Copier: “Beyond the Magic Circle”

In Beyond the Magic Circle: A Network Perspective on Role-Play in Online Games, Marinka Copier aims to dispense with the metaphor of a “magic circle” defining play (as defined by Huizinga), arguing that it establishes a fallacious dichotomy between “in-game” and “out-of-game” that hides the true complexity of actual play, game design, and research.  A corollary to this pursuit is an effort to break down another dichotomy, created by the metaphor of the “ivory tower.”  In their place Copier proposes a “network perspective,” based on the Actor-Network Theory of Bruno Latour and others, connecting clusters of people within networks (or systems of connections) which can include things, such as computers.  I’m not myself familiar with ANT, although I gather that within CR it’s been criticized for having a flat social ontology, and from what little I can tell by reading Copier and Wikipedia, that seems to be the case: the agential level is the only one considered.

Be that as it may, Copier depicts the ways that role players traverse the in-game and out-of-game realms, and (more briefly) the traffic between gamers, the game industry, and academia.  I’m very much in sympathy with her desire to excise the notion of a magic circle: as the term itself suggests, it seems to mystify rather than elucidate.  But I’m not convinced that applying ANT achieves the goal.  It seems in fact to be answering a very different kind of question, a sociological one principally concerned with interpersonal and small group interactions.  It’s all well and good to say that the real and the imaginary are constructs under constant negotiation, but that really doesn’t tell us much about the nature of role playing per se.  The epistemological or ontological status of the “magic circle” doesn’t seem to be addressed through her argument.

She does have an interesting suggestion about RP involving a type of conceptual blending, but she doesn’t explore the idea to any depth.  It might – perhaps – provide one way of understanding the fictional/game element of RP, without resorting to the notion of a magic circle.  I think it’s also going to be necessary to explore “possible worlds” (modal) philosophy as another possible avenue; I’m now reading a book by Christopher Norris that touches on those issues.  Hopefully I can avoid the notion of a “willing suspension of disbelief,” an idea which has always rubbed me the wrong way.

These readings do raise for me the question of what exactly my goal is, and how it differs (if it does) from previous work.  This may be particularly an issue with respect to Mackay.  I think that my concerns are more philosophical, specifically ontological, even if that may lead me in some strange directions.  On the other hand, somewhere or other I do need to reconnect to the history of communication practices.

RPG on its own terms?

Various authors urge the study of RPG “on its own terms,” rather than as a form of (or at least in comparison to) something else, such as other types of games, psychodrama, or – of course – theater.  So arguably my project is heretical or at least objectionable.  But what exactly does “on its own terms” mean?  How much of anything do we understand outside of its relationship to other things in the world?  If the point is that one should not efface RPGs’ specific characteristics, that scarcely entails seeing any discussion of its relationship to other modes of performance as reductive.  Discussions that seek to ward off comparison with theater often seem to have a very narrow view of what theater itself is.  Marjukka Lampo, for example, has a very traditional concept of theater in mind when she objects to the idea that RP is similar to it.  But saying that RPG is a particular form of theater does not eliminate its specificity.  A goldfish has its particularity, but it remains a particular type of fish.  The trick remains in how one defines theater; but also in how one defines RP.

Mackay’s “The Fantasy Role-Playing Game”

Daniel Mackay’s The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art (2001) is a puzzling book, very much of its time while simultaneously harkening for a time that never was. It draws heavily on Schechner’s concepts of performance for its analysis of RPGs, and on Foucault’s ideas of surreptitiously self-securing power for its concept of society and social structure, with a dash of Lyotard’s view of postmodernism.  It is also carried (and sometimes carried away) by a utopian impulse that sits uneasily with his Foucauldian pessimism. Or perhaps not, given the philosophical idealism behind Schechner’s views  and to a certain extent Foucault’s as well. Still, the book is self-contradictory at points. And to be honest, at points it seems a bit undercooked.

Nevertheless, Mackay asks many of the right questions, even if his theoretical approach is unsatisfactory. He takes a very broad look at RPGs; at the moment the concept of my own book is more narrowly focused on issues of ontology and definition.  He is a bit casual in how he connects RPG to theater, but then, he also connects it to ritual in the breezy way that Schechner has always connected ritual and theater. Interestingly, however, he also has something approaching a stratified ontology, through which he looks at at cultural, formal, social, and aesthetic structures.  He doesn’t see an relationship of emergence between or among these structures, or differentiate among the meanings of “structure.”  Even so, I find myself uncertain what exactly I’m adding.