Here’s a rather different set of thoughts for this morning. Some may know that one of my many interests is philosophy of games. This is a topic close to my heart, but I also think it a timely one, insofar as games are now culturally hegemonic.
The concept of game cuts across everything from the philosophies of action and mathematics to the philosophies of politics and art. We ignore it at the risk of our own cultural and intellectual irrelevance.
To be concise: I think that if games are art, then their medium is freedom itself, and that there is a case to be made that RPGs, whether tabletop, LARP, computer based, or some cross-modal mixture thereof, realize this truth most completely. RPGs are experiments in agency.
This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily very good experiments. Computer RPGs have suffered from very obvious constraints for decades, and I’ve played enough dull dice based dungeon crawls to last a lifetime. But I’ve equally experienced heart-breakingly imperfect art.
Tabletop RPGs have given me the sorts of barely expressible, intensely formative, and deeply connected experiences that others hope for and occasionally find in art, literature, and the collective projects of politics and culture. People will no doubt laugh at this fact.
Again, most RPGs aren’t this good, and it is much harder to plan and execute good ones as you and your friends get older. Boardgames, a representational art form in their own right, become much more tempting for their ludic precision and easy self-containment.
But I pine for the days of dice and character sheets, exploring the weirder fringes of inhuman narrative and the familiar shores of the human condition simultaneously. Werecoyotes and Psionics, insatiable curiosity and crippling anxiety, joyous battles and crushing failures.
So, after this personal preamble, here is the philosophical thought I came here to express: RPG systems are procedural frameworks for interactive narrative generation, and they contain engines for simulating worlds.
They are therefore deeply philosophical, because they must contain a metaphysics (narrative/fate) and a theory of personhood (identity/agency/destiny), but they may also contain a logic (GM/PC/NPC interaction), a physics (simulation/means), and an ethics (alignment/ends).
My first encounter with philosophy wasn’t reading Nietzsche, Sartre, or Popper, but reading grimoire-like RPG manuals, searching for the hidden secrets of worlds they contained, many of which I have never visited even in play. What is creation? Why is there suffering? Who are we?
My partner in conceptual crime (@tjohnlinward) likes to say that RPG manuals are tour guides for worlds that don’t exist, but in many ways they’re more like holy texts. Many even have completely explicit and thoroughly fascinating theology.
An RPG system/setting is a universe in which the throne is empty, awaiting a new godhead, or a new pantheon to play the games of divinity. An adventure supplement is like an epic poem, awaiting heroes ready to test their mettle in struggle against the whims of fickle gods.
Narrative is a product, but the process that produces it is a complex, concurrent, and creative interaction between ideas and inspirations; brimming with contingency; some of which may even be embodied in distinct creators and muses. Games are our window into this process.
And that is why games disprove Hegel’s thesis regarding the end of art, precisely by being the most deeply Hegelian of art forms. The world-spirit arrives, no longer Napoleon riding into Jena on horseback, but Gary Gygax corrupting the youth with pens, paper, and polyhedra.
If you want to read more along these lines, check out my ‘Castalian Games’ piece in Glass Bead.