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Comics, Games and World-Building

by Dylan Horrocks


There will be no attempt to give them serious consideration on aesthetic grounds, because they are simply not worth it.

Margaret Dalziel, ‘Comics in New Zealand,’ Landfall, March 1955. (1)

In the early 1950s there was widespread concern in New Zealand about the influence of comics on young readers. Inspired by anti-comics campaigns in the United States and Britain, New Zealand parents, teachers, politicians and intellectuals raised the issue in magazines, on the radio and even in parliament. The campaign was not limited to conservatives; in fact, some of the most active anti-comics crusaders were socialists and social liberals, shocked by the violence and jingoistic anti-Communism found in many American comics. A. R. D. Fairburn spoke out against comics on National Radio, while Bill Pearson wrote in a letter to Landfall: "The comics erode the most fundamental habits of humane, civilized living and they erode them in the most vulnerable element of our society, our children…. If we ban the comics we are reducing the chances of war and preventing the further perversion of the world’s children." (2)

Since then, of course, things have changed. These days, comics (or "graphic novels" as they are known in book-length format) are regularly reviewed in the pages of the NY Review of Books. Graphic novels have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize (Art Spiegelman’s Maus) and the Guardian First Book Award (Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth). There are courses dedicated to comics in English and Art History university departments in America, Britain and here in New Zealand. Landfall itself has reviewed and even published comics in recent years. (3)

Which is not to say that the concerns expressed by Pearson in 1955 have disappeared. They’ve just moved on to other media. It’s rare today to find such fears attached to Elvis Presley and Superman; but the same cannot be said of gangsta rap, television, the internet or video games. In fact, the language used to express these fears has been with us for a very long time. Troubadours, poets, the theatre and, of course, the novel have all been the target of moral panics at various times in the past thousand years and the complaints leveled each time are often – word for word – identical.

My intention here is not to dismiss such moral concerns, however. It may be perfectly true that all of these media have been responsible, over the centuries, for "eroding the most fundamental habits of humane, civilized living." What interests me, however, is the tendency of contemporary commentators to dismiss all of these art forms as unworthy of "serious consideration on aesthetic grounds," a judgement which has been leveled at some time at much of the work currently included in the so-called canon of great art and literature. Perhaps when we find ourselves disturbed or bewildered by the popularity of a new genre or medium, it’s precisely by giving it that "serious consideration" that we will begin to get to grips with what it is and how it works.

But how do we do this, when the new work often seems to have so little to do with our existing aesthetic criteria? Perhaps the problem lies in the way we unthinkingly apply whatever aesthetic paradigm is our most familiar, regardless of whether it’s relevant to the work we’re dealing with. For example, when we talk about "fiction," we generally focus on such elements as plot, characterisation, narrative structure, the use of language, and so on. When a piece of writing seems thin in these areas, it’s easy to dismiss it as "weak."

But what if that’s simply not where the action is, in that particular text? What if the "art" – the craft, the pleasure and even the purpose – of the work lies elsewhere? Does this mean that work is a failure, for having neglected what’s considered "important" in fiction? Or could it simply be that it’s operating within a different aesthetic paradigm?

It seems to me that much of the "action" in narrative art today is going on in places that are below the radar of most criticism and theory. What I’d like to do in this paper is to explore some alternative ways of looking at the art of fiction and see if we can find some "aesthetic grounds" that will highlight that "invisible action." I’ll start with the artform I know best: comics.


In the past twenty years or so, there’s been a growing body of theory, research and criticism focussed on comics. One remarkable contribution to that discussion is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, first published in 1993. (4)  A 216-page comic about comics, McCloud’s book explores the history, language and formal structure of the medium. Since it appeared, there have been numerous responses by academics, critics and cartoonists. (5) But for me, the most interesting to date has been James Kochalka’s The Horrible Truth About Comics. (6)

At the heart of both books lie two central questions: "What is/are comics?" (7) and "What is art?" Here’s how McCloud answers that first question:


Central to this definition (9) is the division of a comic into a series of individual pictures, which cartoonists call ‘panels’ or ‘frames.’ McCloud goes so far as to exclude single-image cartoons (such as those seen on the editorial pages of newspapers):

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This separation into panels, then, is essential to comics. So what is a ‘panel’? The word comes from the 13th century French pan, meaning a piece of cloth (from the Latin pannus, or "rag"). A panel, then, is a portion – a fragment of something larger. As McCloud explains: "The panel acts as a sort of general indicator that time or space is being divided." (11) In short, a panel is the basic unit of comics – and it’s a unit of time or space.

Later, however, McCloud seems to have refined his view of the roles of space and time in comics, as we see in this sequence from Reinventing Comics (a follow-up to Understanding Comics, published in 2000):

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For McCloud, space has become the form of comics and time the content. This is what McCloud means when he sometimes sums up his definition of comics with a simple equation: SPACE = TIME. The relationship between these two elements is beginning to change.

