[Theory] When is it a Roleplaying Game, and when is it just Roleplaying?

edited September 2006 in Play Advice
Let's start with a definition for a game:

"A game is a structured or semi-structured, contrived recreational activity, usually undertaken for enjoyment (although sometimes for physical or vocational training). A goal that the players try to reach and a set of rules concerning what the players can or cannot do create the challenge and structure in a game, and are thus central to its definition." (via Wikipedia)

I'm going to build on this by stating:

All games involve at minimum: Chance or Challenge (mental or physical)

All games are covered by this definition - including gambling and sports. Activities without goals, a set of rules, and chance or challenge -- are not games. For example, according to Will Wright, his Sim City is not a game at all, but a toy. Running around outside is not a game. Tag is a game.

Now, let's look at Roleplaying games. How many are actually games, and how many are something else entirely. Which do you consider to have all the requirements for a game -- goals, rules, and chance or challenge? Which do you think are not games at all, but rather toys or play, with which you might be able to play a game.*

* This of course transfers the need for creating goals and rules to others, such as the group playing the "game".

Interestingly enough, when you look at Wizards of the Coast's What is D&D page... it's not entirely clear what the goal is. Does this mean it's not a game at all? :)

So... which are the roleplaying games... and which are just roleplaying? :)

Comments

  • If I were at home with my copy of Rules of Play, I'd be able to expand upon and probably challenge your definition of "game."

  • I've on occasion defined roleplaying in such a way as, by the criteria you are using, it is categorized as a type of game. Of course this factors into the problem with that definition of game. You might be playing as a game, but not playing in a game. Perhaps you should motivate why this distinction is of use, by suggesting what we can predict about non-game RP versus game RP. What does this classification tell us other than self-referentially?

    - Mendel S.
  • Perhaps you should motivate why this distinction is of use, by suggesting what we can predict about non-game RP versus game RP. What does this classification tell us other than self-referentially?

    This could be helpful in creating "gateway games" to bring more people into the hobby. Adults rarely take a ball outside and just "play" with it -- throwing it up in the air, laughing, throwing it on the ground and chasing it at random. Adults frequently play sports involving a ball.

    This could be helpful in ensuring everyone at the table is actually playing the same game. The terms "Min/Maxer" or "Munchkin" are used derisively by some RPG players to describe someone playing in a style they don't like. If the goal of the game was more apparent (the person with the most gold is the winner / the best roleplaying performer is the winner) this would be less of a problem.

    More clearly recognizing what the goal of a game is can help with designing rules around the gameplay itself, as well as making them faster to learn for new players. If the goal of the game is to create humourous stories, rules about siege engines and their effects on medieval fortifications might not need to be as detailed...
  • The inclusion of "goal" in the definition of "game" is problematic.

    "The Sims" is fairly widely recognized as a computer game, and yet it has no goals that structure its play. Chris Crawford calls it a "Toy."

    In point of fact, the very article you cite presents counterexamples to your definition.

    "In Philosophical Investigations, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the concept "game" could not be contained by any single definition, but that games must be looked at as a series of definitions that share a "family resemblance" to one another. Games were important to Wittgenstein's later thought; he held that language was itself a game consisting of tokens governed by rough-and-ready rules that arise by convention and are not strict."

    Do you want to start calling dungeons and dragons a "roleplaying toy"? I don't think you'll get very far with that piece of jargon.

    Absolutely, you can construct and/or choose definitions of "game" that exclude some things that people call roleplaying games and exclude others. Depending on your definition, you can draw the line in any number of places.

    What's the point?
  • The inclusion of "goal" in the definition of "game" is problematic.
    Describe a classic game (not RPG or Videogame) that has no goal of any sort. Even playing the lottery has a goal.
    Do you want to start calling dungeons and dragons a "roleplaying toy"? I don't think you'll get very far with that piece of jargon.

    Just "Roleplaying" might be a better term... although I think there *IS* a goal -- and the design of the game could be improved by spending more time thinking about that, and making it more explicit to the player... OR by spending more time up front talking about how you can choose different goals depending on the kind of games you like to play. Turn a weakness into a strenght.
    What's the point?

    Thinking about the weak-points of existing games and thinking about how we might improve them. Also, read my last post...
  • Classic games that have no goal:

    Catch. Tag. House. Spin-the-bottle. Truth or Dare. "Honey do you love me?" Crack the whip. Telephone. Eat Poop You Cat.

