Is Roleplaying Art?

I can be fairly certain most people reading this are actually of the mindset that yes, roleplaying is art. Proving that is not my actual purpose. This is more about my musing on the matter, which hopefully bring a unique point of view on this.

Art as defined by Merriam-Webster (or actually, the handpicked definition I’ve chosen to use):

something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings

Sounds about right.

Now, I’m not saying every RPG session ever played has been art, but I’m not saying my drawings or penchant for plucking guitar strings when I happen to have one available are example of art either. Nor Adam Sandler movies. However, I have definitely been a part of sessions which have been created with imagination and skill, and have expressed ideas or feelings, and sometimes have even been beautiful.

… but lets start from something completely different.

There was a Finnish musician-slash-comedian called Gösta Sundqvist. He was mostly known as the singer for a band called Leevi and the Leavings (later Leevi). Chances of anyone outside of Finland having heard of them is very small, but in Finland everyone knows them, even though they’ve disbanded over a decade ago due to Sundqvist’s death in 2003.

Now, Leevi isn’t exactly what comes to most people’s minds if they are asked to talk about art. They were a curious band. Many of their schlager influenced, weird sounding rock tracks are still played on radio, but that’s not why I’m bringing them up. Their most important thing was their lyrics.

Their first single in the late 70s was about a man drunk-calling a woman he used to know. It was thought to be a joke by some well-known artist in Finland when it was first released. It opens to a woman answering the phone angrily in the middle of the night and closes with her slamming down the receiver. The song itself is about the caller detailing how his life has been consumed by drinking and how he still loves her.

And this is a precursor to a common key theme throughout their 25 year career. They talk about common people, who are usually down on their luck, but they are never judged. There is a comedic strain to their work, which often catches the spotlight, but subtly they are bringing out an important message about acceptance of ourselves and others, as well as inclusiveness. And they did it in a way that’s still both very relevant and popular.

And it wasn’t only about drunken middle-aged men. Gösta could sympathize with anyone. In his better known songs he talked about some quite comedic subjects (such as a guy who wants to race drive or a guy who apparently isn’t able to get anywhere when building his summer cottage), but also more controversial ones (such as anything regarding sex, sexuality and gender roles, prodigal sons and daughters, leaving your family and children behind, financial troubles, problems with conforming and so forth).

Now, because of our cultural bias, Gösta wouldn’t even be in consideration when talking about important artists, but in my mind he is one of the all-time greats. The way anyone from any walk of life can relate to his songs is simply amazing. Well, anyone who knows Finnish, that is.

So, what is the point here? Since this incredible individual didn’t get any recognition as being an artist prior to his death and even now this recognition is quite limited, because his work isn’t high-brow enough or self-important, who can actually judge whether something is art. I know many of my Finnish readers are rolling their eyes when I make the claims I’ve just made about Gösta, but I’m not kidding. I’ll stand behind this assertion.

… but then again, art critics praised the work of monkeys, when they thought it was done by some unknown artist. They don’t know better. Neither do I.

I write a lot of movie reviews on our forums, but I don’t know what’s actually art either. I just display my own cultural bias for all to see. After that, its the readers’ job to make the decision on whether they agree with my bias and thus wish to follow my recommendations.

Is roleplaying art? My cultural bias says it has the same potential to be art as movies, music, paintings, etc. Granted, roleplaying sessions aren’t lasting in the same way movies, music, paintings, etc. are. They are hard to reproduce and the audience is very limited, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

Roleplaying doesn’t leave artifacts behind the same way most forms of art do, but that isn’t a real requirement. Again, its the cultural bias. This time western bias. In the east, art is often not designed to be permanent or lasting. Its just a moment in time, that’s experienced by whoever happens to be close. In the west, we too have improvisational art, but it isn’t elevated to the same level as the other examples I’ve used in most people’s biases.

Lets look at Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s been nominated five times for an acting Oscar (and once as a producer for Best movie). Some feel he should have won already. Actually, there’s quite a few such people on the nets. Why? Most of his work is actually kind of poor. I haven’t seen The Revenant (although I will today), but as far as I can tell, the role was physically demanding, but that shouldn’t be the basis for awards. If so, why doesn’t Tom Cruise win all the time? And Leo’s acting? He just has this very intense look on his face. He lacks nuance and doesn’t usually display his skills. Still, people want him to get the Oscar for roles like Cobb in Inception, because in their minds this is art, because he does serious movies about serious subjects.

Again, people just don’t know.

At the same time, people making comedies are doing great work (again, not always, but some do) and can’t be recognized for it, because it doesn’t conform with the usual expectations for art. On the other hand, musicals are often recognized in such a way, for whatever reason (probably because the members of the Academy are so old).

RPGs suffer from similar biases. It isn’t seen as art, because it seems to lack the seriousness (which often isn’t true), they don’t have the weight of tradition behind them, they don’t deal with heavy subjects (although they often do) and the people playing the games lack the recognition.

If we remove the bias, RPGing is clearly an art-form. Again, not all sessions are art, but there are still plenty which clearly elevate them to that status.

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