Roleplaying as Adult Activity

This week’s Escapist Magazine is devoted to roleplaying (or rather, the lack thereof) in video gaming. A couple interesting points jumped out at me.

First, Nova Barlow’s “World of Warcraft Killed My Inner Actor” explores how the design of games ostensibly modeled on RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons actively discourages actual roleplaying:

With content designed mostly to retain players who have maxed out characters, character development also takes a backseat, because your impact on the world is limited. Games like EverQuest (and every MMOG thereafter) drove this point home. It’s a matter of necessity: Content can’t be generated fast enough for every single guild to have a unique dragon to slay. So everyone gets the same experience. Character development, the cornerstone of roleplaying, grinds to a standstill and becomes a laundry list of epic drops. What draws a lot of people to roleplaying is the opportunity to be unique in a strange land, but no matter how many options you get at the outset, at the end of the day we all look the same.

You can sense Nova’s resignation when the author is identified at the end as a “former roleplayer.” Speaking as another former roleplayer, I can relate: There has not been any computer system to date that can handle social interaction in a game environment as well as a real human playing the role of “gamemaster.” One friend of mine, trained as a game designer, once explained to me that what defines a video game RPG is “inventory management” rather than anything regarding characters or story.

By the same token, I think that the loss of roleplaying in what are nominally RPGs is connected to the slight rise in roleplayers’ cultural cachet that I noted back in June. The most negatively perceived geeky pursuits seem to be those that most suggest juvenility, and traditional roleplaying seems (to outside observers) little more than a child’s game of “let’s play pretend.” Thanks to World of Warcraft and Second Life, however, massively multiplayer (sort-of) roleplaying games are being increasingly associated with work. WoW becomes a place to learn leadership skills, and SL becomes a place for virtual entrepreneurs. Perhaps it’s not that roleplaying itself is becoming more acceptable, but that the most high-profile games we might have thought of as RPGs are becoming less about playing pretend, and therefore seemingly more adult.

This is not to say that MMOs don’t still host their fair share of juvenility, of course. Though it’s not directly related to the above point, I wanted to close with a note from Erin Hoffman’s “Holding Out for a Heroine,” which illustrates how avatar choice potentially reveals a lot about the person behind the keyboard:

I had a male friend and World of Warcraft player tell me many men would hit on female Tauren avatars but not female Night Elves, because the female Tauren were sure to be women. Only women, he said, would be interested in playing a character that was literally a bipedal cow, where the butt they were watching for most of their gameplay had a tufted tail.

It’s funny, in a way, that the de facto ambassador of “roleplaying as adult activity” to the world at large still leaves many (suspected) women targeted by frequent, adolescent-grade come-ons.

One thought on “Roleplaying as Adult Activity

  1. WoW becomes a place to learn leadership skills…

    So was the island in “Lord of the Flies”. 😉

    I always thought that for “RPG” video games, the “R” was just the character(s) you were playing, and the “P” was the choices that you made for that character(s) that influenced the outcome of the game. For example, when playing (e.g.) Chrono Trigger, I *was* Chrono, and in that role, I made choices that could have profound influences on the plot. Sometimes you only have the illusion of control (i.e., the outcome will eventually be the same regardless of your choices), but it’s the feeling that you are making the choices (based on interactions with characters in your ‘party’ and other NPCs), and that your choices are somehow important to the world that the game has defined, that separates an RPG from other games.

    To me, modern “MMORPGs” are actually just massive co-op adventure games (as you said, role-playing is sort of impossible in that scenario). You hack/slash your way through the game and maybe solve some puzzles, but the “P” as I defined it above is lacking because the plot (while compelling) is secondary to the experience of winning and leveling up. You are never truly the main character in an MMORPG. (Guild Wars trys to fake making you feel like the main character, but to me that lacks believability because I play every mission with a new group of strangers).

    Is this making sense? I’m kind of coming up with this on-the-fly, so feel free to suggest counter examples to make me flesh it out.

    I should also mention that many “MUDs” still strictly enforce role-playing rules, but they aren’t quite so massive.

    Also, as a disclaimer, I’ve never actually played WoW.

    Finally, has there ever been a massively multiplayer game of D&D? Like a massively multiplayer LARP?

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