Monday, February 20, 2012

Because Fuck You, That's Why.

Myxomatosis is an animal's disease,
But I got so shook up mama that it ate away my knees,
And I'm Left Hand Luke and the beggar boys,
O yes we are.

-T. Rex ("Left Hand Luke And The Beggar Boys")

What we end up with are dinosaur-riding sorcerous cavemen exploring ancient ruins and pursuing the Greys for their nifty rocket launchers while being pursued in turn by Nyarlathotep and some undead mummies.

Why? Fuck you, that's why.

-Jim Stutz (RPGnet review of Carcosa)

People talk about and think about this idea:

Are RPGs art?

Now first off: I don't care for pretty much the same reasons I don't care about the answer to another question I get asked a lot: "Is pornography art?".

Is a cake art? It doesn't matter, the only thing that matters is whether you personally would take time out of your day to eat it: the rest is academic in the most boring possible sense of that already pretty boring word.

What actually is a little bit interesting to me is why people tend to line up in the RPGs-are-art or RPGs-aren't-art camps. Mostly because they both do it for the wrong reasons.

The question rarely comes up totally by itself. It usually comes up in the following context:

Someone wants to take what happens in RPGs seriously.

Someone else does not.

The person who does claims RPGs are art.

The person who does not claims they are not.

This seems to me pretty much fundamentally dumb: the idea these people have is that if RPGs are art then we (pick one depending on which side you're on: get to-/have to-) decide they "have meaning".

And what meaning is that?

Usually a meaning like this: Whatever you do in the game is a thing you secretly want to do in real life.

(Variations: It "expresses and urge you have in real life", "vents a frustration you have in real life", "is a more exciting world than the one you have in real life", "reflects attitudes you have in real life""explores issues you deal with in real life")

This is all, if not actually incredibly stupid, then at least really not at all well thought out or democratic. It suggests that the reason we (all) like actual art (those things we can agree are art) is always something we can name and be sure about.

Check out that addled T Rex line at the beginning of this post. It makes no fucking sense at all. It is also entirely awesome. If you like T Rex you can't help but listen to that line and smile and admit life isn't always awful and no butterflies died in anybody's jars today because that line is there. That clunky, meaningless line just works. Why? Because of something mysterious. Because something in your lizardmonkeytroglodyte brain likes rhymes for some stupid reason. And the excitement of rhyme divorced from any reason sometimes (and not always) just works. And it throws it in your face that it works anyway and you enjoy it being thrown in your face that it works. After a long day of interpreting all the signs and symbols necessary to survive jobs, traffic and other people there is sometimes a glory in finally receiving a signal that is definitely not asking you to do anything with it but is still somehow compelling. Or: Because fuck you, that's why.

Maybe there is a meaning and maybe there isn't but it is arrogant to assume that you will understand your pleasure before you take it and tedious to live that way. (If not for you, then at least for everyone has to listen to you and your off-ham-handed assumptions about why they like what they like.)

Or, as this guy who wrote some things that make a lot of sense and some even better things that make no sense at all, put it:

Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

-Oscar Wilde

This whole situation makes some people tremendously anxious. Some examples:

There are conservative religious people who are afraid they might like RPGs because they get to do bad things in them.

There are not-conservative and not-religious people who are afraid they might like RPGs because they are miserable humps whose lives are sucky and they are fleeing from these lives.

There are not-conservative and not-religious (but still, emotionally, deeply conservative, and deeply religious) people who are afraid they might like RPGs because they harbor secretly fascist attitudes deep within their souls.

Despite the variety of people who have this problem, their solution is always the same: find some other definite reason you like any given thing and then you can rest assured you're not taking badwrongpleasure. It can be as simple as: "I like escapism and I've decided escapism is ok" or as complicated as "I want to explore intergender conflict and power exchange in a postcolonial context". And then (this is the actual sad-result part) they reject any idea that isn't in line with doing that thing.

Whether or not RPGs are art, these people are making a dumb mistake that, being in the art business, I get to see people make every day: they make the criticism before they make the thing. Which is a little like deciding what's good about a cake you've invented before even baking it.

