Who Killed Role-Playing in MMOs?

Recently there have been some good questions being raised and insightful explorations on the subject of role-playing in MMOs. These discussions have prompted me to put down in words what I’ve been thinking for a while now about this paradoxical problem of a lack of RPing in RPGs — especially MMORPGs.

From the moment we are born we start playing. Our brains seek amusement. Eventually as little kids whether it is playing cowboys and indians,  playing house or playing make believe we fantasizing about being someone else — we are role-playing. Even reading a book of fiction can be seen as a precursor to role-playing as the reader must mentally invest themselves into the characters, locales and situations described within the pages.

Most role-playing takes place when we interact and communicate with other people either as actors in a play or as players in a game. Role-playing allows us — and even those who don’t know what role-playing is and fail to appreciate it — to heighten the immersion that we so desperately seek when we escape into online worlds.

The ability to role-play is a tribute to the power of the human imagination. We can transport ourselves into any situation and pretend that we are there.

Why then do very few people role-play anymore in virtual worlds?

In Defense of Role-playing

When tackling the subject, the first thing we need to do is ask the question whether RP is good for MMOs and virtual worlds. The answer is a resounding “yes”. When players decide to RP they are fully investing in their virtual world. Instead of being passing strangers they become part of the world. They truly belong.

Fully investing oneself into a virtual world means that a player has suspended their disbelief with abandon. The more a player RP’s in a world, the more they and other players get out of that world. Yes, even those players who choose not to participate in RP benefit from the RP of others. Player organized guilds, events and activities all serve to enrich the player community when they are done in “character” and with a purpose that befits the setting of the world.

On the other hand, players who do not RP and carelessly bring their real world persona’s into a virtual world — you know them well as the leetspeak, naming policy violators and other assorted miscreants —  have the effect of destroying immersion. No matter how hard the MMOs devs try to create a wonderfully immersive world, these people are the virtual termites that chew away at the foundation of online communities. They continually take and take and give back nothing except their monthly subscription fee.

So if RPing is a positive thing for virtual worlds, why don’t more people RP?

Could Technology be the Natural Enemy of RP?

Early primitive computer games, pen and paper games like D&D and MUDS required more active participation from the players and thus there was some real role-playing going on. People RPed out of necessity.

The more sensory data you provide to the player, the less the player has to “imagine” which results in less of a need to role-play. The quality of role-playing in a virtual world is inversely proportional to quality of information you give to the player.

People are lazy and always choose the path of least resistance. That’s how we are wired. Give them 3D graphics complete with surround sound and you create an environment where there is nothing left to the imagination.

Video Killed the Radio Star

The same thing happened in the music industry in the 1980’s with the advent of music videos. Many people rightfully complained that the visual images and memories of music were no longer their own and had been supplanted by the imagery concocted by the music video director.

How many people don’t think about dancing zombies when they hear Michael Jackson’s chart-busting song Thriller?

It used to be that music chronicled our own lives and experiences; we created our own imagery and interpretations of music.

Movies based on books commit much the same kind of sin that music videos committed. How many of us when we think of Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, think of Elijah Wood? I wonder what Frodo used to look like in our mind’s eye before those movies were released?

So the more information that MMO developers give to us the less we have to rely on our imaginations to personalize our experience. Combine this with the fact that most new MMOs submerge the player with quest-based mechanics and large unfolding story arcs and you have the current predicament: role-playing has seemingly become an archaic and obsolete pursuit within virtual worlds.

Can Role-playing be Saved?

I believe the answer is “yes”. In order for this to happen RP has to be made more meaningful and efficacious in MMOs and virtual worlds. Instead of the token fluff that is normally reserved for RPing, serious game mechanics that reward role-players need to be an integral part of the design of a MMO from the outset.

Julian from Kill Ten Rats makes a great point that deserves mention:

The main problem of RPing in MMOs is that RPers are against a static framework that automatically tries to quantize something which cannot be, which is human socialization, actions, interactions, reactions and decisions. Games are static and formulaic in the sense that players cannot change the game’s mechanics. They cannot do anything which is not contemplated in the game’s framework.

I agree with him in general but why is it that developers have not bothered to at least try to quantify and incorporate role-playing and build it into their MMOs? Game designers are supposed to be creative people who see a glass half full — not half empty. Nobody said it would be easy.

The main reason that role-playing is currently on the ropes is because of the short-sightedness of the current pack of imaginatively bankrupt developers who have perverted MMOs into a frenzied pursuit of numbers and statistics at the expense of everything else. I believe they have either forgotten their history or they just don’t care about role-playing.

The sad reality is that the ability to RP in today’s MMOs is pointless and has no appreciable impact on the outcome of your character. If it did you can bet that the Elitist Jerks would be all over it.

The Lessons of Michael Crichton’s Timeline

I would like to propose a food for thought question to everyone  — especially those who produce MMOs:

What if your very life depended on your ability to role-play?

This is exactly the scenario that the characters of Micheal Crichton’s amazing Timeline novel found themselves in. In his story, a bunch of modern day scientists and anthropologists travel back in time to the 13th century France and are forced to deal with the people and politics of the time in order to survive. One small mistake in dialect or custom and they would be imprisoned and even worse burned at the stake.  The result was that they HAD to role-play — it was a matter of survival.

When you think about it this is the same kind of situation that undercover law enforcement and spies face on a daily basis. They must role-play each and every day or face in some cases certain death or execution. For them, role-playing is not for sissies like many of the ignorant fools on various MMO general chat channels would have us believe, rather it’s a matter of life and death.

Why then can’t MMO developers infuse the same kind of urgency, risk and immediacy into our MMOs and virtual worlds? Why are they so afraid to make role-playing more meaningful?

I suspect part of the answer is that the notion of consequences and risk have been all but eliminated as a design concept. Players also share some blame as they have learned to mitigate risk and play it safe by endless number crunching and worship at the altar of efficiency. These days MMOs have become largely populated with cardboard heroes armed with slide rulers and calculators.  We no longer represent elves, dwarves and humans; instead we have become DPS, armor class and chance to crit.

What a sad and sorry roadside destination that the once venerable MMORPG has ended up at, seemingly out of gas on the virtual world highway that was full of such promise.


The ability to role-playing effectively is probably one of the most underrated and misunderstood talents that humans can possess both in the real world and in virtual worlds. Sadly, its potential has been wasted and discarded by the current crop of clueless MMO hucksters posing as developers. Maybe they just lack the wisdom to appreciate its power and impact. Perhaps they lack courage as well, as they have turned virtual worlds into a mindless and safe grindfest of numbers and statistics.

I know who killed role-playing: it was the gutless and thoughtless developers. And we let them get away with it because we let ourselves become mesmerized by the pretty graphics and amusement park sensibilities.


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