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.

Virtuality and fictionality in performance

Two types of “non-reality” appear in online role-playing games: the virtual and the fictional.  I put the term in scare quotes because representations and ideas, as such, are themselves real, even if what they represent or refer to don’t exist.  What exactly is the relationship between the virtual and the fictional — what is the nature of their “non-realities,” and how different are they?  Clearly it isn’t that one represents a reality whereas the other doesn’t: in a virtual world, one can have a human avatar, but one’s av can just as easily be a dragon or a pulsating blob, neither of which represent the natural form of the person behind the avatar.  Also, especially in a virtual world like SL, most people don’t engage in role-playing, so their avs are virtual but non-fictional whereas the RPers have virtual forms but also portray fictions.  It’s notable that in SL, where one has near-total control over an avatar’s look, people almost never create avs that look like themselves; but there is no pretense that they do either, so on the whole their avs aren’t exactly fictions.  One could say that within the context of the virtual world, the av is what the person really looks like.  (One major complication is when the av and the person don’t have the same gender: for one reason or another, this riles a good many people, some of whom call it “pretending” or even “deception” whether or not it’s intended as such.  Also, a few individuals have no stable appearance — from one day to the next, they use a completely different av, often not even humanoid; it’s a form of play.  But I have to leave those complexities aside for now.)  But that context includes the element of pretense or “as if” thinking, which would seem to blur the difference between a virtual world and a fictional world.

It is tempting to say that “virtual” is an ontological term, “fictional” an epistemological one.  It might also be correct, but it’ll take a fair bit of analysis to decide.  It would make sense of the fact that in a virtual world like SL, one soon treats the environment as though it were real; or rather, one realizes it is real, but as a digital realm, not a physical one.  Correspondingly, some people object to contrasting Second Life with “Real Life,” as SL is real; they contrast the virtual world not with the “real world,” but rather with the “physical world,” “atomic world,” or terms of that sort.  Online RP’s fictions thus supervene upon virtual entities, not fictional ones: avatars in RP don’t sit on fictional chairs, they sit on virtual ones.  This is the same as in physical-world theater: when actors play a character, their character is fictional but they sit on real chairs, not fictional ones (unless they’re pretending that there’s a chair, which is a different matter).  In contrast, a character in a novel sits on a fictional chair.  Following this reasoning, the stage character supervenes upon the actor: this is connected to the way everything on stage becomes semioticized as signs of signs.  That’s even clearer in the virtual world, since virtuality is fundamentally semiotic: in Peirce’s sense, it consists of iconic signs.  It’s easy to slip into the positivist idea that signs aren’t “real,” but under critical realism, they certainly are.  Understanding virtuality as an ontological category would make some sense of the fact that in child play, a mud pie can for all intents and purposes (except for eating) be a real pie.  One doesn’t cut a sign of a pie, one cuts a pie.

I’ve argued that dramatic characters are virtual agents; now I have to reconsider that idea.  “Fictional agents” might be better.  But maybe not: it depends at least in part on how one understands the actor’s body.  Again, a chair in the performance is an actual chair (not a fictional one), except that it has been semioticized as the sign of a sign, which perhaps means it has been virtualized.  Is the only part of a play performance that’s truly fictional the characters and their activities — i.e., the scriptive level of performance?  That seems correct.  However, that still doesn’t provide an answer to the virtual agent vs fictional agent problem.

Or, perhaps that distinction between the virtual and the fictional is incorrect.

Do I need to defend defining — or just define?

The article I’m currently writing argues that online role-playing games are a form of theater.  That involves providing a definition of theater.  But does such an action need to be defended?  At least in the past, some people have claimed that the act of defining theater is overly limiting; defining is limiting, of course, because that’s what definitions do — but overly?  Should one not define at all, lest one inadvertently leave something out?  Is (as some people think) defining the limits of theater necessarily an act of power and therefore inherently objectionable?  But who does one really help by not defining one’s terms?

Perhaps these worries are unwarranted: the “theory wars” have supposedly ended.  But at the 2015 ASTR conference in Baltimore, there were plenary papers that used the term “performance” so broadly that in one, rocks “performed,” and another never so much as mentioned performance (let alone theater).  I suppose these were considered appropriate for plenaries because “performance” now covers absolutely everything — i.e., the term has been emptied of any real meaning.

In short, I’m troubled by the “state of the profession.”  But maybe that has more to do with the fact that I’ve been semi-disconnected with “the profession” (academia) for 20 years, mainly because I had to switch to another profession, librarianship.

Be that as it may, the issue I’m wrestling with is whether it’s necessary to defend my act of definition — or just do it, and let the chips fall where they may?