February 17, 2009

RPG As An Academic Subject

I meant to post these thoughts during the December blog carnival on Transistion and Transformation but the idea struck me a little too late at the end of the month and it took a much longer time to organize my thoughts. However, I have decided to post this as a series of exploration into what RPGs can transcend into in the future if we take them and headed towards a certain direction.

Being a current graduate student and having to read various sorts of journals, my mind finds itself seeped into theories and bombastic words. While it can be a main cause of suffering and frustration at times but there also also times when you do find something that you do understand and it increases your knowledge and outlook on a particular field.

This happens to me when I'm reading RPG blogs and forums that occasionally produces such gems about RPGs, theories and gaming in general. So at times like these, the gamer in me sometimes asks the question, 'What if...'

What if learning to play and design RPGs can be learn from schools and tertiary education institutions? What would a RPG course look like? Are there any benefits of learning RPG theories in society and the workforce? What are the skills that needs to be accquired in order to be a qualified RPG player/designer?

Before we can answer these questions, let's start with one question first.

Will RPGs ever be an academic subject?

I certainly think so. RPGs can be a very complicated subject if you break it down over the course of its 30 years history and there are so many areas that can even be a study on its own. This is what I think an academic RPG course would have.

Theater lessons would play a major role in bringing out the best of our roleplaying skills. Not only would theatric lessons be invaluable in teaching us how to express our characters appropriate to the setting or era of the game like speech, thought and behavior but also give us some thoughts on how we want to develop our character's background and motives over the course of the game.

Roleplaying on stage is different than roleplaying in front of the GM screen. In theater, we have an audience but in RPGs, good roleplaying is a component of good gaming (and the only real audience are your fellow players and GM).

What makes RPG theater skills more interesting than normal theater skills is that our choice of actions is justified or confined by a RPG ruleset which might call for more improvisation as a result of a die roll than a predetermined and prewritten script.

Just look at LARPing.

Although I would say that literature as a whole does contribute to a roleplaying game but I would like to see a specific set of so called 'RPG literature'. These are the works that have a major influence or effect on game design and narrative structure.

An example would be like reading all of H.P Lovecraft's works to get a better understanding of how it was adapted into the form of a RPG in Call of Cthulu.

Then there is also the question of why Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series or George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire were made into a RPG from their work while Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar series was made from a RPG.

How Jack Vance's Dying Earth series was taken to form the basis of the Vancian spellcasting system in the early editions of D&D which could subsequently lead to the study of why it was replaced in the 4th edition

A theoretical question could be how literature authenticity does not lead to good or fun game design.

Of course, a RPG literature class would not be complete with the most dreaded study and debate of R.A Salvatore's Drizzt Do' Urden and whether it had a major influence on RPGs or the other way round and the discrepancy between his game stats and his abilities in the novels from a RPG prespective.

One differentiating aspect between ordinary literature and RPG literature could be the discussion of narrative control of authors and GMs. Normal literature authors didn't have to share with their readers normally but this works very differently on the gaming table. GMs have to concerned about railroading and sharing that control with his players.

GMs could learn a thing or two about themes, genres and literature techniques in writing and pacing their encounters in an adventure.

A major proponent of RPG literature would say that narrative power should trump over game stats and they would most likely argue which of the White Wolf RPGs is the best.

The complexity of RPG does stir the mind into a different mindset of behavior. It would be interesting to study the psychology of different players types and how they are represented through their characters in a RPG. There could be fundamental theories such as identity that could well explain why a player type plays the game in a certain way.

There are so many areas and questions in RPGs that would probably be better understood through psychology.

The psychology of escapism that allows one person to assume a character role and step into a imaginary environment and it's effect on the human mind. The gap between the game and the metagame which draws attention to what is happening in game and in person.

The attitude of munchkinism and Min/maxing.

How does the human mind perceive in-game and out-of-game rewards, so on and so forth.

I think it would be very interesting to see further studies into these areas and possibly the development of fundamental psychological theories that will inform a GM or game designer's decision in their sessions or games.

Mathematics & Science
RPG most certainly has a specific set of RPG maths and science of their own. It is game that has a very solid foundation in probability (as a side note, I was able to ace that particular aspect of maths because I was a roleplayer at that time) and there is a great amount of number crunching involved in some RPGs (like D&D, GURPS).

We have already seen how complicated and complex Game Science can be and looking back at the 1st edition of the DMG (pg. 9), I was surprised to read about the Bell-Curve of the 3D6. There is most certainly an avenue that can be explored further with more detailed calculations about how numbers work in RPGs.

A class of RPG maths could also explore into how to make a balanced game system through development. Whether a certain amount of modifier should stack with another and how does it affect character development in terms of power gained over the course of a level range. How to create a complicated point-buy system that can be easily explained and translated into RPGs or are there any other mathematical alternatives to conflict resolution other than dices (Dread).

If this is taken one step further and we could end up calling it RPG Engineering.

Sociel Sciences
Although RPGs are becoming the subject of social studies nowadays but there are so many other humanitarian studies that could be part of the curiculum of a RPG course. Instead of learning about patterns for a better understanding of the human race and our surroundings, these are used for consistent and creative world-building classes in the RPG course.

