RPG Evolution: Are RPGs Art?

A recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) latest installation, Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design, asks the question: what makes a game art and would tabletop RPGs qualify?

Installation view of Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 10, 2022 – July 16, 2023. © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Emile Askey

A Night at the Museum​

MOMA’s latest installation pivots on the fundamental premise that video games are worthy of being in a museum. It asks the question: what makes a video game art? MOMA’s just as interested in art as it is in design, and video games are an intersection between the two:
The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design.
We already know that Dungeons & Dragonshas a home in the Strong’s National Museum of Play. The Strong makes the connection between D&D and the video game iterations that came later:
But most importantly, Dungeons & Dragons’ mechanics lent themselves to computer applictions. The computer speedily reproduced the role of the Dungeon Master, defining and arelating a game’s particular world. And character traits and encounter outcomes, determined by the dice, meshed perfectly with computational random number generation. Eventually, increased graphics capabilities allowed computers to illustrate the imaginary worlds rather than simply describe them. Coupled with the rise of the Internet, players’ characters could now interact in these graphic settings with countless other characters all over the world. These Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG’s), such as World of Warcraft and many others with diverse thematic settings, are extremely popular today. Without Dungeons & Dragons, these games would not have evolved as they did.
Unlike the Strong, MOMA explained their methodology for determining if a game was worthy to be in its installation: Behavior, Aesthetics, Space, and Time.


The MOMA defines behavior as:
The scenarios, rules, stimuli, incentives, and narratives envisioned by the designers come alive in the behaviors they encourage and elicit from the players, whether individual or social.
D&D has long focused on three pillars: Exploration, Combat, and Logistics. Logistics and Exploration have been deemphasized over time, only to be later revived as part of the OSR movement. All three encourage player interaction, creativity, and imagination. Players must work together to navigate a fictional world, solve problems, and defeat enemies. The behavior of players in D&D is key to the success of the game, as it requires collaboration and cooperation to create a compelling narrative.


MOMA recognizes that visual intention is important, but must also be considered in light of the technology available. In the case of D&D, printing and computer design factored into the game’s visual influences. Also, Doctor Strange.

It’s worth noting that dice has become a huge part of D&D’s aesthetic. An entire industry has popped up to service gamers and their love of dice, which are both collectible and utilitarian.


D&D is typically played in a shared physical space, such as a tabletop or living room. This shared space is important for fostering social interaction and communication between players. It’s also where dice are rolled, maps are laid, and miniatures are placed.

It’s also an imaginary space. D&D’s roots are in tabletop wargames, but “theater of the mind” play is an important part of the shared mental space between the game master and the players.


D&D is a game that unfolds over an extended period, with each gaming session lasting several hours or more. The game's narrative arc is built up over time, as players make choices and face consequences that impact the story. Campaigns can last years, with games ranging up to eight hours a session.

So Is It Art?​

Not only is D&D and the tabletop role-playing industry it inspired art, it spawned many of the art influences on display in MOMA’s video game installation, from Dwarf Fortress to Minecraft. RPGs are as much an aesthetic as it is a lifestyle, a game as much as it is a play, an unexplored shared mental plane as much as it is miniatures on a board. To outsiders it may just appear as some dice and books. To gamers, it truly is a work of art.
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


I tend to be more of a "logical" thinker than an "artsy" thinker but it is only logical to recognize the power and influence of "art." Art is elusive too as it means something completely different depending on who is viewing it. Art is often the first thing that catches the viewers eye and therefore becomes permanently affixed in that person's memory. That place in the memory then helps to evoke all manner of emotions at later times, perhaps sometimes when we might need it the most. In terms of "D&D" alone, there are so many pieces of art from "classic D&D" that immediately evoke a nostalgic feeling of joy and contentment in me as soon as I see it. No other explanations are needed.


Over the Edge (a Jonathan Tweet RPG) includes a three-column essay by Robin Laws, "The Literary Edge" (at pp 1912-93 of my 20th Anniversary edition).

