Is Role-Playing Intrinsically Fun?

Hey guys, On my blog I purposed a small tabletop musing and I was curious about your opinion on the matter. A snip-it of the musing can be found below:
I have talked about the positive effects of role-playing in previous blog posts. Discussing how it improves social skills and expand one’s understanding of the world around them. While that is all well and good, I got to thinking. Is the act of role-playing intrinsically enjoyable?

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that role-playing can’t be fun, I am more saying that exterior factors generate the fun, not the act of getting in character. Thinking back on my experiences with role-playing games, the enjoyment always seems to stem from something other than pretending to be a fictional character. It comes from out witting an opponent in an argument, telling stories with friends, or even overcoming mechanically challenging situations within the game. And while each of these actions are strung together and enhanced by role-playing, they still stand-up without it. But can the same be said for role-playing? Is the sole act of acting like another person fun? If it is, why? Where does this enjoyment come from? Truthfully I haven’t come to a full conclusion on this and would love to hear your opinion on the matter in the comments below.

Comments

  • I don't have anything to add, necessarily, but I think this is a very interesting question, as it goes directly to the heart of Rickard's issues with rewards/bribes. If roleplaying ISN'T inherently fun, it undercuts some of his assumptions.

    That said, your article seems to be at least as mcuh about Creative Agendas as really addressing this question...
  • edited February 2015
    There's a not so much admitted/addresed sort of lonely fun there. I recall when I was a kid and roleplayed tv characters when I was playing alone, I liked to get into their way of thinking and even act the part a bit. It had such an influence for me that I even do this sort of empathy when I get to see a good movie and come out from it feeling like the main character. Of course, sharing this with others by actively portraying the character is another kind of fun which is rewarded when others recognisce it, but that's totally different from what I stated above.

    Could I translate it to RPGs? yes, though I dunno how much other people can. It's a matter of having empathy with the character and using the school of acting of getting into the mind of the character to interpretate it, something not many people feels comfortable doing or at least expressing before others.
  • @Airk You may be right about me tying creative agendas into this and this is why I brought the question here. To get some other view points on the matter.

    @WarriorMonk I agree with you that getting into the mindset of another character is a great Empathetic exercise and it is something I did a lot of when I was a kid.

    Maybe the joy gained from interpreting a character is similar to that gained by solving a good puzzle. You feel accomplished for understanding how the character works and what makes them tick.

    Definitely and interesting angle to consider.

  • Considering the number of threads I've seen with posters going on about the joys of only engaging in first-person immersion, and not being resposible as a participant for much of anything else, I'd say, yeah, roleplaying is intrinsically fun for lots of people ( even those who don't go to that extent).
  • Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that role-playing can’t be fun, I am more saying that exterior factors generate the fun, not the act of getting in character. Thinking back on my experiences with role-playing games, the enjoyment always seems to stem from something other than pretending to be a fictional character. It comes from out witting an opponent in an argument, telling stories with friends, or even overcoming mechanically challenging situations within the game. And while each of these actions are strung together and enhanced by role-playing, they still stand-up without it. But can the same be said for role-playing? Is the sole act of acting like another person fun? If it is, why? Where does this enjoyment come from? Truthfully I haven’t come to a full conclusion on this and would love to hear your opinion on the matter in the comments below.
    My thought is yes, acting like another person is inherently fun -- little kids will do it when they're alone and playing with toys, teens/adults will do it when they're engaged in creative activities like writing, or even when they're just daydreaming or just thinking about other people and trying to work out why they do what they do.

    Roleplaying around other people, on the other hand, introduces complications that can either enhance, or obscure and overwhelm the inherent fun of the activity. Same as any other thing where the fun is mostly inside your own brain, I guess.
  • I'd say that rarely in an RPG does a player engage in activity that is the "sole act of acting like another person," which you point out. However, your examples all seem to be achievement-based. I don't think it's that simple.

    When a player steps into a role and acts like another person, that fictional person does things:
    • explores the fictional setting
    • interacts with other fictional characters, controlled by other players (GM or otherwise)
    • explores one's own fictional mindspace (the emotions and thoughts of the fictional character)
    Note that these things can include your achievements (exploring the fictional setting includes facing and possibly overcoming the challenges the setting produces).

