Iain McGilchrist is probably the most important contemporary thinker, and last night I listened to a good two part interview with him, here and here. One of the themes in his work is how creation requires hard limits and barriers in order to take place at all. I have written on that theme before on this blog in my own small way (see e.g. this post and this one), and it occurred to me on listening to the interview that there was, yes, yet more to say about it as it relates to RPGs.
McGilchrist describes how creativity functions on the basis of limits which are not necessarily externally imposed but can come from the process itself. Hence, a river's flow creates banks which themselves then act as limits on the flow, which further influence how the river develops, produce eddies and currents, and so on. The best example of this, though, I think, is language. Language is a creative process, whose own limits produce the act of creation.
What do I mean by this? Utter a single word: 'The'. From a completely open range of possible utterances, we have picked one, which itself then limits what can come next. The next word must be a noun or gerund or adjectival complement, trivially, but the subject matter of the utterance is also constrained: the definite article has been used, and not the indefinite one, for example - and that will limit all that follows. Pick a word to follow it: 'man'. Now we are even more limited - we know that the subject of the utterance is an adult male human being, as opposed to all of the other myriad possibilities which it could have been ('fox', 'apple', 'ant', 'Greek', 'big', and so on), and this also further restricts what follows. With each subsequent word, 'bit', 'the', 'dog', we see this closing off and narrowing of possibilities, so that what began with literally anything becomes, with each word, something definite and specific through a process of limitation and restriction: a specific adult male human being biting a specific individual of the species canis familiaris.
The crucial point here is that for the creative act to take place at all it must both contain and consist in its own capacity to restrict itself. Creativity is not the unbridled exploration of a free horizon of unlimited scope. It is quite the opposite. It is a process which is carried out through the imposition of limits (from within itself).
How is this relevant to RPGs? Well, there are a thousand ways, and I don't have a thousand hours with which to write this blog post, so let's just think about three.
Process. The structure of playing an RPG has the character I described above. One sits down with friends. What shall we play? D&D. A decision is made that restricts potentialities (we will not be playing SF, or contemporary horror, or a detective game). What do we do then? Create PCs. The creation of PCs results in picking options which impose further limits (I will be a fighter, as opposed to a magic-user or cleric; I will arm myself with a bow, as opposed to a spear or sword). The game begins. The PCs are in a tavern (not in a public baths or a castle, not on a beach or underwater). They hear about places to adventure. They pick one (and not the others). They go there. They enter a dungeon. They go left instead of right or straight on. And so on. Put in a very abstract way, the process of playing an RPG is an iterative one in which many possibilities present themselves, but which necessarily close off a great many more others, and in which that model repeats itself indefinitely.
Dice. The very act of rolling dice is one of closure, but which in doing so produces consequences and hence creative flow. My PC confronts a violent orc. He decides to try to hit it with his sword (not talk to it, not kiss it, not eat it, not throw dust in its eyes, etc.). He could hit, he could miss. The dice closes off one option and tells us it's the other. It restricts possibilities to one. And then that thing happens, and we follow the results. Narrative emerges. Creation happens.
Genre. What's our next campaign going to be, guys? Purple space baboons trade in shellfish on the moons of Neptune? Moles hunt earthworms? Demons made from flowers invade from floral hell? We could play anything. We are paralysed by indecision because, given the infinity of choice available, we will spend the rest of our lives merely listing the possibilities. Or: we can pick a genre, which contains its own constraints of both form and content, and which hence brutally limits us, but in such a way that the actual creative act - the game - can happen at all. We are playing high fantasy, not purple space baboons or moles underground or flower demons from hell. We must have orcs and dragons, swords and spell-books. But now the potential inherent in the sitting-down-to-play-a-game has a fighting chance of being actualised rather than lost in an endless array of never-to-be-realised possibilities.