Role-Play Vs. Playing a Role; The Semantics’ Attack; The Immersionist Trap.

Here we are again, with another semi-service announcement. In a day or two I will post a new post that will gear towards the next Project. That post will require your replies, and without them it’d go nowhere. So please keep your eyes open, and once the post gets here, give me your opinions!

I must give you a piece of my meandering mind, that is, before I continue to do so with the body-text of this post. I have noticed something funny, as I gear up to write a post, that is, think of the post’s topic, I start noticing all sorts of things which support/relate to my topic at hand. Or people only start saying these things when I begin thinking of them? ;) Anyway, take a look at Michael Shermer’s Skeptic column on Scientific American’s July 2006(Volume 295 Number 1) issue, about fighting self-induced bias.

So, someone asked about Role-play in Cranium Rats, and I said it’s not an RPG, it’s a CSI Game. Role-playing is a possible side-effect, but isn’t the goal, or a goal, that I try to accomplish or facilitate. This brings up the horrible question(or debate) of “What is a Role-playing game?”
Add to this the piece of information I came across over the weekend on Ron Edwards’s Gamism article, which in turn is originally from the GM section of Arrowflight (2002, Deep 7, author is Todd Downing):
“The best games are those where everyone is playing a role, striving for a goal and working as a unit (that doesn’t mean that every character must like every other character, but player must at least properly play the role they’ve chosen).”

Now we reach the problem, at least, what I find as a problem. On one hand we have “Role-playing” and on the other we have “playing a role”. It seems like there is no mix-up, these two phrases, but then, let me present you with several cases: In Magic: the Gathering you portray the role of a planeswalker, in Monopoly you play the role of an investor, in Settlers of Cattan you play the role of the expedition/community leader. Do you consider these to be Role-play experiences? You do not, which shows a disparity of terms.

This disparity of terms didn’t come from nowhere. Language shapes thoughts, language shapes ideas. I posit that this is something of an Immersionist Trap, if you want to see some discussion of Immersionism, then Thomas Robertson is having an Immersionism Month on his blog, this very month.

The thought at the base of RPGs and the definition thereof is that Role-play is where you have a chance to immerse yourself. To act your character through and through it(for a short and simplistic meaning of the term). Then we reach games where the seperation through your character and you is distinct, or there is no character per se for you to portray(how does one “Feel” the Colour Red, how does one “Think” Cloud?).

If we do not treat these games as RPGs then our definition is exclusive, and we remain stagnant, with the same kind of games to draw from, whereas if we act in an inclusive manner, these borderline games are pulled under our umbrella, and then a pod is shot to the next-closest kind of game, pulling it under the umbrella as well. So that slowly but surely we expand the definition of RPGs. The Immersionist Trap defies time. We may call new games RPGs, but then the games they were linked to from, which had already been accepted, come under attack again, since they still do not allow for Immersion, or not the degree of which that these players seek.

I think that RPGs should be defined in a manner not dissimilar from Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of Seperation. Some games are RPGs because they are “Like D&D”[Insert link with Mike Mearls saying that all RPGs are basically “Like D&D”], and from there we slowly connect the games, until each game that we can connect to with enough points and under a certain amount of steps is now also called an RPG.

Check out this thread where Tony Lower-Basch shares some wisdom from his wife. It’s all RPGs. It’s all worthy of discussion and inclusion. If you’re too cool for school, then go away. And if you don’t want us in your schools, because these “Aren’t RPGs”, then you’re the fool.

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12 comments on “Role-Play Vs. Playing a Role; The Semantics’ Attack; The Immersionist Trap.

  1. Guy Shalev says:

    Remember what I said above about data coming to me?
    So I was searching for that Mearls quote, and instead found this. Give it a look. This shows you that some of what I say above had already been discussed, but I also bring up other points.

    Also, this is deeply relevant to CSI Games, which may not even have “RP”.

  2. John Kim says:

    If we do not treat these games as RPGs then our definition is exclusive, and we remain stagnant, with the same kind of games to draw from, whereas if we act in an inclusive manner, these borderline games are pulled under our umbrella, and then a pod is shot to the next-closest kind of game, pulling it under the umbrella as well.

    I think the flaw here is imagining that RPG designers cannot draw from games which are not RPGs. I think that’s a stupid idea in the first place — and it’s that idea rather than the size of the umbrella which is the problem. In my view, throughout the history of RPGs, good designers have looked at other media and other types of games (including wargames, board games, and card games) to draw from for their RPGs.

    Once you have this simple piece of wisdom, then it doesn’t really matter exactly where you draw the lines of what an RPG is. For example, I usually go with a definition based on playing roles (cf. my What are RPGs?). But I don’t think any practical principles should change if I redefine that.

  3. Guy Shalev says:

    The simple things are often the hardest to internalize. Also, my idea isn’t about the size of the umbrella, but the act of drawing things to fit under it.

    Also, if it doesn’t matter, then why do people keep mentioning “Not quite an RPG”?

  4. John Kim says:

    Er, presumably people will *always* mention that things are “Not quite an RPG” — regardless of how far out you expand your umbrella. Even if your umbrella is really wide, there will always be games on the fringe — if it’s not Once Upon A Time, then it will be “Werewolf” or “How to Host a Murder”.

    I’d prefer to follow this up more on my LJ post, though.

  5. Guy Shalev says:

    I will follow up differently on each location ;)

    So what, then we’ll keep on expanding the definition. Also, board games are board games. An RPG can be board-game like.

    Where do you draw the line? By modern usage, D&D barely fits the definition either, at least if you go by the text provided in the rulebook.

  6. xenopulse says:

    DnD is fundamentally different from a board game. The Game Master takes the players’
    input and makes them count for the game. What kind of rolls need to be made, what kind of modifiers are there, etc. In Monopoly, you can’t do that. You roll, you get an outcome, that determines future possible outcomes. And if you make a game that, even though it includes narration, has a closed mechanical system that works like Monopoly, it’s a different type of game.

  7. Guy Shalev says:

    Robert Donoghue puts it much better than me.

    “Story Games”, or games where the Second Layer rules(John goes to him and puts a gun to his head) are often called “Non-RPG”, whereas games with the First Layer(I go to him and put a gun to his head) are, also depending on the subjective reaction of a person to these games.

  8. John Kim says:

    Again, the problem I see is that you’re claiming that any limit to the definition of “RPG” is somehow a limit to design. That’s a mistaken idea.

    For example, board games are pretty widely thought of as requiring a board of some sort. It’s not an oppressive, closed-minded view to call something which doesn’t have a board “not a boardgame”. It’s perfectly reasonable usage. Designers are free to design things which are not boardgames: making card games, or dice games, or party games. I don’t see that boardgames have to keep expanding the definition of boardgames to cover games without boards in order to prevent stagnation.

    I’m all for experimentation in game design. My advice is never feel limited by a category. If you’re designing something, don’t feel like you have to fall within a given label. Maybe your game works better without cards, so you can’t call it a “card game” anymore. So what? Design the game as it should be — don’t get stuck trying to redefine “card game” so that it applies to games which don’t have cards.

  9. Kuma says:

    For example, board games are pretty widely thought of as requiring a board of some sort. It’s not an oppressive, closed-minded view to call something which doesn’t have a board “not a boardgame”. It’s perfectly reasonable usage. Designers are free to design things which are not boardgames: making card games, or dice games, or party games. I don’t see that boardgames have to keep expanding the definition of boardgames to cover games without boards in order to prevent stagnation.

    The problem that I see with both of your examples, John, is that they’re both very simplistic distinctions – they both use a physical part of the game to define the category (board and card). “Role-playing” as a category is far more nebuolus and encompasses a much larger class of behaviors. Setting limits on the activity is a much more objective exercise.

    “Role-playing” isn’t the only possible label that has this problem: what’s a “party game” or a “family game”? Both of those terms include value judgements – mind you, a ‘party game’ is probably one that requires a large number of participants, but maybe not.

    I’m not necessarily agreeing with Guy’s premise, but these examples are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

  10. Guy Shalev says:

    Note, to those who say “Gamist games are not RPGs”, many an activity in which we participate these days and dub “An RPG” lacks the G, and is not a game.

    It’s better if we’ll all err on inclusivity’s end than on the exclusionary end, and we’ll be bold both ways.

  11. […] 11th, 2007 at 5:13 pm (Level 1, Components, Base, Discussion) We’ve talked about inclusive versus exclusive before, and in a way, this post will also be about that. We’re […]

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