    All of these things are learning. I subscribe to Raph Koster's "Theory of Fun" that posits that learning opportunities are what propel fun game play. Exploration of character, of setting, of situation, of system, and so on--these are learning. This is the value proposition of an RPG.

    An RPG lets you learn about yourself and your world (your real self, your real world) through the metaphor of the game and its fiction. It's a safe space to try out things you can't necessarily do (or wouldn't want to do) in real life. That is, it's "play," and play is learning, and learning is fun.
  • edited February 2015
    For my part, as a kid, I never needed rules, instructions or incentives to play make-believe, either with my friends or on my own. Of course it was intrinsically enjoyable!

    I would also say, for as long as recorded history, people have sought out opportunities to play roles, and have paid money to see others play roles. Plato was talking about mimesis and play as the basis for all art in the 3rd century BCE.

    (Quite a bit of early drama emerged in the context of religious festivals, where the experience of role-playing was regarded not only as intrinsically worthwhile, but even sacred.)

    On the other hand, for just as long, people have been writing instructions to guide role-playing, in the form of scripts.

    We don't need rules—I mean, we don't need them. I think maybe the question we're orbiting might be better expressed: does our role playing benefit from rules, directions and incentives? And I think the answer to that, interestingly, is: it depends, on a lot of things! It's highly contextual. And it depends on the kind of rule. And who the intended beneficiary is. (Eg. Is a given rule supposed to make role-playing more enjoyable for you? or for other players? etc.)
  • I agree, there's no need for an incentive when it comes for the lone fun part of roleplaying. It's because there's another kind of fun there that come from the empathic side. When you engage with a good piece of fiction where there's a protagonist you can feel related to, the victory of that character becomes your victory and you experience things trough that character. It's not he same source, but the same feeling when you root for a team and you see them win. You don't do a thing but identify yourself with one person or a group; you take a side and when that side wins, you feel like you have won too. You can even share that emotion if you're exposed to the same situation with another person. So, no need for extra reward here, that feeling is a reward in itself.

    Now, when "doing something" becomes a part of the equation, that's a completely different thing. As pointed before, it can even overwhelm and make dissapear the feeling I described above, depending on how much of an interruption the activity represents, and if there is any reinforcement to that feeling from other people. When you "do something" as facing a mental challenge or a social one when you try to communicate by acting, then the feeling of getting something done, and/or the acknowledgement and rewards become important. Often, more imprtant than the lonely fun. (but again, if you're having fun in group, why would we focus on having lone fun on top of it, unless we're really unconfortable in the group and need some escape from it. I've seen that happen too)
  • Rules in RPGs tend to create constraints that are a breeding ground for creativity. Without rules, freeform role-play tends to go all over the place. Sometimes freeform RPGs are overwhelming without constraints that force people to think outside the box. Anyone who has ever faced the task like "draw anything you want" vs. "draw an anthropomorphic rodent doing something cute" knows the power of constraint to get creative juices firing. So rules provide constraints that add value to role-play.

    Rules provide incentives, too. Do you strictly need them? Probably not. An incentive is a bribe to do something that you could do without the reward, right? But incentives are proven to work to get people to do things. In an RPG, this can get people with different goals all on the same page. Just try to play D&D 4e for character development and not for all the cool combatty stuff for 4-5 levels and see how the incentive system pushes you pretty damned hard towards a specific style of play. Incentives get everyone on the same page, which can be very valuable as a signaling device to players. Not being on the same page can ruin the fun, so incentives that align player goals provide much value to producing fun.

