Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: role-playing game from The Macquarie Dictionary

a game in which players take on personas, either invented or made available within the game.

Plural: role-playing games


a computer game of this type.

Plural: role-playing games

role-play games

Summary Article: Role-Playing
from Encyclopedia of Play in Today's Society

Role-playing can cover a wide range of activities and age ranges. It can be used as a means of relaxation in the form of escaping the “real” world, a means of learning new skills, or strictly as a means of play. Determining when the first forms of role-playing took place is impossible. As a commercial endeavor, its first recorded appearance was in 1968, when a group of friends started putting together a gaming system that would eventually become Dungeons & Dragons in book form. Once Dungeons & Dragons became a commercial success, numerous other variants also started to appear. Then, with the rise of the computer, role-playing would move to computers, and ultimately, with the appearance of the internet, it would become possible for people from all over the world to share fantasy lives in fantasy worlds with each other.

Role-Playing in General Play

In the most general of terms, role-playing gives one or more of the people involved a chance to experience, even in a pretend situation, what a given situation might be like. This can include having people role-play accident victims so that emergency personal can gain the experience of how to deal with situations of various sizes without the possibility of people actually losing their lives. Role-playing can also be used to train new employees on how to deal with customers by using other employees to role-play the part of the customer. In both of these cases, if the trainee performance needs improvement, the instructors can run them through the situation over and over until the lesson is learned.

As children most people have experienced some type of role-playing with other children, by playing house, doctor, army, good guys and bad guys, Cowboys and Indians, or some other variation of make believe with their friends. These games give them a chance to mimic adult behavior and are normally considered part of growing up.

For most kids, and adults, they know there is a difference between their fantasy, or make-believe worlds, and the real one. Occasionally, people with mental disabilities may be unable to differentiate between the two, and this can lead to problems when they try to interact with people in the real world while they think they are still in, or are actually from, their fantasy world.

As adults, role-playing or fantasy play can be used as a way to relax, to be able to say things the person may not be comfortable saying as themselves, or as a means of trying out actions or lives that a person would normally avoid. While role-play as a game probably existed before the 1970s, it was not until then that someone actually took the time to lay out a series of rules to govern the activity and then sell them to others to use.

Role-Playing Within a Regulated Play Reality

Dungeons & Dragons was the first commercially available set of role-playing rules published. Published in 1974, they were the creation of E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and were published by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). Initially the role-playing aspect was used to spice up otherwise boring miniatures battles based on a set of rules known as Chainmail.

Instead of just trying to win the game, each player was given a specific objective. They then added to the game by bringing fantasy elements to the otherwise real-world game. The official rules for the game developed over several years, combining real elements with fantasy elements. Like most new ideas, Gygax and Arneson could not convince a major gaming company to take the chance on this completely new type of game and had to publish it privately. While initial sales were slow, the game eventually took off and has spawned a number of copycats.

While Dungeons & Dragons uses a fantasy medieval setting, the copycats brought role-playing games into ever-expanding genres. While some of the other games would stick with the obviously popular fantasy medieval setting, others expanded into the worlds of outer space, in some cases basing their game on popular television shows like Star Trek. Others would give their players the chance to be something other than a person, such as a rabbit in Bunnies and Burrows. Some games even took the players to semihistorical places, like Boot Hill.

All of these games employ similar basic mechanisms. The game is lead by one player, called a Game Master. When Dungeons & Dragons was first published, the name Dungeon Master was used, but as the games expanded to include settings other than just adventures in a dungeon, the name was changed. It is the responsibility of the Game Master to do the preparation for the game, determining in general what the task (or tasks) of the other players would be. The Game Master also played all of the characters that the players would run into during the game and was expected to know the rules of the game better than anyone else.

Using the rules of the game, the other players then create the characters they will play in the game. The rules will lay out what characteristics and skills these characters have and how they are determined. In most role-playing games, a number of dice are used. Unlike a lot of games, these dice are not limited to strictly six sides; they can have any number of sides. Depending on the statistical distribution the designer wants, characteristics could be determined by one dice or multiple dice rolls. Players are then responsible for outfitting their character, again based on the rules of the game. They are then ready to begin the game, which is often referred to as an adventure.

The Game Master is then responsible for describing to the players what the setting is and what they see as they move about. The Game Master in many ways has a more difficult job then the players, since it is their responsibility to set the tone of the game and keep it interesting, no matter what the players may do.

Live-Action Role-Playing

While all the players share the same imaginary adventure and world, they are just that, imaginary, and normally the game takes place around a table. In the 1980s, role-playing games moved into a new realm, called live-action role-playing. With live-action role-playing, the players had to actually dress up like their character and interact with the other players while in character, and actually do the things they wanted their character to do instead of just describing it to the other players. These are still games with rules that govern what players can and cannot do, as well as determining the outcome of interactions between characters.

Because the game has now moved from the realm of strictly imagination to the real world, the imaginary world must, in many ways, look like the real world, since that is where the game is played. Like a movie set, some games will create sets and props to use in the game. In the case of simulating combat, players must be careful to make sure that weapons are safe. Again, players must rely on the game rules to determine the outcome of any possible combat between players.

Live action role-playing also includes such social games as Host a Murder, which allows a group of adults to get together to socialize with each other. However, each person represents someone who is a suspect in a murder case. The players are given a biography of the person they are to play and what they know. The players then have to interact with each other asking questions and attempting to figure out which of them is the actual murderer.

Role-Playing Games Move to the Computer

All of these games require at least two people to play. With the advent of the personal computer, role-playing games started to be available on that media also. Initially, these were all single-player games, with the computer taking the place of the Game Master. Because the responses of the computer had to be preprogrammed, the software was limited in what it could do and in how well it could recognize what the player wanted to do or was trying to do. These types of games also lost the social aspect of the tabletop or live-action versions. This was offset by the fact that a player was not limited to only being able to play when others were available.

Role-Playing Within Massive Multiplayer Online Games

With the advent of the internet, the size of role-playing games suddenly expanded. With the tabletop or live action versions, the number of players was limited by the number of Game Masters. If there were too many players, the Game Master could not keep up with them. Using networked computers, the number of players that could partake in a game jumped from five to 10 (with one Game Master) to hundreds of players, using programmed decision making. These games became known as Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG). Initially, these games were text based, and players interacted with the computer by typing commands. In some cases, half of the challenge of the game was figuring out what command you needed to use to get the computer to do what you wanted it to do.

With the increase in computing, the power of personal computers, and enhanced computer graphics, these games started using visuals to show the player what was going on instead of using text. As the power of computers to render graphics increased, these games moved to using graphical representations of the world and the objects and people in it. Many of these games still have objects that the players could accomplish. These games include World of Warcraft and Everquest. At the same time, there also developed a category of these role-playing games where there were not necessarily any clear-cut goals involved. Instead, these “games” offered players a chance to interact with each other and create their own worlds. These included The Sims Online and Second Life, giving a player the chance to be someone other than themselves and opening new experiences to the player, based on how other people might interact with them.

See Also

Dragon Quest, Dungeon Lords, Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy Play, Human Relationships in Play, Play as Rehearsal of Reality, Playing “Doctor”, Playing “House”, Pretending, Sex Play, SimCity, TSR, World of Warcraft

  • Fine, Gary Alan, Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds ( University of Chicago Press, 1983.).
  • Ludlow, Peter and Wallace, Mark, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse ( MIT Press, 2007.).
  • Taylor, T.L., Playing Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture ( MIT Press, 2006.).
  • Unger, Dallace W.
    (Independent Scholar)
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.