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.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Clint_L

Hero
As I posted upthread, art is notoriously difficult to define, yet most agree that it includes certain key features:
1) it is a creative expression 2) it has an aesthetic 3) it is intended to provoke thoughts and feeling.

I think we can all agree that all games are creative expressions, and that they are intended to provoke thoughts and feelings. So I think the only real question is whether the particular game has an aesthetic. An aesthetic might be expressed in the language used, in the layout, illustrations, etc.

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 find this statement confusing. How is that not art? Because of the format? It is obviously a creative expression, intended to provoke thoughts and feelings, and it has an aesthetic (i.e. it emulates the style of a real world catalogue or index). It is clearly a form of storytelling, different than a novel yet no less valid. To me, your distinction is like claiming that the main narrative of Infinite Jest is art, but its footnotes are not.
 

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pemerton

Legend
As I posted upthread, art is notoriously difficult to define, yet most agree that it includes certain key features:
1) it is a creative expression 2) it has an aesthetic 3) it is intended to provoke thoughts and feeling.

I think we can all agree that all games are creative expressions, and that they are intended to provoke thoughts and feelings. So I think the only real question is whether the particular game has an aesthetic. An aesthetic might be expressed in the language used, in the layout, illustrations, etc.



I find this statement confusing. How is that not art? Because of the format? It is obviously a creative expression, intended to provoke thoughts and feelings, and it has an aesthetic (i.e. it emulates the style of a real world catalogue or index). It is clearly a form of storytelling, different than a novel yet no less valid. To me, your distinction is like claiming that the main narrative of Infinite Jest is art, but its footnotes are not.
I don't think that Appendix B is intended to provoke thoughts and feeling in the relevant sense. I'm not also persuaded that it has an aesthetic in the relevant sense.

I look at it this way: I write (and teach) for a living. The work I write involves creative expression - it consists of (what I hope are) well-expressed, imaginative, sometimes vibrant contributions to the various fields in which I work. It has an aesthetic, in a pedestrian sense that it conforms to journal style guides etc, and also in a richer sense that it both conforms to and contributes to the style of the contemporary academic essay. It is intended to provoke thoughts, and - in some cases, eg when writing on topics of injustice or violence - feeling.

But my work is not art. One reason is this: the way that it provokes thoughts and feeling is by way of its content. Its style is intended to facilitate that process, but does not on its own generate thoughts and feeling in the way that art does. (I mean, I enjoy it when a referee tells me my work is nicely written, but that is not a compliment intended to compare it to literary writing!)

Another is that the aesthetic of my work is in many ways instrumental. The form of the contemporary academic essay is a subtle instrument, but it is not really an end in itself.

JRRT's Appendix B is inventive, and imaginative. It complements the artistic component of the work of which it is a part. But I don't consider it, in itself, a work of art. I would say the same thing about REH's essay on The Hyborian Age - which contrasts, say, with his actual Conan stories which are (or aspire to be, even if not all succeed) art in the form of literature.

(To be clear: I am referring to the chronology in Appendix B. Some of the preliminary text, eg where we are told that Cirdan saw "further and deeper" than anyone else in Middle Earth, is art, again in the form of literature.)
 


Dire Bare

Legend
I don't think that Appendix B is intended to provoke thoughts and feeling in the relevant sense. I'm not also persuaded that it has an aesthetic in the relevant sense.

I look at it this way: I write (and teach) for a living. The work I write involves creative expression - it consists of (what I hope are) well-expressed, imaginative, sometimes vibrant contributions to the various fields in which I work. It has an aesthetic, in a pedestrian sense that it conforms to journal style guides etc, and also in a richer sense that it both conforms to and contributes to the style of the contemporary academic essay. It is intended to provoke thoughts, and - in some cases, eg when writing on topics of injustice or violence - feeling.

But my work is not art. One reason is this: the way that it provokes thoughts and feeling is by way of its content. Its style is intended to facilitate that process, but does not on its own generate thoughts and feeling in the way that art does. (I mean, I enjoy it when a referee tells me my work is nicely written, but that is not a compliment intended to compare it to literary writing!)

Another is that the aesthetic of my work is in many ways instrumental. The form of the contemporary academic essay is a subtle instrument, but it is not really an end in itself.

JRRT's Appendix B is inventive, and imaginative. It complements the artistic component of the work of which it is a part. But I don't consider it, in itself, a work of art. I would say the same thing about REH's essay on The Hyborian Age - which contrasts, say, with his actual Conan stories which are (or aspire to be, even if not all succeed) art in the form of literature.