    Rules also provide physics--that is, how a setting works--via mechanics or prosaic description. Sure, you could make all of that stuff up on the fly, and lots of people do, but having a default to fall back on in the system itself frees up creative brain power for other things. If resolving questions of "physics" (in the sense I'm using it) isn't fun for you, then a rules system that helps with that part makes the game more fun for you.
  • I think this is a "how you decide to slice it" kind of thing. I mean one can keep dissecting any activity to determine if the activity itself is the source of the pleasure or something else (do boxers love boxing or do they love hitting and being hit?). At a certain point though, all of those things do go into the definition of the thing itself. So I really think the answer to this question is just a matter of how one conceptualizes the experience and what one focuses on. For me, the most striking thing about RPGs from the moment I first played them, was the sense of "being there" in the shoes of another person in another place. I could probably analyze this further but for me it is sufficient to say Roleplaying and immersion are what I am after when I play and the source of my enjoyment (and of course those contain other things that could be analyzed separately---but I don't think that eliminates roleplaying from the equation unless you can find me an activity that brings them all together in exactly the same way as being immersed in character does for me).
  • Yes! I hate myself and I want to be someone else, that's why roleplaying is the best! Just being in exploration/actor stance is such a bliss.
    I've been doing a lot of freeform and I'm now into a phase where I really, really dig rules.
  • I find that if I go very deep into the immersion (this kinda happens easily for me, but it's both good and bad), my character will start to hate herself, too. So a surface portrayal is the most joyful, "flowful" state.
  • I don't think one needs to hate oneself to enjoy being another person for a little bit. I've never experienced any kind of self loathing from it. For me it is just a lot of fun to be in someone else's shoes facing challenges that you would never face in real life, or that would be too dangerous to attempt in real life. I do think there is nothing wrong with escapism though---talked about it here a while back: IN DEFENSE OF ESCAPISM).
  • Let's also get it out there that some people play for that feeling of "flow state," which can be boiled down, in some cases, to the "sole act of acting like another person."
  • edited February 2015
    Ha ha ha, this timing is amazing -- I just finish posting "I believe in roleplaying to roleplay" on a Creative Agenda tangent in another thread, then click into the thread list and see this one.

    So, here's a recent experience: I introduced roleplaying to a guy who had never roleplayed. We had no dice, no formal system, just "you are a player and Dave is the GM." That was it. I told him where he was and what gear he had. He announced an action. I told him the result. He loved it. I loved it too! That was the whole deal -- two people going back and forth over stuff that they're imagining.

    Heck, it probably would have still been fun if his character had done nothing! Just transporting yourself to a different place, and having that place come alive from a friend's description -- it's like watching a movie / reading a book and having a conversation, all at once!

    Of course, for those of us who have done this a lot*, we form other goals and standards. Once you know you can beat a mission or imitate a Coen Bros movie or whatever, it's easy to lose the joy of just playing pretend.

    As for the more specific thread prompt about "acting like another person", well, that sounds to me like we have fiction and action, so I'd say, yes, inherently fun. Without a fictional place to be and fictional things to do, though, I'd say no.

    *Or, perhaps, who have finished learning that this is a thing we can do? Koster and Adam have a point.
  • I think "just playing pretend" loses its shine quickly because there's not a lot to learn there. If you haven't done it ever, or if you haven't done it in a long time, there's something there to learn, and it's hella fun. For a while.

    The complexity of RPGs gives "just playing pretend" some space for mastery and learning.
  • My problem with "just playing pretend" is if there is a clear GM role. It can become very auteurish / "single vision".
  • edited February 2015
    A good auteur's vision is about actualizing your vision.
    Like any other creative medium, the bad artists outnumber the good.

    I don't really have a dog in this race, however, as "fun" is not a goal for me. That word is so fuzzy as to have almost no meaning, and it carries connotative baggage that comes nowhere near what drives me. I think my most long-term Players would agree that the appeal of the long-term campaign has more to do with "feelings of accomplishment" than "fun" per se.

  • I agree with both creases and Adam_Dray.

    Child psychologist DW Winnicott wrote a good book about ‘Playing and Reality’.

    Rules are most useful when they leave a void through which creativity can arrive. (This is just my opinion; I’m not trying to dispute anyone else’s.) Some forms of roleplay incorporate the first flush of imagination in making a work of art.

    Systems such as FATE and Apocalypse World do this so well that some players lose their bearings later in the game. That’s where rules – by which I read ‘inter-subjectivity’ and ‘compromise’ – come into their own.

    I wargame every week. It’s surprising – to me, at least – how much time we spend intently discussing the rules. We expect the rules to take care of everything. They don’t.

    Understanding the other people at the table doesn’t take care of everything either – we often don’t understand ourselves – but if you at least like one another you’re half way there.

