Places to Go, People to Be [Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

To Play or to Roleplay?

by Joel Esler

In which the author divides the gaming world right down the middle


Recently, I came to thinking about the world of games. In particular, the expanding worlds of traditional RPGs and computer games. More and more attempts are being made to fuse these two mediums together. These attempts have mostly been oblivious to one particular fact. The fact that the two hobbies just don't mix.

Trying to bundle roleplayers and computer gamers into one classification is a waste of time. While many gamers are also roleplayers and vice versa, when looking at the people as a whole, there are clear differences between the two groups.

Firstly, roleplayers tend to have better imaginations than gamers. They demand far less extraneous visual and aural information. A roleplayer seated at a table, nursing a D20, does not require a high resolution, 3D-rendered animation of a fire-breathing emperor dragon to know that their 1st level mage should probably be running for the nearest dungeon exit. Nor do they need the latest graphics acceleration hardware and a 21" monitor when they can simply imagine the star going nova just behind their fleeing starship.

On the other hand, in all fairness, I must admit that roleplayers can sometimes go a bit crazy over minute details in the text heavy games. A gamer does not require knowledge of the 47th Undead Prince's entire family history to realise that the 12ft skeleton may have conflicting views with the unfortunate rogue who stumbles across his lair. Nor do they care about any unresolved issues they might have with said Prince's brother. And neither does a gamer require an entire library of reference books on hand just in case they feel the need to check on the number of prehensile toes on a rare pink Slodobagesian Go-Go Monkey.

It's not all that difficult to realise that the wants of gamers and roleplayers tend to be extreme opposites of each other. How then, can someone be both a roleplayer and a gamer? Easy. They just demand different elements when roleplaying to when they are gaming.

Which brings me back to the main point of this article: The intermixing of roleplaying and computer gaming is not as simple as it may seem. It's not that I think it shouldn't happen, but that it just cannot happen. The two just do not mix. Like orange juice and milk. Like the proverbial DNA of elephants and pot-bellied pigs.

Of course you may disagree with me, depending on your own definition of the two terms, roleplaying and computer gaming. After all, the term 'roleplaying', can have innumerable meanings. As far as I'm concerned, roleplaying means the pen and paper kind, with a GM and several players, each of whom is playing a role. Hence the name 'roleplaying'. This activity isn't always done using pen and paper, but can be played in other media such as email, or even with live action. Despite the medium, the general concept is the same - the players are playing roles, actual dramatic roles, as opposed to a sprite with a personally selected face plate from a list of over 100

Whereas computer gaming, for me, means any game that is played on a computer. These definitions aren't particularly obscure, so hopefully you can go with me and see my point.

The incompatibility between the two comes not from lack of trying. There have certainly been many attempts to forge them together, or rather, convert the concept of roleplaying into a computer game. Such attempts can still be enjoyable to play, but they have never actually forced me to say "Well now that two of my favourite interest have been combined, I need not worry about continuing with them as separate hobbies". Many computer games are advertised and reviewed as being 'roleplaying games' and while this term may be technically accurate (you are 'playing a role'), the 'roleplaying' that they refer to is not the same concept as what many pen and paper roleplayers are used to. It is usually just the involvement that almost any game can create, even chess. Though they dress things up with a role-playing vocabulary, they are generally Doom clones underneath. Often the only connection is in the fantasy setting, as if anything with elves and orcs in it is somehow an RPG.

Take for example Ultima Underworld, one of the first decent games to pursue the idea of a computer RPG. In my opinion, this was truly a great game and a milestone for its genre. I think of Ultima Underworld, however, not as a roleplaying game but as an adventure game in a fantasy setting. The roleplaying doesn't really go beyond choosing a name for your character as well as a few other equally meaningless characteristics. Sure the game was fun, but my idea of roleplaying is just that, playing a role. And that means any role I choose to play (within the setting). What if I feel like roleplaying a wizard who has a tendency to smoke any wild mushroom he can find? Or perhaps a trigger-happy bounty hunter who frequently takes too many caffeine tablets and likes to shave off other people's eyebrows while they sleep? Any worthy GM could at least attempt to continue playing with this sort of character if it worked with the nature of the adventure. But can a computer game handle such (ahem...) 'in-depth' roleplaying? Of course not!

