But is it art?

Grumpy RPG Reviews: Are RPGs Art?

Abstract: But is it art? The artifact under consideration here is the fifth edition of the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) rules set. Can RPGs, as typified by D&D fifth edition, be considered an art form unto themselves? This methodology examines shared meaning, specifically of “art,” through use of shared language and terminology, as established by Bormann and others. D&D fifth edition, and by extension the other RPGs as well, potentially qualify as art depending on the definition of art employed. RPG material is worth a deep dive and exploration.
Keywords: art, art theory, RPGs, D&D, symbolic convergence perspective, Dickie, Carney, Paglia

RPGs as Art?

Culture critic and academic Camille Paglia asserts art is many things and performs many tasks. She says it may fix an audience in its seat, place a book in someone’s hand, and stop movement so someone may contemplate an image. Paglia says art helps define a culture (Paglia, 1991). However, not every expressive mode has recognition as art. 

Pop culture is a manifestation of a culture’s appetites, ethics, and interests according to Popular Culture: Production and Consumption. The book states a culture generates and consumes pop culture endlessly. Some of this production is art, and some of it is not. To see what they reveal about the larger culture all of these materials and activities are worth consideration according to the book. This includes social phenomena (such as soccer hooliganism), social bric-a-brac (such as Hustler magazine), and even actual art objects (Harrington & Bielby, 2001). 

The artifact considered in this essay is a pop culture item. Specifically, the fifth edition of the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) rules set. D&D has remained in publication for more than 40 years. This fantasy game inspired the creation of the entire role-playing game (RPG) hobby, influenced the development of computer games, inspired movies, and triggered political movements according to Aaron Trammel and his history of the hobby. The game is a part of American popular culture, with an impact difficult to measure (Trammell, 2013). The question is, can RPGs – as typified by D&D fifth edition – be considered an art form unto themselves? 

Syncretism is the probably best term for describing the effect of the overlapping modes involved in D&D (AHD Editors, 2000). The fifth edition D&D books, and RPG books in general, are home to graphic design, visual images, writing, and should encourage group performances by the participants. Academia and society accept that writing and visual images are mediums of art. That effective graphic design requires skill and guides the eye across a page is long established. That performance may be art is also established. So, are RPGs understandable as a singular art, through a convergence of graphic design, visual art, and writing designed to encourage improvisational performance? 

A reasonable response is to ask; why pursue this question? Why attempt to determine if RPGs may qualify as an art form? The simple answer is legitimacy – legitimacy is a sanctioning agent. The status of art for any mode of expression means that mode has achieved a level of respectability and social acceptance. Art is important to society. For that matter, art helps to define a society (Paglia, 1991). Art serves as a means for people to communicate in important ways and prevents us from becoming more savage than we are already (Tolstoy, 1899). 

Morris Weitz argued that art is an open concept. New modes, and new movements, arise constantly and demand decisions on the part of those interested about including the new mode in the larger concept of art (Weitz, 1956). RPGs are newer than other modes of art such as painting, literature, theater, cinema, and even comic books (Trammell, 2013). 

Society, academics, and people with money, care about art and express that caring with journals and purchasing power. Have RPGs achieved the same status? Are RPGs a part of the social phenomena that is art? By comparison, comic books find acceptance as an art form and already have academic journals dedicated to their study (Lopes, 2006). Why should RPGs not receive a similar consideration? The possibility of mainstream critical consideration is more likely with recognition of RPGs as an art form.
Literature Review – the Source Books

Art is an elusive concept. Navigating the concept will be critical for this examination. Therefore, it will consider multiple sources for multiple definitions. The first group of dramatis personae is from the artworld and academics that shape the collective fantasy that is art. These include, Arthur Danto, Stephen Davies, George Dickie, Jerrold Levinson, James Carney, David Novitz, Paglia, and Monroe Beardlsey. This research principally leans on the work of Danto, Dickie, Levinson and Beardsley. Paglia also provides an important resource through her book Sexual Personae (Paglia, 1991). 

A second dramatis personae group is people who have produced the games discussed in this examination. These include Gary Gygax, Monte Cook, Mark Ren-Hagan, and the people who developed D&D fifth edition, such as Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford, and Dave Arneson. 