    Interesting topic. Yes, I think roleplaying is inherently fun.
  • I think "just playing pretend" loses its shine quickly because there's not a lot to learn there.
    This is not true for children. As adults, have we really learned all we can from Play Pretend, or have we just stopped looking?

    For instance, I think that when you play pretend with other people, there is a nearly infinite amount to potentially be learned about how the group of you can work together. The trick is just how to make that learning process actually happen.
  • Well, I don't think that learning is the only thing that rules offer: just an important thing. Rules also offer creative constraints and much-needed obstacles that come from outside.

    One can sit by oneself and role-play. It's more fun with at least one other person, preferably two or three. It's because we're inherently social animals, and role-play is largely a social activity. Interacting with people (in certain ways, anyway) presses pleasure buttons in our brains. I think when we ask if role-playing is intrinsically fun, we're NOT saying, "Even without other people?" It almost demands a working definition of "role-play" to continue.

  • edited March 2015
    Role-playing is intrinsically enjoyable, though probably not to everyone and not in the same way.

    One of the ways it can be enjoyable is bringing catharsis. A good example of a game that facilitates it is Montsegur 1244 which consists of little else but role-playing.

    Role-playing, or more specifically identification with another, successful character, brings a feeling of vicarious fulfilment. (I remember this described in one of Robert Cialdini's books - it's the mechanism which causes fans of a winning team to say "*we* won", whereas fans of the losing team say "*they* lost".) This happens in every game where your character is more or less guaranteed to be competent, to mostly "win", and to not die unless the player consents.

    And with regards to playing without other people, that happens as well, for example during computer games where people spontaneously come to make decisions according to their character's imagined personality.
  • edited March 2015
    Adam, are you sticking with your original statement about the limits of just playing pretend, or agreeing with my statement that all you need to make it endlessly fun is other people, or neither, or both? I couldn't quite add it up.
    identification with another, successful character, brings a feeling of vicarious fulfillment.
    Yeah, this is pretty much all my group did in middle school when we first discovered roleplaying -- our characters had their way with their fictional environments, and we felt awesome. Even lacking a juvenile wish-fulfillment priority, I think it's still pretty easy to get that "being awesome" kick out of roleplay. All you really need is one player saying, "My guy does a cool thing!" and another player (or computer environment) saying, "Yes! That happened!"
  • I would say that "just playing pretend", or role-playing (by which I mean, pretending to be someone else, in whatever context) is fundamentally fun.

    Just try it with a kid sometime: "Let's pretend we're vultures, ok?" Their eyes light up, and they get very excited.

    Adults don't, because we're suspicious about the value of the activity, as well as the possible social cost for engaging in it (i.e. people will think we're not "cool").

    I've recently been in several all-adult group classes where we were asked to do weird things like "pretend you're wearing a really fancy hat" or "pretend you're throwing sparkles from your feet", but for medical or professional reasons - a trusted authority figure was telling us to do these things along with the suggestion that there was a good reason to engage in them.

    Everyone tried doing them, and almost everyone smiled, laughed, and enjoyed themselves, far more than they expected. Afterwards, a great number said things like, "Wow! I can't believe how much I enjoyed that. Why am I smiling so much? Do we have to stop now, or can we keep doing it?"

    If you doubt this, try something: go to the local bar/library/your job, and challenge yourself to spend 10 minutes as someone completely different from yourself. You'll earn thrills, you'll be tempted to laugh, you'll be challenged, and you will learn things. It's quite an interesting and "fun" activity!
    All you really need is one player saying, "My guy does a cool thing!" and another player (or computer environment) saying, "Yes! That happened!"
    Great observation!

  • What I've found in those situations, Paul, is that it becomes boring as soon as one participant starts deciding everything.
  • I guess I should narrow my claim a bit, to "roleplaying with other people is intrinsically fun if those are people you can enjoy socializing with". Obviously it's hard to cohere on make-believe with someone you can't even, like, hold a conversation with. I'm just an optimist on that front -- if you have two adults who are willing to play pretend together, then hey, you've got something significant in common already!
  • I suspect it's fun for a short time, then starts losing its shine. To make the fun last, you need more direction. This is a falsifiable claim, so tell me that I'm wrong and that you've had four-hour make-believe sessions with people without any kind of structure or rules. As an adult, I mean.