    Noone keeps score, noone wins, there is no endgame and there is no point, aside from the play itself, just like a roleplaying game.

    Some of these games are listed at http://www.gameskidsplay.net/alphabetical_listing.htm and others can be found in a short google search.
  • (Message board ate my post. Grrr.)
  • Catch. Goal: Catch the ball. Variant: Let's see how many time we can catch it without dropping it! Non-game-version: Throw, bounce, roll ball about.

    Tag. Goal: If you are it -- catch someone. If you are not it -- don't get caught. Variant: The person who's "It" stays it until they tag everyone. Non-game-version: Run around.

    House. This is not a game. Interestingly enough, it's roleplaying.*

    Spin-the-bottle. Goal: Kiss the boy/girl you like. Non-game-version: Kissing.

    Truth or Dare. Goal: Be brave enough to endure your challenges, and get the reward of watching others endure theirs. Non-game-version: Blabbermouth, or Act like a fool.

    "Honey do you love me?" -- Never heard of it

    Crack the whip. Goal: Don't let go for as long as you can. Non-game version: Spin in a circle.

    Telephone. Goal: Get the message around the circle without it changing. Non-game-version: I forget

    Eat Poop You Cat. -- Also never heard of it... I hope the goal isn't eating poop! :-(

    A goal doesn't need to be very complicated, but it needs to exist or it's not a game -- it's just playing.

    * On preview: it's perhaps worth discussing whether the goal of playing house is to realistically portray mom and dad... what would cause one kid to tell the other they weren't playing the game properly? If one kid started acting like a ninja? Running around shouting? Not responding to the other kid? Hiding on the other kid?
  • If those things are goals, then all the things we call roleplaying games are games.

    Dungeons and dragons: Earn XP. Level up.

    My Life With Master: Destroy the Master. Become Human.

    Capes: Earn Story Tokens. Earn Inspirations.

    Freeform Harry Potter (or whatever) RP: Realistically portray characters that are (or could be) found in the Harry Potter books.

    Your distinctions between "game" versions and "non game" versions are no distinction; you can't tell from the rules, or from the players, or from their behavior, or from the results, which version they're playing.
  • I agree with Vaxalon here.

    You can play Spin-The-Bottle without trying for a particular person to kiss, and it makes no difference for the game. On a related note, Candyland can be played to "lose" and it makes no difference.

    Also, Sim City and the Sims pretty thoroughly destroys the idea that "Adults don't just play without predefined goals". Quite clearly, adults do play with "toys" like these and have fun with them. In my experience, many people had the experience of playing D&D towards the goal of levelling up as adolescents, and moved on to less goal-oriented RPG play as adults.
  • I'm uh, just not really clear what we're hoping to accomplish here.

    Is the hope that understanding that difference will lead to better games? or better roleplaying? Because to the publishers of Sims and SimCity (both wildly successful products) I bet it doesn't matter at all whether you formally consider their products 'toys' or 'games', and I'm pretty sure the people who buy them don't particularly care for the distinction either. What impact can we expect it to have on roleplaying game design for this question to be addressed?

    I do understand that having something like this to just talk about can, in itself, be entertaining. I suppose you might even say the challenge or goal of being the person to really nail the definition might even make this exercise a game. But I'm having trouble needing the issue resolved. But if you're all having fun, don't let me spoil any of it.
  • At least in the roleplaying world, there's a pretty clear linguistic divison, although it's hard to nail down where the border lies.

    If you can easily call it freeform, then it's not game. It's simply roleplay.

    I'll admit, I'm worried about the "just" in "just roleplaying" 'cause it makes it sound lesser - it's not lesser, it's just something that clearly belongs in a different category.
  • Is the hope that understanding that difference will lead to better games? or better roleplaying? Because to the publishers of Sims and SimCity (both wildly successful products) I bet it doesn't matter at all whether you formally consider their products 'toys' or 'games', and I'm pretty sure the people who buy them don't particularly care for the distinction either. What impact can we expect it to have on roleplaying game design for this question to be addressed?
    Yes. Perhaps. I bet it does (they designed it to be an open ended play environment / toy). I bet they do - gamers know what they're buying.

