Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hijacking Role Playing Games

You know all you have to do these days is do a quick internet search for role playing games to discover that someone has hijacked our name. Role playing games used to refer to one main thing: pen and paper role playing games. Yeah we had the occasional question of about performing some weird psychological technique--"roleplaying". But generally you said to played role playing games and most people knew what you were talking about. And psychology and self help gurus generally made it clear they were NOT playing a game. And they coined their therapeutic activities role playing, in professionally serious tones. But we played role playing games.

Now a days you mention role playing and the only thing people can think of is computer games--which are most decidedly not roleplaying games. I don;t care how "roleplay-like" they get, in short of a holodeck, you won't be roleplaying. And even then you will be doing live action role playing. LARPers are very careful to distinguish what they do from actual roleplaying games. And rightfully so. Their game may have taken its inspiration from historical reenactment and roleplaying games, they will assuredly tell you what they do is not role playing games per se.

Not so with video gamers. Even the term gamers bothers me some. We were called Gamers when I was growing up and that meant role playing gamers--not video gamers. Of course, that is a pretty broad term--gamers--so I'm willing to let that one go. I mean even gamblers were often called gamers. But role playing game is a very specific term with specific connotation--I don;t think vid gamers should be allowed to usurp out terminology.

So what distinction am I making? And why is AD&D an RPG and WoW is not? First and foremost--human interaction. Maximal human interaction would be experienced in a LARP. As all the actions you assume in your role as acted out in every sense. What you do--in every sense--is what your character does. Somewhat less than that along the spectrum of human interaction would be the more intellectual past time of role playing games. I like the explanation currently found on Wikipedia's site under Role Playing Games to explain this: "Most role-playing games are conducted like radio drama." This means what you say is what your player does. You are still very much imaginatively and intellectually involved in your chosen role. And your actions are dictated by the responses of those around you; their spoken actions, their demeanor, their facial expression etc. etc. Last on the spectrum would be the minimal amount of human interaction in video games. Now the action is no longer creative or imaginative. Even when it allows some version of texting or posting or pming. The computer mediates any action--your only real contact in the game wit others is that texting or coordinated strategy on screen.

Now you might say, well, it's still role playing; but I'm not finished yet. Secondly, I claim that video games are much more strategy oriented. Now there are aspects of role playing games that are strategy game related, especially if you use minis in any quantity. But it is generally centered around role play. Video games are basically strategy games. This is because the action is played out on a screen according to certain rules. Yes RPG's have rules too, but the action is usually played out in your head. Now, I'm not saying that RPG's don't involve strategy in the purest sense, they do of course--everything does. That doesn't mean we call everything a strategy game. Using strategy within a game does not make it a strategy game. I'm calling strict strategy games like Age of Empires and their ilk have more in common with WoW than actual RPG's. If I had to say why I would say this is because of the computer element. Now, some might say that Zork-like games such as Mist and its offspring are a different breed. And I would say so. But those are puzzle games first and RPG's second.

Thirdly we have sheer mechanics. You could argue this some, but its a fact. RPG's and Video Games are obviously different. One uses paper & pencil, dice occasionally minis and a large volume of printed material. While the other uses a computer, and occasionally a small amount of printed instructions. That's why D&D online is NOT a role playing game either.

Lastly, we come to the most controversial point, and I suppose a somewhat subjective evaluation. I don;t think video games, no matter the type involve much rolepaying. Yes they do involve roleplying, but not much. I don't even think a game like Sims does. Yes, you choose a character a profession, attributes, physical appearance and whatnot. But where's the roleplaying? If it is there it occurs strictly in the minds of the players. You are not actually playing the role. Of course is it a form of roleplaying? Yes, I won;t absolutely deny that, but I think it is more like a strategy game that involves some roleplaying. The roleplaying is minimized and therefore should be minimized in its title. Not emphasized as it currently is.

Now, before I get all flamed for this, allow me to clarify. Yes, some people really get into their simulated characters. They may even communicate with other sims in character. But the game is based around what is going on in the game and the associated strategies included in the character and based less on actually assuming a character's mindset. It is a lot like playing a chess piece that has ingrained within it a certain set of powers and weaknesses. Those are used as you would play a chess piece--strategically. On the other hand a true role playing game is more about the role and personality of the player and his personal confrontation with difficulty and less about his abilities.

Some will surely point out that RPG's build in abilities, strengths and weaknesses in their characters as well. And yes they do, but the actual act of playing the game should not be so much about powers possessed, but a role played accurately, creatively and well. This is the exact reason why WoTC and D&D 4e has moved away from role playing in my opinion.

So, what should be done? I don't have a problem with vid games using the term role playing in the descriptor of their activity. For it does touch on roleplaying. But so do LARPS. Don't refer to your past time as role playing games. Refer to what you do as video game roleplaying or something like VGRP's. Why should you do this? To distinguish what you do from what others are doing, and to facilitate the use of the term.

I suppose this is a matter of semantics, but semantics are the foundation of our ability to communicate and reason. When terms become confused reason and language become confused, and frankly that bugs me. And I'm sick and tired of not be able to do a simple search for RPGs without wading through a thousand pages of video games info.

There. Rant number two finished ... for now.

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