There’s an ongoing, and somewhat histrionic, argument going on, constantly, between two approaches to RPG gaming. On the one hand you have those who might be called ‘traditional’ gamers (or less charitably ‘Fatbeards’) who tend, it seems to view RPG games as purely games and seem to take offence at the idea that they could be art and on the other side you have the avant garde and Indie gamers (or less charitably the ‘pretentious’) who do view RPG creation and play as – potentially – art.
To me, RPG creation seems to be one of those things were a variety of skills and outlooks are required. RPG play can be an artistic accomplishment and experience in play, just as much as it can be a straightforward play experience and not be art. In creating an RPG you are required to draw on creative, non-engineering skills (layout, writing, artistic direction, theme, mood) as well as more constructive skills (creating a system that works mechanically as well as aesthetically) and it occurred to me that RPGs are a good comparison with architecture.
Is architecture art? People seem to argue over that question just as much. On the one hand it is a creative skill, but you are often hemmed in by the desires of your clients, the possibilities for the materials and while you might stamp a personal touch onto a building, once it’s complete you have no real say over what happens within it and people may use it for all sorts of things you hadn’t originally envisioned. You can end up with something beautiful and inspiring – as a building – but it may be filled with tacky shops and used as in impromptu skate park.
To me, that’s very much like crafting an RPG. You’re not creating something whole, you’re creating a space in which people are going to play. You might define some parts of the world, you might design mechanics with a specific theme and mood in time, you might be careful in selecting art for the work but in the end it has to fend for itself and people will use it as they wish to.
I think comparisons with novels or plays aren’t really valid, but I do think RPGs can be art in both creation and in play, not high art perhaps but involving, inspiring and joyful. Creating a game is both art and engineering, it requires both sets of skills to create a game that is effective as a complete whole and there must be a sweet spot somewhere between the engineered boardgame nature of more old fashioned design and the straitjacketed artistic vision approach of the new wave.