    What impact? Even knowing if you're designing a game or designing an environment for different types of games (is that better than toy?) can make a big difference in how you approach game design.
    You can play Spin-The-Bottle without trying for a particular person to kiss, and it makes no difference for the game. On a related note, Candyland can be played to "lose" and it makes no difference.
    Not surprisingly you can play the lottery to "lose" as well and it makes no difference. They're all based on chance, not a challenge (mental or physical) -- so your actions don't affect the outcome.

    I'm not trying to suggest there are "good" games and "bad" non-games -- or that RPGs should be stripped of their G... :) What I'm encouraging is more thought / discussion about what it is in the games that MAKE them games -- or if it's not a game, but rather a platform for playing multiple games. In that case it's thinking about what kind of games you can play with it.
    I'll admit, I'm worried about the "just" in "just roleplaying" 'cause it makes it sound lesser - it's not lesser, it's just something that clearly belongs in a different category.

    A ball isn't WORSE than soccer -- it's apples and oranges. :)
    Also, Sim City and the Sims pretty thoroughly destroys the idea that "Adults don't just play without predefined goals".
    I think Sim City and the Sims is play, and appeals to a different set of people than other more structured play (aka games). I also think that people MAKE games using Sim City and the Sims. (eg. The biggest city. The slumiest city. How fast can I destroy it. etc)
    In my experience, many people had the experience of playing D&D towards the goal of levelling up as adolescents, and moved on to less goal-oriented RPG play as adults.
    I guarantee there is a goal to the RPG you are playing. Whether it comes from the game itself, or your group adds it -- it's there. Maybe it's about telling cool stories, or really good acting -- I don't know. If there was literally no goal, then a player attempting to reach any sort of goal at all would be equally valid. There would never be an instance when you would think someone was being an ass and not playing the game properly.

    Let's look at it from the other side... if you have no goals, how do you know if someone is doing well or if they are playing poorly? Even social freeform LARPs have goals -- usually about immersive / authentic atmosphere.
  • I would assume it's about making better games.

    I do find some irony. From my readings about early D&D, I'd come to the conclusion ( probably somewhat false, but, whatever) that the term "roleplaying" was added in to gaming vocabulary mostly derisively. I got the impression that minis wargamers, especially historical gamers were basically busting the chops of D&Ders, so a new word was grabbed to describe what the D&Ders were doing.

    I mean, calling something a RPG is _still_ slightly to fairly derogatory in some minis gaming circles. I guess it ended up being used by both groups eventually.

    Now, to me, what might be interesting is thinking of this stuff as a game first. Then you can ask what parts of this thing are or are like roleplaying? Of course, it also opens up a whole world of recombinant mechanics, once you stop thinking of rpgs as special snowflakes in the broader realm of games.
  • Posted By: Stuart RobertsonYes. Perhaps. I bet it does (they designed it to be an open ended play environment / toy). I bet they do - gamers know what they're buying.

    What impact? Even knowing if you're designing a game or designing an environment for different types of games (is that better than toy?) can make a big difference in how you approach game design.
    I guess I'd just hate for somebody not to make an amazing roleplaying 'toy' because they're concerned it isn't really a 'game'. Most of my favorite games are really toys by the definitions being presented here, and that's probably why I don't see the distinction as particularly helpful. But I'll quit being unhelpful and unsupportive. I hope you're right and I hope it helps somebody make something awesome.
  • There's a false dichotomy here between goal-focused and goal-less play. It's a continuum, with things that are clearly "game" (by Stuart's definition) on one side and clearly "not game" on the other, and making a clear border line that will include only those things you want to include is impossible. Alexander's unwitting paraphrase of Justice Potter Stewart ( "I can't give you a definition but I know it when I see it" ) is, to my mind, good evidence that a strong definition is impossible.
  • I think the continuum idea is very important. Especially as it suggests that the binary distinction of game / not-game is subsumed by the much more flexible idea of goals. On the other hand, goals also need a firmer definition. For example, is a goal an outcome or can a goal be a state or configuration frequently entered?

    Now it may be the case that the game classification has some other implication, for example when people identify play as a game perhaps they approach it with a different mind set? I'm not convinced of something like that, but it is possible. However as is, the game distinction seems only to obfuscate the subject of goals, which itself could use more clarity.

    - Mendel S.
  • Mendel, people call things games because that's what they were told they were. "Spin the bottle" may not fit certain definitions of "game" when played certain ways but it is still called a game anyways.

