Daniel Mackay: The Fantasy Role-Playing Game

[Readings] (08.22.08, 3:34 pm)


Mackay’s ultimate goal in this work is to develop a legitimate framework for interpreting role playing games as a performative art form. His analysis covers the cultural, formal, social and finally aesthetic structures of RPGs. Mackay is interested in the artificial world and the networks of meaning established by the performance of the games. Performance is the key element that makes role-playing an aesthetic subject.

Mackay’s arguments in the later stage of the book situate the idea of role-playing in history as a natural consequence of the desire to recreate a sense of lived otherworldliness which has been supressed since the age of Enlightenment. Role-playing leads to the development of deep and personal imaginary worlds, which becomes an artistic object or artifact when recalled in memory.

This book ties together the diverging threads of performance, simulated worlds, and the expressive power of participation and interpretation.


Introduction frames the goal and direction of study: Analyze role-playing games as an art made up of both role-playing, and game. The ultimate value of the game comes as performance, which has its own aesthetic background. The “Performance of the role-playing game brings the game into existence, and it is therefore of the foremost importance.” This study is not a poetics, which would describe how to create games, but an aesthetics, which defines a system of analysis of games. The analytic structure for games is taken from Eric Zimmerman and Frank Lantz. A game is split into three dimensions: formal, social, and cultural. Mackay adds a fourth dimension, which is the aesthetic dimension.

The word “narrative” has been used to describe the over-arching story of the game. This makes sense, as the narrative is the history of the game, and the use of the term is supported by the fact that it is verbal telling that is used to drive the game. This construction operates against the sense of archetypical dramatic narratives: narrative here is something that is told (enacted) and then re-told (described).

Cultural Structure

Mackay opens discussing the cultural structure of role-playing games by examining their history and origin arising from war games, which arose in the early 1800s with “Kriegspiel”. Most traditional games, ie card or board games are zero-sum games. War games diverged from this model with a nonzero-sum approach, which led to interesting dynamics using cooperation and subterfuge.

There is a very explicit connection to RPGs and literature. RPGs that emerged out of the wargaming tradition were heavily anchored in settings defined by pulp literature. Mackay writes an equation that sums this up: “Fantasy Literature + Wargames = Role-Playing Games”. This connects to the idea of models, but we do not yet see a connection of the world to game mechanics. We also primarily see fantasy, sci-fi, and pulp literature used here, as opposed to settings that are more “highbrow”. Literature forms the world and the cultural frame of meaning around the game itself. This point connects very strongly to Jenkins (and possibly Michel DeCerteau), and encourages the idea that fans are coopting these cultural artifacts.

The emergence of D&D in the 60s and 70s is also rooted in American culture, exposing a sort of backward-looking nostalgia for a pre-technological era, and a setting without the moral ambiguity present in the political climate. The desire for clarity in distiction between good vs. evil was not satisfied by the “mirages of communism versus free world, cowboy versus Indian, and good guy versus bad guy that permeated the political rhetoric and cultural climate of the 1950s.”

The influence of role-playing games and culture is the most evident in computer games and especially online environments from MUDs to MMOGs. The importance specifically relates to world setting and the interpretation and cultural meaning thereof. Mackay pulls Baudrillard into this connection using the idea of the “semiosphere”, an atmosphere of signs. RPGs regurgitate cultural myths, narratives, and world settings.

The aesthetic of fantasy is the depth of detail and setting. The fiction can be so detailed that it can be imagined. This idea not about realism, but the impression of reality. This idea connects back to the immersion. Player engrossment is through the character, the player co-constructs the fantasy through his or her own imagination. Electronic games cannot do this because they establish a role that is opposing the player. Human imagination is stiffled when presented with observable detail. There must be something about writing and fiction especially that enables this.

Formal Structure:

An interesting connection is made here to amusement parks and “themed entertainment”. The player as spectator model is consistent with how I personally run games, but it is not universal. A connection is made to the aspect of simulation, specifically through Barthes and Baudrillard: The idea is that the logic internal to the game comes to have a life of its own, and detaches from both the real world and its origins. That is, a game world may have originated there, but it no longer lives in sourcebooks, it comes to have a mythology and life detached from physical anchors. Uri Rapp wrote explicitly on this in “Simulation and Imagination, Mimesis as Play” in 1984.

Mackay brings up the interesting example of Everway, which is about “Visionary Role-playing”. This has an abstract conceptual ambiguity that is diametrically opposed to D&D’s rigorous attention to mathematics. It represents a contrast with Cartesian and non-Cartesian thinking. In Everway, aesthetics are incorporated into the formal structure.

