Ruminations on Role-Play: Part 1 -- Raison D'être

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Hi all; Andrew here! Let’s talk a bit about role-playing and the role (pun regrettable) it plays in various games.

I’m no stranger to role-play and, as you might already be aware, neither is Lucas -- aka the Dungeon Master. Seriously, he makes me call him that all the time.

I was more-or-less raised as an only child (my sister is ten years my senior); so, while I might not understand how that whole “sharing thing” works, I do understand how to kick my imagination into overdrive and role-play. I used to spend my summer days playing out elaborate Star Wars expanded universe plotlines or recreating one of Snake’s sneaking missions in the woods behind my East Texas home - mostly by myself. Now before you start thinking “how depressing is that,” don’t bother because it was awesome.

Role-playing is great, and in many ways, it is a game in-and-of itself. At its most basic, you are challenging yourself to step outside of your own personality and instead operate on a false set of memories, ambitions, fears and facts. Often it gets more complicated as you know something(s) your character doesn’t. Now you’re playing chess with yourself. Who’s the sad-sack now -- me again? Oh.

Role-play enhances and improves imaginative play -- it stimulates the parts of our mind most engaged by fantasy, so it would make sense for games to encourage or down-right require role-play, right? What exactly is the nature of role-play in the games we play?

Let’s first consider some games where role-play seems to be inappropriate or superfluous: Tetris, Team Fortress 2, Gran Turismo; Super Hexagon, Street Fighter, StarCraft.

These games are largely competitive in nature -- games in which you compete against a system, or against another person for mastery over that system. But, in many of these games you definitely do assume a role: in StarCraft you take on the role of a military commander; in Gran Turismo you’re an ace racing driver; in Team Fortress 2 you’re one of several mercenaries -- each with their own personality, history and style. The amount of attention given by the games' creators to fleshing out and enhancing these personas is highly variable and sometimes non-existent, but when competitive games like TF2, which few would associate with role-play, have highly sophisticated role-play elements (including the world's most successful dress up minigame: The Hat Economy) the entire concept of role-play in games bears closer examination.

I doubt I need to tell you that Dungeons and Dragons had a huge influence on the development of practically all videogame genres. Dungeons and Dragons was a fusion between miniature wargaming and childhood fantasy games. By moving the player away from controlling multiple military units and instead placing them in control of a single character and their story, the focus shifted away from tactics and toward exploration and storytelling.

The reason for this shift is simple: role-play can give the player context with which to understand the world, story, rules and mechanics they are expected to operate within. Stepping into a role, career or life that is not our own is the very cornerstone of many of the games we play as children. It should come as no surprise then that sociologists tell us that children play these games to socialize themselves -- to understand the world through which they will soon be expected to navigate. The end result, as far as the gameplay is concerned, is the same: the players enjoy a more "natural" feeling experience -- a more realistic game, with less disconnect and dissonance. Now remember that, because it's going to be important later on.

Because of the narrative focus of Dungeons and Dragons' role-play mechanics, and D&D's indelible mark upon contemporary gaming, we tend to conflate role-play and storytelling, or assume that role-play's mechanical purpose and execution are always narrative. Role-play can be purely descriptive -- as in a game of cops and robbers; the game neither requires nor definitively benefits from the player's having elaborate backstories. In such a game, the purpose of role-play is situational and instigating: you and the other players are expected to perform your roles according to rules and customs to which you already understand. The execution is mechanical: the player's efforts are focused on correctly understanding, interpreting and following the implicit rule-set for their role (in this case, chase or be chased). In the case of a different cop, say, a 2nd edition Paladin, the rules are more complex, but the principle remains the same.

You might not boot up TF2 and log into a server to continue the epic tale of the red Scout, but how well you channel the personality of the scout -- how well you can carry the role -- is actually an accurate benchmark of skill and success. Since the character classes (the conflation of those two terms is significant, I think) in TF2 are highly stylized caricatures, easily and instantly identifiable by silhouette, sound and movement, the very act of playing becomes role-playing as your actions are largely restricted to acceptable, in-character action. Your taunts fit your character's defined personality, as do your weapons, emotes, and dress.

Watch the above section of Team Fortress 2's developer commentary which, I might add, is incredible and should be viewed in its entirety by anyone interested in game or spatial design. Note how the descriptive, cultural and narrative elements of each class manifest themselves in the game's design, aesthetic and mechanics.

So, while it’s true that at its furthest extensis role-play is a form of improvisational storytelling, the different kinds of role-play present in Street Fighter and Team Fortress 2; Starcraft and Gran Turismo; or Cops and Robbers are all equally valid. The ways role-play manifests in games varies according to game-specific mechanics and goals, but the fundamental principle, as well as the meta-purpose (to create more natural and meaningful play) remain the same. That fundamental principle looks something like this:

  • Correctly formulate, intuit and follow rules in keeping with the role being played.

If this core principle holds true, and I believe it does, then we can see that role-play, by necessity, creates systems. This fact is incredibly significant for several reasons and is something that I will address more in my next post.

- Andrew