Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Gaming “Intangibles”

What are fleeting experiences like roleplaying game sessions or miniature wargame scenarios worth? Are they “performance art” or marketable products, however fleeting? PBS Newshour recently aired a quirky piece about a Minneapolis art museum selling “intangibles,” ephemeral, art-oriented experiences, such as meeting a dancer waltzing through a public park terrain, arranged to offer a one-on-one experience with an artist. It postulated taking the art museum experience – a temporary occurrence for the visitor – outside the confines of the structure to engage artists with those seeking something new. These interactions (some in person, others with electronic components) seek to create a hybrid of “art” and marketable “product” through an interactive experience.

What value would you put
on this "intangible" experience?
Although games consist of such tangible objects as rulebooks, miniatures, terrain, dice, and character sheets, the actual playing of the game becomes an intangible experience, something folks cannot take along with them afterward (though one might argue recordings of game sessions enable this, though I myself find little entertainment listening or watching such fare). Any game experience merges the personalities and strategies of various players around the mechanics and components of a game. Board games, card games, and traditional chit-and-board wargames don’t usually require a third-party referee and thus follow predictable forms within the rules, with variances for strategy and player interaction within the game’s structure. But running a more free-form roleplaying game is a sort of performance at some level, primarily for the gamemaster but also for the players. Even setting up and refereeing a miniature wargame – with customized terrain, finely painted soldiers, and a well-balanced scenario – involves aspects of personal performance and artistic presentation. It started me thinking about games as “intangibles,” ephemeral experiences focused on a gamemaster or referee, a handful of players, and a particular structure (setting, mechanics, components) of a game. An appreciation for “intangibles” remains key for the adventure gaming hobby on some level (usually subconscious), since the act of playing games remains intangibly experiential. I don’t mean to open up the debate whether games are “art,” though some folks hold quite firm opinions on the subject. Nor do I wish to debate what qualifications make gamemasters worthy of charging for their performance. I’m just struck by the connection a portion of the artistic world makes with intangible interactive experiences as a marketable product and the fact that gamers engage in this all the time, often without any remuneration among participants.

The PBS Newshour feature explores how the museum monetizes these intangible art experiences while highlighting their novelty. Certainly game components serve as marketable, tangible products necessary for enabling play; yet on their own they don’t create the game experience. Purchasing materials isn’t always necessary, either, as gamers have a reputation for creating their own, either to enhance an existing game or to form an entirely new game of their original design. What’s an “intangible” game experience with a good gamemasters or referee worth these days? Does it matter? In a successful game the experience is often its own reward. (For this discussion I assume we’re considering game situations where everyone finds some enjoyment, even with a few negative quirks, and not those cases where disruptive players or a gamemaster’s particular style make for a less-than-ideal experience.) Gamemasters gain some satisfaction from the enjoyment they give their players. Players enhance games in their own way and can provide positive feedback for the gamemaster. Some groups offer other benefits to the gamemaster for organizing and running the game through his “performance,” from bringing snacks and beverages or providing a place to gather to giving game-related gifts (some of which might enhance the action at the game table and thus benefit the group).

How do we place a value on
"intangible" experiences like this?
In a way folks at conventions pay for “intangible” experiences through their favorite games, settings, and arguably gamemasters (besides paying to participate in other con-related experiences that offer similar gratification). Game convention attendees certainly pay a portion of their entry fee – and sometimes additional event fees – to participate in games. Sometimes gamemasters see some of that revenue “returned” through reduced admission; occasionally guest gamemasters receive remuneration in the form of complimentary badges and hotel rooms (and occasionally other generous perks), though hard economic times have made such arrangements extremely rare on the convention circuit. I’ve participated in a number of charity games where players successfully bid on seats at the gaming table with the likes of Star Wars author celebrities Timothy Zahn and Michael A. Stackpole (also a gaming luminary in his own right). Granted, the money went to charity, but it attracted bidders based on the promise of an “intangible” celebrity gaming experience that lasted only a few hours.

Whether I run convention games for general attendees or special events, I often try to give players something tangible they can take away from the table as a souvenir of their brief game experience: their character sheet and tent card, any printed player handouts used in the game, and sometimes the gamemaster’s copy of the scenario (occasionally autographed by a flattered gamemaster).

What do we take away as tangible reminders of our ephemeral gaming experience? Certainly the character sheets, dungeon maps, scrawled notes with related doodles in the margins, and other props from the game itself constitute small reminders of our fantasy achievements and heroic deeds. Some folks keep character or party journals, in character or otherwise. Artistically gifted gamers often create sketches of characters, treasures, villains, monsters, and locations. At the very least satisfied players and gamemasters have the memories of an enjoyable experience, perhaps all one can ask from an intangible few hours rolling dice, plotting strategy, and playing games.

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