Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The meaning of role-playing

I was reading the news about the American Association for the Advancement of Science datamining a huge pile of information about MMO players in the form of complete EQ2 server logs. Yes, every inappropriate remark you ever made in chat is now being studied by science! But apart from that privacy issue, one specific result of that research peaked my interest. Quote:
“a small subset of the population—about five percent—who used the game for serious role playing and, according to Williams, “They are psychologically much worse off than the regular players.” They belong to marginalized groups, like ethnic and religious minorities and non-heterosexuals, and tended to use the game as a coping mechanism.”
Wow! It's one thing if somebody in Barrens chat says "roleplayers are gay". But from the American Association for the Advancement of Science I would have liked to see a bit more serious research. Or at least more careful wording. So lets have a look at role-playing in the context of MMORPGs. What does that "RP" in the middle of that long acronym really mean?

The first thing we need to do is to go back in history. To 1974 when a company called Tactical Studies Rules published their second game, called Dungeons & Dragons. As the name of the company suggests, Dungeons & Dragons, like TSR's first game, was planned to be a miniature wargame. With one innovative twist, that the players were controlling a single character, not whole squads or armies.

Now miniature wargaming was a serious hobby. If you were neighing like a horse when advancing your cavalry, people would look at you strangely. And early "fantasy role-playing", as Dungeons & Dragons came to be called, continued in the same vein. Players *controlled* a single character, who just like in a miniature wargame was defined by his stats, so that the success and effect of his actions could be determined by dice. I played a lot of the early modules of D&D and AD&D, and they were relatively simple affairs, with very thin plots and a distinctive lack of logic. "You open the door to a 10' x 10' room in which there are 12 orcs. The orcs attack. What do you do?" Nobody ever worried what the orcs were doing in that dungeon room, or why there were so many of them in such a small room with no furniture. Probably they couldn't get out, because the corridors before and after the room were lined with deadly traps and improbably monsters. :)

A lot of people continue to play role-playing games like that: Rarely, if ever, speaking in character, with the game being more about minmaxing your character through his adventures, to make him stronger. Even as pen & paper modules evolved to be more story-driven, more logical, for a large number of players "role-playing" was equivalent to "character development". But some people moved further into theatrics. They insisted on speaking in character all the time, imagined background stories for their characters, and tried to play them in a way which made them interesting, not necessarily optimal for advancement. Some people even started live action role-playing, running through the woods wearing plastic chainmail and wielding rubber swords. That didn't exactly help the image of role-playing games, which were already regarded with suspicion by some parents, and condemned by some nutters as being equivalent to devil worship. Meanwhile the average "role player" was just hanging out with friends, rolling dice, and eating a lot of junk food, trying to get his character to the next level, with very few theatrics involved.

And then computer role-playing games appeared, starting with ASCII-graphics games like Rogue, followed by great classics like the Ultima or Wizardry series, later followed by the Gold Box series using Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. And these games were mostly single-player games. They were called role-playing games, but there certainly weren't any theatrics or in character speaking Elizabethean English involved. You simply directed one or several characters through dungeons or other adventures, to gather experience points and levels. Role-playing meant character development. Even nowadays, if you read a review of a strategy game in which you keep your units from one chapter to the next and improve its stats, the reviewer will say the game has "role-playing elements".

And that approach to role-playing hasn't changed much, even when massively multiplayer online role-playing games appeared. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science remarks, 95% of players of MMORPGs consider role-playing to mean playing a character with a defined set of stats and abilities. The "role" is for example being a shaman in WoW, but "playing" that shaman doesn't mean you need to start chanting into voice chat or perform a rain dance in front of your computer. "Playing" a shaman means having certain stats and abilities, like all those totems, and using them to maximize the utility of your character, so you gain experience points, levels, and gear.

The 5% minority of people who think that role-playing means theatrics, background stories, and speaking in character, did achieve one important victory in insisting that their activity was called "role-playing", and was the only true way of role-playing. They even got their own "role-playing servers" in some games. Unfortunately for them, their triumph ends there. Many people still regard them as weirdos or at least geeks, and those scientists attesting to their "psychological problems" aren't helping. But in reality most of the self-styled true role-players are pretty normal, and just enjoy the added creativity. It isn't much different from people doing improvisational theatre, and few people think those have psychological problems (except those who think that all artists are weird).

So there you have it, the problem is simply a badly defined term. "Role-playing" means different things to different people, and there is no one true definition, as much as some people might disagree with that. In computer game terms it is more often used to simply mean a game with character development. That doesn't mean that people who enjoy playing in character on a role-playing server have any less right to do so. There are a lot of different valid ways to play a MMORPG, and this is just one of them.

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