According to McCloud, comics is essentially a "spatial medium." We make sense of its fragmented series of images by decoding their arrangement in space:

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"Closure" is a term McCloud has borrowed from Gestalt psychology and applied to the way we "fill in the gaps" between panels. It is what he calls the "invisible art" of comics:

If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics, closure is its grammar. And since our definition of comics hinges on the arrangement of elements… then in a very real sense, comics is closure. (14)

But this process of closure doesn’t always run smoothly. In a chapter entitled ‘The Panel as a Medium of Control,’ pioneering cartoonist and comics theorist Will Eisner warns:

In sequential art, the artist must, from the outset, secure control of the reader’s attention and dictate the sequence in which the reader will follow the narrative.

The most important obstacle to surmount is the tendency of the reader’s eye to wander. On any given page, for example, there is absolutely no way in which the artist can prevent the reading of the last panel before the first. (15)

Eisner goes on to demonstrate some of the strategies a cartoonist can use to control the reader’s path through their comic, by the skillful arrangement of panels on the page. Nowhere, however, does he question the need for artists to exercise that control in the first place. Compare this with the following comment by Scott McCloud, when talking in the Comics Journal about digital media:

The question of interactivity generally tends to give a lot of writers the shivers. There’s the fear that interactivity is the death of literature, letting the reader start to choose his or her own path… But I actually don’t find it intimidating. I think that the intent of the author is not in any way compromised if the author decides to provide different paths to go down. The gardener might not have control over the direction that people take when they wander through his garden, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not the creator of that garden, that he’s not in control. (16)


Another name for the panel is the "frame." And a frame is "an open structure that gives shape or support to something, such as the ribs of a ship’s hull or the skeletal beams and uprights of a building." (17) This meaning is reflected in another of Eisner’s chapter headings: "The Frame as a Structural Support," (18) in which he examines the "metapanel" – the arrangement of a page or collection of images into a structure or framework through which the narrative is explored. The analogy here is to the rows of windows on the side of a building. But there are many other kinds of frameworks, too: the grid on a map, the threads of a spider’s web, or a climbing frame in a playground…

Here’s McCloud again, comparing the way information is organised on the internet with the more traditional linear arrangement of print:

I think that what we’re talking about in the ordering of information – beginnings and middles and ends – is the linear organisation of information. But it’s no more logical than a matrix. For instance, I don’t see the construction of a centipede to be any more or less sound than the construction of a spider web. The one may be linear – point after point after point – but a labyrinth of information which is interconnected is just as sound as a row of information. (19)

A lot of contemporary cartoonists play with this idea of comics as a matrix, or framework. This page by Chris Ware, for example, is less a straightforward sequence and more a kind of diagram, which frequently confounds our expectations with dead-ends and detours, all of which add up to an intricate "narrative machine:"

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It’s a little like McCloud’s analogy of a "garden," offering the reader a whole range of possible paths to take – a maze of meaning with no easy way out.

Now let’s go back to that initial question and see how James Kochalka answers it:

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Here, the panel is a unit not of time or space, but of meaning (a kind of sememe). And rather than being arranged in a sequence, Kochalka’s units are arranged in rhythmic patterns. The purpose of these patterns, he claims, isn’t merely to depict the flow of time, but to "create and activate a world inside us."

Now, most discussion about comics (or fiction, for that matter) assumes that their main purpose is to tell a story – a narrative that moves through time; hence McCloud’s description of comics as a "temporal map." But here, Kochalka seems to suggest something quite different: that comics create a world, a place. Instead of SPACE = TIME, this is SPACE = SPACE.

This vision of art as world-building has always been a central issue in Kochalka’s work. In some early stories, it emerges as a kind of anxiety:

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But in later work, Kochalka appears to see it not as an undermining weakness in fiction, but as a key part of the process:

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Kochalka himself doesn’t seem to know what will happen. As he describes it, his role as the author has nothing to do with plot; all he’s doing is creating an environment and a situation, into which he places characters like a scientist putting rats into a maze. His primary task isn’t building a story; it’s building a world.


World-building has always been a part of literature. Today we probably associate it most with the "fantasy" genre, as exemplified by J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In his lecture On Fairy Stories (written in 1939), Tolkien described the world-building process as "sub-creation:"

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful "sub-creator." He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is "true:" it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. (24)

Tolkien even asserted that there is no higher function for man than the "sub-creation" of a Secondary World. It was, in fact, a religious act:

The Christian may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. (25)

For Tolkien, the border between the ‘real world’ created by God and the Secondary World of Middle Earth that he himself had "sub-created" was at times tenuous. At times he would call what he was doing "research" rather than "invention" – as though Middle Earth were a real place and he himself little more than an assiduous scholar trying to get the details right. "Every writer making a secondary world," he claimed, "wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it." (26)

Much to his publishers’ exasperation, Tolkien seemed to enjoy working out the languages, geography and cultures of his imaginary world a lot more than actually writing novels. On many occasions, frustrated editors were kept waiting for months – and even years – for long-promised manuscripts, while Professor Tolkien tinkered with the minutiae of Quenya vocabulary or Numenorean carpet designs. In a very meaningful sense, it could be said that Tolkien’s life’s work was first and foremost the world of Middle Earth, rather than the novels themselves.

