Aesthetics of Play: Sports and Spectacles

I recently re-read Roland Barthes’ essay “The World of Wrestling,” in which he draws a distinction between a sport, which is an event based on the “demonstration of excellence,” and a spectacle, which is a ritualized narrative embodying a struggle of moral values.  He identifies professional wrestling, in which the show is compelling despite its outcome never being in doubt, as a spectacle.  Its counterpart, boxing, is a contest of strength and skill, and thus its outcome cannot be predetermined without obviating the whole point of the match.

I think this distinction illuminates a dyad of aesthetics of play: an RPG can be either sport or spectacle (or neither), and which it is to be has profound effects at every level from rules design to actual play.

The sportsman aesthetic perceives the realm of play as a field for achievement.  Players pit their characters against challenges, test their skills, and win victories (or suffer defeats).  This may be an adversarial competition between the players and the GM, or even between players, but it need not be: RPG as sport can equally easily be a contest of each player against themself.  In every case, however, the point is to play well: to build an optimally designed character, to plan the best heist, to select the best tactics.

Now consider, by comparison, games in which the player characters are never really in jeopardy, and their ultimate victory is never in doubt.  These games confuse and disgust the sportsman; one might wonder why they even bother to roll dice if it doesn’t actually matter.

To the lover of spectacle, however, the point is the experience.  The players come together not to test their skill, but to participate in a ritual narrative.  You don’t worry about whether Robin Hood is actually going to get captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham; Wile E. Coyote is not going to catch the Road Runner by optimizing his ACME purchases.  In this mode, randomizers aren’t a factor to struggle against, but an infusion of the unexpected which permits the players to be simultaneously actor and audience.  They know, more or less, what will happen, but they don’t know how.  The essence of spectacle is the satisfaction of seeing events unfold as you knew they would, leavened with the joy of surprise at exactly how they did.

Adapted from an essay originally published on LiveJournal

Aesthetics of Play: Masquerade

The masquerade aesthetic is an aesthetic of character design, like the cathartic aesthetic. The masquerade playstyle approaches roleplaying as an opportunity for the player to try on new personalities, to be someone that they aren’t. Masquerade play draws its fun from novelty.

Masquerade characters are therefore little like their players, except sometimes in superficial ways. The core of the character — the element around which the character forms — is selected for its very alienness. I, for example, often design impulsive masquerade characters; they make an interesting contrast to the reflective types that are closer to my everyday self.

There can be an escapist dimension to masquerade play; sometimes people design characters as a refuge from parts of themselves of which they’re not so fond.

Aesthetics of Play: Catharsis

Many players bring an aesthetic that I think of as cathartic play to their relationships with their characters . The cathartic playstyle approaches roleplaying as a venue for players to take risks or indulge impulses in ways that might have unpleasant consequences in real life. The satisfaction of cathartic play is the chance to blow off steam.

Consequently, cathartic characters are often similar to their players, but with certain traits amplified and certain inhibitions muted. In a more extreme form of the aesthetic, these characters may be wholly designed around the traits to be amplified. I’ve known people who used short-tempered characters to work through their anger issues; I like to play impulsive people from time to time as a break from my usual overthinkery.

More commonly, however, a cathartic character is simply a version of the player who kicks more ass and isn’t afraid to be a jerk. This milder form of the aesthetic is extremely popular — at its root, traditional “hack and slash” gaming boils down to “It’s us, but we’re killin’ orcs and takin’ no guff from nobody.”

Aesthetics of Play: An Occasional Series

Theorizing about roleplaying poses me a difficult challenge. I’m generally dubious about totalizing theories of playstyle like the GNS scheme or the older Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer triad — I think they all tend to highlight real and interesting issues, but they tend toward the Procrustean, trying to cram all game styles into a fairly limited space with questionable success.

On the other hand, I gravitate to stylized categories like a moth to a stroboscopic bonfire. It’s a character flaw. 

The way I’ve decided to wrestle with this particular issue is to keep my theorizing on a lower level, focusing on value clusters that prize particular types of gameplay experience. Borrowing, folding, and spindling a term from the MDA framework, I’m going to call these clusters aesthetics of play. These aesthetics are not intended to be exclusive; multiple aesthetics can be, and usually are, operative for any player at any time. I’m going to try to avoid constructing opposing pairs of aesthetics, as I’ve had limited success with that in the past, but I may present two different approaches to a single issue at one time.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to note some stylistic ground rules. In all Aesthetics of Play essays (and, probably, other future theoretical works), I’m going to be using bold for emphasis. Italics are going to be reserved for introducing terms of art. I’m certain that my choices of terms of art are going to seem questionable to someone at some point; I recommend Jargon and Definitions before writing me snide emails about my choice of terms. You can write the email regardless, but I’m going to ignore anything along the lines of “That’s not what X means!”

