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The Importance of Role-Playing in Non Role-Playing Games
by Dylan Woodbury on 10/14/10 09:37:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Written by Dylan Woodbury at http://dtwgames.com/design_articles/dynamicofroleplay.html. Part of http://dtwgames.com. Please go there!!! We have tons of great articles focusing on game design.

There is an entire side to games that some designers don’t even set out to create, but it’s a major part of video games – role-playing. Yes, the same aspect of Dungeons and Dragons is alive and well in games like Call of Duty. This may not be a complete shock to you, but what might be a surprise to you is how important the aspect is in games.


Role-playing, for those who don’t know, is when someone takes on the role of something else. In video games, you are taking on the role of the character in the game. In books, you become the one going on the journey to destroy the ring and save middle earth. When you close your door, blast your music, and play air guitar while mouthing the words to your favorite song, you are pretending to be the singer of the rock band. This becomes a game in itself – everyone remembers playing house or cops and robbers in kindergarten. It is the same principle.


A lot of what contributes to it is immersion. If you are very immersed in the world around you, the story unfolding before you, you will want to be the protagonist, and will become him/her. The role-playing, through the story, adds extra weight to the game. Your actions have meaning. It becomes a game dynamic, influencing your actions.


Think about a game in which you were not immersed in. You need to rescue the princess to beat the game – to win. Now a game in which you were immersed. You need to rescue the princess. Period. That is all you need to know. You are the protagonist, and his/her agenda becomes yours. Many of the greatest video games include this game dynamic. In Call of Duty, you are the man crouched down in the snow. When you role-play, the game becomes more fun, because the game becomes more than just a game. You feel tense, hoping to avoid capture. When you are running away from bullets, you are cursing under your breath. This happens when you do not role-play, but when you are role-playing, you are cursing because you are about to die. When you do not role play, you curse because your character is about to die (a pawn in your game).


Even after putting the controller down, you can walk away, still role-playing, coming to a corner and peering your head over, trying to get a glimpse of the other side for any guards. It is a strange phenomenon, humans and pretend, and it is one of the most powerful game dynamics (and one of the most difficult to control). And the game does not even have to be an RPG to inspire role-playing. One of my favorite games that instantly causes me to role-play (it is neither an RPG nor is it in first person) is GTA: San Andreas. I would spend hours in a row, invested in the life of a gangster, doing jobs, making money, participating in drive-bys – all things frowned upon in real life, but perfectly fine in imaginary worlds.


Most games (with the exclusion of some simulation/puzzle/etc. games) involve some degree of role-play in the mind of the player, but the ones that hit this very well always become instant classics. In fact, I believe this is the actual major reason as to why certain genres are popular/unpopular today. Adventure games have dwindled in success, drowned by the profits of action games. Adventure games tend to naturally oppose role-playing. The game tends to be you versus the game – you must use commands and the correct combination of items to solve strangely elaborate, frustratingly unobvious puzzles. I am not shooting down the genre (I love the genre), but I feel that these games cannot offer the dynamic even close to as well as action games. In action games, it is you versus the enemies. Challenges are more obvious and definitely less subtle (bad guys running at you with machine guns). It is also way easier to put yourself in the character’s shoes, especially in terms of controls and how you solve challenges.


However, some action games like platformers and fighters do not offer as much role-play as others. Platformers, like adventure games, are also more of you versus the game (retrying the same strip of level over and over until you get it right), and fighting games are more of you trying to hit certain strings of buttons and get the timing right. But, wait, these games are still awesome? Yes they are – Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the best games of the year, and Street Fighter 4 is still being played by millions. I am in no way putting down any genre of gaming.

Having said that, I think that if these genres could better incorporate the dynamic of role-play, they could reach a higher potential. The Fight Night franchise took fighting games and matched them with more of a role-playing element – you are the fighter (the game was really fun too).
What my theory does not explain well yet is the massive wave of social networking games like Farmville. When you play Farmville, you do not pretend you are an actual farmer (at least normal people don’t do that). So why are these social/simulation games so hot? Well, they feature a completely different set of game dynamics involving social aspects to affect the player (however, role-play could match very well with the social network).


So, tying things up, I think the video game has a major push towards role-play in games, and I think it has been for a long time. In the old NES days, with old-school graphics, players could role-play very easily – Metroid comes to mind. As most players got their first taste of role-play in video games, the dynamic became a type of drug – one that the audience would demand more and more of as games would progress.


But think even farther back to the age of the text adventure – the playable book. Role-play and imagination was at an all-time high – allowing you to progress through the story in a believable way, painting the picture and filling the blanks in your own mind.


This adventure type gameplay continued on its evolution through video games, from Zork to Monkey Island to Myst. But, as action type gameplay developed and better kept the gamer involved within the game, adventure games began to phase out (the challenges broke up any immersion – in fact, the puzzles actually pushed the gamer out of the game). So what are we left with? A market dominated by the new age of Dungeons and Dragons games. The spirit of Dungeons and Dragons is within FPS’s, MMO’s, and RPG’s. These games are becoming the face of the industry. Bottom line – people like to pretend.