In a sense, of course, all writers are engaged in "sub-creation," to the extent that all fiction takes place in a "Secondary World," no matter how closely it may resemble the "real world" in which we live. And just as Tolkien spent years "researching" his setting, so many writers go to great lengths to make their fictional worlds as "real" as possible.


Like many New Zealanders, I grew up reading the adventures of Tintin, written and drawn by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Hergé was famous for his obsessive commitment to research; hardly a landscape or prop would appear in any of his comics that hadn’t first been checked against countless reference photos, sketches and diagrams. Before drawing The Red Sea Sharks, for example, Hergé and his studio assistant Bob de Moor spent several weeks on a Swedish cargo ship, sketching and photographing everything they could. And if the landscapes in The Black Island seem familiar to British readers, that’s because they were drawn after a long sketching tour around England and Scotland.

I remember that as a child, one of the things that attracted me to Tintin was the impression that each panel opened a tiny window onto another world as vast and as real as our own. I used to dream of finding a way to step inside those tiny landscapes and enter that other world, where everything was perfect – defined in simple clear lines and smooth bright colours. Everything seemed somehow more contained and controllable than in the real world. Curling up with a Tintin book was like sneaking off to a private paradise.

The same was true of many of my favourite comics and books: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley, Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Alfred Bestall’s Rupert or C. S. Lewis’ Narnia. Sometimes it was because the authors had apparently put a lot of effort into "sub-creating" their "secondary world." But with others, there was just something about the way the illustrations were drawn that gave a powerful sense of a parallel universe, a perfect planet, which the reader could enter and explore.

Merely by drawing in their own particular style, cartoonists and illustrators begin to develop their own internal world. A shoe, a chair, even a doorway drawn by Robert Crumb is immediately recognisable as one of his, as are the dirty city streets of Julie Doucet or the neat suburban gardens of Ernie Bushmiller:

Crumb.GIF (18043 bytes)  Doucet.GIF (18271 bytes) BushmillerNancy.GIF (6915 bytes) (27)

In comics, even the laws of physics are side effects of the cartoonist’s ‘way of drawing’ – the way clothes drape across a body, the way shadows fall and water flows. In this sense, the cartoonist is a kind of God, creating a whole universe in their own image.

These manufactured worlds have a similar appeal to that of model railways, miniature dioramas, dolls’ houses – an appeal which seems suffused with intimacy, nostalgia and utopianism.

For me, nostalgia is nothing more or less than an escape from the relentless motion of time. A nostalgic memory isolates individual moments from the passing of time, allowing them to spread out – timeless, relaxed, eternal. We feel as though such moments go on forever; however transitory, stressful or filled with ambivalence they might have been at the time. Nostalgia, then, is the ability to explore a single moment at our leisure, like the hero of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Fermata, (28) who has the ability to freeze time for everyone except himself – entering a timeless state he calls "the Fold." Of course, what he chooses to do in those frozen moments is to go around taking women’s clothes off and indulging in erotic mischief.

The link between nostalgia, timelessness and fantasy - in Baker’s case sexual fantasy – seems a powerful one. Not surprisingly, much utopian literature – from Thomas More onwards – seems to contain all of these elements (including an inordinate interest in the sexual habits of the inhabitants). Most utopias are described as static and unchanging, since there is no reason for change in a perfect society. Life in utopia tends to go on at a leisurely and unhurried pace. This is even more so in traditional descriptions of paradise, arcadia and heaven: an everlasting life, with no need for work, an eternal playtime…


Another kind of fictional world I’d like to mention is Fairyland. Many pre-industrial traditions speak of an invisible world of spirits that coexists with ours but is generally only seen by those who are attuned to it, such as shamans or witches – or by those who stumbled into it through magic. Fairyland usually resembles our own world except that everything within is more vivid and intense; appearances are more extreme (either beauty or ugliness), emotions are heightened. And, of course, time moves differently there, so that a day spent dancing with the fairies can equate to a hundred years in the mundane world.

These days, we have our own parallel world: the one we see on television, in advertisements and movies. As with that earlier Fairyland, it is a world much like ours, yet strangely different. The world on TV and in magazines seems somehow more vivid and intense than everyday life; people are usually more beautiful and seem to live more leisurely and satisfying lives. Even when unpleasant things happen in this utopia, they do so in a way full of significance; moments of crisis stretch to become eternal tableaux of great power and meaning. When captured in glossy photographs on the cover of Time magazine, riots, bombings and disasters are isolated from the merciless rush of time, like Baker’s "the Fold." They enter that other world, becoming saturated with meaning and poetry, as though aesthetically contrived. It is a world in which even the sickening events of September 11 seem composed, contained and comprehensible – what Karlheinz Stockhausen called "the greatest work of art ever." (29)

It is in this modern Fairyland that many contemporary novels take place, too. Stories like those of Michael Ondaatje eschew the hectic banality of everyday life for a kind of alternative reality made up of individual moments and scenes all engorged with vivid layers of meaning and metaphor, stretching into timeless resonance and poetry. Events unfold according not to the laws of nature, but the laws of narrative structure, governed by themes and metaphors, not physics.