The Trouble with Taxonomy

I’ve just finished Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, and it has me thinking about one of the major quagmires of RPG theory — namely, player taxonomies.

It is very common for RPG theorists to begin with a player taxonomy — some way of dividing gamers into a set of archetypes. The earliest example I’m aware of is the Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer scheme in Douglas Niles’ Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986), though I’m not sure how old the Real Men/Real Roleplayers/Loonies/Munchkins scheme is. Arguably, however, the taxonomic approach achieved its golden age with the emergence of the RGFA Threefold in the late ’90s, soon to be followed by the GNS scheme which is popular at The Forge, and a slew of other less-popular ways of dividing things up (including, for example, my own spectator/sportsman dyad from a few months ago).

I think, however, that the taxonomic impulse is fundamentally flawed. Dividing the world into X number of types is a good way to form a prescriptive scheme for characterizing fictional characters in the building (and an even better way to round out a game line with splatbooks); as a way to describe the infinite multiplicity of real people, it invariably fails to cover someone. And no matter how much the author hems and haws, saying that the types are general, and encompass only the majority of players, excluded people will always be pissed. If there’s an ongoing discussion, it devolves into definitional arguments; if there’s a fixed piece, anything which builds upon the taxonomy will not ring true to anyone who disputes the taxonomy.

This is, to return to where I came in, why I think Robin’s Laws is a good book, but not a great one. A player taxonomy is the foundation of the book, and if you find the taxonomy not entirely satisfying, it makes everything which follows a bit tenuous. It’s still packed with tidbits and ideas which are excellent stuff, but it’s very hard to build a satisfying core on a player taxonomy.

In a nutshell (though I recognize this is subjective), I can’t find myself in Laws’ taxonomy, nor most of the people I usually play with, and it makes the whole thing a bit suspect. And I suspect that many people will have trouble finding themselves adequately described in any system which divides the whole of gaming experience into three to six chunks.

Now, I think it’s important to analyze play styles for the very real insights they give, but lately I find myself more drawn to identifying aesthetics without trying to place them in an exhaustive schema. For example, the simulationist aesthetic is real and important to any understanding of RPG play style, but I’ve never seen any attempt to resolve the question of what the opposite of simulationist is that ended well. Nor do I feel that an examination of simulationism needs to be flanked by an exhaustive study of other possible aesthetics, or that the simulationist aesthetic must coincide with or exclude any other aesthetic.

To put it another way, analyzing playstyles in terms of X and not-X enables anyone who doesn’t see themselves in X to put themselves in not-X, and thus to receive the analysis without feeling excluded by it. Not-X is big and all-inclusive; it’s the House Ex Miscellanea of critical theory.

Originally published on LiveJournal

System flexibility and the first generation of RPGs

This morning I’m thinking about the eternal debate about whether the earliest RPGs were crude and primitive messes which only enabled mindless hack and slash or whether they were clean and simple open-ended toolkits which permitted far more creativity than the hand-holding megatomes gamers expect today.

As is the obnoxious and predictable wont of screeds like this, I’m going to suggest that the truth lies somewhere in between. It’s true that people have done some amazing things with those early, thin books; I think there’s a great truth to the maxim that any supposedly ground-breaking innovation in roleplaying was being done by somebody back in 1979 with either D&D or Traveller. (For some reason, Tunnels & Trolls doesn’t seem to have drawn the avant-garde crowd). It is indeed possible to do all sorts of wacky stuff that isn’t remotely suggested by the core rules of those early games.

The point where the cognitive split happens, I think, is the great preteen D&D boom of the early and mid-80s. From that point, a vast influence on the gaming hobby and industry is groups of preteens with poorly disciplined imaginations and a slavish devotion to the Revealed Wisdom of the Book. This is where we get those horrible and legendary rape-fests; this is where we get people who learned most of their advanced vocabulary from the Dungeon Masters Guide. (This is where a generation of children got very confused about the distinction between aestheticism and asceticism). For many of these kids, thinking inside the box was sort of the point — that’s why you bought the box (there’s a different musing there about developmental needs, but I need to do some reading and thinking for that).

And it’s that stream of the hobby that many later games attempt to deal with. When the mainstream of the hobby is, in fact, playing the games as a killemall, and constraining their play to the letter of the rules, publishing games which more strongly encourage a different sort of gaming makes sense. And that impulse is what has motivated a great deal of development ever since — the desire to encourage play styles not encouraged by existing rulesets. They can’t be as open as the earliest games, because they explicitly seek to channel players into play styles which, in theory, they might not be able to find on their own.

There’s another musing in there about the terms “enable”, “encourage”, and “permit”, I think, but that had better percolate a bit.

Originally published on LiveJournal