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?

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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.

Behavior​

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.

Aesthetics​

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.

Space​

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.

Time​

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

Dire Bare

Legend
What are the consequences if an RPG gets officially labeled "art"? Or officially "not art"?

I don't want it to sound like I'm dismissing the premise of the thread. Exhibit curators have to look at artistic factors like the ones discussed as part of deciding what to include or exclude, but they also have to consider other factors, like physical space, budgets, museum collections, aesthetics, patron and donor opinions, etc. In the same way, an art supply store might have to decide whether or not to stock RPG supplies for sale. An arts publication might have to decide whether or not to cover RPG news. A local government might have to decide whether an RPG company is eligible for money from a limited pool of public arts funds.

If it's art, what then?
You play the game?

What are you supposed to do with art? You experience it.

Labeling something as art or not-art is simply a way to frame our discussions about a thing. Much like discussing literature, movies, or pottery.

There is this idea that art is something higher, something that belongs in a museum. Something separate from our everyday lives. Which is why (IMO) some push back on the idea that games are art forms. But while art can certainly be celebrated in a museum, it really is a part of our everyday lives.
 

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CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
What are the consequences if an RPG gets officially labeled "art"? Or officially "not art"?

If it's art, what then?
I think it's mostly semantic.

Art is largely considered subjective rather than formulaic. So people who want RPGs to be described as "art" want it to remain subjective: open to broad interpretation, with many different styles presented and a freestyle set of rules (if they can even be called 'rules') to separate different categories. Like oil painting, or modern dance: there is no 'good' or 'bad,' just different styles and presentations. Yes, ballet is different from swing, and East Coast swing is different from West Coast swing, but nobody can say which one is better.

If something isn't considered to be "art," it is expected to be formulaic rather than subjective. It is expected to have specific inputs and outcomes and purposes. Even when there are many different designs for the same thing, there will always be a such thing as a "good design" and a "bad design." This is the difference between architecture and engineering: one is an art, the other isn't.

So I suspect that people who don't want RPGs to be considered "art" want it to be less subjective and more rigorously defined: they probably want more rules, and more specific rules, and lots of different codified options and variables already defined and ready to use. 5E is pretty fast and loose with that sort of thing, and relies on the DM to add/change/remove rules as needed, so it's probably more art than anything else. Heck, just the other day I was reading a post on ENWorld about how Challenge Ratings are more art than science.
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
If a theatre Play is Art then so is an RPG - All the worlds a stage and the people merely players, the game sets the parameters of their interactions
 

MonkeyGland

Explorer
This question was settled decades ago.

Games aren't art, they are a medium.

Bland article.
I think this was settled decades ago. By Duchamp's Fountain. He was also a hell of a chess player.

"I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."
 


talien

Community Supporter
What are the consequences if an RPG gets officially labeled "art"? Or officially "not art"?

I don't want it to sound like I'm dismissing the premise of the thread. Exhibit curators have to look at artistic factors like the ones discussed as part of deciding what to include or exclude, but they also have to consider other factors, like physical space, budgets, museum collections, aesthetics, patron and donor opinions, etc. In the same way, an art supply store might have to decide whether or not to stock RPG supplies for sale. An arts publication might have to decide whether or not to cover RPG news. A local government might have to decide whether an RPG company is eligible for money from a limited pool of public arts funds.

If it's art, what then?
At least in the context of the MOMA's curation approach, it means it's worthy of preservation and exhibition. Of course, just showing a book alone wouldn't tell the whole story, so live streams or actual plays might be part of the exhibition. In the case of video games, every attempt has been made to preserve the game in its entirety, including its original code (which, as you can imagine, is unheard of in this day and age). For RPGs it's likely a little easier since the "code" is in the book itself.

It should be noted D&D is already in the Strong's Museum of Play, but I think the core rules are just in a glass case, which is not quite the same thing as what MOMA is trying to do with games.
 

Anything with a craft and an aesthetic can be an artform. Yes, the design of roleplaying games and even the performance of running or playing one, can be an art.

Is it worth worrying about? Probably not.
 

pemerton

Legend
I do agree that the play of RPGs is an art form . . . but so is the creation of RPG books and supplements that support play. We could argue over whether rules design is art . . . I would argue it is . . . but definitely the creation of worlds, story frames (modules), and seeds (character options, monsters, items, etc) is art.
I think RPGs can be considered art on many fronts, from the making of them to the playing.
My view on the making of RPGs is probably a bit different.

I agree that illustrations in RPG books may be art. Perhaps also some maps.

I don't think that instructional prose generally counts as art. Nor do I think technical rules design normally counts as art: I see it as (roughly) analogous to engineering. (A comparison: I admire the ingenuity of much statutory drafting; but it's not art.)

I don't think that imagining things - say, owlbears - is per se art. When children imagine themselves as fairies and flit around, they are playing, but I don't think that they are per se creating art.

LotR is a work of (literary) art, but I don't think Appendix B - the Tale of Years - in itself is a work of art. It's an imaginary catalogue or index of events. I don't know of many works setting out RPG settings that I would consider art. I do know of some. In RM Companion VI, there is a short extract which set out to explain the Unlife by way of a short story, the Tale of the Loremaster Elor Once-Dark. I would count it as art. I think that 1990s White Wolf books had similar sorts of fiction interludes that might well count as art.

The more that an adventure module counts as a work of (literary) art, I think the less apt it is for RPGing as I understand the activity. (And the closer it becomes to something like a script or at least an outline, that might engender art through being performed.)
 


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