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.

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