    Even looking back at my childhood make-believe play, we added structure. We'd agree that this particular session was set somewhere specific (Setting) with certain people in it (Character) and maybe some particular event was happening (Situation). It was unconsciously prenegotiated.

    Maybe those things are "just playing pretend" for you. For me, they're nascent role-playing game design.
  • I suspect it's fun for a short time, then starts losing its shine. To make the fun last, you need more direction.
    This matches my experience.

    It's not necessarily "structure" in the sense of rules and repeatable procedures, but it does require some kind of coherent direction - and I think Creative Agenda is a great term for that. If you're doing something, and your friend digs it and starts to contribute in a way which supports what you're doing, suddenly you're cooking with gas.

    If they're not, as in Sandra's example of someone making all the calls (and you not being cool with that - some people enjoy that kind of roleplaying, too), then it sucks pretty fast.

    It's kind of like driving a car: turning the steering wheel and controlling its motion is really fun at first, but after a few minutes you start wondering, "Ok, so where are we going and why?"

  • The question is, is role playing intrinsically fun, not is unstructured free form playing pretend fun. Role playing does not equal freedom play pretend.
  • edited March 2015
    Even looking back at my childhood make-believe play, we added structure. We'd agree that this particular session was set somewhere specific (Setting) with certain people in it (Character) and maybe some particular event was happening (Situation). It was unconsciously prenegotiated.

    Maybe those things are "just playing pretend" for you.
    Indeed they are. And "even looking back at childhood play" shows why. We do them automatically, without training or guidance. Remove them, and you're not playing pretend, you're just daydreaming.

    We all have Characters to be and Places to traverse and Situations to address and a System that tells you not to talk over me constantly or undo what I just did or whatever. These are the basic requirements; without them, we can't play pretend together.

    Right? Am I missing something?

    I think we all know this by the time we're 6, or at least 10, and that System troubles only re-emerge when we aim higher (with, y'know, rules & gameplay & stuff).

    When I was 14, my best friend had a newspaper route, and we'd walk it together, and I'd GM, and he'd play a character. He was a demigod transforming a primitive continent into a badass society primed to make war on its neighbors. I'd tell him a hurdle his people faced, he'd come up with some colorful way to solve it and earn their worship; then he'd tell me a new policy he'd institute, and I'd describe the immediate response and then the eventual consequences. This remained fun for half a year or so until he quit the paper route. No rules, and it wasn't just a novelty thing, as we'd played RPGs together before. Just a fictional premise and a creative division of labor and go! It was great. I would do it again today if I had the opportunity. I may try at Camp Nerdly...
  • I have talked about the positive effects of role-playing in previous blog posts. Discussing how it improves social skills and expand one’s understanding of the world around them. While that is all well and good, I got to thinking. Is the act of role-playing intrinsically enjoyable?
    Intrinsically? No, if the roleplaying sessions that had me yawning were any indication.
  • I have no way how to answer this question. I keep going back and forth!

    In most of my games, roleplaying is flat-out fun. I laugh, I get excited, I cheer for characters. It's like a sport.

    But sometimes, it's something totally else--things happen, and I step back, and go "Whoa." It's not fun--sometimes, there's tragic stuff, heavy stuff, important stuff going on. But it's got that sort of potency--it's real. And it's this second category that I aspire to; the fun moments are good because they lighten up the game and keep things rolling, but it's those latter moments that really draw me to gaming.

    In short, while I like to have RPGs that play out like summer blockbusters, what I really want is the games that are Russian Novels.
  • edited March 2015
    The question is, is role playing intrinsically fun, not is unstructured free form playing pretend fun. Role playing does not equal freedom play pretend.
    Sure, but it's perfectly acceptable to answer the first question with "Only if you have rules to give it structure" which can be read as anything between "This food needs a little salt to bring out the flavor" (and is therefore an inherently delicious food that just needs a little help) and "Well, I can stomach this if I wrap it in bacon, deep fry it, and cover it in hot sauce." (in which case one could argue that the food is not inherently delicious.)