There are more than a dozen RPGs available on the market. D&D is selected because it came first, its success enabled the other RPGs to exist, it has the greatest cultural impact, and remains the most recognizable (Trammell, 2013). The D&D rules-set involves three books. The Player’s Handbook provides rules for the players, a description of the powers available to player characters, and discusses similar subjects (Crawford, 2014). The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides rules for the game runner, i.e. the Dungeon Master, information on running a game, and discusses similar issues (Perkins, Wyatt, & Crawford, 2014). The Monster Manual provides information on a grab bag of creatures for the player characters to oppose (Mearls & Crawford, 2014). This examination includes these books. 

Methodology – The Rules System

The critical theory employed here is Symbolic Convergence Perspective, (SCP) as Thomas Endres discusses the approach in The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture. Deanna Sellnow, the editor of Rhetorical Power, states that this rhetorical approach examines the shared reality of those who buy into certain texts and ideas (Sellnow, 2018). This is the best approach given the nature of the RPG and the cultural understanding of art. 

The purpose of this research is to consider D&D fifth edition by artistic standards. The fact there is no single standard for art accepted in society or in academia complicates this effort (Novitz, 1996). Comparing the RPG to a comprehensive list of theories generally accepted would make this research too long. So a choice has been made to narrow it down to five major theories. These include the Dickie institutional theory, the Levinson historical definition, the aesthetic definition Monroe Beardsley provides, Arthur Danto’s final and essential formulation, and a Wittgenstein-Paglia cluster. It is the process of debate and discussion over the merits and weaknesses of artistic theories and definitions that are important (Weitz, 1956). This is a useful philosophy for this research because it is engaging in that kind of dialogue.

RPGs are not a fine art. The existence of fine art is primarily for the sake of contemplation. For example, sculpture is a fine art. Playwrights and musicians create plays and music for the sake of active performance – the intent is use – and both those categories are performing arts (AHD Editors, 2000). The goal for creators of RPGs does not end at contemplation of the product. Please think of the word game in role-playing game as a verb (Crawford, 2014). This research will explore if it is reasonable to consider D&D fifth edition as art. It is not intended to determine its relative quality if it is art. 

SCP examines shared meaning through use of common language and terminology (Bormann, 1972). Gamers use a set of shared terminology. Further, individual games share a particular narrative fantasy with a collection of participants (Crawford, 2014). However, the contentious concept of art is also the product of culturally shared terminology and narrative. The understanding of art is an ongoing process (Dessoir, 1961). Art does not exist outside of people who share an understanding of the concept of art – a shared understanding best explored with SPC for the purposes of this research. 

This essay will consider art, and D&D, with the terminology of Endres and Ernest Bormann. The essay does this with the four parts of SPC; (1) is there a shared group consciousness about the subject, (2) is there evidence that provides authentication for the vision, (3) does the subject speak to the rhetorical skill of its creators, and (4) how well do elements work within the rhetorical vision?

Shared Group Consciousness

Is there proof of a rhetorical community and audience buy-in (Sellnow, 2018)?
Many contemporary ideas about art largely descend from John Stewart Mill and Ludwig Wittgenstein. These ideas come from the philosophical legacy of the men because neither directly proposed a formula for defining art. To be art an object must meet most of the criteria on a proverbial checklist in the Wittgenstein model. To be art an object apparently must meet all of the criteria on a shorter checklist in the Mill model (Carney, 1975). 

George Dickie, writing in American Philosophical Quarterly, used the early ideas of Arthur Danto to formulate his institutional theory of art. Dickie writes that only an artworld – that is, people involved in producing, commissioning, presenting, promoting, and criticizing art – may define art. Dickie’s definition allows for internal flexibility in a Mill sense. So, a mural would qualify as a painting even though it is not on a canvas, and a Jackson Pollock work would be a painting even though it does not depict an image. All this to say, the recognized and established artworld has the final say on what is legitimate art (Dickie, 1969). The theory implies multiple artworlds exist for the multiple recognized modes of art, including literature, fine arts, music, and so on. However, a particular artworld is only equipped to judge its own mode of expression – the artworld for the fine arts is not functionally qualified to sit in judgment of music, for example (Davies, 2015). There are no present considerations of D&D fifth edition – or other RPGs – in the academically accepted journals on art. The space in those journals is devoted to accepted art modes, such as painting, literature, cinema, etc. (Novitz, 1996). 

