Imaginary People and the Art of the Game

On the Uses of Imaginary People

            Ever pretended to be someone you weren't?  Perhaps you were trying to impress someone, or playing pretend with a child, or acting in a play, or simply involved in a sitcom-type case of mistaken identities. Or maybe you have the same secret shame as I do: you get together with a group of dorky intellectuals and sit around together eating snacks, rolling dice, and having vivid adventures as pirates and priests and princesses, all without ever getting off of the couch.  Fear not!  Despite my fond joking about the medium, and popular culture’s decidedly less fond joking, the Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TRPG) is both a complex system worth examining seriously and a tool for exploring narrative, identity, and value.

            A most succinct and essential definition of the tabletop role-playing game comes from Daniel Mackay in his book The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, in which he describes the TRPG as "an episodic and participatory story-creation system that includes a set of quantified rules that assist a group of players and a gamemaster in determining how their fictional characters' spontaneous interactions are resolved" (4-5).  Translated into experiential terms, a group of people wanting to play a game chooses a rule system and setting to start out.  The rule system dictates how the game will be played, and may call for specific dice, cards, or other game tokens which help determine outcomes or otherwise structure play.  The setting is the “world” in which the game takes place, much like a book or movie’s setting.  Most TRPGs are created with a specific genre in mind, even if there are many adaptations which can be made to suit the playing group; Dungeons & Dragons takes place in a fantasy world derived from Medieval Europe, for example, while Shadowrun is based around a dystopian future world of cybernetics and corporate tyranny, and while the two games use different rule sets to govern player actions, the setting and rules are not contingent upon each other in a fundamental way.  After rules and setting are chosen, players designate a gamemaster, or GM, a key figure who will facilitate play by guiding an evolving narrative, presenting tactical and narrative challenges, and acting as the referee.  The GM is essentially the director of the game’s story, responsible for turning the raw ingredients of rule system and setting into a compelling and believable experience.

            After the mechanics of game function are in place, the rest of the players use the rule system to create characters that will function as their avatars in the game world.  Typically, players have a number of archetypes upon which to base their characters, such as the Knight, the Barbarian, and the Thief, and from that point they are able to greatly customize the characters via both game structure (i.e., choosing to give a character an extra action a turn) and story (i.e., choosing to give a character a mysterious past).  In this way, players’ characters function as game pieces with defined abilities much like the Bishop on a chess board, and have the narrative dimension of book and theater characters.  At this point, game play may finally begin, and each player attempts to address the challenges presented by the GM from the perspective of their character, which advances in power and complexity by overcoming the obstacles.  It is the task of the GM to weave and direct the “actions” of the players to form a greater narrative which evolves over the course of multiple sessions of play.  It is not uncommon for these linked sessions, known as a campaign, to stretch for months or years of weekly play, allowing for incredible narrative depth and the exploration of the avatars’ identity. 

            So, where did such an elaborate and specialized hobby come from?  While some might make the immediate connection between TRPGs and childhood games of pretending, the reality is far more complex.  As one might guess from the paired elements of game structure and narrative, TRPGs are uniquely hybridized forms of interaction with roots in the ancient traditions of war gaming and heroic storytelling.  While war games have been used by military commanders and strategists to simulate battle and practice tactics for thousands of years, ranging from games of wei-ch’i, aka go, during the Han dynasty in China to the earliest forms of chess in northwestern India, the modern war games using markers to represent troops across a miniature landscape was formulated in 1811 as Kriegspiel (Fine 8).  This Prussian variation spread rapidly as a training device for military officers, but the entertainment value of the game was recognized, and in 1915, H.G. Wells wrote Little Wars, a variant for home play utilizing miniature figures (Fine 9).  The number of games and their formats flourished, both in simplified board-game versions and in increasingly complex simulation games, but by the 1960s, some players began to look for nonzero-sum games, where players could cooperate rather than simply compete (Mackay 14).

            At this fateful juncture, cross-pollination occurred.  Dave Arneson, interested in both medieval warfare and in the high-fantasy mythology of writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, introduced elements of the fantastic into his war games and shifted the scale so that players controlled individual figures they could identify with rather than armies.  He joined forces with another like-minded enthusiast named Gary Gygax, and together they created a system which combined the strategic elements and choices of war games with the flexibility and scope of narrative works, drawing heavily on archetypes and mythological constructions of the heroic.  Thus, in 1974, the Dungeons & Dragons greeted the world (Mackay 14-15). 

