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.

A Tale of Two Analogies

In Computers as Theatre, Brenda Laurel discusses how theater can be a useful analogy for analyzing and developing computer interfaces. She isn’t specifically concerned with MMOs or RPGs, which perhaps is a good thing because her analytical model is Aristotle. She applies Aristotelian ideas rigidly and treats them as essentially definitive – all subsequent theory is nothing more than a footnote or minor revision. She takes this to the extent of distorting Brechtian theory so that politicization becomes merely a form of catharsis, completely ignoring or defanging his explicitly anti-Aristotelian orientation and its significance. I have to admit, I was shocked to discover that she has a PhD in theater studies.

Much more viable is Katie Whitlock’s article “Beyond Linear Narrative: Augusto Boal Enters Norrath.” This piece is specifically on online RP, unlike Laurel’s book, and it uses Forum Theater as its model for role-playing.  Notably, Whitlock doesn’t shy away from discussing Boal’s political orientation, although she doesn’t really connect it to RP. While that’s a lapse, one does have to question whether the spect-actor is as intrinsically political as Boal had thought. (I had myself described RP gamers as spect-actors when I was drafting the short piece on online role playing games as theater in Theater Histories, but Tamara Underiner suggested that I should shy away from that because the concept of the spect-actor has a political character that is hard to see in RP.)

Both pieces, however, use theater analogically.  Computers are like theater; RPG is like theater. What exactly am I doing that’s different? As I see it, in discussing online role-playing games as theater I’m not looking at theater so much as an analogy as a homology. I’m saying the structure of the two on an ontological level is effectively the same – not simply that they look a lot alike. A shark looks like it might be a fish (it swims about, it has fins, etc.), but if you examine its internal structure you find that is not really a fish. Articulating the difference is certainly difficult because of the similarity between analogy and homology themselves, not to mention the fact that ontological analysis is unfamiliar to many people, but that’s the argument I aim to make: RPG is not simply like theater, it is theater.

I’m awaiting my copy of Daniel Mackay’s The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, which I probably should’ve read ages ago, but my thinking was initially focused on the specificity of the online environment.

Two Senses of “Virtual”

I’m coming to think that the conundrum in my previous post derives from not clearly distinguishing between two meanings of “virtual.”  When I first described fictional characters as “virtual agents,” I was thinking in terms of their semiotic construction, in parallel with the concept of the self as a sign (per Peirce), and also the more general sense of “virtual” as similar in appearance or effect.  According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the term “virtual world” goes as far back as 1903, but really took off around 1987, and the sense of “virtual” as “electronically simulated” surely dates from then.  But the virtual agents of theater aren’t the same sort of entities as the virtual humans of VWs.  The latter should be considered a type of “displaced” or “surrogate” embodiment (in the sense one might likewise call a puppet a type of “displaced” or “surrogate” embodiment).  But to avoid confusion, I should refer to the virtual agents of drama through the more customary phrase “dramatic characters” (or just “characters”), except when I need to make the specific point about their function as iconic signs of agency.

This does raise the question of the ontology of fictional objects (fictional realism or non-realism).  I’ll have to poke around in that subject and decide whether it makes much difference to the overall ontology, since there’s no question that dramatic characters are semiotic constructs in either case.