Jerrold Levinson generally eschews institutional theory for an anti-essentialism position. Writing for the British Journal of Aesthetics, Levinson defines art in relation to the art that has come before it. He argues that in all cases determining if an artifact is actually art depends on weighing the artifact against an archetype or historically and widely recognized example of that mode of expression. 

Levinson writes that;

“The historical definition of art also casts a useful light on the fact that in art anything goes, but not everything works… The reason not everything works is that regarding some as a work of art necessarily involves bringing the past of art to bear on what is being offered as part in the present…” (Levinson, p. 247)

D&D has no singular or clear artistic precedent (Trammell, 2013). There will be more on the specific history of D&D in a moment.

Monroe Beardsley avoided the term art, and having to define it, in the first edition of his book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. He provided a definition only in the second edition of the book. Beardsley then defined art as “…an arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character…” (Beardsley, 1982, p. 299). Beardsley avoided the use of the term experience and substituted the term gratification elsewhere in the book. He writes aesthetic gratification primarily involves attention to a unity and the qualities of a complex whole. Beardsley also writes that the aesthetic value of a particular piece of art depends on the degree of aesthetic gratification it provides. He expressly links artworks and aesthetics (Beardsley, 1982). An aesthetic experience is the process of achieving gratification for the purposes of this research. D&D rules set is a notably complex game system (Peterson, 2012). The simple reason for the pop culture success of D&D is how it facilitates collaborative storytelling, experiences of joy and sorrow, bonding experiences, and the creation of in-jokes among participants and establishing friendships (Crawford, 2014). This description of the emotional resonance of a successful D&D game also serves as a description of the aesthetic experience and gratification generated by the game. 

The Wittgenstein model for art is a disjunction of features. A particular artifact is denoted a work of art, such as a painting, performance, or an RPG game, if it possesses most of the features. None of the individual features are essential for an artifact to qualify as art. The Wittgenstein model is favorable for this research because it permits conditions for new art categories. The features, or what constitutes a criterion, which satisfy a Wittgenstein model are not specifically established (Carney, 1975). This research will employ the features Paglia discusses in Sexual Personae

This list of the most salient art features as defined by Paglia include; “Art is spellbinding. Art fixes the audience in its seat, stops the feet before a painting, fixes a book in the hand” (Paglia, p. 29). The participants of a D&D game usually remained seated for the duration of an hours-long session. Further, the participants read and reread the involved books. “Art is order” (Paglia, p. 29). D&D fifth edition is home to a dense rule system that imposes order on the game. Art is sacrificial (Paglia, 1991). D&D demands sacrifice of money and time on part of the participants. “Art has nothing to do with morality. Moral themes may be present, but they are incidental, simply grounding an art work in a particular time and place” (Paglia, p. 29). The rules are amoral and the settings usually require the players to be the moralizing force in the fictional world. Art is aggressive and compulsive (Paglia, 1991). Competition and described violence are the heart of D&D as a game.  “Art, I said, is full of crimes” (Paglia, p. 34). Game participants sometimes refer to player characters as murder hobos because of their tendency towards vagrancy and homicide. Art is scandalous (Paglia, 1991). D&D would not entirely emerge from the 1980s Satanic panic scandal for 15 years (Trammell, 2013). “Art makes things” (Paglia, p. 30). For purposes of this research things includes the three core books and the specialized dice required to play the game. Art involves contemplation and conceptualization (Paglia, 1991). D&D play involves conceptualizing impossible situations, such as battling dragons with magic, and contemplation about character actions and the results of those actions. “Art, no matter how minimalist, is never simply design. It is always a ritualistic reordering of reality” (Paglia, p. 29). The fictional construct of a D&D game session, in terms of both the world and its people, represents a stark reordering of reality to permit the impossible. The players and game runner participate in this joint, fictional, reordering of reality. Art requires space and creates a transformative place (Paglia, 1991). Playing the game requires a physical space for the participants. Art involves an attempt to tame aspects of reality, life and nature (Paglia, 1991). The success of D&D involves its ability to combat the natural and anaesthetic experiences, to borrow Danto’s terminology, of boredom and tedium (Danto, 2013). Western art involves sexuality (Paglia, 1991). Paglia would demand this be included among the disjunction of art features. However, D&D as a game possesses a deliberately naive asexuality. 

An artifact must only fulfill most of the disjunctions in the Wittgenstein model. D&D fifth edition fulfills 12 of the 13 art criteria discussed by Paglia. 

Danto provided a definition of art that would shape the institutional definition of art early in his career. However, he offered an essentialist definition of art by the end of his career, specifically in his book What Art Is. He writes, “I then declared that works of art are embodied meanings” (Danto, 2013, p. 37). Danto states that art must stand at a remove from reality. This distance requires art to embody an internal meaning. Further, the embodiment might be anything from a dancer pantomiming ironing clothing to a painting to a set of artificial Brillo Boxes (Danto, 2013). D&D fifth edition embodies the promise of adventure, story making, joke-telling, and collaborative fun (Crawford, 2014).

That is a consideration of D&D fifth edition against art theories. 

In terms of traditional art, great works of art exist suffice it to say; the plays of Shakespeare, the paintings of Donatello, and the music of Elvis Presley, etc. They are all examples of the best among their modes of expression (Harrington & Bielby, 2001). Although it is a social construct, art exists. The disputes about the definition of art do not change this fact.  

There is clear historical and shared group understanding of D&D. The game grew out of the war-gaming hobby. Participants reenacted historical battles through use of rules and miniatures of military units and armaments in the war-gaming hobby. Gary Gygax met Dave Arneson through this hobby. Working with Arneson, Gygax later changed the rules to accommodate small groups and material inspired by the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and J .R.R. Tolkien. This developed into the original version of D&D in the early 1970s. D&D has gone through five rules updates, survived considerable controversy, and has never been out of print in the 40-years since (Peterson, 2012). The success of the game is why D&D and RPG are cultural terms, and that success allowed D&D to inspire computer games, movies, music, and television programming (Trammell, 2013). 

Gygax himself allegedly dismissed the notion of RPGs as art (Gygax, 2017). However, it is a truism that creations may outgrow the creators. Successful game designers Mark Ren-Hagan and Monte Cook both affirm RPGs as art. However, both acknowledge this requires an unconventional understanding of art (Riggs, 2016). Lead designer for the company that owns the D&D brand Mike Mearls writes D&D has inspired many artists and writers. He further states that gamers should be “…able to create anything…” with good play and that it is the people who bring a game to life (Crawford, 2014, p. 4). The collective understanding of RPGS – and thus D&D – is mostly a social analogue, with a dose of the pragmatic.

RPG sales grew 40% from 2014 to 2015, with sales moving from $25 million a year to $35 million a year. The D&D rule set held the top position on the list of best-selling table-top RPGs in 2014, 2015, and 2016 (ICv2, 2017). More than 20 million people have played the game since it appeared during the 1970s according to a report by BBC News (Waters, 2002). The average group of players conducts games weekly or every other week, and a standard game lasts between three and four hours (Shea, 2016). The point being, millions of people have played the game, and enough people care about RPGs to have spent $35 million on the hobby only a few years ago. Further, D&D held the top spot of sales involved in that $35 million worth of transactions. Lastly, players are willing to spend between eight and 16-hours engaged in play a month – that is a considerable time investment. 

On a related note, art sales in 2016 exceeded $68 billion (Kinsella, 2016). There are dozens of academic journals dedicated to the fine arts and performing arts, including the Oxford Art Journal, the International Journal of Art and Art History, etc. To reiterate something stated above, academics, and people with money, care about art and express that care with journals and considerable purchasing power. 

Rhetorical Vision Reality Link 

Where is the evidence of the senses that provides authentication for the vision (Sellnow, 2018)?