            While other forms of interactive narrative existed prior to the birth of the TRPG, such as “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, improvisational theater, and (arguably) at least one computer game, D&D was the first to combine in-person interaction with pre-written material in a way which not only left players able to choose what to do, but gave then the tools to create their own options, making the generated narrative truly co-created (Cover 27-37). In fact, despite the rise of sophisticated video game role-playing games and their status as the darling of ludic studies—the field of games research—computer-based games lack the “narrative agency” of TRPGs which stems from the players’ ability to shape the system in which they are embedded (Mackay 47).  In this, TRPGs remain unique; despite visually dazzling, hugely-expensive-to-produce video games advanced enough to play themselves, the apparent anachronisms—of hand-written lists of character statistics, the use of dice to generate numbers, and a small group of people sitting together in a living room imagining the action—of tabletop play remain because nothing has replaced it.

            Unfortunately, the enchantments of TRPGs which can lead a group of people to play a single character in the same campaign for years at a stretch have not yielded a great deal of respect for the format.  Despite the growing hipness of “nerd culture” and the willingness of many relatively average people to name themselves a “geek,” admission of a Dungeons & Dragons habit still emits a certain Eau de Dork not present when speaking of other, even equally time-consuming and obscure, hobbies.  Part of that stems from the nature of TRPGs: unlike a movie which is accessible to anyone and available for review of its artistic merits, the uniquely participatory act of playing a TRPG prevents it from being appreciated by anyone who has not committed to playing.  In the insightful essay “The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards A Critical Framework for RPGs,” Robin D. Laws writes:

      RPGs are not set up so that other people may watch. Most sessions occur… far from the analytical eye of the critic. If critics do take the unusual step of arranging to watch a session, they will change its very nature. The participants are likely to either change their session to add some entertainment for the passive viewer, or be cowed by the unaccustomed attention. Criticism of the actual RPG experience is the Schrodinger's Cat of art criticism. Lift the lid to look at the cat, and you may well destroy it.

            Both ludology and structuralist narratology have attempted to analyze TRPGs, but both tend to fall short due to the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the games (Cover 73).  In Jennifer Grouling Cover’s The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games, Cover devotes several chapters to simply setting up definitions and parameters for study and critique.

            Nonetheless, despite the difficulties of critiquing or otherwise studying TRPGs, and the misfit status of the art, critical studies have emerged.  The first attempts to examine role-playing games were primarily sociological, and Gary Alan Fine’s 1983 book Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds focuses on the “who and why” of game playing.  He examines the makeup of “gaming society,” which at the time of writing was primarily young adult, educated, white males; player interaction and how small group culture creates bonds and rifts between members; the psychological functions of games; the assumption of identity and how the self processes the demands of alternate identity; the ability of a group to create an agreed-upon alternate reality which functions as a culture and social world; and the layering and maintaining multiple “frames of experience” which allow a person to rapidly switch back and forth between the real world, their experience as a player of a game, and the character they are portraying.

            Later texts shift away from the sociological approach and turn towards the meaning that is generated by gaming.  Few opt to examine the issue from a single perspective; though it is easy to imagine a feminist critique of fantasy as male wish-fulfillment, or a Marxist approach pointing out the “steal gold, gain power” advancement schemes of many games, the few authors who tackle the subject are more interested in establishing the subject as worthy of study and demonstrating the many possible theoretical applications than choosing a single path (Mackay 159, Cover 174, Bowman 181).  Generally, the more strictly applied critiques are found in compilations of short essays like the book World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King, which has a large number of individual contributors due to the Warcraft computer game’s status as a favorite choice for game studies, and its extremely large audience.  Thus far, TRPGs have simply not generated the interest required to produce a book of focused critical essays, though plenty of reviews, musings, and fan commentary are to be found.

            A few specific critical approaches relevant to TRPGs do bear mentioning, though.  The first is semiotics; as a system which relies entirely on signs without ever materializing the signified, it is in many ways the clearest example of the power of semiotics, particularly as the signifiers are constantly exchanged and manipulated between players rather than lying fixed in a book or on a movie screen.  Existing as it does “in a semiosphere, an atmosphere of signs,” Mackay notes that “it can be said that the role-playing game breathes the air of this semiosphere, it is inspired by the particles of popular culture, and influences, in turn, its expirations” (26).  It becomes Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra, “a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.  The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it” (qtd. in Mackay 37).

            Secondly, while the existence of a clear system to generate meaning might point to structuralism as a key way of understanding games in general, most literature seems to point to a profoundly poststructuralist viewpoint.  Part of this comes from the rules of the game system being used to generate choice and meaning by channeling rather than restricting. Part of it is the avoidance of binaries in most TRPGs: there are many shadings of good and evil, human and nonhuman, reality and fantasy; all of these areas are meant to be explored by players rather than simply chosen between.  And a huge part of it is the texts cannot be passively read even if someone tries, because to play a TRPG is to constantly negotiate identity and the web of co-created narrative.  Even outside of role-playing games in particular, the fan cultures of fantasy, horror, and science fiction are well known for taking the texts of their fandom and manipulating them to create desired meanings, as explored in Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture.  The tabletop role-playing game is embedded in a subculture which gleefully bends, layers, reshapes, reorganizes, and otherwise takes control of pre-manufactured meaning through the production of fan art, videos, music, additional stories set within the “universe” of the fandom, and reams of erotica featuring characters from well known franchises.

