I just watched this TED Talk by Robert Gupta on how playing and hearing music reaches past insanity to bring a manic depressive musician back to thoughtful humanity through emotional investment in the art of music. And I thought about how I feel when role-playing: a sense of flow, a sharpness of perception, a feeling of being somehow more alive, and the way hours evaporate so I don't notice how late we ran until we wrap up for the night. All of these things happen in art, either in creating a work of art or in the enjoyment of a performance from either side of the proscenium. So now I need to ask the question:
Are Role Playing Games Art?
First off, what the heck is art? According to the World English Dictionary, meaning 4a, art is "the products of man's creative activities". Under this definition, RPGs are art, but I'm looking for something a little deeper and more traditionally meaningful. According to the Wikipedia article What Is Art?, Leo Tolstoy thought, "art must create a specific emotional link between artist and audience, one that 'infects' the viewer". I'll buy that and expand it a bit. In my mind, art changes everyone who interacts with it, either by feeling differently or by thinking in a different way. Yes, in my mind science is a form of art, but that's a subject for a different mental dissection.
Creating RPG rules involves writing and testing and editing, and most people regard writing as art. As consumers, a rulebook makes us think differently by leading us to model different activities in terms of the game's rules. A GM designing encounters, monsters, races, classes, and items also writes something, and this form of art is even more available and accessible to people since it's a derivative product of the full-blown game rules. If you're lucky enough to be a visual artist, RPG enthusiasts from all over the world welcome the visual illustration of cerebral rules, giving them a different and sometimes visceral perception of what the rules mean. So we've got art all over the design side of the gaming equation.
But is running the game itself art?
Is a jam session with fellow musicians considered art? What about a storyteller spinning a tale for an audience? A poetry slam competition? How about a radio drama or fully-staged play? Yes? With that in mind and in looking back on the times I've played in really good games, I'm going to go with "Absolutely" and riff on some illustrative metaphors for a bit.
Consider that each RPG player at the table has a role to play and ideas to inject in the process of creating a story. The GM organizes the set list, and each player uses their PC as an instrument: Leaders lay down a bassline and vocals, Controllers make magic on keyboards, Defenders rock the drumkit, and Strikers wail away on lead guitar. Jamming at the game table gives each player a solo line as needed, and everybody works together to express a single story through their own individual decisions and style of play.
In some cases, play styles don't match - a jazz pianist would have some translation errors when trying to play along with a piano concerto. The jazzman isn't playing wrong, but in this case his playing style doesn't work as effectively as someone who focuses on more classical pieces. And that's OK, it just means that something needs to change to make a better game for everyone at the table.
I can tell when I've been part of a great play performance - none of the actors needs to ask if they did OK because everyone just knows everything clicked. The same thing applies to a game. You can feel the synergy crackling around the table, and everybody trusts their instincts about what needs to happen next. And when the session ends, everyone takes away something transformative from the experience, even something as ephemeral as a smile from the memories of a great scene.
When playing a great RPG session I have absolute certainty of meaning, freedom to act without fear, a perception change from making things happen to letting things happen, a discovery of more than the sum of the story elements, and an emotional involvement in what's happening that leaves me changed and excited to feel that way again. That's my perception of a spectacular game session.
And that, my friends, is art.
What do your great gaming experiences feel like?