Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
 
The meaning of role-playing

I was reading the news about the American Association for the Advancement of Science datamining a huge pile of information about MMO players in the form of complete EQ2 server logs. Yes, every inappropriate remark you ever made in chat is now being studied by science! But apart from that privacy issue, one specific result of that research peaked my interest. Quote:
“a small subset of the population—about five percent—who used the game for serious role playing and, according to Williams, “They are psychologically much worse off than the regular players.” They belong to marginalized groups, like ethnic and religious minorities and non-heterosexuals, and tended to use the game as a coping mechanism.”
Wow! It's one thing if somebody in Barrens chat says "roleplayers are gay". But from the American Association for the Advancement of Science I would have liked to see a bit more serious research. Or at least more careful wording. So lets have a look at role-playing in the context of MMORPGs. What does that "RP" in the middle of that long acronym really mean?

The first thing we need to do is to go back in history. To 1974 when a company called Tactical Studies Rules published their second game, called Dungeons & Dragons. As the name of the company suggests, Dungeons & Dragons, like TSR's first game, was planned to be a miniature wargame. With one innovative twist, that the players were controlling a single character, not whole squads or armies.

Now miniature wargaming was a serious hobby. If you were neighing like a horse when advancing your cavalry, people would look at you strangely. And early "fantasy role-playing", as Dungeons & Dragons came to be called, continued in the same vein. Players *controlled* a single character, who just like in a miniature wargame was defined by his stats, so that the success and effect of his actions could be determined by dice. I played a lot of the early modules of D&D and AD&D, and they were relatively simple affairs, with very thin plots and a distinctive lack of logic. "You open the door to a 10' x 10' room in which there are 12 orcs. The orcs attack. What do you do?" Nobody ever worried what the orcs were doing in that dungeon room, or why there were so many of them in such a small room with no furniture. Probably they couldn't get out, because the corridors before and after the room were lined with deadly traps and improbably monsters. :)

A lot of people continue to play role-playing games like that: Rarely, if ever, speaking in character, with the game being more about minmaxing your character through his adventures, to make him stronger. Even as pen & paper modules evolved to be more story-driven, more logical, for a large number of players "role-playing" was equivalent to "character development". But some people moved further into theatrics. They insisted on speaking in character all the time, imagined background stories for their characters, and tried to play them in a way which made them interesting, not necessarily optimal for advancement. Some people even started live action role-playing, running through the woods wearing plastic chainmail and wielding rubber swords. That didn't exactly help the image of role-playing games, which were already regarded with suspicion by some parents, and condemned by some nutters as being equivalent to devil worship. Meanwhile the average "role player" was just hanging out with friends, rolling dice, and eating a lot of junk food, trying to get his character to the next level, with very few theatrics involved.

And then computer role-playing games appeared, starting with ASCII-graphics games like Rogue, followed by great classics like the Ultima or Wizardry series, later followed by the Gold Box series using Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. And these games were mostly single-player games. They were called role-playing games, but there certainly weren't any theatrics or in character speaking Elizabethean English involved. You simply directed one or several characters through dungeons or other adventures, to gather experience points and levels. Role-playing meant character development. Even nowadays, if you read a review of a strategy game in which you keep your units from one chapter to the next and improve its stats, the reviewer will say the game has "role-playing elements".

And that approach to role-playing hasn't changed much, even when massively multiplayer online role-playing games appeared. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science remarks, 95% of players of MMORPGs consider role-playing to mean playing a character with a defined set of stats and abilities. The "role" is for example being a shaman in WoW, but "playing" that shaman doesn't mean you need to start chanting into voice chat or perform a rain dance in front of your computer. "Playing" a shaman means having certain stats and abilities, like all those totems, and using them to maximize the utility of your character, so you gain experience points, levels, and gear.

The 5% minority of people who think that role-playing means theatrics, background stories, and speaking in character, did achieve one important victory in insisting that their activity was called "role-playing", and was the only true way of role-playing. They even got their own "role-playing servers" in some games. Unfortunately for them, their triumph ends there. Many people still regard them as weirdos or at least geeks, and those scientists attesting to their "psychological problems" aren't helping. But in reality most of the self-styled true role-players are pretty normal, and just enjoy the added creativity. It isn't much different from people doing improvisational theatre, and few people think those have psychological problems (except those who think that all artists are weird).