    I think the concept of goals, separate from this semantic discussion of "game vs. not game" could probably use its own thread.
  • I think the continuum idea is very important. Especially as it suggests that the binary distinction of game / not-game is subsumed by the much more flexible idea of goals. On the other hand, goals also need a firmer definition. For example, is a goal an outcome or can a goal be a state or configuration frequently entered?
    Goal = Game. A ball has no goal. Sim City has no goal. Tag has a goal. Golf has a goal. You can frequently reach your goal "state or configuration frequently entered" during a game of tag.

    Let's not get too bogged down in semantics... I'm not sure that's helpful for anyone wanting to do anything practical with this. From the Jargon thread it's clear we're going to have some disagreements on the words themselves... :-/

    It seems the thing to consider is:
    Some "games" contain an explicit goal.
    Some "games" do not contain an explicit goal, and the players must choose one.

    They are all one or the other. Either a game has an explicit goal included in the rules for that game... or it doesn't. It doesn't seem reasonable that it could be both...
    Football, Super Mario Brothers, Poker, Chess, the Lottery, Candyland, and Tag are the first type of game.
    Sim City is the second type of game.

    The question to consider is -- is an RPG designed as the first type of game -- where the players immediately know what the goal of the game is... or is it the second type of game -- where there is no explicit goal and players must choose one?

    Again, the reason for considering this is the impact it has on the way the rules of the game are designed, as well as the preferences some people may have for either the first type of game or the second type of game. Neither type is better than the other, but they are different.
  • Posted By: Stuart RobertsonLet's not get too bogged down in semantics... I'm not sure that's helpful for anyone wanting to do anything practical with this.
    What do you want to do, in practical terms?

    Because so far you've been saying "This will benefit people because it will give them a clearer understanding of what they are doing," and that is a fundamentally semantic argument.

    If you're trying to help people by making better labels that is great. I think it's a worthy goal. But if that's your goal then you don't get to say "Let's do that without getting bogged down in the semantics." If people don't think your labels are good then that's a very relevant point to your purpose.

    If you're trying to help people by creating some specific piece of craft that they can apply directly to either (a) playing better games or (b) designing better games, then that's a different matter. Are you trying to do that?
  • Once again, a fallacy of the excluded middle.

    What about a game where the goal is designed to be difficult to figure out, but ultimately there is one, discoverable only in play?

    What about a game which tells you there is a goal, but which is designed to teach you that you don't need one?

    What about a game where the only goal is to play?

    "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

    Here's a game we used to play at summer camp when I was a teenager. It's called "Ha."

    Everyone lies down on the floor (good to sweep up first) in a big zigzaggy square, resting heads on bellies. Every belly has a head, every head has a belly, and it's all one big loop. Minimum four players, but we usually played with twenty or more.

    One person says, "Ha." From then on, whoever has his head on the belly of a person who said some "Ha's" adds another "Ha." to the string. "Ha. Ha." "Ha. Ha. Ha." ...and so on around the circle. If anyone starts actually laughing, rather than saying "Ha" then the next person starts over with "Ha."

    Play until everyone is laughing too hard to play anymore.

    The goal is to play. The method is to not laugh. To laugh is both to win, and to lose.

    This is a game.
  • Fred, I can't help but feel you've turned semantic arguments into a game for yourself.

    I was interested in discussing RPGs that are clearly defined games vs RPGs that are more like toolkits to create many different types of games... I don't think I'd bother trying that again... at least here. :(
  • Oh, that's different than what I understood. Lets start again, and lets all confine ourselves only to RPGs as examples, with the occasional computer game or board game thrown in where it fits.

    A few RPGs that (to-me) have end-states associated with a goal:
    Shab-al-hiri roach
    Breaking the Ice (I think)
    D&D tournament events
    ...

    A few RPGs that do not (to me) have clearly defined end-states associated with a goal (other than amusement, naturally):
    Prime Time Adventures
    D&D games in general
    Many other 'traditional' RPGs that follow the D&D model
    ...

    A few RPGs where the presence of end-states is (to-me) debateable:
    World of Warcraft - yeah, there;s level 60, but for many thats where the game begins
    Dogs in the Vineyard - town by town you can win, sort of. but long-term it's about self examination, which doesn't end
    The Shadow of Yesterday - theres transcendance, but I think few players view the game as a race to get there.
    ...

    That more what you're looking for, Stuart?
  • That more what you're looking for, Stuart?
    Actually, yes. This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. :)
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