Role-playing games are not defined by the technology that comprises them (necessarily): the key aspects that distinguish role-playing games from other types of games are collaborative storytelling.
In my daily travels on the Internets recently, I (for whatever reason I cannot remember), stumbled upon the Discussion page for the Wikipedia article Role-Playing Game, which is appropriately about “tabletop” role-playing games, as in D&D and its many bastard children (and let’s not forget its estranged cousin, the LARP).
Little did I realize the epic battle unfolding there. At this very moment, very irascible Wikipedians (who are, for all we know, only tangentially human) vie for control over the very meaning of the role-playing game. I am obviously new to the debate, and as someone who only extremely rarely contributes to Wikipedia, many of the intricacies, like the almost Biblical citations of Wikipedia policy, are beyond me. But one thing is certain: what’s at stake is the literacy of countless future generations of cheating high school students who are too lazy to do real research. Let me explain. If the proposal that’s on the table over at Wikipedia’s “Role-Playing Game” article is ratified by its learned board of Wikipedians, then our children will never know the true meaning of role-playing. And you do remember what happened to Christmas, right?
Here’s the rub: The current article about role-playing games (conservatively) defines the game as “a game in which the participants assume the roles of fictional characters. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game.”Thus the article is mostly about what we have called in retrospect, the “tabletop” role-playing game. But some Wikipedians—perhaps rabid video gamers, or perhaps epistemological philosophers—argue that the term “role-playing game” refers to all games entitled RPGs, including the genre of video games called RPGs.
It certainly seems like a convincing argument on the surface, doesn’t it? Give Final Fantasy diehards a break, let them through the floodgates of RPG-dom and out of the lowly subcategory that is “role-playing” within the video game world. Complains the RPG video gamer: Don’t we gamers “assume the roles of fictional characters” in our RPGs? Don’t we gamers “determine the actions of their characters” and “succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines” when we play video game RPGs?
First of all, a bit of history. Our Wikipedian vanguard of all things truly RPG—who goes by the handle “Percy Snoodle” —has tirelessly defended this issue, and so I cite his excellent explanation of the origins of the role-playing game:
Role-playing games in the modern sense came into being because [Gary] Gygax wanted to make a better wargame. In the resulting games, he and [Dave] Arneson found that players were developing characterization for their pieces. They called this “role-playing” and released a game, D&D, which provided a wargame-based framework around which players could role-play. Video games were produced which mimicked the wargame-based framework; these came to be known within video gaming as role-playing games, and the activity of playing them came to be known within video gaming as role-playing. Meanwhile, the role-playing game industry gradually abandoned the wargame-based framework and emphasized the characterization aspect. So the meaning used within video gaming came to be less and less associated with the meaning used outside it.
History tells us that “role-playing” games, as a type of game, evolved from tabletop wargames (also known as miniature games, for the uninitiated). Though many Wikipedians refuse to admit to it, what Gygax and Arneson added to the wargame element was not just characterization but ultimately live-action (not to be confused with the “live-action” of LARP), collaborative storytelling, a fundamental aspect of role-playing as we know it. These appellations “tabletop” and “pen and paper” may be retronyms assigned to role-playing games for convenience’s sake, but they do not broaden the meaning of “role-playing” to include “piloting a virtual avatar through a preexisting story by oneself.” What we really have are two types of games, each with its own hierarchy of genres. The video game industry uses the term “role-playing game” to mean this genre of video game, whereas the arm of the publishing industry that publishes “role-playing games” (primarily the companies Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf) uses the term to mean a specific genre of books as distinguished from other genres of gaming books. Video games that feature a lot of storytelling, one or more persistent main characters that you can control, and a branching tree of outcomes that result from actions you may take as a player (whether in dialog or in play) resemble role-playing games proper, and so the video game industry dubbed this genre of video game “role-playing,” even though no actual role-playing is taking place.
Let me repeat that: No actual role-playing takes place in video game RPGs. This isn’t a slight against video gamers, or a matter of semantics: When you pick up a controller or a keyboard and pilot your avatar in video game RPGs, you are doing just that, piloting them. Sure, you might get into it, be emotionally affected or inspired by the story contained within the game, but you can’t add your own characterization or storytelling to the game, because both aspects of the game have been pre-programmed (and this includes random, generative functions and/or algorithms within the software). You are forced to choose between preexisting characterizations or possible story outcomes, so it cannot be argued that you are contributing anything to the storytelling process that exists within the video game.
This is not true of MMORPGs, text-based chat engines, and certain multi-player games of course. It makes sense to mention these types of games as video games that facilitate role-playing because they are a form of technology that allows for role-playing at a distance. We have to remember that role-playing games are not defined by the technology that comprises them (necessarily): the key aspects that distinguish role-playing games from other types of games are collaborative storytelling, characterization of roles, and adherence to a formal rules system to simulate reality (whether fantastic or not). The technology you use to generate that formal rules system is irrelevant if you can accomplish the other two aspects that define the game. Therefore, the virtual environment in the MMORPG enables human players to characterize avatars and tell stories in the same way that traditional role-playing games do, even though the limitations of the software pose limitations on the execution of the players’ imagination in the storytelling process. In the future, I think we will see MMORPGs specifically designed to facilitate characterization and collaborative storytelling better, so this may only be a fleeting issue.
The genre of video games called “RPGs” are not role-playing games because they are exactly that: a genre of video game. Making video game RPGs a type of role-playing game in an encyclopedia is akin to listing “video game tennis” as a type of tennis in a sports catalog. What’s at stake here isn’t a contention between elitist tabletop gamers and disenfranchised video gamers, it’s really a matter of classifying things correctly. Thus, what the Wikipedia articles on the subject contain are appropriate: A “role-playing game” is a “game in which the participants assume the roles of fictional characters and determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization.” This article exists at the top of the hierarchy of that type of “game,” in the same way that “video game” exists at the top of its hierarchy, as “an electronic game that involves interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device.” What follows, logically, is that “role playing video games” are a subset of the video game, that “form a loosely defined genre of computer and video games with origins in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons.”
So Wikipedians, what’s the fuss? Let espers be espers, and orcs, orcs.