We are used to thinking of Tolkien or Raymond Feist as writers who create imaginary worlds, but the same is also true of Elizabeth Knox, Barbara Anderson or Maurice Gee. The worlds in which their stories take place each have their own history, atmosphere, and sense of time. No matter how much it may resemble the "real world," it is actually something else. This is neither good nor bad – it is simply an inescapable fact. Every time a writer tells a story, they also create a world.


So what happens when we take that fact and put it at the heart of what we’re doing – as writers and as readers? What happens when we focus on geographical narrative – the construction of a place – rather than temporal narrative – the construction of a series of events? When we replace plot with landscape as the central organising element? And when, instead of going on a journey through time, we set out to create and explore a space?

One writer who experimented with doing precisely this was Georges Perec, whose novel Life: A User’s Manual (30) isn’t so much a story as the exploration of an apartment building. In the process, the reader also gets to explore the texture and landscape of the residents’ lives. And Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino both played with the idea of a story as an environment, in books such as Labyrinths and Invisible Cities.

Many biographies seem to follow an almost cartographic model, rather than following the narrative paradigm of the story. Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, (31) for example, constructs a detailed map of the troubled landscape of Speer’s life – or perhaps a series of maps, that operate on several levels – revealing hidden places and attempting to assemble a picture of the whole.

But today I want to pay particular attention to the little-understood literary genre of the Role-Playing Game.


Role-playing games (or RPGs) grew out of table-top war-gaming at the end of the 1960s. Dave Wesley, a war-gamer in Minneapolis-St. Paul, was inspired by an old combat-simulation game created in the 1880s used to train army officers, which used an objective referee to adjudicate between opposing players. Wesley decided to try this out for himself and so he devised and refereed a Napoleonic minatures session set in a fictional German town called Braunstein, which stood between two opposing armies:

Some players represented advance elements of the armies just entering the town, and others represented factions from within the town itself. Each player’s faction had differing goals and abilities. The players, used to set-piece battles between armies, had never encountered anything like this before, but soon they were deeply engaged in all sorts of intrigue, with their figures chasing each other around the miniature town of Braunstein. The game dissolved into apparent chaos, and the armies never did get to the town.

This undisciplined brawl violated all Wesley’s cherished theories of organized game conduct, and he thought of it as a failure. But the players loved it and were soon pestering him to run "another Braunstein." (32)

The players’ excitement grew as Wesley’s group tried a series of increasingly immersive scenarios, which gradually took on more and more elements of role-playing. In 1971 one of the group’s members, Dave Arneson, began running an ongoing campaign set in a mythical medieval barony called Blackmoor. By now, most of the key elements of role-playing were in place: each player was in charge of a single character, whose adventures were not limited to a single session, but could continue indefinitely (or at least until their death). The referee created the world and was in charge of everyone and everything inside that world apart from the players’ characters. Blackmoor even introduced the idea of adventuring in underground labyrinths, or "dungeons," which soon became a staple of fantasy Role-Playing Games.

In 1974, Arneson teamed up with fellow war-gamer Gary Gygax to design Dungeons & Dragons, the first published Role-Playing Game. The rest, as they say, is history. From their initial following among war-gamers, RPGs soon grew to become a global craze and the hobby spread to include games set in countless genres and played in countless different ways. You can play with miniatures, with nothing more than pen and paper, with or without dice, online or in a "live-action" game (LARP). There are RPGs which seek to accurately simulate life in medieval Europe, others which emulate the genre conventions of anime or Hong Kong action films, games about teenage romance or Arthurian legend and "universal" game systems which claim to be able to recreate any setting or situation the gamers wish to explore.

The referee (or, as they are now usually called, the Game Master, or GM) oversees the world in which the game will take place. In the earliest RPGs, that world would often be little more than a simple "dungeon" or battleground. But as the games evolved, entire nations, continents, worlds and even galaxies grew around those humble beginnings. Nowadays you can choose to set your game in any one of hundreds of published settings, from the fantastic Forgotten Realms to the star-spanning Traveller universe. A game shop like Christchurch’s Comics Compulsion has shelves of books detailing such settings, while the world-wide web boasts thousands of sites dedicated to filling in as much detail as possible on these and many other campaign worlds.

The Forgotten Realms (centred on a continent named Faerūn) is one of the most popular such settings, and has appeared in hundreds of gaming supplements (including the Volo’s Guide series, which are written in the style of Baedeker’s travel guides) as well as novels and computer games. The Realms was created by Canadian librarian Ed Greenwood, initially for a series of stories and later for his own Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Although thousands of pages of information have already been published about Faerūn, Realms fans know that this has merely scratched the surface of the vast archive of notes in Greenwood’s basement. The situation is complicated further by the fact that Greenwood sold his world to the Dungeons & Dragons franchise in 1987 and although he has been an active contributor to the Forgotten Realms line of products since, the "official" published version of the Realms has subsequently diverged in significant ways from the vision of its original creator – and not always with his approval. (33)

Another setting with a smaller but equally dedicated following is N. Robin Crossby’s Hārn, which strives to present a "realistic medieval environment, unsurpassed in research, depth and logic." (34) Unlike many commercially produced campaign settings, which evolve over time as new supplements describe new historical events which alter the world, all Hārn products describe Crossby’s world at exactly the same moment in its history. Instead of providing a "meta-story" which develops over time, then, Hārn’s authors provide ever more geographical, political and cultural depth, with the goal of mapping each and every region to an astonishing level of detail, including floor-plans for important buildings, lists of residents and descriptions of their economic productivity, relationships and social roles:

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But of course many GMs choose to create their own world from scratch. Some turn to a book like the Advanced Dungeons & Dragon’s World Builder’s Guidebook, which contains detailed instructions on generating everything from tectonic plates to weather patterns, ocean currents and population groups. By following the author’s instructions, you eventually begin mapping individual regions, cities, villages and even houses – with as much or as little detail as you wish.

