Sunday, April 25, 2010

Dungeons and Dragons is not art.

Film critic Roger Ebert has achieved a huge measure of internet notoriety for his proclamation that video games, in principle, cannot be art. His latest discussion of the topic to date has drawn more than 3,300 comments (roughly 99% of them hostile).

To illuminate the question of whether video games are art, consider the role-playing game fad that slightly predated the arrival of video games. The goal of role-playing games is profoundly simple: assembling a group of players for a session of collaborative storytelling. Collaborative storytelling has been around in one form or another since the era of the oral tradition to today's "Hardy Boys" and "Star Trek" fictional universes, so we know that this can be art. The key to the success of collaborative storytelling is that there are a set of rules for the contributors in order to enforce a coherent story, setting, and theme.

In a role-playing game, the players all adopt the roles of characters within the story, except for the "game master" player who handles all of the non-character elements of the story. The game arises from the interaction between character players and the game master. The character players are entertained by being allowed to describe their character's actions within the story as they see fit. The game master has the burden of describing the non-player story elements in entertaining ways, but he also has the benefit of being allowed an immensely greater scope of personal creativity -- control over the entire game world other than the character players themselves.

Role-playing games work well as games. As art, they are an unmitigated disaster. The artistic failure arises from the fact that character players and game masters all have independent conceptions and expectations for how the story should evolve. Coordinating these ideas into a single, coherent story with artistic merit is a challenge that proves to be immensely difficult in practice.

The major design failure of modern role-playing games turns out to be their relatively poor ability to coordinate player characters with game master. The innovation in modern role-playing games for attempting to reconcile character players with game masters was to introduce probabilistic rules to govern the results of the character actions. The merit of this should be obvious: in any situation in which character players may come into critical dispute with the game master, remove the human element from the result and replace it with a random arbiter (i.e. a die roll). Neither side can therefore accuse the other of an unfair manipulation of the luck of the dice. Suffice it to say that this made the role-playing game as entertainment possible.

Unfortunately, probabilistic rules did nothing to solve the problem of disputes. This led to two major residual problems. The first is railroading, where the game master uses his control over non-character story elements to harass, intimidate, and bully the players into abandoning control over their characters to the game master. The second is minmaxing, where the players exploit the rules of the game to maximize the ability of their characters to act successfully regardless of all other considerations that the game master may wish to preserve. The modern role-playing game is so dominated by the cold war between minmaxing players and railroading game masters as to be utterly ruined as an artistic endeavor.

Thus, we come to the hallmark of the very latest role-playing games: create balance between character players and game masters by a mutual reduction of choices to a near-nullity. Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition (D&D 4e) is a prime example of this. D&D 4e reduces player disputes by requiring the players to produce characters who are essentially equal in their ability to act within the game setting. Furthermore, the game setting is highly combat-oriented -- so much so that the ability of the characters to function as a combat team is the sin qua non of the D&D 4e gaming experience. Finally, the role of the game master is to assemble combat scenarios that exactly match the combat ability of the characters. The end result is a role-playing game that functions without crippling disputes, but that also has all of the charm, flavor, and meaning of a McDonald's Big Mac.

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