So there you have it, the problem is simply a badly defined term. "Role-playing" means different things to different people, and there is no one true definition, as much as some people might disagree with that. In computer game terms it is more often used to simply mean a game with character development. That doesn't mean that people who enjoy playing in character on a role-playing server have any less right to do so. There are a lot of different valid ways to play a MMORPG, and this is just one of them.
Comments:
What does that "RP" in the middle of that long acronym really mean?

This argument is old and tired, and I'm glad this isn't a large rant on how everyone not on RP servers are 'doing it wrong'. There's also a G on the end, but more often people treat it like a second job. In an RPG on a console, I rarely cosplay as I run around, or suddenly speak differently as I pass my wife on the way to the fridge (Wouldst thou giveth me an ale, fine wench? Verily!).

As noted, the acronym "RPG" has taken on a whole different meaning and defines a genre now more than a way of speaking in party chat. I'd love to see the next game that came out suddenly label itself an MMOCCPG (constant character progression). would we be free of the sentence I've italicized above? Probably not. : /
 
I have yet to see a modern mainstream MMO-RPG that is not a MMOCCPG, as Ixobelle stated. WoW is also so heavily based on progression as EQ-derivate and offers so little interaction with the environment, that an graphics barren IRC-chat or games like Ultima Online, run on a private "Free Shard", encourage MMO-"RPG" much more than WoW-RP-Servers ever could.

Hardcore RPers are often over the top and have a hard time socializing with everyone who does not take RP as dead serious as they do. Some might indeed be weird, but Williams is getting a quite personal and does not backup up his hilarious statement either.
 
Williams is getting a quite personal and does not backup up his hilarious statement either.
I think that the broken telephone phenomenon is to blame here. The original Ars Technica article mentioned that they complemented the server logs with demographic surveys. However, the article also notes that self-reporting can be unreliable: Some players under-reported their time spent in the game by as much as three hours.
 
Here’s the actual data from the original paper he presented on it months and months ago. I agree that broken telephone is a big issue here. Williams is a serious researcher.

PS, no, they don't have your chat logs. That would be against both SOE's privacy policy and also against the academic policies on human subjects. Everything was anonymized.

"In contrast, EQ2 players have lower levels of mental health on two out of the three indicators. 22.76% of EQ2 players reported having been diagnosed with depression. This level is larger for the female players (36.52%, SD = 48.17%) than the males (19.38%, SD = 39.63%)(t = 13.567, df = 6776, p < .001, d = .33). These figures are both higher than the respective gender rates for the U.S. population, which has a 23% rate for women and an 11% rate for men. Players had a slightly higher rate of substance addiction (5.56%, SD = 22.91% vs. 4.8% for the general population, t = 2.73, df = 6798, p < .01, d = .07). The exception to this pattern was anxiety, for which EQ2 players reported slightly lower levels (M = 16.60%, SD = 37.21%) than the general population (18.1%)(t =−3.32, df = 6776, p < .005, d = .08)."

In the conclusions section:

"In contrast to the physical health findings, the mental health indicators paint a potentially bleaker picture, although it is important to recognize that there are no causal conclusions drawn here. EQ2 players have worse mental health than the general population on depression and substance addiction, but not anxiety. Causally, it is possible that game play created these outcomes, but it is equally possible that people with mental health issues are more likely to seek out MMOs. Each possibility has a plausible model. Time spent in MMOs could be isolating players from real-world human connections, or providing an escape hatch from dealing with difficult offline personal issues and situations. However, given the large social motivations found here and repeated in nearly every ethnographic study of MMOs (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006; Taylor, 2006), it is clear that time spent in MMOs is far from asocial. One obvious mechanism would be the displacement of previously existing relationships by new in-game ones. However, this is tempered to some degree by the fact that a large number of players play with those they knew beforehand. In the sample here, that percentage was over 57%. If the game is causing mental health problems, it is clearly not because of a lack of social contact, but because of a qualitative difference in it. Thus it is equally plausible that people come to MMOs with lower mental health a priori. They could come seeking refuge—perhaps in lieu of traditional spiritual outlets—and it is not possible to use these results to speculate on whether their results are ultimately harmful, or perhaps therapeutic. Their relatively healthy levels of anxiety suggest a complex picture. A more in-depth investigation of the correlates of mental health is certainly warranted by these findings, as is an investigation of the causal direction of any effects. Likewise, a more in-depth investigation of the social and community patterns could help explain these relationships."
 