Ask the baker: Different cakes do different things. Mainly the baker knows the baker likes baking and then eating what baking brings. And, yes, you can (and should) try sometimes to do a cake that does specifically this and try to do a cake that does specifically that, but you should also do a different thing too:

Just try stuff, more eggs or less flour--and then let yourself be surprised by how it is good--and if you never are, then you suck and so will your muffins and stupid bread because your fear of liking something for the wrong reasons has made you afraid to experiment.
Pleasure in the potentials of invention is its own and sufficient reward, as this or any wrinkly-cyclops-car-driving baby could easily explain.

And now for something that makes no sense and is rad:



  1. "Are RPGs art?" is for me a question in the same vein as "Is football art?" or, as you have pointed out, "Is pornography art?".

    Any pastime that has been around for more than three decades usually starts attracting historians, and in particular historians more interested in the aesthetic part of the pastime, as opposed to, say, its commercial, or sociological, or whatever aspect.

    So, again, as you write "It doesn't matter" -- to me. But it also doesn't matter to me if it does matter to other people. But then I'm a big proponent of 'live and let live'.

  2. "RPGs are an art form that let you represent an adventure story."

    And you'll notice that few people pose those interpretive questions about why people enjoy adventure stories. Although they did when adventure stories were new media.

    All these anxieties and interpretations are maybe about people doing things that are neither worldly nor godly.

  3. I'm not sure I follow that second sentence--I hear vapid pop-psychology explanations of various adventure stories and why people like them pretty much weekly.

  4. Great call on the Marc Bolan lyrics - you're right - deconstructing them too much you find no meaning - but together, the sounds and evocativeness are awesome. Speaking as a guy who listened to pretty much nothing but Tyrannasaurus Rex/T.Rex for 5 years.

  5. Brillig! But the mome raths will still outgrabe.



  7. Your invocation of T. Rex lyrics and Oscar Wilde resonates strongly with the core demographic of me.

  8. The conversation about what is and is-not art has always struck me as a smoke screen for the conversation "what is good art." Because that conversation would ask us to bear our interests and desires, and more or less reveal something of ourselves. Those conversations end up in someone realizing they had the opportunity to listen to the Nirvana but liked Boyz to Men so much more back in the 90's. Then you second-guess your own taste, or get attacked for acknowledging "Yeah I like Boyz to Men better than the Nirvana" by some nostalgic twad.

  9. Do people actually argue about this? They're all games. Says so on the box.

  10. >>"is a more exciting world than the one you have in real life"

    Perhaps. Although that's always, obviously, a choice. This guy was a gamer, of a sort.

  11. Art is what art is. You know it when you see it, and you know it what you make it. All other opinions are worthless (until you try and sell it ;)

  12. Just curious, did something specific spark this post? I can't help but feel like I am missing the context here...

  13. Asking if RPGs are art is like asking if Hawk the Slayer is art. Hawk the Slayer was art when Lemmy was in the band, after he left not so much. Although I always though Nic Turner's playing of the Elfin Mindsax had a certain sort arty appeal.

  14. Maybe there is a meaning and maybe there isn't but it is arrogant to assume that you will understand your pleasure before you take it and tedious to live that way.

    these discussions of "isz eet arrrt" and creative agenda and so on always makes my head hurt the same way as when presented with some retarded bureaucratic form or survey where there are five stupid inapplicable choices and i have to check off one box whether i like it or not and fuck you. a granularity of five is worse than nothing when the granularity of the interaction in question has to do with mind processes that are probably granular on like a quantum level

    1. While that all makes sense to me, your use of the shibboleth phrase "creative agenda" may make some of the more vain members of the audience think this post is about them--which it is not.

    2. Sorry to shibbol contentiously, Zak. I was just going on a tangent. Feel free to delete the comment.

    3. Not at all, it's important to give people enough rope.

    4. Years of D&D have taught me that having enough rope is in fact very important.

    5. An RPG design koan just began to unfold in my mind...

      How dare you provide me with enough rope!!! I'll need 4 levels in Use Rope just to keep from hanging myself.

    6. "While that all makes sense to me, your use of the shibboleth phrase "creative agenda" may make some of the more vain members of the audience think this post is about them--which it is not."

