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.