Connecting Schechner on performance: Rules guide a performance through constraint, creating safety and security. Note that this is entirely consistent with conversation with Miashara earlier. The RPG narrative is created by performance. This is interesting to compare with other game studies, the relationship between performance and play. The difference between Schechner and the RPG model has to do with the code that defines the performance: “The role-playing game exhibits a narrative, but this narrative does not exist until the actual performance. It exists during every role-playing game episode, either as a memory or as an actual written transcription by the players or game master. It includes all the events that take place in character, nonplayed character backstories, and the preplayed world history. It never exists as a code independent of any and all transmitters, like Schechner’s definition for drama suggests.” (p. 50)

There is some discussion connecting Goffman and framing to the levels at work in games. This describes the various principles and rules and forces that are at work in guiding the game experience. Drama is described as a force that operates on the game at a meta-level. This is explicitly stated in Everway. While players may be aware of the dramatic force at work, the player characters are not. This enforces the notion that drama is simulated like any other rule. This makes an interesting connection to drama managers, which operate on a meta-level in a very similar way.

Social Structure:

Performance and experience exist in all frames simultaneously. The character/player exists in all these levels as well, and identity blurs as the levels meet. Mackay is using Schechner to critique the borders of frames as defined by Goffman, Fine, and Gregory Bateson. Schechner argues that ritual takes place on a level that transcends the frames of interaction.

This section is also called “The Structural Foundation of the Role-Player’s Subjectivity”, which echoes Bogost’s description of simulation, as the gap between the rule-based representation of a world and the player’s subjectivity. The player’s subjectivity in this case also represents the agency of the player to co-construct the game world. Drawing on Barthes, Mackay argues that role-playing games function by exposing the construction of meaning. He muses that the religious right has reacted strongly against role-playing games because they represent a world where people give meaning to things and “try to render intelligible the process behind creation.” (p. 68) The creation of meaning is driven by “blanks” as described by Wolfgang Iser.

Game worlds and game culture take on the idea of speculative or fantastic recreation. Fantastic recreation is what drives the “global villiage” of the Epcott Center. This connects with Bakhtin’s idea of the desire for an alternate or unofficial culture, which also sounds connected to utopian desire.

The relationship between culture and gaming: Constructed characters are reflections/echoes of existing culture, like Deleuzian assemblages. An interesting concept mentioned here is the notion of the “decontextualized tropes” or “fictive blocks” which are tiny bits of culture that can exist without context. Fictive blocks are essentially instances of meaning in a sound-byte culture. To explain how these are used, Mackay references Arnold Van Gennep (1908), who describes stages of separation, liminality, and reincorporation, which are used in rites of passage. The three stage process applies here to fictive blocks in cultural artifacts. A sound byte or image or idea might be taken from a fictional work, then isolated and disconnected from its context, and later reincorporated into some other creative material. This idea connects again very strongly to DeCerteau and Jenkins.

Mackay brings up Foucault to describe power relations in role-playing. The space of the role-playing game is an interesting target for studying power play, especially given the absolute power of the game master. However, this idea goes back and can be applied in an interesting way to power in electronic games. In electronic games, the player has no power, but is not surveiled, but given a certain autonomy, players have massive freedom. The level of personal relation in RPGs allows for odd features that relate to discipline. In a role-playing game, the player is certainly compelled to behave with a certain level of discipline, especially in terms of keeping in character and observing social standards. In electronic games, both the online and offline varieities, players have no compulsion, and will behave very rudely, inconsistently, and incoherently. The strongest example of this is when players attempt to push the limits of a game and break it. There is a strong cultural tradition of this, but it is something that will not be tolerated in role-playing sessions, even when the game mechanics allow for abuse of in-game power. Why this is the case is a deep and complex question.

Aesthetic Structure:

The aesthetic structure is a necessary component to role-playing games. Discussing the engrossing and enchanting power of other types of games, Mackay writes: “The role-playing game performance shares these structures with other activities. However, it also participates in a fourth structure, an aesthetic commonly attributed to art: a cathartic structure that encourages identification with its content and that persists after the performance has disappeared. This structure is at once a social process, a cultural process, and a formal process, but it is also something more. It is the creation of an aesthetic object that results from the collective interpretive process of the role-plaing game performance.” (p. 122) This also exposes some of the lack in electronic games: players have control over the social, cultural, and formal levels of experience, but are not able to contribute to the aesthetic structure.

Connecting art and theatricality: According to Michael Fried, art is opposed to theatricality. Modernist (literalist) art takes the extreme position of reducing art to pure objects. For instance: a painting is just paint on canvas. Fried describes Tony Smith’s car ride on the New Jersey Turnpike before its completion. The idea here is that kinetic, immersive, explosively imaginative experiences work towards the aesthetic of the role-playing game narrative. The aesthetic is the residue left behind in memory after the experience has passed.

In describing historical reenactment, Mackay connects once more the world of literary fiction and wargaming. “I see this moment, when the increasing aestheticization of the war gaming narrative finally culminated in the development of role-playing game performance form, as a reaction to the poverty of the imagination that emptied the architecture of everyday life of any meaning and the scarcity of vision that burdens contemporary philosophy and literature. The imaginative faculty is a built-in function of the human organism–the equivalent to pulses of the heart or respiration of the lungs. If a people do not find that faculty fulfilled in the world they have been handed, they will build their own.” (p. 153)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMackay, Daniel
TitleThe Fantasy Roleplaying Game
ContextMackay analyzes the role-playing game in cultural, formal, social, and aesthetic levels. Various parts of his analysis connect strongly to electronic games.
Tagsspecials, roleplaying, performance, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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