Role-playing games are games, that’s certain, but they’re games where the players have to act and tell stories. Furthermore, a role-playing game is infinite, with no “win” condition. RPGs are vibrant, fascinating, and addictive, but are they art?
We asked some of our favorite game designers to answer that question. Here’s what they said.
Mark Rein-Hagen is more myth than man. He is the legendary creator of Vampire: The Masquerade and the World of Darkness, which defined the direction of role-playing in the 90s. Last year, he produced a new role-playing effort, I Am Zombie. He has a Kickstarter going for a zombie dungeon-crawl game right now!
Are role-playing games art?
Mark Rein-Hagen: All human endeavor can be art… whatever that means. So, of course games are art, as well; or can be, if the designer is successful.
Thus, while some people still think of art as filling space with beautiful things, I think of it as filling time with wondrous experiences. Wondrous transformative experiences. And for me, there is nothing more wondrous than living inside a fully realized world, especially one with no practical boundaries or limitations. The kind of expansive world we weave within roleplaying games. The kind of world that Game of Thrones began as, with George R.R. Martin as not only as progenitor, but game master.
Now that we’ve begun taking over pop culture, “high art” is also in our sights. Here, comic books, the current apotheosis of pop, has got nothing on us. Games are poised to take over all media—much as moving pictures did before us—and we need to focus our attention in this *twilight hour* before the great tidal wave of VR, AR, and MR games transform the human condition. The focus should be on the idea that we now have the power to utterly transform people’s experience of life by letting them fully enter new worlds and game realities.
So, of course games are art, of the highest aesthetic. Just not the kind that goes up in museums.
The way that TV forcefully and heroically transformed so many people’s attitudes about racism and homophobia in the 20th century will be dwarfed by the power of the game, starting soon, as people begin to live much of their lives, within a game, as part of a story. Life will become game, and game… life. And what’s more high concept—high art—than that?
Monte Cook is an erudite design genius. He was one of the designers of the third edition Dungeons & Dragons which lives on to this day as Pathfinder. He’s also the Ennie Award-winning designer of Numenera, a fun and elegant sci-fi game in a fantasy skin set in the unfathomably distant future.
Are role-playing games art?
Monte Cook: I’m of the opinion that [they are], but like much art, there’s a science to it.
You talk to any artist, like a painter or an illustrator, and you think they’re just creating a beautiful image, but if you talk to them, you [hear] about precision and detail and sometimes math that goes into composition. And I think game design is very much the same way. You have to understand the mechanics, the probability, the game balance, and projection of possibilities and all these things you need to know.
But at the same time there is an immeasurable feel to it all. You also need to think about the fun of it, which is not at all a frivolous thing to think about when you’re talking about games, you think about what’s going to be actually enjoyable at the table, and what’s going to keep people coming back and playing the game. The mysteries [of game design]… can’t just be written in a book. You can’t base it all on some mathematical formula. It becomes a very artistic expression of not just pure fantasy and escapism, but also an understanding of how to create an experience that’s enjoyable, and I think there’s a lot of art in that.
John Wick is the creator of the impossibly good Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea, the latter of which recently completed a seven-figure Kickstarter. He won Origins Awards for Best Role-Playing Game and Best Collectible Card Game. If you want to role-play a samurai or pirate, Wick’s your man.
John Wick: I don’t believe in “Art” with a capital A. Nobody can agree on a definition, so the word is more noise than signal.
RPGs are a form of literature. The only form of literature, as Robin Laws says, [wherein] the artist and the audience are the same person. You aren’t watching or reading the hero’s adventures, you are the hero. You get the all the stuff Aristotle was talking about in Poetics because you aren’t feeling what the character is feeling on the stage, you are feeling what the hero feels because you are the hero. Books can’t do that, movies can’t do that, theater can’t do that. Only RPGs can do that. And that’s what makes RPGs different from all other kinds of games and literature.
Suleiman is a prolific game designer who has worked for most major companies in the role-playing game field. Most notably, he worked for White Wolf where he co-wrote Vampire: The Requiem and created Mummy: The Curse. He also and co-wrote Faiths of Eberron for Wizards of the Coast. He has a Kickstarter running right now.
Are role-playing games art?
CA Suleiman: I can… attest to a couple key observations and conclusions I’ve drawn over the years. The first stems from the oft-repeated but far-less-oft-applied adage about art intimating life… But it seems to me that nothing imitates life more than the role-playing exercise, where the whole point is to live virtually as another sentient being. What actors do comes close, but even there, actors don’t also have to be screenwriters, coming up with blocking and dialogue as they go through their lines. Role-players imitate life by definition, and anything that imitates life so fully and directly must also have the potential to be art with a capital “A…”
Another persuasive wrinkle revolves around this idea that RPGs are a venue for personalizing and expressing existing media; we’ve had RPG versions of numerous film franchises, TV shows, book series, and so on. So, if there’s Art to be found in the source material, then it stands to reason that a role-playing expression could be similarly artful in itself… Geek & Sundry recently did a piece on the lasting legacy and strength of Call of Cthulhu, an RPG that just released its 7th edition. When many consider the source material for that game to be artful (or at least some of it), then it follows that such a competent and lasting game expression of that source material would reflect that artfulness.
And I think it does.
If you accept that there’s Art in the work of Machen, Lovecraft, Smith, or Derleth, then that Art is reflected in Call of Cthulhu.
Zak is an artist and game designer who is tearing up the world of role-playing games with designers that are hyper-modern and old school at the same time. A representative work is Red and Pleasant Land for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The book won an Ennie, defeating a little game called Dungeons & Dragons in the process, and is a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland and Dracula, which are two tastes no one would have ever suspected would go so good together.
Are role-playing games art?
Zak S: Whether they’re art or not is a less interesting question than whether or not that’s the best analogy for what they are or not. I think the best analogy is that a role-playing game is like a party… At a party, you’re having people over, and then you’ve got planned things that are supposed to happen, but those planned things’ real purpose is to cause unplanned things that are spontaneous and fun.
You could say that throwing a party is art, but it tells you less about throwing a party than just “What is a party,” and I think [games are] very much the same. You can have the best beer or crappy beer, but that may not actually matter. You can have the best music or you can have crappy music, but that may not actually matter. The people you invite super important, and then sometimes you invite the best people and the party just doesn’t go off. But I think that kind of alchemy where half of it is preloaded and half of it cannot is probably the best way to think about it as an analogy.
What do you think? Are role-playing games art? Let us know in the comments below!
The above responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Feature image courtesy Monte Cook Games.
Other images courtesy Monte Cook Games, Zak S