I'm not going to type out the whole thing, but here's some of it:

Role-playing games changed forever the first time a player said, "I know it's the best strategy, but my character wouldn't do that." Suddenly an aesthetic concern had been put ahead of a gaming one, ie establishing characterization over a scenario's "victory conditions." At that unheralded moment, role-playing stopped being a game at all and began quietly evolving into a narrative art form, a junior cousin of drama, film, and literature. . . .

The closest analogue to role-playing is improvised theatre, in which actors invent scenes as they go along. Participants must be receptive to contributions of others and use their own input to build on them. The Prime Directive of the improviser is “never negate,” which means that the actors must accept all ideas as they come up and work with them.

In role-playing, however, the GM is often called on to say “no” to players’ desires for their characters; this is because roleplaying games are ongoing epics centred around the adventure genre rather than brief comedy skits. The GM is responsible for decisions about characters’ successes in the physical world, and will often decide that attempts at given actions fail. After all, stories in which the leads breeze over every obstacle without opposition are undramatic and therefore fail to entertain.

But GMs should also be prepared to say “yes” to players when a suggestion inspires new possibilities for the storyline. In fact, a good GM will work to incorporate player input into his plans. In drama, character is the most important thing, and this element belongs to the players. The GM is not a movie director, able to order actors to interpret a script a given way. Instead, he should be seeking ways to challenge PCs, to use plot developments to highlight aspects of their character, in hopes of being challenged in return. . . .

When viewing role-playing as an art form, rather than a game, it becomes less important to keep from the players things their characters wouldn’t know. When character separate, you can “cut” back and forth between scenes involving different characters, making each PC the focus of his own individual sub-plot. This technique has several benefits. First, it allows players to develop characters toward their own goals without having to subsume them to the demands of the “party” as a whole. Secondly, it quickens the pace, allowing players to think while their characters are “off-screen,” cutting down on dead time in which players thrash over decisions. . . . Finally, this device is entertaining for players out of the spotlight, allowing them to sit back and enjoy the adventures of others’ characters.

The price of this is allowing players access to information know to PCs other than their own. But it’s simple enough to rule out of play any actions they attempt based on forbidden knowledge. This doesn’t mean there will be any shortage of mystery. Any OTE GM will still have secrets to spare. In fact, by allowing the number of sub-plots to increase, the GM is introducing even more questions the players will look forward to seeing answered.

GMs who employ this multi-plotting device will find it changes the nature of PC interaction, making meetings between them more remarkable and meaningful as they become rarer. Now PCs will interact because they want to for reasons arising from the story, not merely because they have to as part of a team. After all, parties of adventurers in roleplaying sessions are often made up of wildly disparate types who would never ally with each other, except for reasons outside the storyline: the players all want to be included, and the GM has one plotline prepared, so they all get shoehorned together. . . .

For years, role-players have been simulating fictional narratives the way wargamers recreate historical military engagements. They’ve been making spontaneous, democratized art for their own consumption, even if they haven’t seen it in these terms. Making the artistry conscious is a liberating act, making it easier to emulate the classic tales that inspire us. Have fun with it, and enjoy your special role in aesthetics history – it’s not everybody who gets to be a pioneer in the development of a new art form.​

I agree with Laws that the extent to which RPGs are art is in the play - the spontaneous creation and performance - rather than the authorship of rules, settings etc.


a junior cousin of drama, film, and literature. . . .
This feels about right.

I like golf and might see "art" in the classic swing or Jack, Tiger or Hogan, but it is still a game, or a sport depending on the same type of argument as the OP.

Same argument as college giving sports scholarships to Esports gamers.

The tag Game was put on them so they would sell. But RPGs are not really a game as you can't win.

They should be called RPE the E being experience or maybe entertainment

The whole game things has confuses a lot of new players.


I guess it can be called a performing art but I get bored watching liveplays. I used to watch them to view other game masters but I quickly learned that wasn't the point.

I mostly game master and I feel like I am definitely playing a game and not doing a performance. I think there is art in the game ofcourse that inspires me, but the game itself seems no more art than a good session with tactics.

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