It is worth discussing terminology before moving on to the content of the D&D books. An image is the representation – usually in two dimensions – of the form of a person, thing, or object, such as a painting or photograph (AHD Editors, 2000). There are several hundred images in the three core books of D&D fifth edition (Crawford, 2014). Writing is the process of producing words in a form permitting reading and comprehension (AHD Editors, 2000). Writing used to convey difficult concepts – such as elf society and the shape of alien dimensions – appears in the three core books of D&D fifth edition (Perkins, Wyatt, & Crawford, 2014). Graphic design uses existing information, such as images and text, to construct messages and convey meaning to the intended audience. It can help shape the creation of ideas and the understanding of material (Laing & Masoodian, 2015). Graphic design features in the three core books (Mearls & Crawford, 2014). Society and academia, as noted at the beginning of this essay, accepts images, writing, and performances as art forms and graphic design is important to organize and convey ideas and meaning. 

Figure 1. “Barbarian”
Barbarian 02.tif
Figure 1, Player’s Handbook, pg. 46, “Barbarian.” Copyright Wizards of the Coast, LLC.

Figure 2. “Red Dragon”
Dragon 02.tif
Figure 2, Monster Manual, pg. 97, “Red Dragon.” Copyright Wizards of the Coast, LLC.

Fantasy Theme Artistry 

How does the subject speak to the rhetorical skill of and communication competence of the creators (Sellnow, 2018)? 

Endres discusses the subset of the comparative standard and the absolute standard (Sellnow, 2018). The comparative standard would contrast D&D against other RPGs, such as Vampire: the Masquerade (Ren-Hagan, et al., 1998) or The Call of Cthulhu (Petersen, Willis, & Mason, 1981). This would not provide any insight into the question of if RPGs can qualify as an art unto themselves. The absolute standard examines D&D fifth edition on its own merits. A Google search for “D&D fifth edition review” returns 670 thousand results. To look at reviews not entirely inside the RPG hobby scene, The Players Handbook received a 4-star review from “The Escapist” magazine. The three books hold 4 ½-star reviews at Amazon.com. To reiterate something discussed above, the books have enjoyed a bestselling status in RPG circles for years. Fans of the games are willing to invest considerable time in the games. This speaks to the success of the game’s designers. 

Closeness of Fit Standard

How well do individual elements work within the larger rhetorical vision (Sellnow, 2018)?

The research question is how closely can D&D fifth edition fit into the definition of art? The books are home to images that meet a dictionary definition of paintings and illustration. The writing helps clarify dense concepts. The graphic design helps with ideation. James Carney writes that “…the extension of the term ‘art’ is determined by the theories of art held by the artworld” (Carney, 1975, p. 201). The academics and professions that compose the artworlds reject some art theories based upon the perceived unintentional consequences of the theory (Carney, 1975). The theory preferred depends on which consequences people choose to tolerate because all theories have consequences. 

Analysis – The Game Itself

Graham McFee asserts that a recognized status as art creates ways of explaining an artifacts value in Artistic Judgment. This means that “…action with respect to some particular works not merely confers art-status on those works but also creates categories of art, bringing with them a ‘universe’ of discourse” (McFee, 2011, p. 159). Academic legitimacy would open, and encourage, avenues of research and exploration in terms of the games’ composition, intent, and consumption – it will explore a new universe of discourse (Matcham, 2014).

Nevertheless, this essay is not interested in, to borrow terminology from the games, an automatic success. That would be as useless as an automatic failure. The research here makes an effort to explore the topic honestly, and then to make its case. 

It is possible to understand a work of art only if human life permeates the art. It is not possible to eliminate living experience from the meaningful content of a true work of art (Dessoir, 1961). Crawford, Gygax, Mearls and the others involved in the creations of D&D across its iterations expressly designed it to facilitate a group in creating shared aesthetic experiences (Crawford, 2014). Art is a fantasy theme. It is more than information when shared with others who possess a common understanding of the term (Bormann, 1972). The same is true of mercy, justice, duty, and for that matter, the tooth fairy. That does not mean these terms, or symbols, lack social value. It is arguable humans need these symbols to be human (Pratchett, 1998). Indeed, Tolstoy wrote that art serves to nourish the human condition (Tolstoy, 1899).

However, does this understanding of art intersect with the understanding of D&D? That is, can RPGs, as typified by D&D fifth edition, be considered a legitimate art form unto themselves?

