ones can be exposed, and interact with similar processes of other participants. But these processes don't have the same sort of nuances as the higher-level ones. Just as dreams follow their own logic. Which, of course, I know you know.

To be clearer, what I mean is that by constructing an artificial cultural framework in which certain kinds of rules apply, arbitrated by the group (and sometimes especially a GM), don’t RPGs ask us to transform a system of ideological dominance into a matter of entertainment?

I'm not sure if that question makes sense, but perhaps I don't understand it. To me, it's as if we were talking about squash (the sport, not the vegetable), and someone says: "By going into this tiny room and putting even more constraints on what you're allowed to do, aren't your bodies getting even more oppressed by society?"

The framework can be seen as a structure to keep something out, rather than fence something in (rather like the asylum of Wonko the Sane [Hitchhiker's Guide]). The process of building an elaborate framework of rules has several effects. First of all, it defines the playing "space" as set apart from everyday life. Second, by mixing rules and free imagining, RPGs keep the rational processes busy, so the free-association ones can express themselves more freely. (Keith Johnstone has several impro techniques specifically designed to overload critical thought so that it won't block imaginative output).

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clehrich

Re: The sleep of reason

from: clehrich
date: Dec. 21st, 2005 04:45 am (UTC)
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On the GM/Facilitator issue, I think you're right initially, but I'm not sure I buy your conclusion. It seems to me that logically speaking, there are two possible conclusions: one (yours) is that GMs are Facilitators of non-conscious goals; another is that GMs are unlike Facilitators specifically in that they do not assist toward goals. Ron Edwards's various models insist upon clarity in goals, in your account shifting toward consciousness, but I think it is equally possible to think of RPGs as having functions that are not purposes.

This is a very old-fashioned anthropological distinction, and it should not be taken strongly. But in short, "purpose" refers to the explicit reason for doing something, as elicited from the natives. This may or may not be very coherent, but a dedicated ethnographer can usually elicit some sort of account of why they do the thing they do. "Function" refers to what the behavior actually does, usually what it does socially (though this is technically only its social function), which probably has little or nothing to do with the "purpose." For example, the natives may say (purpose) that the funerary rites are necessary to see the dead safely across the bridge into the underworld, without which the dead might come back as revenants of some kind. But the anthropologist may well find that what the rites actually do (function) is to restructure kinship relations such that the new widow and her children are released from one set of bonds without being in the process dumped outside the social support system.

I think a lot of what you're talking about here is how these complex systems can be evaluated in terms of purpose; my question is really what sort of functions RPGs might serve. But one of the reasons this old distinction collapsed and is rarely used emphatically any more is that the line between them is awfully thin.

As to your final point about frameworks keeping something out, this is a nice way of putting the Bell notion of "ritualization" as a mode of practice, except that I would say that once the fence is up, what is caught inside it is then subject to much greater and stricter scrutiny.

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Christian Griffen (xenopulse)

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from: chgriffen
date: Dec. 21st, 2005 05:27 am (UTC)
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I think Chris Chinn's recent post on Ball is important in this regard. "Roleplaying" as an activity contains so many different games and rituals that it's hard to make any generalized claims about it at all.

For some people, it is more like impro theater, for others it's somewhat like collaborative novel writing, and for yet other players it's just a little imaginary step away from wargames.

I think trying to theorize about it as if it was one form of activity misses the point; and that's where I agree with Ron on the existence of fundamentally different Creative Agendas. Comparing different roleplaying groups could be like trying to compare impro actors bent on depicting human suffering with a political science class that plays out a UN scenario.

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