Maybe RPG Isn’t the Right Term

I was reading an article by Luke Plunkett over on Kotaku about the need for role playing games in the PC and console world to continue using numbers, visually, to portray hit points, attack levels and more. Plunkett makes a point that, although modern RPGs owe their existence to their tabletop gaming heritage who require numbers to keep track of those elements, they just aren’t necessary for players to enjoy their game.

The article is a good read, but it got me thinking. Why do we label these games “Role Playing Games”? I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought had I not recently started playing Dungeons & Dragons. It gave me a new perspective because as much as playing a traditional pen and paper RPG is rolling dice and casting spells, it’s also developing a character and, well, playing that role. The numbers define survival chances and the likelihood of completing certain tasks, but the human element determines a character’s attitude, morality, confidence and hundreds of thousands of other personality traits that a computer program couldn’t possibly simulate outside The Matrix.

Certain games give players some of that experience like World of Warcraft, but even WoW has limits to how deep and detailed a fantasy one can play. Other titles, good though they might be, have little or no decision making that could be classified as “playing a role”. Oh sure, games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age give a player plenty of choices that ultimately define how good or evil they become or who they sleep with, but they are still only taking control of a strictly defined character whose story is laid out in front of them. It would be more accurate to call these interactive movies than role playing games.

You might argue there are plenty of decisions presented to the player in modern RPG titles that one player’s character is going to be so far removed from another’s because he chose to kill an enemy instead of letting him go, but at its core that’s like saying my experience as a plumber in the mushroom kingdom was richer because I chose to hop over the turtle instead of jumping on its head.

These aren’t roles to be played. The character isn’t in the mind of the player. It comes from the mind of the artist, developer and writer of the game and has a finite number of paths to follow based on which button the player presses. Perhaps they should be dubbed Choose Your Own Adventure Games, though CYAG doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well and certainly doesn’t encourage players to drop 60 bucks to play.

I suppose it’s possible I’m getting too technical, too anal about a non-issue in the gaming world, but there’s something to be said for truth in advertising. If nothing, I hope it sparks some interesting debate. Ask a video gamer, when’s the last time he knew of someone who booted up Final Fantasy and started speaking with a gravelly voice at the TV because he thought his character had inhaled a lot of smoke over the years. Sounds silly right? Now ask a D&D player. THAT’S role playing.

Christopher Kirkman

Christopher is an old school nerd: designer, animator, code monkey, writer, gamer and Star Wars geek. As owner and Editor-In-Chief of Media Geeks, he takes playing games and watching movies very seriously. You know, in between naps.

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