So, what do I want you to take away from this article? That all games need to include role-play to be good? NO! 

Adventure games are fun in their own, mind-wrenching way. I am only trying to explain their sudden plummet in the game industry. For some reason, whether it is in our nature or a result of our times, gamers want to role-play; the challenges and ways you solve them are not the only way people have fun playing games, and we are beginning to realize this more and more. This fact became clear to me back when Half Life 2 came out. The whole story, immersion, and world sucked me in, and I wanted to be Gordan Freeman, but couldn't. So I pretended, and the game was way more fun. In fact, I think it was this aspect that made it not only a great game, but a legendary peak in the history of games.


I want you to leave with the realization that game dynamics are extremely powerful, and that they should be taken into account before even the challenges are thought of. Can we do anything to make the game anymore immersive, to allow the player to role-play? Can we include something that makes the gamer want to complete these tasks?


I also want you to realize that imagination is very important in games. You may want to consider easing back a little on the details, to let the player fill in the blanks. Because if a player cannot stop thinking about being a space warrior, he/she is finally going to give in and play Halo some more. And that is the sign of a truly great game – when you can’t stop playing after it is already off.

Originally posted at http://dtwgames.com. Go there for loads of great game design articles covering everything you can imagine. Go now!!!


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Comments


Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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You point the arrow at the same thing that's been bugging me too (I've written some posts on this issue too).



A recent example of this phenomenon is Mafia 2. I brought up the willingness to accept its game world as real, and actively made myself pretend that I'm a mafioso. When driving I'd put on the speed limiter, change the camera to the first person view and obey the rules. It takes a whole lot longer to get to your destination, but it IS enjoyable. Driving around a fictional american city of the 50s, looking at the people walking by, the police fining some guy around the corner and the next job on my mind. It is a very powerful "skill" for a player to be able to actively pretend and create immersion by oneself.



Thank you for writing this article, it inspired me to write my own on the topic!

Dylan Woodbury
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Oh, yes, great example (Mafia 2). I also read your article - very interesting. Some don't realize just how important immersion is in a game - the most immersive games tend to be my favorites.

Jonathan Lawn
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I've been meaning to read this for a week, but have only just got round to it, only to find that I've blogged (in the last week) on a very similar topic, and Mafia 2 in particular: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JonathanLawn/20110319/7265/Buildin
g_immersion_in_openworld_games.php

Tadhg Kelly
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I think you are confusing projection (I get to be a soldier, farmer, person that turns invisible blocks, whatever) that is the pulling of a player into a game world with roleplaying.



Roleplaying is acting, as in taking on the personality of someone else. Videogame players do not do this. What they do is essentially control a digital doll and project their own identity and senses through that conduit, and interpret what happens to that doll physically in their own bodies (such as instinctively physically ducking when someone shoots at you in Call of Duty, or tilting/banking the joypad in WipeOut).



You are also incorrect in your assessment of fiction as a roleplaying experience. A reader does not become Frodo or Aragorn when reading their story. Instead what they experience is *empathy*. They are different.



When you see that games are essentially allowing players to project their own fantasies and their identities rather than subverting them, then Farmville makes total sense. Being a farmer in charge of your own creative garden is a very relaxing fantasy for many people, and that's why they play.

Dylan Woodbury
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Ahh, I'm going to have to disagree with you on this point. I think there is more than empathy when playing a video game. I think you feel empathy when the role-playing dynamic is a little on the weak side. When it is strong, you pretend to become the character. Some strong ones for me include Half Life 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. You may not act, but you think as though you are the character. Your actions have meaning (they are your actions, after all). While the formal definition for role-playing includes a physical acting, I think video games target mental acting.



I also do not think that players always project their own fantasies. For example, when you play Farmville, the farming aspect of it goes out the window - it becomes irrelevent - for most players, especially after playing a lot. The fact that you are farming never crosses your mind. You just need to click the button to harvest the crops - the game is far too abstract to allow for what you mention. Also, its very obvious mechanics (not natural) constantly remind you that this is just a game. Same thing with adventure games.



Do you agree with my point that players can role-play while playing video games by themself? (role-playing does not necessarily mean physically acting - the character's mindset is important to consider)

Tadhg Kelly
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"When it is strong, you pretend to become the character."



Yeah, this is what I'm saying is wrong. That's what happens in tabletop roleplaying games (sometimes). In videogames, players remain themselves.

Dylan Woodbury
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Still, you act in your mind. Some games can be so appealing and so great, that the player thinks as if he/she is the character. I guess you have never had this experience before. It is definitely more than empathy - when I played Half Life 2 for the first time, I didn't just play for Gordon to win. I actually would run around, pretending I was Gordon. During cutscenes, I would act as though I really was Gordon. When playing catch with Dog, I caught myself smiling. During conversations, I would actually stand with the others, not run around, jumping and laughing when the NPCs would not respond. I was tempted to test it out, but I just never could - it was more fun acting the part.