    It's probably closer to the former, but I think it's not unreasonable if someone says "Not all by itself."
  • The question is, is role playing intrinsically fun, not is unstructured free form playing pretend fun. Role playing does not equal freedom play pretend.
    Sure, but it's perfectly acceptable to answer the first question with "Only if you have rules to give it structure" which can be read as anything between "This food needs a little salt to bring out the flavor" (and is therefore an inherently delicious food that just needs a little help) and "Well, I can stomach this if I wrap it in bacon, deep fry it, and cover it in hot sauce." (in which case one could argue that the food is not inherently delicious.)

    It's probably closer to the former, but I think it's not unreasonable if someone says "Not all by itself."

    I don't think you can do that and answer the question honestly though, because every element like that you add is a kind of wedge against it being intrinsically enjoyable. You are essentially removing integral aspects of roleplaying to argue that roleplaying isn't intrinsically entertaining. We are not talking rolls or mechanics here, we are talking about something as simple as having a sense of the setting you are in, the character you are playing and why you are there. Those are not additions to roleplaying, those are part of roleplaying. For the act of roleplaying as I understand it, is intrinsically entertaining. It is sort of like John Wick's recent article where he tries to prove D&D isn't a roleplaying game, it is that kind of reasoning in my view.

  • Pretending to be someone else feels great and I wish it would never end
  • We all have Characters to be and Places to traverse and Situations to address and a System that tells you not to talk over me constantly or undo what I just did or whatever. These are the basic requirements; without them, we can't play pretend together.

    Right? Am I missing something?
    Yeah, that's probably right. I think System evolves naturally as a result of doing stuff together. However, I think that you can play pretend together without them; you just can't keep it going for long. It doesn't stop being role-playing because I keep undoing what you did--it just stops being fun for you. I suspect game texts result as a system for creating fun more reliably, so you don't have to reinvent all that stuff every time.

    So at what point do we draw a useful line between "just playing pretend" and "playing and RPG"? Is there a useful line, or are they the same activity?

    If they're essentially the same, then the OP is sorta moot. Or maybe the question is, "Do we really need all this system crap for role-playing to be fun?" and I'm pretty sure I think the answer is "No, of course not. Fiasco RPG proved that."

    And then we bicker about the line some more, and I talk about the "Still Life" LARP about pretending to be rocks with existential questions, which is clearly role-playing, but is it "just playing pretend"? I suppose it's an example of role-playing being intrinsically fun, at least, but there's still structure there.

    I guess my position is "Yeah, of course role-playing is intrinsically fun, but I don't think it's generally sustainable for all of the reasons that RPGs exist in the first place."
  • Nice. Makes sense to me!

    One random thought, though:
    It doesn't stop being role-playing because I keep undoing what you did--it just stops being fun for you. I suspect game texts result as a system for creating fun more reliably, so you don't have to reinvent all that stuff every time.
    I think various games have done fantastic jobs of covering certain vital bases of System, but generally not the bases you need to cover for just playing pretend. Published RPGs are more likely to have rules for how we decide if a character succeeds or gets what they wants, in a way that no one playing will contest... whereas functional playing pretend is more likely to have rules (or, well, habits) for who gets to talk how much, and when, and about what. I think this is where Puppetland and Swords Without Master are perhaps more intuitive than D&D when it comes to taking Play Pretend and beginning to add structure. If people came to those "rules about talking" games first, I wonder if D&D would look like it does. Or maybe this is just apples & oranges...
  • My position would be that no, role-playing is not intrinsically fun (or even pleasurable) as an activity.

    It's been a while since I was on these boards, but I'd have to agree with CarpeGuitarrem in that some stories, like the aforementioned Russian novels, and even my game, Terribly Beautiful, are very different. They are not usually fun to play. The point of playing them is exploring and building empathy with the characters who are going through very painful and complex situations. An additional reason to play them is to contrast them with a more privileged life like my own.

    At the same time, that doesn't mean that role-playing can't be fun, but fun is such a vague word that it means little on its own. In his book Designing Games, Sylvester tried to explain and explore "fun," but he failed to analyze his own choices in using that word. Giving a similar treatment to "empathy" might have resulted in a very different book.
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