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?

IN2500_002_CCCR-Press-Site-2000x1429.jpg
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.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


log in or register to remove this ad

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
So, whether RPGs are art, there's another question to ask...

Why do we care if they are, or aren't, art? What is the difference to those engaging in an RPG?
 

pemerton

Legend
So, whether RPGs are art, there's another question to ask...

Why do we care if they are, or aren't, art? What is the difference to those engaging in an RPG?
Well, some RPG designers - eg Robin Laws, Vincent Baker - thinks that understanding RPGs as art has implications for how they are designed and played. I gave some examples of this, from Laws, in post 4 upthread.
 

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.)

It is late and am about to go to bed but will answer this as best I can. I used to take the position that you do (RPGs aren't art, but the illustrations, the maps can be). However I feel that was a dishonest position for me to hold* because when I examine my reaction to RPG books, the way that I myself design, I have to admit it is very much my reaction to other forms of art and how I approached things like musical composition, writing stories, etc. To me art is partly a mindset. Before I might allow myself to call RPG design a craft, but not an art. At the end of the day, I think the distinction between those is somewhat blurry (both take a degree of technical expertise, practice, etc): i.e. playing guitar is a craft but it is also an art, making furniture is a craft but also an art, etc). For me it is about how I react to RPGs. When I think of a book like Law's The Esoterrorists, Skarka's Hong Kong Action Theatre! or Nesmith's black box for Ravenloft, my response to those was similar to how I responded to a book that moved me, a song that moved me, a painting that moved me. And it was an involved response because I was reacting to things like the atmosphere created, the brilliance of ideas in the games, the aesthetic of the prose and mechanics, etc.

I do think these are often collaborative works of art: you have illustrators, mappers, and other contributors. So it is in some sense more like a movie production or an album.

It is subjective, and it is hard to arrive at a definition of art everyone agrees upon, but I think the overall effect RPG books can have in terms of their emotional resonance, the beauty they can convey, creative expressiveness, etc certainly qualifies them. I understand our reluctance to label them such (especially since it can seem a bit stuffy or snobbish).

In the design I see very little difference in approaching an RPG book to other works of art. I was heavily involved in music before getting into game design and I think it involves a lot of the same kind of sense of vision, passion, expression of emotion and ideas. And this operates on a number of levels (from how the game feels in play to how the book feels as you read it). And it is again very true this isn't a one person effort (you are working with other artists and they contribute vast amounts to the look and feel). So it is a group effort (which also isn't unlike music). Even little decisions like how a header might change to impact the reader can be, in my view, an artistic choice.

How well each individual RPG succeeds is another story (and also very subjective). But I think the important thing, at least for me on that front, is how it makes me feel when I look at and read it, when I immerse myself in the text.

*Not saying it is dishonest in general for people to take this view, but for me, because I was clearly engaging RPGs as art, it was not an honest expression of how I felt
 

Peter BOSCO'S

Adventurer
RPG's are technical writing. They convey information about a specific field of study. A D&D DMG is, or at least should be as informative about D&D as a Chilton's manual would be about a type of car. However they should also be entertaining to read, and these goals are sometimes antithetical.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Well, some RPG designers - eg Robin Laws, Vincent Baker - thinks that understanding RPGs as art has implications for how they are designed and played. I gave some examples of this, from Laws, in post 4 upthread.

Laws has some good ideas, but they kind of lean into a pretty restrictive concept of what the point of "game" is, in a way that feels informed more by the 80s and 90s than today.
 

If the notion of art is "an act of human expression" then of course they are.
If the notion of art is of it as a artifice of social judgement, then ultimately, your mileage will vary. I find such judgements are so intrinsically personal that while they can be fodder for sincere discussion, they only carry weight when shared.

I will say that there is "an art" to rpgs, to running them, to playing in them.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
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.

So, we might actually then talk about the difference between "beauty" (for lack of a better term) and "art".

I can easily understand someone seeing beauty in the physical action of the human body, in any sport. But a lot of that may be incidental to the act of play. Other times, it might include active choice to express something more.
 

aco175

Legend
So, we might actually then talk about the difference between "beauty" (for lack of a better term) and "art".

I can easily understand someone seeing beauty in the physical action of the human body, in any sport. But a lot of that may be incidental to the act of play. Other times, it might include active choice to express something more.
I can see where I would say that someone has a beautiful golf swing over saying an artistic one. I might say powerful, fluid, or smooth as well.

How much does language we use depend on the audience one is speaking to? Is art more tied to emotion? My idea is that I can feel something in art that I may no in a RPG game. I guess some of the moments in the game are tense and exciting and a single roll on the die feels something emotional, but I do not thing it rises to threshold of art- but certainly other's threshold may be met.
 

What MOMA should do is host a game day. I bet you could fit dozens of game tables in there!
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.
 

Remove ads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top