In fact, roleplaying was what made the Half Life 2 story work so well. If nobody cared, nobody would have bothered playing out the story.



Even games that don't design for the players to role-play allow role-playing. Sometimes, if everything is near-perfect - the player cares about the characters, story, world, and is having a blast, or maybe just experiencing something appealing in contrast to his/her real world - the player will role-play, maybe in the game and maybe in the head.



Sometimes, the player will talk to the other players in their head. Sometimes he'll/she'll act tough, lowering the eyebrows, having tough thoughts, etc. I'm sure many people will read this and instantly associate it with an experience they had when they were playing a game.

Tadhg Kelly
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...In fact, roleplaying was what made the Half Life 2 story work so well. If nobody cared, nobody would have bothered playing out the story....



And a great many players don't complete games.



What that tells us is that there is a lot of fun to be had in games from the fantasy of being somewhere else, but most players aren't in it to act. I think it is not the power of games themselves that brings out that acting tendency but is simply something that a few players imagine they are doing of their own volition.



The same sort of instinct to act has existed in many virtual worlds down through the years. It is the foundation of the Second Life business model more or less to become someone else. It is not, however, a majority behaviour.



The majority behaviour is closer to that of a player piloting a remote controlled car. They act, feel and interpret through the lens of the vehicle, but their impulses and personality are largely their own. The supposed dramatic relationship is not inherently coming through from the experience, it's just something that a very few players on their own.

Nilson Carroll
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Tetris but with space opera narrative and turn based rpg battles. Who's making this right now?

Aaron Truehitt
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In response to the posts above, I think it very well may be a mixture of empathy and roleplaying. Let's use Mafia 2 as an example. I did indeed have empathy for the character because the world felt alive because of traffic violations, people talking on the street and other small things, music of the times, and other small things. So, you wanted to act a certain way because of the character because you may have felt for him/her and their situation, so you act accordingly. Kinda like as a kid you pretending to be Super Man...When I play Zelda, I pretend to be Link and try to think what he would do in a certain situation. Does this make sense? Haha.

Dylan Woodbury
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Yeah, you're Zelda experience is right on. And there are lots of ways one pretends when they play.



And you definitely can have empathy for the character, but I think when you pretend to be the character, by acting a certain way, you have moved up a step on the ladder, from empathy to role-play.

Victor Gont
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I find myself agreeing with Tadhg Kelly on this one. The thing you mention throughout the article (which is very good btw) is not role-play but projection. To use an already given example, in the Mafia 2 scene you would not obey the rules, watch people on the street or think about the job, but would do what an established and given character ( a 1950's mafioso) would do.



I have yet to play the game, but I will go on a stretch and assume that the character is a pretty ruthless upstart that wouldn't shy away from killing an obviously innocent man if he was supposed to. Confronted with a choice like that, in the roleplay situation you (the player) will kill the target without thinking twice (hey, that's what the man does for a living). In the projection of personality on the avatar case, considering full 'immersion' or involvement you would not (well, I hope you wouldn't).



Hope I made any sense and the example isn't too far-fetched.

Dylan Woodbury
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But you do kill the man, which, in your example, would mean you are roleplaying. That's why most games with a very immersive and appealing world that make me role-play do not offer morality choices, as it brings reality into the mix (and the morality systems we see in games are pretty primitive to say the least). In Half Life 2, you do not second guess your actions - you are fighting really bad guys, and trying to save everyone else. That is why, in the beginning, they show just how bad civil protection is - raiding buildings, beating and killing civilians, talking poorly to you... This combined with the fact that you never sit back to watch a cutscene, that you are actively involved with the story, the people you are helping praising your heroics, and the amazingly immersive and interesting world makes for a very great role-playing experience. You are Gordan Freeman, not Victor Gont.

Jonathan Lawn
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I'm very late to this, I know.



My take is that "projection" is subconscious and is associated with "flow" or "being in the zone". Good controls and immersion help you focus only on the tasks in the game world, but you may still be treating it as a game.



On the other hand, "role-playing" is conscious. You want to live the character's life. You've bought into the fact there is more to the game world than the bits you can play. You need empathy with the character, but you take it further and flesh the character out yourself.



Can games achieve both at the same time? I think so, but I don't think I've properly experienced it yet.



- The most role-playing I've done is probably for Mount&Blade Warband, basing my decisions on the characteristics of the avatar I've created: characteristics I've invented to help decide how my avatar should live. But M&B breaks immersion too often for really intense projection.



- And there are plenty of FPS where I've been fully absorbed in the game world, but I've been focussed on game goals rather than my avatars characteristics. GTA and Far Cry 2 have both come close, especially in their use of friends, but you still tend to maintain friends for game purposes primarily.



The main problem seems to be the conversation interface. You almost certainly need to have conversations for role-playing, because most characters in most situations would have them, but they break immersion. I've a number of ideas for getting round that though.



I think "projection" plus "role-playing" can and should be done.


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