GNS theory cuts roleplaying creative agendas up into Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism. The first two of these get more play, and greater respect, than the last, in my opinion. Yet I will argue this is because Simulationism has been misnamed; and in fact many important roleplaying innovations have been in a so-called simulationist space.

Quick disclaimer here: I’m going to talk about simulationism as described by Ron Edwards, but this is not really a theoretical article, and even though it tries to point the reader into a different view of what simulationism is, it isn’t any kind of attempted takedown of Edwards’s theory or other such shenanigans. Indeed it is rather selective in quoting Edwards, which would be a cardinal sin in a theory essay, but I hope I can get away with this in the above context.

The man who codified the concepts of GNS, Ron Edwards, talks about simulationism in his essay GNS and other matters:
Simulationism “is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color]; in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play.”

He talks about simulationism as focusing on exploration, a concept that is important to all roleplaying, but assumes pre-eminence and becomes an end-in-itself in simulationist play. Yet the term “exploration” is misleading. It implies a pre-existing reality which we together explore; or perhaps it is intended to imply a single fiction, probably created by one person, the GM. A more neutral term is creation, because that is in reality that which is being explored is simultaneously being created, whether by the GM or by the players, individually or collectively.

Similarly “simulationism” suggests an attempt to replicate some ideal – a realistic game world, a particular genre’s conventions, a well-realised character. But play that focuses on the act of creation (as opposed to exploration) need not be about simulating anything; it is often about the creation of imaginative, evocative content which might or might not relate to an ideal. Creativism would be a more accurate and comprehensive term for this type of play.

If we were going to do definitions, creativism might be defined as:
Creativism “is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color]; in other words, Creativism heightens  and focuses the creation and development of the shared fiction as the priority of play.”

Now I’m not seeking to pick an argument with Ron or anyone else here. Instead, I’ll pause to note that “creativism” already probably sounds much more appealing to many roleplayers than “simulationism”, which is resonant with computer games and wargames – popular with some, but not with all. “Simulationism” hints at rules and dry technicality, while “creativism” points to imagination and shared endeavour. I’d also like to talk a bit about where that reframed concept leads us.

For one, it leads us to focus on questions about who creates the content of the game. Much of indie roleplaying design has been concerned with handing over creative authority, or at any rate extending it, from the GM to the rest of the players. Indeed, many indie games have no such distinction. This has some implications for the pursuit of drama (narrativism) and challenge (gamism) but its biggest impact is on the act of creation itself. It enables more people to take part in the act of creation, and thus plays into a creativist agenda.

We can go further. Creativist concerns lead us to look at how the act of creation is regulated. Drama points, games structured into acts, Dogs in the Vineyard’s traits, and many more, serve to regulate the flow of content creation. They serve other purposes too, of course; but one major impact is to shift creative power and constrain the creative act. This leads to the well-known paradox that one can sometimes be most creative when one does not have a free hand to create anything one wishes to.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about these issues at present. And indeed, I’ve been teasingly referred to as a simulationist. Maybe I am – but these days I feel like I’m more of a creativist.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

5 thoughts to “Creativism”

  1. I think this is still kinda ambiguous. What, exactly, are you “creating” with creativism? To me I think the key distinction between Narrativism and as-it-were Simulationism is that in the former you’re playing because you want to create a story, and in the latter you’re playing because you want to create (or explore) a world.

    So I think “creation” doesn’t really clarify that distinction, whereas I think “exploration” does – and importantly I don’t think it denies you the option to create, on the fly, the world you’re exploring. Sure, you can explore an already-created world*, but you can also explore the consequences and limits of the decisions made so far, which will lead you to create new decisions. That’s still exploration. (Example: “Oh so gravity is half-strength on this world [pre-defined feature]. Cool, well what happens if I do X [undefined consequence]? I guess that would mean… [consequence is defined; an act of creation – but driven by the previous question’s exploration]”.)

    * and of course, even an “already-created” world is never fully finished.

    It’s also worth mentioning that Ron Edwards wrote a lot of other essays on this subject, over the course of several years, *after* the one you link to above. In those he refines GNS theory quite dramatically and turns it into The Big Model. It’s a while since I read those, but I think you might find his thoughts closer to your own there. (Though admittedly his explanations are as opaque as ever!)

    The most relevant is probably the essay specific to Simulationism: but the whole theory (G, N and S) is refined across the whole series of articles, even though nominally each essay is specific to only one of those.

    1. Well… isn’t that a rather narrow interpretation of sim though? You can explore any of the various elements, not just setting.

      Anyways, I’m not making any big claims here, I just think that the focus on exploration suggests a mode of play (GM led, prepped) that may not apply; and further, that a number of key innovations best fit in the sim category, but existing terminology is suggestive that this might not be the case. I think the focus of sim is, in fact, on the creative act itself whereas nar and game are about a particular way of using that act.

  2. “Well… isn’t that a rather narrow interpretation of sim though? You can explore any of the various elements, not just setting.”

    By “world”, I don’t mean just the setting. I mean all the in-fiction things, which includes Ron’s list (System, Setting, Situation, Character, Colour). My point is that you’re exploring (and, as part of that process, creating) the fictional stuff purely for its own sake, rather than e.g. having a metagame agenda to create a story. “World” was the best word I could think of to describe “all the in-fiction stuff”!

    “I’m not making any big claims here, I just think that the focus on exploration suggests a mode of play (GM led, prepped) that may not apply”

    I guess what this boils down to is that I don’t think it makes any such suggestion.

    1. To be clear, I’m not saying that sim suggests this as in “he suggested they should go on a walk” but rather as in “her dress was suggestive of shapely curves”. When I hear “simulationist” I think battlemaps and realistic mechanics, not shared authorship and support for creativity. That might just be my personal reaction to it, but I doubt it.

  3. Sure, I’m just saying I don’t have that reaction. I guess it depends what you get out of the essays, which are unclear at best. I maintain, though, that “Creativism” is equally unclear 🙂

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