The other day I read Zak's (long, be warned) first installment of his break-down of Ron Edwards's GNS Theory. It's pretty good. I've been saying some of the same things myself, but Zak manages to articulate some things that have also bothered me about GNS but I never could quite suss out exactly what they were. I haven't had time to read his second and third posts yet, but I'm looking forward more of this.
Now, independently, more than a month or so ago (well before I broke my arm, so maybe 2 months ago) I had read this academic article trying to define just what exactly a game is by Danish ludologist Jesper Juul called The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness (2003)*. Juul, building on previous theories of games - traditional games, folk games, board games, computer games - to come up with a comprehensive list of elements that can be used to test whether or not something is or is not a game.
Now, I'm not sure if Zak's intention is to build up a workable theoretical model of RPGs to replace GNS, or if he's merely trying to put the final nail in the coffin (good luck to that, GNS is probably here to stay, although it may not be as influential as it once was). But I think looking at Juul's work may be a good place to start if one did wish to create a workable, testable theory of RPGs.
Juul first analyzes key elements of game definitions from seven influential sources, groups together similar elements, and then arranges them into four categories: games as formal systems, relation between the player and the game, relation between the player and the world, and "other" for anything that doesn't fit into those three groups. He then synthesizes the elements into six core features that he feels are necessary and sufficient to label something as a "game" and explains them in detail. These elements are:
1. Fixed Rules [players don't need to debate rules during play]
2. Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes [there are specific goals or end points, and they are not the same in all instances of the game]
3. Valorization of the Outcome [some outcomes are better than others]
4. Player Effort [the player must act to overcome the challenge, not just rely wholly on random chance]
5. Attachment of the Player to the Outcome [players are invested in achieving certain outcomes or avoiding certain other outcomes]
6. Negotiable Consequences [while most games can be and are played with no real world consequences, it's possible to bet on, play professionally, or in some other way attach real-world stakes to instances of play]
Juul then analyzes numerous activities, placing them on a scale of games (have all six elements of his definition), borderline cases of game-like activities (lack one or two elements, but are still heavily game-like), and non-games (may be forms of play, but lack two or more crucial elements of his definition).
He puts table-top RPGs firmly in the borderline cases, because they violate element 1 of the definition. The rules are not fixed as long as a referee/dungeon master is there to adjudicate, make rulings, and interpret the rules and the actions within each instance of play. In all other ways, table top RPGs conform to the definition. Computer RPGs, because they are executed by an impartial computer, are definitely games by Juul's definition.
Interestingly, it's exactly the fact that table top RPGs have fixed rules but they are open to DM adjudication, modification, and selective implementation that gives RPGs their strength as a medium of entertainment. And unlike interactive fiction (which lack variable/quantifiable outcomes and player attachment to outcomes) or freeform play (which lacks fixed rules of any sort), Juul still considers TTRPGs to be 'borderline.'
I'll try to get back to this line of thought soon.For now, though, I'm off to bed.
*Jesper Juul: "The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness". In Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, 30-45.
Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003.