A Different Approach to Theory

May 28, 2008

Over on Story Games, Max Higley was asking about different approaches to roleplaying theory, so I said:

Max, while there’s not an explicit document that covers it, I think there’s been a fair amount of work done — by folks like Neel, Emily, Mo, Brand, Shreyas, Paul Tevis, Nathan Paoletta, myself, and others — that, when put together, combines to form a communities of practice approach to roleplaying theory that I think is steadily gaining some ground. That is, instead of categorizing player or group behaviors, we’re looking more at the processes by which individual groups create a common repertoire of play behaviors, often through a process of negotiated misunderstanding. Neel nailed this early on with talking about a “shared symbolic language” and we’ve been building on that ever since, bit by bit.

Honestly, from my perspective, looking at “how processes form” instead of “what some common processes are” seems much more likely to yield interesting and useful results over the long term.

EDIT: I just added…

One interesting trait of this approach to theory is that, while it’s focused on how groups create their own idiosyncratic behavioral norms, I think many people active in this kind of thinking are disinterested in creating an idiosyncratic way of talking about roleplaying, even if that might ease intercommunication between various writers. As such, there’s relatively little shared terminology and no general effort to make everything fit together. Everybody is basically doing their own thing, but with a shared set of concerns. That’s partially a structural thing that comes from these discussions largely taking place on individual blogs, but it’s also part of a larger philosophy about how to approach theory in general, I suspect.

EDIT: And…

All the signs I see still point to folks moving away from broad, formal models towards more relativistic understandings of smaller bits of roleplaying. I think I would gesture in the direction of blogs like 20×20 Room and Sin Aesthetics and increasing contact with the Nordic roleplaying scene for pushing us down this path by emphasizing just how differently many play groups approach roleplaying, ways not easily described and categorized by formal approaches.

While the larger roleplaying scene in the US frequently deals with these new approaches by labeling them “not roleplaying,” the indie roleplaying community has embraced them and, as a consequence, had to deal with how they’ve challenged existing understandings of what we do and the context in which roleplaying occurs. So, naturally, our thinking has changed.

EDIT: And furthermore…

The “Context Does Matter Too” movement is just getting going in a largely “System Does (Only) Matter” environment, at least in the US indie scene. I think we may see a push forward in the complexity of theory if some of these projects like the International Journal of Roleplaying finally get off the ground, which will inject some folks with strong theoretical backgrounds into this conversation. But, right now, roleplaying theory is still largely concerned with the practical matter of improving play and mechanical design, less with improving small group communication and organization, much less with understanding how roleplaying works on a theoretical level. Most people doing theory, myself included, don’t have the chops for stuff on the level of systems theory or even organizational studies or conversational narrative. Maybe we will someday, but I’m not expecting that to happen soon.

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