(To be clear: I am referring to the chronology in Appendix B. Some of the preliminary text, eg where we are told that Cirdan saw "further and deeper" than anyone else in Middle Earth, is art, again in the form of literature.)
The line between art and craft is fuzzy and subjective. But appendixes like those in Tolkien's books are art (IMO, of course) as they are world-building, they are fictional, they are creative parts of the larger work.

An essay about Middle-Earth may not be art, but an appendix expanding on the fictional world of Middle-Earth from an in-story perspective, that's art . . . to me.

A lot of fantasy door-stopper novels include pronunciation guides, lists of characters and places, explanations of magic systems . . . these types of appendixes, out-of-context, might not be considered art, but they are part of the larger artistic work of the novel and again, IMO, count as part of the artistic work.

I look at most RPG books in the same way. They most often attempt to describe a world or story for the players to engage with in their games, but the world-building and story-crafting in RPG books are most definitely art. Even the creation of rules elements for the players to engage with are a form of artistic expression, to me.
 

I look at most RPG books in the same way. They most often attempt to describe a world or story for the players to engage with in their games, but the world-building and story-crafting in RPG books are most definitely art. Even the creation of rules elements for the players to engage with are a form of artistic expression, to me.

This is obviously highly subjective. But the times when I have managed to put together a system that feels sleek and fits with what I consider to be an aesthetically pleasing presentation, it is the same feeling I get when I come up with a melody and chord progression that feels like it is taking me on a journey. I don't think everyone feels like way about mechanics, but for me the feel and aesthetics of the mechanics have just as big an effect on how a game feels, how I feel when I look at a book, as the underlying probabilities and the functions of those mechanics (and getting the function and the aesthetic to blend perfectly is the feeling I am pointing to here)
 

Grantypants

Explorer
The question "is it Art?" is meaningless. What consequence does it have in declaring something "Art" or "not-Art"? A difference that makes no difference is no difference.
It's meaningless, except for when there are consequences. There's an assumption baked into "Is it art?" that I think a lot of us ignore. That's the idea that, if something is "art", then, solely because it's officially "art", it should be respected and admired. I disagree with that. I think that good art should be respected and admired, but that's just a matter of opinion. The question of whether art is good or bad is a wildly different question from whether a thing is art or not.
 

It's meaningless, except for when there are consequences. There's an assumption baked into "Is it art?" that I think a lot of us ignore. That's the idea that, if something is "art", then, solely because it's officially "art", it should be respected and admired. I disagree with that. I think that good art should be respected and admired, but that's just a matter of opinion. The question of whether art is good or bad is a wildly different question from whether a thing is art or not.
So, the question "is it Art?" is actively harmful. The only meaningful question is "is it good?".
 

Clint_L

Hero
I don't think that Appendix B is intended to provoke thoughts and feeling in the relevant sense. I'm not also persuaded that it has an aesthetic in the relevant sense.

I look at it this way: I write (and teach) for a living. The work I write involves creative expression - it consists of (what I hope are) well-expressed, imaginative, sometimes vibrant contributions to the various fields in which I work. It has an aesthetic, in a pedestrian sense that it conforms to journal style guides etc, and also in a richer sense that it both conforms to and contributes to the style of the contemporary academic essay. It is intended to provoke thoughts, and - in some cases, eg when writing on topics of injustice or violence - feeling.

But my work is not art. One reason is this: the way that it provokes thoughts and feeling is by way of its content. Its style is intended to facilitate that process, but does not on its own generate thoughts and feeling in the way that art does. (I mean, I enjoy it when a referee tells me my work is nicely written, but that is not a compliment intended to compare it to literary writing!)

Another is that the aesthetic of my work is in many ways instrumental. The form of the contemporary academic essay is a subtle instrument, but it is not really an end in itself.

JRRT's Appendix B is inventive, and imaginative. It complements the artistic component of the work of which it is a part. But I don't consider it, in itself, a work of art. I would say the same thing about REH's essay on The Hyborian Age - which contrasts, say, with his actual Conan stories which are (or aspire to be, even if not all succeed) art in the form of literature.

(To be clear: I am referring to the chronology in Appendix B. Some of the preliminary text, eg where we are told that Cirdan saw "further and deeper" than anyone else in Middle Earth, is art, again in the form of literature.)
The status of essay-style writing as "not art" is, historically, very much a question of taste and cultural fashion - living the wake of the Romantic Movement, we tend to easily acknowledge forms of art that are more or less made in that image, and relegate other forms of creative expression to the not-art pile. Yet I point out that essays and scholarly articles were once the epitome of art.

I too am a teacher - Theory of Knowledge, Language and Literature, and Creative Writing. In L&L particularly, we study both traditional literary texts (novels, poems, etc.) and non-literary texts (advertisements, essays, etc.). The distinction between the two categories has mostly to do with convention and intention. Studying a commercial, for example, is really not a lot different than studying a short film, until it comes to discussing context and purpose. Is a poem written to sell canned beans not art, but a poem written to celebrate the joys of canned beans, art? Is the line between art and not-art reducible to a question of context?

Yet even there I think your argument is sort of untenable in the way that you break apart an unquestioned work of art to deem parts of it art, and parts of it, not. JRRT imagined that timeline and presented it in a style meant to emulate an academic history. These were intentional choices presumably made to achieve a particular audience effect - to give the entire work a sense of alternate history. To then claim that this particular part of the work is not art because of its style is, to me, like claiming that the painting is art but the brushstrokes are not.

Ultimately, this is a subjective argument. But when I think back to my thirteen year old self lost for ages in my Monster Manual, that was for me unquestionably an artistic experience. The descriptions, the numbers, the illustrations, the layout all combined to fill me with imaginative wonder. As I read through it, I was not simply experiencing an instruction manual, I was engrossed in an aesthetic experience, entirely switched on, every bit as much as listening to a great song or reading a cherished novel. If that is not art, then what is?
 

The status of essay-style writing as "not art" is, historically, very much a question of taste and cultural fashion - living the wake of the Romantic Movement, we tend to easily acknowledge forms of art that are more or less made in that image, and relegate other forms of creative expression to the not-art pile. Yet I point out that essays and scholarly articles were once the epitome of art.

I too am a teacher - Theory of Knowledge, Language and Literature, and Creative Writing. In L&L particularly, we study both traditional literary texts (novels, poems, etc.) and non-literary texts (advertisements, essays, etc.). The distinction between the two categories has mostly to do with convention and intention. Studying a commercial, for example, is really not a lot different than studying a short film, until it comes to discussing context and purpose. Is a poem written to sell canned beans not art, but a poem written to celebrate the joys of canned beans, art? Is the line between art and not-art reducible to a question of context?

I am not an academic but it does seem to me what qualifies as art changes with time. I half agree with Pemerton here and half agree with you. When I think back to being a student, a lot of the history books I read, I don't think of as art. But some of them I do. And I can understand Pemerton's reluctance here because I can see how if you fully embrace a field of study as art, it could open the field up to being less rigorous, objective, or more prone to being led by the things that propel art (like emotion for example). At the same time when I think of books like the Historians Craft, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Caesar and Christ or the Cheese and the Worms, the experience I had reading them was very much how I would engage with music or literature.

I do think it is a fine line. It can be handy to clarify what we mean by art but I also think that sometimes has the effect of certain things not being seen as such (when I was a kid I don't think many people I encountered thought of stand up comedy as an art form, but now it seems like as an art and as a craft it gets more respect in terms of what actually goes into shaping and honing those jokes). There are ways to define music: as a blend of rhythm, melody and harmony which can be helpful for understanding a song, and even for creating one, but that is a narrow definition the that would exclude a lot of perfectly valid musical forms (unless the definition is understood to mean it can include these elements but it need not include all of them).



Yet even there I think your argument is sort of untenable in the way that you break apart an unquestioned work of art to deem parts of it art, and parts of it, not. JRRT imagined that timeline and presented it in a style meant to emulate an academic history. These were intentional choices presumably made to achieve a particular audience effect - to give the entire work a sense of alternate history. To then claim that this particular part of the work is not art because of its style is, to me, like claiming that the painting is art but the brushstrokes are not.

To me this is the thing that firmly puts that in the realm of art. I would put it in a similar category as the old found journal technique in a lot of old horror stories and novels. It isn't that different from how Dracula is cobbled together from journal entries, travelogue, phonograph recordings, letters, etc.

Ultimately, this is a subjective argument. But when I think back to my thirteen year old self lost for ages in my Monster Manual, that was for me unquestionably an artistic experience. The descriptions, the numbers, the illustrations, the layout all combined to fill me with imaginative wonder. As I read through it, I was not simply experiencing an instruction manual, I was engrossed in an aesthetic experience, entirely switched on, every bit as much as listening to a great song or reading a cherished novel. If that is not art, then what is?

I would say the same thing of the red boxed set or all the Van Richten books I devoured. The tactile experience of the boxed sets especially to me were not that different from opening up an album or CD and experiencing the music while sifting through all the paraphernalia
 

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