The freedom found in traditional RPGs goes much farther than just quirky characters. Virtually any action that you could think of doing in real life can also be attempted in an RPG. You want to throw oil all over that weedy-looking goblin tied to the tree? Go right ahead! Light a match and watch the green runt burn! Sick of killing bounty hunters with a boring blaster shot? Strap a fusion grenade to his head for added effect! Try doing this in a computer game though, and you receive nothing but silence as your lightning fast super memory machine fails in its feeble attempt to move beyond its programming. GMs on the other hand, are endowed with the precious gift of a human brain which (when they use it) outstrips any computer on earth.

Eventually, there came online roleplaying in the form of MUDs and its many other MUx cousins. I don't really consider these computer games, but rather just roleplaying in a different medium. That is, they allow roleplaying as I've defined it. But very often they turn into computer games. Recently came the 'greatest advancement in multiplayer online roleplaying', or at least, that's what the people behind Ultima Online would have us believe. Don't be fooled. It is not a roleplayer's mindset that dominates the users of Ultima Online, but the mindset of the gamer.

Ask any roleplayer that has played UO what their greatest annoyance is with the game and they'll probably tell you without hesitation "the damn PKers". PKers, short for Player Killers, is the term used to label those players which only play to increase their own power and wealth through the killing of others. In other words, they are playing a computer game. As many of you know, most traditional RPG players will not tolerate this behaviour for long before deciding to deal the offending player a quick blow to the ribs with a battleaxe. 1.374 seconds is my own personal record.

People who play games like that are not looking for personal relations. They're paying for the time they're online, so they're damn well going to make good use of it. Having plenty of trustworthy, charming but ultimately weak friends won't help you reach the30th level or get a million gold pieces, or stop you from being Player Killed yourself. Which is the whole point. So why make friends, or even talk at all? Chances are, your so called 'friends' are the ones plotting your demise anyway.

I must admit that when playing a game such as Ultima Online, even I am tempted to forget nobility and begin mowing down peasants right and left for a few measly coins. Why? Because there's no one else seated next to me who'll tell me otherwise. And because it strongly encourages a computer game mindset (not least by the amount of people playing it that way) and that is just how you play computer games. I don't have time to build up relationships and connections with other online players that will not help me gain power, but rather only serve to make me more vulnerable to more devious minds.

And this is the whole point. Computer games, just like any other sort of game, put the emphasis on competition and increasing your personal power. And that mindset just cannot coexist with the mindset of the role-player. But it goes further than that. Computer games, whether multiplayer or not, lack that absolute basic necessity of any decent RPG: true human interaction. For characters AND players. What really makes an RPG is that face-to-face environment where you can stare your enemy in the face and really tell if they're lying or not. It is fundamentally interaction - with characters, with objects, with the story, but most importantly with other, real life people who are sitting around the table with you - that makes the immersion of RPGs work.

When it comes down to it, it's very simple. If you want to build up a character from scratch to be an unstoppable juggernaut o' death, slicing down skeletons left and right, then go and buy yourself Diablo. If, on the other hand you want to roleplay, and by roleplaying I mean really get into a character you really want to play, no matter how quirky, and interact them with other humans, then go and find a GM and haul out your bag of funny-shaped dice.


Joel was born in Canberra and has yet to recover from the shock. He started roleplaying four years ago, when he was twelve, and thus is our youngest ever contributor. This makes him a man of talents beyond his years, and makes us feel very old.

[Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Copyright © 1999 Places to Go, People to Be, all rights reserved. May only be reproduced with permission. Refer to the copyright page for full details. Email us: