Definitions of Role-Playing Games

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Many de nitions of “role-play” and “role-playing games” have been suggested, but there is no broad consensus. People disagree because they often have an unclear idea of what kind of phenomena they are talking about and, therefore, what kind of definition is appropriate. Existing definitions often assume games and, with them, RPGs to be a natural kind with some unchanging essence. However, because “role-playing games” is a social category created by humans, it has no unchanging, context-independent essence. Hence, if we ask for a definition of “role-playing games”, we can only refer to either how particular groups at particular points in time empirically use the word and organize actions and the material world around it or how we, as a scientific observer, choose to use the word to foreground and understand a particular perspective: viewing RPGs as a performance or as a virtual economy, etc. RPGs can be traced to a shared historical ancestor: the TRPG D&D. From there, RPGs and their communities evolved increasingly idiosyncratic forms and styles, afforded by their material under-determinations. Commonly recognized forms are TRPGs, larps, CRPGs, and MORPGs. Common styles – ideas of what experience one hopes to achieve through play – are achieving goals and making progress according to rules, acting out and immersing oneself in a role, creating an interesting story, or simulating a world. Every local community, form, or style captures only a subset of the phenomena people call “role-playing games” and carries with it some implicit or explicit normative ideas about what makes an RPG “good”. Thus, people often disagree on the definition of “role-playing games” because they are usually only familiar with and/or aesthetically prefer a subset of RPG forms, styles, and communities: “this is not a role-playing game” often means “this is not something I am familiar with calling and/or like in RPGs”. Still, across forms and styles of RPGs, some characteristics commonly reoccur: they are play activities and objects revolving around the rule-structured creation and enactment of characters in a fictional world. Players create, enact, and govern the actions of characters, defining and pursuing their own goals, with great choice in what actions they can attempt. The game world, including characters not governed by individual players, usually follows some fantastic genre action theme, and there are often rules for character progression and combat resolution. Forms diverge in the structure of the play situation, the constitution and governance of the fictional world, and the form and importance of rules. Play situations range from a single player and computer to small face-to-face groups to large co-located or online mediated populations that organize into smaller groups. The fictional world may be constituted through joint talk and inscriptions; physical locales, props, and player bodies; or computer models and user interfaces. It can be governed by one or more human referees or a computer. Rules may be extensive or minimal, resolving the outcome of actions by player negotiation, a model and testing of probabilities, physical abilities of players, or combinations of all three. Given the social constitution of RPGs and the diversity of their forms and styles, we argue that it is pointless to capture an “essential nature” in a definition. Instead, as the following chapter begins to do, it is more fruitful to empirically describe this diversity and analyze it through a multitude of explicit disciplinary perspectives: not asking what something RPGs are but what we can learn when we view them as a particular something.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRole-Playing Game Studies
Subtitle of host publicationTransmedia Foundations
EditorsJosé P. Zagal, Sebastian Deterding
Number of pages34
Publication statusPublished - 18 Apr 2018

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