Comments on a bachelor’s thesis on Gadamer and roleplay

20 November, 2007 at 5:58 pm (academic rpg theory, philosophy) (, , , , , )

Opusinsania wrote a bit something about Gadamer’s understanding of play and roleplaying. It is in Finnish, though. He may be willing to share the writing if asked, or not.

A very brief summary: First part of the thesis is about Gadamer’s philosophy and such. The interested should utilise Google, Wikipedia and the local university for additional and actually accurate information. What follows is my on-the-fly translation and commentary of the relevant bits. You have been warned.

Gadamer consider both play and art to be fundamentally the same thing, at least in that both of them interact with the person experiencing them and the interaction becomes primary, in a way, and separate from the rest of the world. I am reminded of Christopher I. Lehrich‘s article Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games, hosted on the Forge. Back to Gadamer. In his philosophy, a play (or game or art) attains perfection when it becomes a structure, or form. In theater this happens when an actor stops acting and becomes what she was trying to act. A similarity with (some definitions of) immersion and gaming are clear. Gadamer further says that the players will focus solely on the content of the game, which reminds me of flow, which, consequently, has sometimes been connected with immersion (discussion on some years back). In spite of this, play can’t happen without a player.

Turku school manifesto by Mike Pohjola was quoted: “Role-playing is immersion (“eläytyminen”) to an outside consciousness (“a character”) and interacting with its surroundings.” A definition of immersion by Pohjola: A process in which the actor’s consciousness melds totally into the character’s consciousness. This is seen as the goal of play by Turku school. Pohjola has said that perfect immersion is impossible to attain, but can be approached (see also: limes in math). One way of understanding this is to think that the player’s consciousness is negated. Pohjola has not shown public support for the alternative (that immersion is a relation to another ontologically independent entity). A third alternative, not from Pohjola: That roleplaying is taking a social mask, stolen from ludology, and immersion has little role. There are intermediate positions.

Another important concept is diegesis, defined as everything that is true within the game. If you are into Forge theory, shared imagined space (SIS) is not that different a concept.

The purpose of gaming can be defined as immersion, the simple joy of gaming (or flow) or social reasons and other concerns outside the game. Aside from Pohjola, every definition of rp considers the social dimension to be essential.

The meat of the thesis (IMO, at least) is the contrasting of Pohjola’s and Gadamer’s understanding of roleplay (play in Gadamer’s case). Gadamer requires interaction to call something play. This can be interaction with, say, a deck of cards (solitaire) or other players. The degree of interaction required is unclear. This can be seen as supporting Pohjola in that one can play by himself (I certainly do), but it is still possible to define roleplaying so that it requires social interaction (which I find smart). Some pervasive games (which are at best fuzzily separate from normal world) may complicate the matters a bit, but I am not sufficiently interested in them to say anything further and they were not mentioned in the thesis.

Both Pohjola and Gadamer consider play to take precedence over normal life and create some sort of self-contained reality. Pohjola took the concept from Hakim Bey.

According to the thesis, a significant difference between Pohjola and Gadamer is related to Gadamer’s claim that game becomes primary and player secondary, while in Pohjola’s model the player consciously becomes the character and then the immersion happens within the player, so the player is still central. In Gadamer’s model the player no longer exists when the games achieves perfection.

I disagree with the point (badly) referenced above. In both models, the player disappears. In Gadamer’s this happens as the game reaches perfection, but the player is still necessary, as there can be no play without someone playing, as was claimed earlier in the thesis. In Pohjola’s model, the player disappears as he achieves perfect immersion (since this is impossible, mere sufficient approximity to this stage can be assumed, but it doesn’t change things significantly, IMO), but is still necessary, due to the other consciousness being the same actual person. Or, if this is not the case, the game would partially happen outside the observable reality of humans, and is thus quite irrelevant. Essentially, I disagree with the point that there is a fundamental difference between those two points of view, but can’t actually say why, probably due to not understanding the argument well enough and due to it being hard to prove negatives.

Opusinsania, if you don’t want this text to be public or here at all, say so and I will act accordingly. If you do decide to publish the paper somewhere, I’d suggest The International Journal of Role Playing.


  1. Opusinsania said,

    Well condensed. The Forge references were clever – there is also some academic material published about the topics you mentioned.

    I will start thinking about publishing as soon as the LARP I’m writing is over.

  2. Thanuir said,

    If you need any help in translation or proof-reading, my meager skills are at your disposal, assuming I have enough free time when it becomes relevant.

  3. Calvino said,

    A question from someone not speaking Finnish: in which book(s) does Gadamer deal with play? It all seems very interesting, especially since Gadamer is a phenomenologist and a student of my great idol Heidegger. I’ve got “truth and method” in the bookcase but I’ven’t read it. It seems to me though as if every clue towards a phenomenological understanding of play would be worth checking up.

  4. Tommi said,

    Truth and method is referred to in the thesis:

    Gadamer, Hans-Georg: Truth and Method. Sheed & Ward ltd., Lontoo 1985.

    Gadamer, Hans-Georg: Truth and Method. Continuum, Lontoo 2004.

    I’ll contact the author, he can probably be more helpful.

  5. opusinsania said,

    Tommi is right-on: The part on play can be found from Truth and Method (2004), more specifically from the chapter named “Play as the clue to ontological explanation”, p. 102. It also helps to read the whole part about aesthetics, as it is closely related to the topic. The commentary Georgia Warnke has written on the book helped me immensely, so I’d recommend it.

    The author,

  6. Calvino said,

    Thank you

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: