Home > Uncategorized > Interlude: some thoughts about dancing, wrestling, and performance

Interlude: some thoughts about dancing, wrestling, and performance

What are we doing when we’re “gaming”? Like, actually at the table, in session?

To some extent we’re dealing with forward processes – working out puzzles, advancing plots, learning about characters, covering up or uncovering stuff that may have been planned ahead or might be improvised but which will in any event soon become part of the game’s canon. Making progress.

To a larger extent, though, (I think) we’re doing something with a bit more give-and-take. Something where we adopt positions and make moves and expect the other people at the table to respond and/or take the creative initiative themselves, seeing where it ends up. Like a conversation. Or a dance.

(I am terrible at dancing, specifically that most conversational of dances, Argentinian Tango, in which power and initiative pass back and forth between the partners in a continuous flow of exchanges, moves, glances, competitive expressions of hauteur. I am therefore (according to Bourdieu) in the privileged position of being able to talk about it as a problem.)

I think this dance is the essence of play – it’s not reducible to victory conditions or even the tactics taken to reach them, it’s an exploration of the people, the situation, and the moment. I also don’t think it’s necessarily reducible to the elements of agon (struggle) and paidia (joyful diversion) – there’s also a lot of thinking, realizing, finding delicate points of balance and then deliberately wiggling them, provoking, retreating, being powerless, route-finding, and other stuff I can’t think of right now, even as I (re)play through different fields where this activity is applied.

And often we’re doing several sorts of play at the same time, both as active participants and encouraging audience members.

On the latter side, much talk of “spotlights” in RPGs strikes me as annoyingly binary on this point: heckling, commentating, advice-giving, even boredom are all part of the show in a RPG. Pro wrestling has one of the most active entertainment audiences I know of (although they’re still far from the level of engagement of a tabletop roleplayer who doesn’t happen to be speaking right now), and they’re engaged in multiple kinds of play all the time – they play around the boundaries of kayfabe, purporting to believe something that is obviously false and/or being seen to be playing along and/or suspending disbelief and/or looking for an underlying truth (like when wrestlers insist that wrestling is “real” in the sense that it’s actually dangerous, even if it’s not actually fighting). All these kinds of play are what I call boundary play – negotiating the boundary of what’s taken for true, moment by moment, making moves as the play moves. Dancing. They play with the boundary between scripted action and improvisation (in their own cheers/jeers, which are a real form of initiative-seizure) as well as appreciating that boundary play from the wrestlers. They play with whether they receive the action in the terms of its own script (emically) or as critical observers of a drama (etically) or, as ProteusEst told me, on both sides of the related Watsonian/Doylist boundary in Sherlock Holmes fandom, where readers can choose to accept stories as being authored either by Watson (as is claimed in the text) or by Artur Conan Doyle (on the cover). And that discussion led me straight back to wrestling again:
many fans of Professional Wrestling view events from the Doylist perspective. If a wrestler suddenly disappears from TV without a proper storyline explanation, it will often lead to speculation that he/she is on his/her way out of the company and where he/she might turn up next
And this boundary opens up yet another arena for play/dance. Which surprises me, because I’d think that this admission of the business/dramatic reality of wrestling would dissolve the kayfabe, right? But instead, fans get into a totally comfortable sort of doublethink – the sort of thing that thesis/antithesis/synthesis stories are supposed to do the hard work of reconciling. Once you acknowledge that there’s a soap opera going on between matches involving the corporate structure of the wrestling league/stable, then it’s creatively ambiguous whether your Doylist speculation is really Doylist, or if it is itself being scripted by another level of Watson, who narrates the business drama. Where is the audience supposed to be, relative to all this? The answer is, they have a whole dance floor to occupy. The point is not to answer the question definitively but, for audience, wrestlers, promoters, commentators and everyone else, to have fun making moment-by-moment moves around it.

The most conspicuous other place I see this play being played out in public is politics (nope, that runs the risk of derailing this whole discussion. Let’s instead go with) stage magic. A lot’s been written about how stage magic works – I’m going to assume we all know the audience is complicit in being fooled – that to the extent they try to figure out how the magic is done, it’s a sort of idle diversion while they get their dopamine hits from the spectacle of watching stuff spontaneously appear and disappear, like the fort/da game – right? And the first act of every magic trick, where the magician sets up the stakes and establishes that the object they’re holding is perfectly ordinary and gets buy in and permission to make it disappear – this is all well-explored, right?

Fine. So far, the magician simply leads us in the dance (unless we express boredom or refuse to play along). But then usually there comes not a single flourish but a succession of tricks – this is the dance in full swing. The magician dazzles the mark with the first “surprise,” then does a few more-expected moves, maybe eliciting growing bewilderment but also a growing sense on the part of the audience that they know the grammar of the trick language being established. The magician surfs the audience’s attention span and sets up an exchange rate of moves and gasps, so the audience becomes increasingly comfortable with where this show is going. And then (if they’re really great), the magician overpays. They finish with something that’s baffling even in the expectation scheme they’ve established. The audience suddenly finds themselves bent backwards with one leg up and a rose between their teeth and… the magic show ends. They have no further interplay with the magician, they just have to applaud and spend all their tension on each other, advertising the show to their friends.

That works for the magician. It can also work sometimes for writing RPG adventures, when you’re thinking of a shocking denouement for the players’ investigations to lead them toward. But it’s not (I think) a great ending for most of your dances or most of your RPG sessions. Because it demands applause and it depends on the submission of initiative from the people being whisked off their feet, so it turns them (back) into the audience, watching a performer. 

That’s not what I want. I want a conversation with active participants. If it’s going to be unequal then, after all the work of setting up a game session and DMing the environment and challenges, I want my players to seize the initiative and dazzle me. But what I want most – what I remember as the best sessions – is the dance itself and those times when everyone is equally, maximally engaged, leading and following, using the floor. I want ongoing trust and rapport out of my games, a collaborative creative ferment, out of which spring all those products and memories and collective products that the OSR is famous for, but which most of all is the experience of the moment of dancing.

Achieving that reliably? That’s another post.

  1. Charlatan
    January 10, 2020 at 4:46 am

    1. I’ve checked pretty far out of gaming stuff lately, but it’s nice to see some posts on this blog!

    2. I think about Georg Schiller reading this (well, also Althusser a little) – the gaming table as a tiny society of play, where you are performing and negotiating a kind of consensus definition of that tiny society based on the kind of steps and counter-steps you describe.

    3. The magician, yes, but there’s also an audience kind of step too far – I think in fantasy contexts this is visible in the rhetoric of “realism”.

    4. I think dance and wrestling work a bit better for this particular type of play than magic because of the frequency with which players are interested less in the truly unexpected than they are in achieving a consensus romance (often dipping into the gothic).

    Anyway, those are a lot of pretentious words from a gaming drop-out. Thanks for posting again! Good read.

    • Richard Grenville
      January 10, 2020 at 5:15 pm

      Hi Ben!

      reading back over this post last night, it seems pretty incoherent actually. I probably should’ve gone with my first instinct and just kept it as a collection of critical terms for various kinds of reader/audience/fandom participation. The magician case definitely seems like a different kind of relationship from the wrestling fans, which is also different from the relationship between DM and players. I guess I was keen to say “don’t think you’re a magician!” but tripped over myself on the way. Want I wanted to take from the magician was “do sometimes surprise everyone by overpaying, whether you’re a DM or a player or whatever.”

      The consensus point is a very good one. In many ways, I think the gaming table might be that “real society” that everybody wants to romanticize but nobody can ever actually find – an anthropological village called into existence for the purpose of creating a collective illusion, and snuffed out again at will. The fact that it deals with entirely imaginary goods and that it’s self-consciously set apart from “real life” is probably the key to its ability to exist: here and just here, the youngest can be in charge and we’ll follow the shy one’s plan and we’ll have exchanges (somewhat) outside our usual habits. That just might also be what makes roleplaying shameful (if I’m going to agree with Ben Anderson that shared shame, as well as shared pride, is what identifies an imagined community).

  2. Wiwaxia
    February 22, 2020 at 3:36 am

    This is hardly rpg related at all, but your comments on stage magic reminded me of a fascinating talk I went to by a scholar of magic whose name I unfortunately do not recall. His argument was that stage magic is fundamentally a tease, which is presumably why the dynamic you’ve described, where the magician leaves the audience off-balance with no further interplay, works. His memorable phrase was “magic is the burlesque of science” – both are driven by the appeal of wonder and curiosity, but magic is an irreverent spectacle and a tease designed to leave curiosity permanently unsatisfied.

    • Richard Grenville
      February 24, 2020 at 5:15 pm

      That makes sense! It might also explain the characteristic length of magic acts – you hardly ever see a magician stay on stage for more than a few minutes. I understand longer shows exist,. but they tend to be broken up by other bits of cabaret.

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