Grumpy RPG Reviews: Mission Statement
Greetings, to the listeners, from the Waffle House in Kadath.
Welcome to the podcast that takes a critical approach to RPGs. I ran a podcast review show of RPGs and related materials some years ago, and the new show is a variation on that theme.
It will be a more academic and critical approach to the material. There are several reasons for this change. For one, RPGs are an art form – RPGs deserve this kind of approach as a unique form. Also, this lets me use the skills I acquired in graduate school. Finally, it allows me and my massive ego to strut around.
RPGs are an art form. But they are syncretic, or a mode made of other forms. RPG books include images, graphic design, and writing. And the producers of RPGs design them for use.
RPGs are not fine art. The existence of fine art is for the sake of contemplation. For example, sculpture is a fine art. Playwrights and musicians create plays and music for performance – the intent is to use. And both those categories are performing arts (AHD Editors, 2000) The goal for creators of RPGs does not end at the contemplation of the product. Please think of the word game in “role-playing game” as a verb (Crawford, 2014).
Most theories of art involve aesthetics. Aesthetics are the parts of philosophy that deal with the nature, expression, and perception of beauty (AHD Editors, 2000). The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein crafted a significant legacy in philosophy. Relevant here is his work on the concept of “aesthetic experience.” He argued it is difficult to define or express “aesthetic experience, and it may be impossible to do so with logical language (Shusterman & Tomlin, 2008).
There are aesthetic spectacles of squalor, violence, sexuality, and blood in art. Modern life tries to sanitize squalor, violence, sexuality, blood, and death. Art is artificial. But it is usually not sanitized. Art provides a way to experience a broad spectrum of existence that modern life would like to disappear (Paglia, 1991). Most art theories expand aesthetics to a more comprehensive set of emotions than the appreciation of beauty (Maes, 2017). Generally, at its highest and best, it is an experience of great value (Shusterman & Tomlin, 2008).
Aesthetics is more than pretty things; an aesthetic experience will be collaborative for people using RPGs.
What critical approach is best for RPGs? The theory used shapes the critical approach.
A “theory” is an explanatory statement, accepted principles, and methods of analysis for the arts and sciences. Essential for this discussion is there is no singular agreed-upon theory of art. By comparison, a “definition” is a statement or description of the fundamental character or scope of something, and definitions are settled and agreed upon (AHD Editors, 2000). Usually anyway.
Arts – plural – criticism is describing, analyzing, interpreting, and judging artworks. Arts criticism includes sculptures, performances, music, and even RPGs, and the object considered defines arts criticism. This podcast will focus on the criticism of RPG products.
Criticism of the arts comes in two types. These include academic criticism and reviews. Academic criticism is usually of a vigorous and analytical nature. A review is something written for the general public. Reviews often entertain the reader at the expense of detail about the art under discussion. This series will not indulge in such a joking tone and will be high-minded. And the origins of the art critic appear in The History of the World, Volume I – the documentary by Mel Brooks (Brooks, 1981).
At the same time, most RPG products come in the form of books. And RPG books are also ergodic literature. According to Espen Aarseth traversing an ergodic text requires a “non-trivial” effort – this effort defines ergodic literature. Textbooks are an example of ergodic literature. So are the instruction manuals for most anything. Aarseth’s work on video games and the required reading for them helped him develop the concept. In any case, RPG books are ergodic literature (Aarseth, 1997).
But how do you criticize ergodic literature? What is the best theory of art and literature to use as a critical approach to RPG?
Many theories exist on the fine arts, literature, music, and theater. Examples include the institutional theory of art, literary formalism, and even Dark Side of the Rainbow. But not all the possible approaches are applicable. For instance, I can’t use Dark Side of the Rainbow – I live in Texas where pot is illegal.
But what theory?