      Maybe I am overthinking all this (sorry, I do that sometimes), but this quote coupled with my question make me think that my previous comment came across the wrong way.I just meant to ask who was talking about RPGs as art or not and who exactly you thought were conservative and/or religious. Sorry if it looked like I was implying anything or was with a chip on my shoulder looking for an argument. English is not my first language, and sometimes stuff that I write just come off wrong :(

    7. no problem

      and no, the post is not directed at anyone in specific

  15. Zak, is that a Jackson Pollock painting? If so which one cause I think I recognize it but can't place the name.

  16. @phil
    Yes, it's a detail of "Lucifer"--the best one.

    1. Thank you and I agree with you about 'Lucifer'. I was also partial to 'Autumn Rhythm' especially after seeing it up close and personal. He's a personal favorite artist of mine.

    2. Autumn Rhythm makes me happy for reasons I don't fully understand (in addition to reasons I do understand) which is part of the point. Lucifer makes me uncomfortable in a similar way. Both count as unqualified success. :)

  17. Gustav Klimt is all up in my business. I see a Great Need for a Gigacrawler game with 70s Glam Space Rock as the soundtrack, and Klimt as the villians' casting, set, and wardrobe designer.

    1. Ok I drew it

      you write it.

      Feel free to swipe liberally from Barbarella

    2. maybe I need to develop the Klimtic Region for my setting

  18. Only boring porn is art. Only boring movies are art. Only boring books and poems and adventures and paintings and musical scores are art.

    Everything else is what people like about art, but rarely stop to call art. They're too busy enjoying it.

    1. This.

      Thank you, Mr. Blue.

      @Zak: Man, I wasted a year of my life on a thesis asking the question "Are RPGs art? Can they be art?"

      Well, at least I don't have to subject anyone else to my execrable attempt. Now I can just send people here to read your post and ask them to pay very close attention to Mr. Blue's comment.

    2. hah! I had it the other way around - art is a term you can apply to any inexplicable, creative production to make it less interesting.

  19. Yeah, figuring out whether RPGs are art is stupid. The "art-ness" of something is a manner of the mode of interpretation and analysis you engage in, not something in the thing itself. I think that talking about RPGs as art tends to even obscure aesthetic interpretations of games because people have to look at the public elements of it - the rulebooks and their layout and how well the rules work - and push aside the central focus of the whole thing, the experience of playing the session or campaign.

    Or else they have to codify and regulate that experience using the public stuff like the rulebooks and authorial statements of intent and all that so that it can as closely conform to that material as possible.

    Good choice on the Klimt, btw.

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  21. David Bowie and if there were a difference.

    Is the Girls And Octopuses available in a large-format print? The "enormous" version isn't really all THAT enormous.

  22. "Whether or not RPGs are art, these people are making a dumb mistake that, being in the art business, I get to see people make every day: they make the criticism before they make the thing. Which is a little like deciding what's good about a cake you've invented before even baking it."

    I had to stop and think about this one for a while. I think I get it, and I've definitely made this mistake more than once in RPGs and other venues. Thank you for pointing it out.

    I have struggled with many metal musicians and fans in my time when they say X band "isn't metal," and I think this is similar. They can't rest on saying they don't like X but have to appeal to genre for support - as if that were any authority at all. It drives me bananas.

  23. hmm, the "this isn't metal!" thing can have meaning though.

    I mean, if a band doesn't care if it's metal or not, and it isn't being advertised as such, it's a ridiculous criticism. (can still be an objective fact... Mellow Candle isn't metal, for instance, no matter how good they are)

    But a band trying to be metal and doing all the moves but missing the point? Or a non-metal band being promoted and sold as a metal band? "This isn't metal!" isn't appealing to genre for support, but being angry for feeling lied to and so then exposing the supposed fraud.

    That's where all the "Slipknot isn't metal!" and "Lacuna Coil isn't metal!" comes from, I think.

    (and where "4th Edition isn't real D&D!" comes from, for that matter...)

  24. I honestly just play them because I like to play still. Also, Earth's current TL and space program suck.

    Also, because fuck you, that's why. :)

  25. Never played D&D with porn stars, however I have played several White Wolf games with 2 porn actresses as well as drunken games of OG, some of them are "nerds" as well ya know.