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Others study geography, history, biology and meteorology in order to "get things right." A visit to RPG.net’s message boards (37) will reveal extensive discussions on everything from the history of coinage to the migration patterns of different species of birds – and countless other topics that dedicated GMs study in order to make their game world more believable. It’s as though the ultimate goal for these world-builders is to outline their world in so much detail that it becomes in some sense actually real – like Baudrillard’s "map that precedes the territory." (38)

Apart from "campaign settings," the other kind of book you’ll find in RPG shops is the "system" or rule book. These rule systems provide a kind of language that quantifies the abilities and limitations of people and things within the game – and a way to determine what happens when those abilities are put to the test. A character designed for Dungeons & Dragons, for example, will have six basic abilities (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma), each of which is represented by a number (usually between 3 and 18, with 10-11 as the average). A character with 18 strength is capable of extraordinary feats, while one with a strength of only 3 could barely lift a mug of ale. Then there are long lists of skills and special abilities, hit points (how much damage they can take before dying), possessions, back-story, etc. All these statistics determine how likely a character is to achieve certain actions; various dice (from the traditional 6-sided to the less familiar 12-sided, 20-sided and even 100-sided dice) introduce the element of luck.

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In the past three decades RPG systems have gone through numerous evolutionary phases and today there exist a range of ‘schools’ or styles. "Physics engines" are designed to give nothing more or less than the most realistic outcomes in a given situation. "Narrativist" systems, by contrast, treat a game as an improvised story, and seek to empower players to generate scenes which serve the overall plot and its themes, rather than merely emulating the laws of physics. "Cinematic" games seek instead to simulate the feel of particular cinematic or literary genres, by encouraging characters to behave in appropriate ways and generating outcomes that fit the conventions of the genre, whether they are realistic or not.

These days, there’s a lot of theoretical discussion on the topic of game design – mostly on the internet, of course. Online message boards like RPG.net or The Forge (40) are full of arguments about "GNS theory" (which stands for gamist-narrativist-simulationist, each designating an element of Role-Playing) (41), "Role-Playing vs. Roll-Playing" and so on. For some, RPGs are little more than a "game," but for others, they are a means to collectively improvised complex narratives, experience life as a medieval knight or immerse themselves in another reality.

But whatever the system or setting – whether it’s as detailed as the Forgotten Realms or as vague as a few notes quickly sketched by the GM over lunch – at the heart of all RPGs is improvisation. Neither the players nor the GM are able to completely predict or control how a game will unfold. Many GMs do prepare a kind of plot – but even the most plot-driven GM is only able to plan so much. Many published settings include "plot hooks" – brief open-ended suggestions of potential story-lines which the characters may encounter and take further. But these are far from full plotlines – they are hints, pointers, situations. (42) In the end, it is the choices made by the players, tempered by the way the dice roll, which will determine what happens on the day.

This unpredictability forces GMs and the authors of RPG settings and systems to adopt a narrative paradigm quite different to that of the traditional novel. Like Scott McCloud’s gardener, the GM cannot know which paths his or her players will take. Rather, the trick is to create as interesting a garden as possible – with landscapes, situations and possibilities that give the players opportunities to explore and interact. In some of the most rewarding RPG worlds, these landscapes and situations are pregnant not only with opportunities for adventure, but also with emotional resonance, themes and allusions, metaphor and meaning. The art of creating an RPG, then, is very much an art of world-building, or "sub-creation." And the way that art is experienced is through play.


In future, man's way of life will be determined not by profit but by play.

Constant Nieuwenhuis, ‘New Urbanism’ (43)

The Situationists, a group of theorists, activists and artists who rose to prominence during the May 1968 uprising in Paris, promoted the rise of a new social order – "the coming reign of leisure" (44) – in which Homo Faber ("Man the Maker") would be replaced by Homo Ludens ("Man the Player"). The terminology comes from Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: a Study of the Element of Play in Culture, (45) but for the Situationists, Homo Ludens was more than merely an element of human culture; it was nothing less than the "highest existential level" of human fulfilment. As Constant Nieuwenhuis argued in his project for a utopian "ludic" enviroment, New Babylon, the emergence of an economy in which automation frees the masses from productive work creates the possibility of a society based on recreation and leisure, in which life enters a state of "permanent play." The New Babylon project, like much of the Situationists’ writing on urbanism, is not so much a fixed architectural design as an attempt to envision an environment which "offers the latent potential for things to happen." (46) In this sense, New Babylon resembles the "ludic environments" of the role-playing game. (47)

