What We Can Learn from Video Games: Tabletop Roleplaying Games as Art

What We Can Learn from Video Games: Tabletop Roleplaying Games as Art

There is an immense community of video game designers that, over the last 10 years, have worked towards furthering video games as an artistic medium. While some of this progress relates directly to the rise of the video game industry, this progress is also the result of artists and designers making a conscious choice to consider video games as an artistic medium.

Despite the relative age of the medium, these efforts have made the argument of video games as art a serious academic discussion. Museums across the United States now consider the value of video game exhibits. Even Roger Ebert has taken up the discussion, lending credence to the debate despite his own conclusion that art cannot be won. While there is significant overlap between the design factors involved in video games and tabletop roleplaying games, efforts to further tabletop roleplaying games as a medium are virtually nonexistent.

How have video game designers made progress furthering videogames as an artistic medium? Here are 2 approaches that may serve as a guidepost for the future of tabletop roleplaying games as a medium.

Tell Different Stories

Designers of video games who want to reach a wider audience have made significant gains by following in the footsteps of comic book creators. In the same way that graphic novels like Maus and Persepolis have transcended the idea that comics and the superhero genre are the same (comic books are not a genre), releasing video games outside of typical genres like Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Phoenix Wright, and Dance, Dance, Revolution has increased the breadth of the video game audience.

Experiment with the Medium

While hardware limitations have always served as a catalyst for creativity in video game design, it has rarely served as the source for major innovation. Instead it has been the role of indie game studios, often on limited budgets, to create innovative game structures. Major studios may occasionally break new ground, as Lucas Arts did with its noir-comedy Grim Fandango, but for each example of innovation from a major studio, there are a dozen indie examples. Developers, thatgamecompany, are perhaps the most well-known, having released the highly experimental Flower and Journey.

Tabletop roleplaying games are a medium that has a significant amount in common with video games. Yet the community of video game designers working to further their medium has no equivalent in tabletop roleplaying games. This isn’t to say that there are none, only that those treating tabletop RPG design as an artform are limited.

These series of posts will discuss tabletop roleplaying games as a medium for artistic expression. The first article in the series can be found here: Why Roleplaying Games “Don’t Get No Respect” Our next instalment will take at tabletop roleplaying games that blur lines between simple game and artwork.

Why Roleplaying Games “Don’t Get No Respect”

Why Roleplaying Games “Don’t Get No Respect”

The first time that I sat in my friend’s basement–polyhedron in hand–I understood that Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t an activity that one advertises. The intense focus on D&D as “satanic training” from the 1980s wasn’t the issue (this was 1991). Mazes and Monsters was simply another brilliant comedic performance by Tom Hanks. While the 12-year-old me couldn’t pinpoint the issue, looking back, I think it was as simple as my subconscious realizing D&D was considered mindless entertainment. Something that “rots your brain,” like comic books or video games.

What constitutes mindless entertainment has changed a lot in 20 years. An entire generation of video game addicts have grown up–brains intact– had kids, and continue to be “gamers” while functioning as productive members of society. Family nights at the Symphony that once consisted of Star Wars and Indiana Jones scores, now include orchestral interpretations of Zelda and Mario. Even the Smithsonian American Art Museum has opened an exhibition that celebrates 40 years of games. While never reaching the commercial heights of video games, it can be argued that comic books have been more successful in claiming the title of art. Gene Luen Yang, author of the graphic novel American Born Chinese, was a finalist for the national book awards in the Young’s People’s Literature category in 2006. An achievement that follows in the footsteps of the special Pulitzer Prize awarded to Art Spiegelman for his book Maus.

Gaining acceptance as an art form is a monumental task. Early novels were seen as the frivolous pastime of aristocratic women. Fantasy novels were labeled as children’s books for decades, despite their intended audiences, and even today’s writers of the fantastic often feel the need to relabel their work as speculative fiction. It seems most mediums and genres are subject to this artistic rite of passage, forcing me to wonder why some forms succeed while others fail.

These series of posts, in the vein of Susana Grilo’s exploration of speculative fiction, will discuss tabletop roleplaying games as a medium for artistic expression. In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, why don’t roleplaying games “get no respect?”