That's a pretty fair assessment, Tobold. The comparison with improvisational theatre is spot on for the kind of RP I was involved with in MUDs from the mid-80s to a few years ago. There are other types, however. For example some like to script their RP ahead of time, kind of like preparing for putting on a play.

I saw early on (in EQ) that my kind of RP wasn't going to fly in MMORPGs. It requires a consensus and that means a low population (say, 200 or less). And like improv, it's not going to work if there's too much interference from the audience (the other 95% or more players in the MMORPG, many of whom love to throw a wrench in what they're doing).

Oh, and BTW, no role-player uses funny old English unless funny old England is the setting. That's an SCA and Renaissance Faire kind of thing, not necessarily an RP thing.
 
"In an RPG on a console, I rarely cosplay as I run around, or suddenly speak differently as I pass my wife on the way to the fridge."
Nor would any sensible roleplayer. You're in character in the game, not on your way to the fridge. I'm pretty sure most actors playing Hamlet don't run around in doublet and hose at home either.

I notice that neither the article you link or the one it links to provide a shred of evidence for their assertions. More cheap headline grabbing by the AAAS?
 
There is a simple reason for classifying "role players" as "mental health patients". MMO-RPGs like EQ or WoW are *NOT* RPG-s. In games like Baldur's Gate or Fallout you had to know your ROLE in the story or be unsuccessful. You couldn't complete the game if you had no idea what's going on around you. WoW has nothing to do with roles. You kill 12 wolves/fel orcs/wolvars until lvl cap, than go farm epics and go raid. You don't have to know who the "Lich King" is. If it has red letters above his head, you kill it and loot it.

If someone roleplays in a non-roleplaying environment is an mental health patient (idiot). Not because roleplaying itself is bad or ill, but because he does it in the wrong place. If I would stop people in the middle of the street and start teaching them matrix algebra, I would find myself in the psychiatry in no time. If a maths teacher would walk around the classroom saying "sorry, no time to talk, must go to work", he would get to the psychiatry too. On the other hand someone teaching matrix algebra in the classroom or moving to work in the street is completely normal.
 
Aside from anything else he seems to base
"psychologically much worse off than the regular players"

on the fact that the players "belong to marginalized groups, like ethnic and religious minorities and non-heterosexuals"

It's a shame that morons like this are taught to write.
 
@ Gevlon

If people who roleplay in a game obviously primarily focussed on killing monsters are idiots does that not also mean that people who play the auction house in a such a game are similarly mentally challenged?

Hoist by your own petard!
 
Lol @Gothica

Gevlon you have been truly Pwn3d :)

With regard to the finding that "Role Players are marginalised" I think it it a shame but nevertheless understandable. In the world we live in adults generally aren't permitted to play pretend games the way children do. As adults we seem to have to to invent spurious reasons for our leisure activities - to win the cup, to beat harry, to get an epic, to prove I'm a great lover etc. It seems there is a taboo against adults just "playing make believe" and only marginalised folk manage to shake this taboo and really play "lets pretend". Pretty soon this becomes a self re-inforcing stereo-type: "Only losers role play, I'm not a loser therefore I won't role play".

I think its a pity. I suspect we are missing out on a lot of fun and a lot of creativity as well. The fact that some marginalised adults can break the taboo and role play makes me think that there are no hard wired barriers involved. Its probably just a cultural hangover from the days when grown-ups were so busy fighting off sabre toothed tigers that they had no time for leisure and playing games.
 