            The case has been made for the value of TRPGs, but to what end?  On an individual level, playing can be personally rewarding and teach a player new skills like leadership or improve social interactions, it can provide a safe place for self-expression and exploration of identity, and it can generally improve problem-solving skills (Bowman 7-9).  But these therapeutic benefits are hardly unique—if welcome—and are shared by many team sports and other activities. For the purpose of art making and critical studies, the greatest value lies in the unique, hybridized form of the TRPG.  Because of the unique mix of structure and narrative creation, the game world inhabits the “liminal” space of ritual, “an alternate psychosocial reality” which is separated from the everyday by conscious movements across a psychological barrier, be it the threshold of a temple or the moment a gamemaster calls for order.  Crossing back into the mundane world after the experience, the participant has “new knowledge and social standing” (Bowman 48).  While the opportunity for entering ritual space is limited for most “modern” humans, it is particularly rare that the participants guide and shape the experience rather than simply taking part in a traditional wedding or baptism.    

            This liminal space is an ideal environment in which to experiment with identity alteration and new mindsets, as “the player is stripped of previous rank in the external world and given equal status to other players” and then asked to forge identity anew (Bowman 51).  Players are responsible for enacting new identities, and that includes everything from goals and personal history to speech patterns and understanding what the character wears.  In this way, personas can be viewed on their most elemental level, existing purely as thought without the restrictions of modern daily life.  The ability to collapse or prolong the passage of narrative time is also a great boon, as play consists mostly of the “good bits” which promote character development.  So too can the mechanics of myth and story be examined, with particular attention to how narrative and personality work together to create value and histories, and the co-created nature of the world means players are never entirely subject nor entirely in control.  Strangely, entering this simulated ritual space to act out the lives of characters who truly believe in epic heroes and gods which walk among mankind allows a player to connect to the truth inherent in myth, even while not literally believing in Homer’s Illiad or Tolkien’s Middle Earth. 

             As an artist, I long ago identified my primary interests as the construction of personality, the paths of narrative, and the means by which objects gain their value.  I am particularly fascinated with the Artifact, which exists at the nexus of these themes, and I primarily create personal objects which act as linchpins of identity, but many questions relevant to my practices are brought to light by my involvement in TRPGs.  How do you create an Artifact when by definition it must be significant beyond its construction?  Can you artificially create significance?  From where does the meaning of objects derive?  Can I make the gallery function as liminal space?  How do I tap into participatory culture to bring new people into art culture or otherwise reach outside of the artshpere?  What do we lose by abandoning ritual, and what do we gain by attempting to reenact it?  How much does respect matter, and is it enough to do something which makes you happy even if others mock you for it?  What do I lose by speaking to only a very small subculture, and what makes the specialized language of the art world different from the language of fandoms?  What is fan art, and do I care if I make it?  Who is my audience?  Do I want an observational or participatory audience?  What’s up with “serious” artists’ hostility towards low culture and things like fan art?  And how come some aspects of low culture have been embraced (i.e., comics and old-school tattooing) while others are reviled (i.e., TRPGs and furries)?  How do you use symbols which have become devalued but began with great significance, like skulls and dragons? Is encountering resistance to your ideas about art a good sign?  Am I nuts for trying this?

            My making practices revolve around investigation and experimentation rather than commentary or commerce.  In this way, it aligns rather well with gaming’s emphasis on exploration and involvement.  My interest in teaching as a profession stems from my belief that the act of creation improves lives, and everyone should feel entitled to use their own creative powers for whatever they choose.  I conclude with Gary Alan Fine’s words: 

      Just as the mechanics of the wheel can explain tractors and dune buggies, lazy susans and escalators, so does the understanding of one social world provide sociologists with the tools necessary to understand others, which may have no more than a tangential similarity.  Fantasy gaming, then, has the potential to open the door to a universe of meanings, if only we would enter. (242)







Works Cited

Bowman, Sarah Lynne.  The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity.  Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.  Print.

Cover, Jennifer Grouling.  The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.  Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.  Print.

Cuddy, Luke and John Nordlinger, eds.  World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King.  Chicago: Open Court, 2009.  Print.

Fine, Gary Allen.  Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.  Print.

Jenkins, Henry.  Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture.  New York: Routledge, 1992.  Print.

Laws, Robin D.  “The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards A Critical Framework for RPGs.”  The Oracle: Essays. Inter*Action #1, 1995.  Web. 19 March 2012. <>

Mackay, Daniel.  The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art.  Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001.  Print.