The Mechanics of Role-Playing in Games

”What are you?” is the first question asked as you meet another role-player either in a digital or a flesh world. In daily life ”what are you” normally addresses our professions or other signifiers of social status. Occasionally, it addresses nationality or ethnicity, if there are indications that these are not coherent with the immediate impression. In either context, it is a sensitive question: to define yourself to a stranger is a matter of anchoring the other person’s impression of you. As we declare what we are, we also declare our position in life, work, religion, nationality, social status, and a myriad other factors that let others define us.

When you answer the ”what are you” question in a role-playing computer game, it has an infinitely wider meaning. First, you can choose to interpret it as addressing your flesh world character, or you can answer the question as if it concerns your game character. Second, you can choose to leave out several otherwise obvious facts if you answer on behalf of your flesh self. You can say, ”Woman, forty-four years old, Norwegian,” and leave it at that. You can lie about these things, and nobody will know. Or you can select facts that may be flattering: ”Tall, blue eyes, long dark blonde hair.” The ”what” which you are can be severely edited to suit any fantasy.

Imagine then how freely edited the ”what” can be when the limitations of the human race do not apply. My most current other identity is something I could never achieve in the flesh. ”What are you?” the other gamers ask, and without blinking I reply: ”A female orc shaman, capable of doing spirit magic, skilled in the use of shield and mace as well as a staff, member of a clan that is planning to take over the world to make it safe for orckind.” Only later may the other questions come out, if I am male or female, where I live, what I do, how old I am. These are not secondary questions; they are important and carry meaning in the social structure that informs the game, but for the game structure, the important ”you” is your character, and the second person they address is not ”you, the accountant from Wales,” but you, the warrior who needs to get up and hit those aggressive NPCs before they kill the rest of the group.

Figure 44.1. Female orc and female troll in World of Warcraft. (Blizzard)

Next, we explore the relationship between you and ”you,” starting out with how we define ourselves and play roles in the flesh world, to go from there to how we play roles in the game world. There is a connection between these two activities that makes the gaming far from alien; quite the contrary, it is a familiar and human game.

The Mechanics of Role-Playing in Games

Role-playing ranges over a wide area, from free-form role-playing used in theater and therapy to the strict, formal world of re-enactment. If we imagine that there is a continuous line from free-form to re-enactment, role-playing games (in the tradition of the fantasy games developed over the last twenty years) inhabit an area from somewhere to the right of free-form, and all the way up to re-enactment. Different groups of role-players will claim that their form is the correct one and should be called role-playing, but for the purposes of this chapter I maintain the position that everything from improvization to re-enactment (as done by historical societies or the American organization Society for Creative Anachronism) can be called role-playing. To include re-enactment is a disputed position, as it enters the domain of formal theater, but at the same time, re-enactments tends to be a lot less strictly scripted and directed than theater. The participants will, for instance, get a role-sheet with directions more focused on the historical data and the historical acts than on how to play the actual part. Thus, the playing may depend on how the individual imagines, improvises, and interprets the role on the basis of contextual information rather than on stage directions, and this can and will change from one re-enactment to the next – to the point that history, in some cases, may yield to the enthusiasm of the participants.


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