There is not an existing theory designed to analyze RPGs. So, this podcast will be using fantasy theme analysis. This is a form of rhetorical criticism created by Ernest G. Bormann. The technique provides insights into the shared worldview of groups. Here the term “fantasy” is a confusing coincidence. It does not refer to a genre in this sense. Instead, it means the story groups of people tell themselves and each other about life and events. The story they share helps to define the group – the fantasy that binds them and helps define them (Foss, 2017).
Fantasy theme analysis examines the rhetoric of sports fans, political parties’ narratives, and religions’ theological communication. This approach examines how a group dramatizes events and how that dramatization creates a story and influences thinking and behaviors (Kuypers, 2009).
Fantasy theme analysis is about how a group shares an experience and how its members communicate about that experience. This is relevant here because RPGs are about a group experience. Reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a single-player game provides singular experiences. But the group aspect of an RPG is intrinsic to it as a mode. So, any attempt to make a critical approach to RPGs, and to form a coherent theory about them, must take that group aspect as a fundamental.
RPGs are tools a group may use to create a shared aesthetic experience.
Art plays a role in intensifying and enriching our lives in general. It brings us together as producers, performers, consumers, and audiences. Artworks create cooperation, mutuality, and a shared identity (Davies, 2016). Again, the sense of community are those parts of your identity that you share – they mean you are not alone.
Toward a Theory
It is relevant here to ask, what should an RPG do?
And the answer to that is it should make people want to play a game. So, this podcast uses fantasy theme analysis to examine the books. A successful RPG should motivate people to play the game, use the terminology, and have a shared aesthetic experience. An RPG should encourage people to read an entire book as ergodic literature. An RPG should inspire people to make a “non-trivial” effort to know the material, work with other people, and schedule the time to play the game.
That might sound like a theory. It is the start of a theory. This podcast will be testing its applicability to RPGs.
Other tools for examining an RPG will be two sliding scales. These axes include simulation versus emulation and complexity versus simplicity. The complexity versus simplicity is apparent enough and may apply to game systems and settings. But the simulation versus emulation scale requires more explanation. Simulation represents a game’s attempt to use rules to simulate something, such as driving a car chase, fighting multiple opponents at one time, or often something that can plausibly be possible in real life. Emulation is when a game attempts to make rules to emulate something from fiction, be it a movie, book, and TV program. Emulations tend to follow genre themes. Both of those scales appeared on the podcast by Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws on their podcast (Hite & Laws, 2011). Other scales are available. But using too many could make the analysis too complicated.
This series will be taking a critical approach to RPGs books and materials. RPGs deserve this kind of approach as a unique art mode. The episodes will explore RPG products in a thorough but concise manner. And this should help form and test a critical theory of RPGs as an art form. But there will be a few running gags.
Aarseth, E. (1997). Literature, cybertext: Perspectives on ergodic. London: Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved 2022
AHD Editors. (2000). The american heritage dictionary, fourth edition. (W. Morris, Ed.) Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.
Brooks, M. (Director). (1981). History of the world, volume I [Motion Picture].
Crawford, J. (2014). Dungeons and dragons: Players guide. (M. Carter, Ed.) Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.
Davies, S. (2016). The philosophy of art. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell. Retrieved 2022
Foss, S. K. (2017). Rhetorical criticism: Exploration and practice (Fifth ed.). Long Grove, Il: Waveland Press Inc. Retrieved 2022
Hite, K., & Laws, R. D. (2011, October 8). Episode #466. Retrieved from Ken and robin talk about stuff: https://www.kenandrobintalkaboutstuff.com/index.php/episode-466-foolish-enough-to-get-near-us/
Kuypers, J. A. (2009). Rhetorical criticism: Perspectives in action. Plymouth: Lexington Books. Retrieved 2022
Paglia, C. (1991). Sexual personae: Art and cecadence from nerfertiti to emily dickinson. New York, NY: Ranom House.
Shusterman, R., & Tomlin, A. (2008). Aesthetic experience. New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved 2022
Grumpy RPG Reviews: Mission Statement