Stanislavski and RPGs Part 2
Back to being a huge nerd: Stanislavski and RPGs!
What does it mean to be authentic? When I muse about authenticity, I’m coming firmly rooted in Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The essay, written in the 1930’s, is the foundational (and most convincing, in its brevity) account of the loss of aesthetic experience in the face of modernity. Benjamin tries to capture, in words, the elusive property of art that separates it from non-art: it’s aesthetic authority, it’s very essence. This ephemeral element of the artistic experience is the element that allows cult-like activity to form around it: the journeying to seed a statute, and stare at it in reverence. The ability to be entirely captured by a DaVinci painting you’ve traveled to see, and so on. To do so, Benjamin develops the concept of the aura: “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” This authenticity is a thing’s aura, that elusive and ephemeral something that lets you know you’re in the presence of a great work.
Think of the aura of artwork like the same sort of “aura” in nature: if you see an amazing mountain range or a cascading waterfall for the first time, there’s a sense of majesty. That sense of majesty is possible in artworks, but its presence dwindles in the face of reproduction. If majestic waterfalls were everywhere, they would no longer be majestic. Art that lacks this presence, by contrast, is kitsch: the art of mechanical reproduction, the art devoid of aura and reverence and is instead commodity or object. Kitsch has no authority anymore, because anyone can own it: there is no cult, no culture and no journey surrounding it. Instead of the majestic waterfall, a piece of kitsch is a bathroom sink. In every house. In this way, a piece of kitsch lacks aura: you do not feel that you’re in the presence of a great work when you look at a mass produced poster of New York City.
If you’ve never felt a sense of majesty when looking at an artwork, you’re highlighting Benjamin’s very point: within his own life time, people used to, but mass production was killing that possibility. Of course, Benjamin wrote about the aura of art in an era of early mass production. In an era before computers, when tools made an art-work beyond reproducible, but entirely digital. Are two copies of the same game a reproduction? Certainly not in the sense Benjamin meant it, but what he’d think of a video game’s potential for aura would be interesting.
Benjamin approaches acting specifically, and how acting on film cannot generate the aura of true art. To quote Erik Larson: “The film actor, unlike stage performers, does not face or respond to an audience. The audience’s view also becomes synonymous with the imperious perspective accorded to the camera. The net effect of these innovations is to place the viewer in the impersonal position of critic—something prior cultic experiences of art would never have allowed.” In a nut shell, film made it so the audience didn’t need to get involved with the artwork they needed to before – and because of that, Benjamin didn’t see the possibility of film achieving the aura of the ancient greats… although he saw the auras being destroyed by modernity as well.
Hop back to role-playing – don’t worry, I didn’t forget it! The aura of acting, Benjamin implicitly suggests, comes from seeing the great performance and its ability to collaborate and co-create with the audience. When you’re role playing in D&D (let’s pretend, for a moment, that everyone playing in the Daniel Day Lewis of high fantasy elfery) there is more than reaction: its collaboration. It’s ritualistic – everyone gets together, sets themselves aside, and creates a collected fantasy. There is no higher purpose to D&D: it is not played for commercial reasons, or to establish social standing (oh god no). Individual experiences are not mass produced. You can be in the presence of a master story-teller as she tells a story, and then you can respond to her story and watch her change it in motion. Assuming all players are skilled masters, a role playing experience has the potential to fulfill all of Benjamin’s categories of authenticity better than a play does!
What is the aesthetic experience of great role-playing; more ephemeral than theatre because it lacks even an audience not involved in its ritual. What is this collaborative aura? Benjamin likens the aura of a mountain to the shadow it casts, the presence you feel long before you’re in its presence. Is the aura of a collaborative story-telling experience the world itself, spun from the tales each person has introduced? The aesthetics of video games has been talked about on-and-off (admittedly, poorly, because video games are simultaneously inconsistent and iterative, a marvel of oxymoronic composition), but role playing, tried-and-true nerds pretending to be warriors role-playing, as an aesthetic experience has basically gone without discussion.
This is an essay, and because of that, I wish to finish on two anecdotes from campaigns. Both moments created very different experiences, but both created rare experiences that were elevated beyond kitsch. Rare moments that, if you were outside the ritual, you would not feel the shadow of events. First was a party’s attempt to assassinate a government official: the party was filled with incompatible characters, and of course they split and began to pursue different courses of action. Without knowing it with each other, their individual plans thwarted each other, the players invented organizations and political movements through their exploration and activity, and it culminated in one of the most sublime farcical moments I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t mastery that gave this moment its aura, but rather serendipity, which is equally as elusive. Everyone made just the right decision and took just the right course of action to make things go as poorly as possible, without breaking character or knowing what they were doing.
The other was in a more serious campaign, where I as story-teller lead a party through a maze comprised of never-realized wishes. Without exposing names or details, a player ended up legitimately frightened as each player contributed to the horrors of this place. Instead of a fright-fest full of jumps, the dungeon ended up as a world of ennui, of dissatisfaction and innate fears we all felt, but couldn’t describe. I’d say this moment has an aura as well, though it would take someone far smarter than I to name or explain it.