Dickie’s institutional definition would never concede any place or consideration for RPGs because that definition cannot concede any consideration or place for anything produced by popular culture (Dickie, 1969). The point is that the institutional definition of art is an understanding of art limited to the traditional arts as understood by the people of a closed system.

Levinson’s historical definition also cannot agree to extend the definition of art to D&D, and thus to RPGs. The game involves many modes and it does not resemble or possess a historical precedent to any particular mode because it involves many modes. Levinson writes that “…in art anything goes, but not everything works” (Levinson, 1979, p. 247). 

Beardsley’s aesthetic definition would permit the extension of art as a concept to D&D, and thus to RPGs. Again, he defined art as “…an arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character…” (Beardsley, 1982, p. 299). This description includes D&D and RPGs in both form and function. 

The Wittgenstein-Paglia anti-essential cluster would also extend the concept of art to D&D and thus to RPGs. As noted above, an artifact must only fulfill most of the disjunctions in the Wittgenstein model. D&D fifth edition fulfills 12 of the 13 art criteria discussed by Paglia (Paglia, 1991). 

Danto’s essentialist definition would extend the concept of art to RPGs and D&D. He defined art as embodied meaning (Danto, 2013). Again, as noted above, D&D fifth edition embodies the promise of adventure, story making, joke-telling, and collaborative fun (Crawford, 2014).

This appears to be a case of a 3-2 vote in favor of extending the definition of art. However, the definition of art, and the academy, does not function as a democracy. It is not a matter of votes. The institutional, and to a lesser degree the historical, definitions of art hold the most power in the academy. Neither of those may extend the definition of art and remain the institutional, or historical, definitions of art. However, it is reasonably arguable that aesthetic, essentialist, and anti-essentialist definitions of art should include D&D. 

Conclusion – A Final Session

All of this to say that extending the definition of art to include D&D, and RPGS, will likely be contentious where it is not simply dismissed out of hand for traditionally legitimate reasons. The same was once true of the modes of cinema and comic books. 

The appeal of D&D is what Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as the will to power (wille zur macht). D&D allows participants a safe opportunity to pursue and exercise that will to power. D&D, and by extension other RPGs, may be judged by how effectively it compels the creation of open-ended stories among the participants. As a material thing, it does this through a syncretism of images, writing, graphic design, and encouraging performance (Crawford, 2014). Art compels contemplation, and contemplation is magic. No matter how minimalist, art is never simply just design. It is an attempt at imposing order, and even drawing a line on a page is an attempt to tame some part of reality (Paglia, 1991). The intent behind D&D is to, at least in part, tame boredom – and boredom can be dangerous (Robson, 2014).

One central aspect of D&D that sets it apart from other modes is the call to action. An RPG never stops at contemplation. The purpose of D&D is use, is to be a played game. Even other forms of art intended for action and performance – music and theater – are closed systems. For example, Hamlet will always die at the end of ACT V. However, what happens to the player’s character is never as fixed. It places agency and the responsibility for the fates of the characters in the hands of the participants more than in most other forms of expression. As noted above, the appeal of the game is Nietzsche’s will to power. RPG books inspire opened ended stories of fire and blood – and that is worth consideration. 

Future Research

As noted above, this research explored the issue of testing RPGS as a distinct art form by using D&D as the archetype. It could not get into what qualifies as a good and effective RPG or develop a theory of RPGs. However, those questions are worth exploring. The process of debate over, and exploration of, the merits and weaknesses of artifacts is important (Weitz, 1956). Such an ongoing consideration and examination of RPG would define a critical theory of RPGs. For example, what would a queer theory analysis of Vampire the Masquerade, with its feminine pronouns and depiction of men and women as post-sexual monsters, reveal? What would a Neo-Marxist perspective make of The Call of Cthulhu, with its setting background that everything about human existence is to serve the appetites of secret alien monsters? What would a feminist examination of RPGs make of the hobby’s usual pursuit of a deliberately naive asexuality, while embracing violence as a near universal problem solving approach? What would any of these approaches think of Ehdrigohr, an RPG developed by a Native American and based upon Native American storytelling structures, which eschews most of the Western narratives conceits at the heart of RPGs?

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