The Many faces of role-playing games

Michael Hitchens, Anders Drachen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Role-playing games have evolved into many forms in their thirty-year history. From the traditional pen-and-paper form, that originated with Dungeons and Dragons, with a group of friends playing around a table, to large live-action game, with hundreds of people acting out their assumed roles. The first computer role-playing games appeared over twenty-five years ago and massively multi-playerrole-playing games, such as World of Warcraft are now one of the most popular genres of digital games. Despite this diversity players at least seem to think they know when something is a role-playing game. When players, writers and game designers say “this is a role-playing game” there are no problems, they all seem to know what each other means, what is and is not a role-playing game. Yet there is no commonly accepted definition of the form. Understandable, perhaps, given the diversity, but the implicit agreement about its use means that there may well be some common underlying features shared by the various examples. Hampering any attempt to understand what makes a game a role-playing game is the subtle divide between role-playing and role-playing game. Role-playing can take in many places, not all of them games (such as ritual, social activities, therapy, etc). This means that definitions of the role-playing activity are not that useful in separating role-playing games from other games. In this paper we start from the position that the players are correct: they know what a role-playing game is. By examining a range of roleplaying games some common features of them emerge. This results in a definition that is more successful than previous ones at identifying both what is, and what is not, a role-playing game.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-21
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Role-Playing
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2008

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