Escaping the Digital Dragon: The Resurgence of the Table-Top Role-Playing Game in the Era of the "Haptic" Digital Image

Patrick Brown (Dortmund University of Technology / University of Iowa)

In this presentation, I look at the re-emergence of the table-top role-playing game (TTRPG) as a popular diversion in the US staring in the mid-2010s, rooting its appeal in the sense of touch it provides players, and contextualizing this appeal amid the disappointing haptic technologies introduced by the major video game companies in the same decade. For the generation of Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s, digital games have been the predominant form of popular media for their entire lives. And yet, since Wizards of the Coast published the core rulebooks for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5E) in 2014, the cottage industry of TTRPGs has undergone an expansion unseen since that original 1980s craze. Factors in the game's return to prominence include the rising cult popularity of complex "Euro-style" gaming, as well as the distribution of "actual play" podcasts like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone that have served as de-facto new media marketing for Wizards of the Coast's product.

Here, I take a more media-theoretical perspective to posit another root appeal of D&D 5E and other TTRPGS. Like adventure video games, they are robust simulations, but simulations whose interfaces offer a conscious, haptic point of contact not with the "front end" of audiovisual output, but with the algorithm of the game itself. In other words, the mechanic of dice rolls as the primary form of user input makes the user a participant in the game-system's algorithmic processing—an aspect of gaming that, at the interface with a console or a computer, constitutes merely the substrate of the user's experience, the back-end calculations that require from the user a black-boxed push of the button. Unlike many other TTRPGs, the player of D&D 5E continues to use a standard set of 10 dice to determine the outcomes of combat, verbal interactions, spellcasting, crafting, traveling, scavenging, and just about any other feasible virtual activity. While other games, particularly digital games, intentionally denude the "interface effect," games like D&D find success by emphasizing the player’s haptic point of contact with the virtual world.

That the renaissance of TTRPGs begins around the same moment that Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony pivot away from motion-control technologies for their consoles presents less a causal relation and more an illustrative coincidence. In an era of ubiquitous computing, in which the user of digital media is subject to the invisible, intensified temporality of automated calculations that occur below their perceptual threshold, TTRPGs can be seen as returning processing to the subject's purview through the haptics of the dice. Nevertheless, the digital repressed soon returned: over the last few years, a host of new platforms for playing such pen-and-paper games digitally have emerged, with their use only expanding during the global COVID-19 pandemic. I conclude by discussing this remediation of table-top games as computer games, which attests to how rapidly digital culture absorbs even aspects of culture that seem to have formed in opposition to it.

Biting Birds to Digital Digits: Presentation and Representation of Haptic Experiences in the Visual Arts

Thomas Moser (Vienna University of Technology)

Judging by their very name, the "visual arts" seem to have little to no love for the sense of touch. Art theory and aesthetics have established this oculocentrism according to the epistemic primacy of the remote senses (seeing for art and hearing for music). A closer examination of artistic practice, however, reveals a multifaceted engagement with the human faculty of touch. Hence, the aim of my contribution is to provide a panoramic overview of the ways in which experiences of touch have been artistically explored since early modern times.

Beginning with Caravaggio's Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601/02) and allegorical accounts of the five senses, a clear shift can be identified, especially around the change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century: since then, the representative depiction of haptic sensations has been superseded by the artistic endeavor to evoke such experiences in the beholders themselves. Alongside art nouveau, which emphasized haptics, Marinetti's Futurist manifesto Il Tattilismo (1921) and Marcel Duchamp's work Prière de Toucher (1947) clearly indicate this shift. There, touch was no longer merely pictorially shown, but the hands-on contact between the viewer and the object was creatively explored and elevated to a constitutive part of the artwork. More recently, these tendencies have thrived in digital art, experienced, for example, as augmented or virtual reality with the help of haptically operated interfaces. It is therefore no coincidence that the media philosopher Shirin Weigelt just declared tactility a key paradigm of the digital world. Today, more and more contemporary artists stage the awareness that the supposedly body-abstinent digits of the digital world indeed also maintain a sensual relationship with our fingers—presenting haptic experiences rather than representing them.

Into the Universe of Digital Media: From Klick to Swipe

Shirin Weigelt (University of Weimar)

Everywhere and nowhere, that seems to be the place of the digital. As an abstract sphere of zero and one, consisting of ethereal data streams, clouds and bubbles, the media dispositive of our time appears immaterial and incorporeal. Yet digital devices, gadgets and interfaces surround us omnipresently. Sensory highly upgraded algorithms get close to our bodies and under our skin—or even deeper. The talk is dedicated to the materiality and sensuality of digital media, which can also be exemplified by the development from the keyboard to the touchscreen, as it assumes a philosophical perspective on the tactile qualities of the digital.

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