Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

When Is Theory Theory?

Posted by Nathan P. on July 18, 2005

An essay in two parts.

Part One

In most academic disciplines, there is no one “theory”. That is (to draw on my own experience), there is no “theory of politics” that people write about and debate. There’s a number of theories about smaller pieces of the overall discipline, like social movement theory or presidental power theory. But it’s nigh-impossible to try to explain everything about it at once, almost to the scale of a category error. There’s just too much stuff to bring in at once to satisfactorily explain it.

Now, look at the academic side of entertainment – for example, film theory. Now, this isn’t an area in which I am particularly well-versed, but I have read some of the juicy stuff, and I feel like it’s an appropriate parallel to draw. Mainly, many film theorists bound their discussion – that is, they talk about a particular film, or a particular phenomenae (audience-protagonist identification, say, or voyeurism re audience member), with reference to particular techniques of analysis. Is there a “theory of film”? I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it. Correct me if I’m wrong, though.

So, the “theory of role playing”? Eh?

It seems to me that this whole theory thing is being gone about kind of backwards. It’s a new, young field. We still don’t even understand a lot about process and dynamics. Is it really serving us well to be looking for a kind of unified theory of role playing? (Caveat – this is my own observation, not necessarily what anyone is announcing what they’re doing, or anything). We’re at the point where we can identify different parts of role play through descriptive analysis (GNS and 3-D models, basically). Now, trying to figure it all out is just too much. It’s too big. We need to look at smaller peices and start delving into them individually.

I think guys like Vincent and Ben are starting this, with their restrictions on their blogs (i.e. thematic-focused role play only). This is cool, and kind of a rollover from the narrativist-preferenced core of the Forge. Where’s the rest? Who’s focusing on sim/bricolage, or gamism? Who’s looking at techniques? Who’s looking at constraint on the creative process? Everyones dipping into everything in fits and starts, often through the games that they’re writing and their relationships with other bloggers. I include myself here – I’m still searching for my hook, for the piece that I really want to bite into and grind it all out. But, perhaps, we all need to start thinking about this kind of thing. And have dialogue with each other about, bringing your insights to bear on those of others.

Part Deux

Lets look at film again. I think there’s clear parallels in general structure. It’s a field mainly seen as one of entertainment. There’s a very small group of people who think and write theory (the academics), a larger group the reads and applies the theory (the directors, cinematographors, etc), and a mass audience that, in general, doesn’t give two shits about theory. But, you know what, directors go to school, and read and learn theory (including technique), some better than others. And some apply it well, and some don’t, and one can usually tell the difference. Sure, there’s a whole Indie film scene, and some of them just make movies, and some are good and some are crap. But how rarely does some director come out of the woodwork, with no background in the field, and make films that totally blow people away? Hitchcock was one. I’m sure there were a couple others back at the dawn of modern film. But today?

Again, we’re just starting out. Ron Edwards might be our Hitchcock. But, I think we should aim towards the same basic goal. My point is that, even if the end consumer doesn’t care, the creators of the entertianment all do theory to some extent. They take advantage of the body of theory thats there, and apply it, sometimes well and sometimes badly, to create entertainment. Which I think is really cool.

So, does theory need to be mainstreamed? Not really. Does it need to be developed and made accessable to those who design games? Hells yes.

I’m starting to fade here, so I’m ending this, but I’m pretty sure my points have been made. Questions, as always, are encouraged.

2 Responses to “When Is Theory Theory?”

  1. JasonP said

    Ok, I can see your point clear enough. I don’t think though that anyone is actually trying to make a theory of roleplaying, more that they are looking for a larger model than what GNS provides (possibly the 3d Model?). Anyway, it seems to me that there are larger dynamics at play- but possibly they are so dependent on the smaller chaotic variables that it’s pretty much useless to try and define them.

    Also, I think you left out a strong defining connection in your parallel- that both film and RPGs offer escape as the most common reward for engagement. Though, I guess you could say all entertainment offers escape…

    Some Idle thoughts…

  2. Nathan P. said

    Well, GNS or 3-D are both plenty big alreay, in my book. Analogous to the aforementioned Social Movement Theory in the study of Politics. Big enough to be complicated and take a lot of explaining, small enough to be able to explain satisfactorily with enough work. This doesn’t mean that parts of those theories shouldn’t be fully explored, though.

    Re: your second paragraph, lemme expand the parallel even more. Both film and RPGs offer escape as the most common reward for engagement (which I think I was taking as an unstated assumption, and should have been pointed out…). But they each also have the potential to be more than an escape. And it’s totally possible for each to be an engaging escape (hehe) and to be more meaningful at the same time, for certain people. And I think that’s awesome.

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