We learn the history of a certain era which allows us to better replicate a setting of that particular era. We learn geography to better understand terrain and how it can affect combat or adventures in the wilderness. Geology for dungeon or underground adventures. Astronomy for the cosmology, theology for the gods and anthropology for creating cultures.

Economics could be used to explain why we can put a price tag on magic items and how inflation can be simulated in RPG setting while political science would motivate the prime movers of a setting where the players are currently playing in.

All these real life subjects become the tools to inform our imaginations.

The Vision
Overall, RPGs and RPG-related studies can be a very diverse and complex subject yet it could also make a very well-rounded set of learning in various areas of academic excellence.

A RPG graduate would be equipped with the skills and knowledge to pursue a large number of careers. Most obvious ones would be game designers and developers in the RPG industry. However, they could also choose to conduct research in areas such as mathematics or social sciences for the more academic inclined.

They are at least trained actors or they could be playwrights or writers in the entertainment business. They might be able to handle a management job if they take what they learn from managing a gaming group or become communicators with their skills in narrating and other social aspects of the game.

There seems to be a growing interest in RPGs for serious academic studies between scholars with the recent appearance of the International Journal of Role Playing and The Play Generated Map and Document Archive and gamers alike (e.g., Whitehall ParaIndustries & Mad Brew Labs) which I believe has a lot more potential of expanding in so many different directions that it can be take RPG as a serious and legitimate field of study than just a game.

So I have a vision that one day universities will be offering courses in RPG Design and our kids will be graduating with a Bachelor of Arts & Science in RPG Theory. While I'm going for my Masters in RPG Gamemastering.

As a final note, I would like to disclaim that I'm not a standing expert in the various fields above so some of them might sound ridiculous.

What do you think? Can RPGs be an academic subject?


Anonymous said...

Gaming, including RPGs, has been viewed with academic interest for several years.

Heck, there's even a postgrad paper on RPGs on our site:

If you ever to delve into (RP) gaming as an academic subject, let me know and maybe we can share resources.

Questing GM said...

Hey, tenletter!

I already have a copy of your paper but haven't got around to reading it yet.

I would love to read more on RPG as a subject but don't know where to start.

Michael said...

First, thanks for mentioning the Labs in your list of growing academic interest. I feel honored.

Second, I do (obviously) believe that Roleplaying Games can/are/should be the subject of academia. Why? If for nothing else than to better understand why I like them so much.

This is an excellent look at how already established disciplines relate to the hobby. What is really interesting is how elements of RPGs are already rooted in a strong liberal arts foundation.

Just looking at your list, we can see how RPGs can be a convergience of the Arts & Sciences. It would be interesting to see how RPGs could be used to explore/study these existing disciplines.

You've provided some tasty food for thought.

T.N. said...

I'm a sociologist and a gamer and there's a great book by well known sociologist Gary Alan Fine on gaming:

I also work with a few sociologists doing research on Warcraft, but I won't give anything away and steal their thunder!

Questing GM said...

Hey Mad Brew,

No problem. I thought of your blog when I remember your series on defining what a RPG is (Btw, which happens to share with a paper in the IJRP).

I also share your sentiments of interest in reading about what theorists from various other fields have to say about RPG.

I wanted to include a business model into the list but business subjects are not my strong suit. I think RPG is formed in a very interesting context because it takes bits and pieces of almost anything and it can be applied to RPGs and gaming.

In my initial draft of this post, I wanted to say that studying about RPG or RPG studies could be the ultimate humanitarian subject ever.

Hey Todd!

I've heard of that book before. I think it's one of those must-reads when it comes into the subject of RPG under serious academic scrutiny.

I would love to read your paper/book once it is complete!

TheLemming said...

As far as I understood it, RPG is (at least here in Austria) already subject to studies, not only academic but also related industry has a growing interest on development in these sectors and while I doubt that an RPG main-study would be a great thing to graduate in, unless you're going into just that tiny bit of industry, I think it's a fundamental side-asset in many humanity-studies (socio, philo,...).

btw, thanks for sharing the article, I think it is a great summary of thoughts and articles on this topic.

Jonathan Jacobs said...

I'll throw in my 2 cents for the math bit and (of course) plug a post of my own.

There's been an interest in gambling, dice theory, and chance games in the mathematics and gambli'' err I mean "statistics" field for years.. centuries even. Heck, I even posted the statistical model for skill challenges on my own blog:

The Statistics of Skill Challenges

But.. that's all elementary. What I would be interested in is the mathematics, the probability statistcs, of gaming groups. Networks are composed of edges and vertices. Gaming groups, and the interactions among the players - their characters - each other, could be modeled using some kind of crazy math that is beyond me. Then big-googleyeyed scienctist could ask the question: what is the likelyhood that this group will live or die? What is the likelyhood that they will order pizza or chinese? Or.. even hypothesis testing: Pizza acts to supress the speed of combat; Mountain Dew acts to increase the rate of combat - but also the rules lawyering. Could that be modeling by an eigenvector?

OK... maybe I've had one to many cups of coffee... break time over.

thanks for the interesting read. if i had five more minutes I would spend time looking for colleges that offer courses in RPGs or roleplaying in general.. there HAS to be a course somewhere.

Questing GM said...

Hey Jonathan,

I really like the idea of studying about the probability of a TPK. I would also like to see how maths can try to predict the actions of the party given the situation.

Thanks all for reading!