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.