These days, of course, you could be forgiven for thinking New Babylon is here already. Video games – for both computers and consoles like Playstation and X-Box – are now the largest entertainment industry in the world. Many children now spend as much, if not more, time playing these games than they do watching television (not to mention reading books). For their generation, video games provide one of their most significant imaginative past-times, a fact which is predictably causing no end of concern among parents, teachers, intellectuals and, well, the usual suspects. Naturally, we hear all the familiar worries: that video games cause illiteracy, long-term health problems, violence and even the erosion of children’s ability to enjoy "proper" art and literature. And, of course, almost no-one involved in the debate considers such games worthy of "serious consideration on aesthetic grounds." After all, these are games, designed to be played – not art. Aren’t they?


We have already seen that this notion of ‘only playing’ in no way excludes the possibility of realizing this ‘only playing’ with extreme seriousness.

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (48)

Play – the permanent experimentation with ludic novelties – appears to be not at all separate from ethics, from the question of the meaning of life.

‘Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play’ (49)

Play and art are the same thing!

James Kochalka, The Horrible Truth About Comics (50)

Let’s return to that second question asked by both Scott McCloud and James Kochalka: "What is Art?" Here’s what McCloud has to say:

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Art, then, is a medium of communication, a conduit through which the artist tries to send a "message" as clearly as possible to the audience. "The mastery of one’s medium," he goes on to say, "…is the degree to which the artist’s ideas survive the journey." (52) This is, of course, a completely linear process, and one in which control (or "mastery") by the artist is essential. This seems far from the "gardener" described by McCloud in that interview I quoted earlier.

By contrast, Kochalka explicitly rejects this view of art:

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And art does this is by "creating a universe:"

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This is something quite different to the linear path between artist and audience envisioned by McCloud. Instead, Kochalka sees art as the creation of an environment in which the artist him or herself can "boil in the intensity of [his or her] experiences, condensing and clarifying them." (55) It’s not about telling something, it’s about making a place in which to explore ideas and experiences and their meanings. Of course, Kochalka’s vision doesn’t exclude the audience; they too will have the opportunity to explore this "new universe:"

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An artwork, then, is a kind of playground, which us built by the artist in an attempt to understand something. The shape that playground takes will depend on the artist and what it is they’re wanting to explore. Once the playground is built, others can come and try it out – hopefully gaining their own insights and understandings along the way. Not all playgrounds are frivolous, of course, just as not all play is pleasurable. A work of art like Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah (1985) is a harrowing experience, not to mention physically and emotionally exhausting (it runs for 9 ½ hours). It’s a playground full of broken glass and barbed wire and no-one plays there for long without getting hurt. But that, after all, is what it’s about and the scars we take away from Shoah can teach us a great deal.

This idea, of art as playground, allows us to see viewers, readers and users of art as active, interactive participants, rather than passive recipients of the artist’s message. It also recognises the extent to which each individual "player" brings their own contribution, modifying the "ludic ambience" of the work and changing how it can be used (not only for themselves, but also for anyone who plays alongside them). This is not to say the artist has no influence on how his or her artwork will be experienced, any more than McCloud’s gardener has no control over his garden. If you put up swings, people will come and swing on them. But equally, some will use them as imaginary rocket ships, others will twist the chains to see them spin and some adventurous souls might even shinny up to the top of the poles, using them as a climbing frame and not a swing at all.

As McCloud pointed out, this level of "interactivity" is alarming to many writers and artists. But to others, such as the designers of Role-Playing Games and Video Games, it’s really the whole point. And increasingly, as Daniel Mackay points out in his book The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, this applies not only to work explicitly conceived of as games:

Today, the paperback, computer game, comic book, role-playing game, film, and CD-ROM markets are all inundated by what I call imaginary-entertainment environments: fictional settings that change over time as if they were real places and that are published in a variety of mediums (e.g., novels, films, role-playing games, etcetera), each of them in communication with the others as they contribute toward the growth, history, and status of the setting. (57)

Mackay is talking here about such fictional universes as those seen in Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and so on. Each of these settings has an enthusiastic fan following who not only watch the movies and read the books, but also actively participates in the creation of these imaginary worlds by writing fan-fiction, making fan-films (such as Troops and the countless other short movies available on TheForce.net (58) and elsewhere on the internet), dressing up at conventions and learning to speak in Klingon, playing with toys and video games or even just by sitting back and daydreaming that they, too, are on board the Starship Enterprise, going where no man has gone before…

But the same is equally true of many other works of fiction and art, as Mackay points out:

Role-players have actualized an aspect of story-telling that has always been potentially present. Just as the development of the European novel in the eighteenth century highlighted aspects of narrative that were always latent in epic poems and other early literary forms (e.g., the plot structure and characterization of plays), and the introduction of cinema clarified and established a vocabulary for latent concepts in both theater and the novel, so too the role-playing game has highlighted the idea of the fictional world autonomous from a discreet body of work, that grows, changes, and develops through the collaboration of many contributors. Imaginary-entertainment environments, in fact, can be retroactively identified as the great playthings of some of the most lauded artists in the tradition of Western and Eastern arts. For what are mythologies but imaginary-entertainment environments shared and perpetuated across centuries by artists, scholars, and priests? (59)


A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.

Jorge Luis Borges. (60)

A few pages ago, we set out to try and understand what’s going on in contemporary art – not just the paintings and novels which find their way into the Tate and the New York Review of Books, but also the stuff our kids are into: Harry Potter, Yu-Gi-Oh, Vice City, Crash Bandicoot and the Sims. Because, like it or not, it’s works like these which are shaping the aesthetic interests and priorities of the emerging generation of artists and audiences.

A common thread running through much of that work, in my view, is an emphasis on geographical narrative – on the construction of a virtual environment in which the audience can explore and even "play." And the video game – perhaps more than any other medium – seems perfectly designed to do just that. So far, of course, it’s been easy to dismiss most video games as intellectually weak, thematically puerile and emotionally shallow – in short, not worth "consideration on aesthetic grounds." But then, the same seemed true of comics in 1955.

It’s the same old story. New artforms bring new aesthetic paradigms. Those who fail to recognise this tend to miss the point of the work altogether, dismissing it as frivolous, bad or even dangerous. Which is why, when the generation of writers and artists who’ve grown up immersed in virtual playgrounds begin using the medium of the video game itself to "boil in the intensity" of their experiences, many in the so-called art and literary worlds won’t even notice.

Of course, this is already happening. Games like The Sims, The Getaway and Myst and on-line gaming in general are all pushing the boundaries of the genre in aesthetically challenging ways. In fact, the whole point of The Sims is to enter a simulated everyday world, allowing players to experiment with different identities and behaviours and experience the results. Which, if you ask me, sounds a hell of a lot like many novels…

Besides, as an old Role-Player, I recognise in the video game a lot of elements familiar from table-top RPGs. This is no coincidence, since "a high percentage of computer programmers were and are, not surprisingly, Dungeons & Dragons afficianados. There’s an affinity between computer programming and games that require reams of graph paper and twenty-sided dice. Both are artificial universes governed by quantifiable rules, probability, and obsessive mapping." (61) Over the years, I’ve seen the Role-Playing Game evolve from a simple variation on war-gaming to a rich and complex art-form, with its own movements, schools and aesthetic controversies. I see no reason this shouldn’t also happen to its digital descendant.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from RPGs it’s this: the game is in the playing. Even the stupidest, most frivolous game system can be used to create powerful and meaningful gaming experiences by the right group of players. I see kids doing that today with video games – ignoring the strategies and paths they’re expected to take and instead pursuing goals that are often different to those anticipated by the game designers. (62) After all, this is a playground, not a play.

Hopefully, then, our meandering journey through Mackay’s "imaginary entertainment environments," Tolkien’s "Secondary Worlds," the Situationists’ "New Babylon," McCloud’s "garden" and Kochalka’s "Perfect Planet" has given us a few useful clues – or perhaps "plot hooks" – that will help guide us into the new fictional landscapes of the 21st century.

Because the more we explore the worlds that we and our children build, the better we will understand ourselves. (63)



1  Margaret Dalziel, 'Comics in New Zealand,' Landfall vol.9, no.1, March 1955, page 52. Back

2  Bill Pearson, letter printed in Landfall vol.9, no.1, March 1955, pages 95-97. Back

3  Barry Linton's 'The Mighty Waikato,' Landfall vol.46, no.2, June 1992. Back

4  Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art, Kitchen Sink Press, 1993. Back

5  Including my own humble effort, 'Inventing Comics: Scott McCloud's Definition of Comics,' which appeared in The Comics Journal #234, June 2001, and can also be read online here. Back

6  James Kochalka, The Horrible Truth About Comics, Alternative Comics, 1999. Back

7  McCloud asks "what is comics?" while Kochalka uses the plural: "what are comics?"   The difference is because McCloud believes he is defining the essence of the medium - a kind of Platonic form of "comics" - rather than merely describing those comics that already exist in the world. Back

8  Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 9. Back

9  McCloud's definition borrows heavily from Will Eisner's Comics & Sequential Art, Poorhouse Press, 1985. Back

10  McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 21-22. Back

11  McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 99. Back

12  Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics, Paradox Press (an imprint of DC Comics), 2000, page 206. Back

13  McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 67. Back

14  McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 67. Back

15  Will Eisner, Comics & Sequential Art, page 40. Back

16  R. C. Harvey, 'Round and Round with Scott McCloud,' an interview with Scott McCloud, The Comics Journal #179, August 1995, page 57. Back

17  Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins, 1991, page 610, my emphasis. Back

18  Eisner, Comics & Sequential Art, page 49. Back

19  R. C. Harvey, 'Round and Round with Scott McCloud,' The Comics Journal #179, page 61. Back

20  Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library #2, Fantagraphics Books Inc, 1994, page 7. Back

21  James Kochalka, The Horrible Truth About Comics, page 16. Back

22  James Kochalka, 'Magic Boy & Girlfriend,' drawn c.1994, reprinted in Magic Boy & Girlfriend, Top Shelf Productions, 1998, page 47. Back

23  James Kochalka, The Perfect Planet, Top Shelf Productions, 1999, page 3. Back

24  J. R. R. Tolkien, 'On Fairy Stories,' quoted in Humphrey Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkien: a Biography, HarperCollins, 2002, page 254.  The lecture is reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, Del Rey, 1986 and can also be read online hereBack

25  Tolkien, 'On Fairy Stories,' quoted in Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkien: a Biography, page 255. Back

26  Ibid, page 255. Back

27  Robert Crumb, from 'Lap o' Luxury,' (1977) reprinted in The Complete Crumb, vol.12, Fantagraphics Books Inc, 1997; Julie Doucet, My New York Diary, Drawn &  Quarterly, 1999; Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy, March 9, 1941. Back

28  Nicholson Baker, The Fermata, Random House, 1994. Back

29  John O'Mahony, 'The Sound of Discord,' The Guardian, Saturday September 29, 2001, available online here. Back

30  Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual, translated by David Bellos, The Harvill Press, 1988.  Back

31  Gitta Sereny, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, Random House, 1995. Back

32  Lawrence Schick, Heroic Worlds: a History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, Prometheus Books, 1991, pages 17-18. Back

33  See The Forgotten Times, vol.1, no.1, April/May 1999 (here) for an interview with Ed Greenwood. Although Greenwood makes it clear that "sometimes I've had surprises that weren't also delights," with regard to changes made to the Forgotten Realms, he also praises many of the contributions made by other writers and game designers and stresses that "by and large I have no complaints."  Nevertheless, the fact remains that the publisher (TSR at the time of the interview, but now Wizards of the Coast) "owns the Realms and artistically controls them," and, as Greenwood says, "contrary to rumors, I don't get a royalty from every Realms product." Back

34  N. Robin Crossby, quoted in Lawrence Schick, Heroic Worlds, page 187. Back

35  Shown are pages 2 and 9 of N. Robin Crossby et al., 'Avonel,' published as part of HarnManor, Columbia Games, 1999. Back

36  Richard Baker, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons World Builder's Guidebook, TSR Inc., 1996.  Shown is page 19, from the section entitled 'Seismology and Tectonics.' Back

37  As found here: RPG.net  Back

38  Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton & Philip Beitchman, Semiotext(e), 1983, page 2. Back

39  From Jonathan Tweet et al., Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook v. 3.5, Wizards of the Coast, 2003. Back

40  RPG.net and The Forge.    Back

41  GNS Theory was first proposed by Ron Edwards in a series of essays available at The Forge. Back

42  For example, here is a typically brief "plot-hook" from Ed Greenwood et al., The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (Wizards of the Coast, 2001): "Ghosts of Northkeep: Lights are seen underwater in and around the Bell in the Deep.  Something is stirring down there.  What?  Why?". Back

43  Provo #9, 1966; english translation by the Friends of Malatesta, Buffalo, NY, 1970; which can be read at the on-line zine Not Bored!  Back

44  'Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play,' Internationale Situationiste #1, June 1958, translated by Reuben Keehan, and available on-line here. Back

45  First published in 1938; English edition 1971, Beacon Press. Back

46  Rem Koolhaas, in a panel discussion on Museums of Modern Art in the 21st Century, 1996, quoted here. Back

47  It also resembles in many ways the internet - especially the worlds of on-line gaming, MUDs, MOOs and MUSHs.   But that's a topic for another day, as are the resonances between the Situationist derive and Live Action Role-Playing Games... Back

48  Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, quoted in 'Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play,' Internationale Situationiste #1, June 1958. Back

49  Internationale Situationiste #1, June 1958. This text can be read on-line here. Back

50  James Kochalka, The Horrible Truth About Comics, page 195. Back

51  Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 195. Back

52  Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 196.  Back

53  James Kochalka, The Horrible Truth About Comics, pages 16-17.  Back

54  James Kochalka, The Horrible Truth About Comics, page 11.  Back

55  James Kochalka, The Horrible Truth About Comics, page 22.  Back

56  James Kochalka, The Horrible Truth About Comics, page 12.  Back

57  Daniel Mackay, The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, McFarland, 2001, page 29.   Mackay's book is the most in-depth theoretical study of RPGs to date. Back

58  See TheForce.  'Troops' is merely one of the most successful of the many Star Wars fanfilms; it can be found here. Back

59  Daniel Mackay, The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, page 33. Back

60  Jorge Luis Borges, Dreamtigers, translated by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland, University of Texas Press, 1985. Back

61  J. C. Herz, Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds, Little Brown & Co., 1997, page 11. Back

62  On-line you can even find thousands of unofficial "patches" for commercially produced computer games: home-made levels, modifications to the visuals and sound-track, new characters and situations. Back

63  In preparing this paper, I gained considerable inspiration from conversations with Matthew Chappory, Jeffrey Holman, my wife Terry Fleming and my sons Louis and Abe.  Also from discussions on RPG.net and with other fellow cartoonists and gamers, and from articles on The Forge and the wonderful Places To Go, People To Be. Back



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