As a serious pen and paper roleplayer, and with the experience of the groups I play with, I agree with the assessment.
 
Laughable comment.
As a ethnic & religious minority person who dabbles in some casual RP, I find it ridiculous that anyone can suggest I'm "psychologically" worse off than another player. In fact the statement seems to suggest that minorities and RP'ers alike are psychologically backwards. The fact that I'm a minority and a occasional RP'er does not mean I have problems.
 
If people who roleplay in a game obviously primarily focussed on killing monsters are idiots does that not also mean that people who play the auction house in a such a game are similarly mentally challenged?
No, because there is such a thing as an auction house in the first place. If Blizzard didn't want the game to have some resemblance of a free-market economy, then you could only buy and sell stuff with NPC vendors. While playing the AH may not be one of the primary play styles, it is a play style.

The fact that I'm a minority and a occasional RP'er does not mean I have problems.
Yes, correlation does not imply causality, and the end of Raph Koster's quote makes it clear that the author is not jumping to conclusions.
 
I hope they plan to do more research on this, partly because I'm very curious as to how the causality does work out (can't be that hard to set up some surveys asking people how their behaviour has changed since playing MMOs, and a comparison with people who play similar amounts of non-MMO computer games), plus I think we need to know. For SCIENCE!
 
No, because there is such a thing as an auction house in the first place. If Blizzard didn't want the game to have some resemblance of a free-market economy, then you could only buy and sell stuff with NPC vendors. While playing the AH may not be one of the primary play styles, it is a play style.

So by the same logic you could say Blizzard intended role-playing to take place. After all, if they didn't they wouldn't have included all these non-existant playable races in the games such as orcs and elves, but just just kept it with humans. So while role playing may not be one of the primary play styles, it is a play style.
 
As a ethnic & religious minority person who dabbles in some casual RP--- dabble being the key word here.

I don't think he is talking about dabblers. He's talking about people who live and breath RP in an MMO. And yeah, I'd say that a person like that is more likely to have issues than someone who just plays MMOs, and substantially more likely than the average joe.

Hell, I see myself in that study. I spent two years absolutely obsessed with WoW; probably put 200 days in over two years. And the real reason why I was doing is because I had to endure a very stressful real world situation and when that happens I game a lot. And the real hardcore guys who play all the time... I think that was pretty common. Everyone was running from something.

That doesn't reflect on all MMO players, anymore than anyone who enjoys a drink from time to time is an alcoholic. But I'd say its pretty damn hard to argue that people who hang out at the bar for 40 hours a week like I did don't have a problem. And MMOs are especially attractive to those seeking escape.

Crank that up a level to a person who is actively seeking to not just play a game, but to do their best to BE another person while they play it, and yeah, as a whole they probably aren't the paragons of mental health.
 
So by the same logic you could say Blizzard intended role-playing to take place. After all, if they didn't they wouldn't have included all these non-existant playable races in the games such as orcs and elves, but just just kept it with humans. So while role playing may not be one of the primary play styles, it is a play style.
Indeed. Both auction houses and role-playing servers were there at launch. Neither is a main course, but more of a side dish to enhance the overall experience. While role-playing has a larger role on RP servers, the core gameplay (and players) are the same. Players on RP servers kill raid bosses and gank the opposing faction the same way as on other servers.

Did I mention that I played on role-playing servers exclusively?-)
 
They belong to marginalized groups, like ethnic and religious minorities and non-heterosexuals

What if I just roleplay a Black Jewish Gay Man. Wonder what they would say then?
 
It always makes me chuckle when people call each other idiots only because they don't understand each other.

Really, there are so many different degrees to RP, and those who are hardcore, like the hardcore raider, are a minority. Generalizing based on a minority does not make you look very smart or socially competent. ;)

And calling fellow players idiots, because they *gasp* enjoy the RP aspect in an MMORPG, is hilarious, and a very good example of being hardcore narrow minded. ;)
 
Someone set up a website referencing that quote already:
roleplayersaregay.com
 
I read that that study on Ars Techina and basically it's a pile of crap written to satisfy some pathetic graduation requirement.
 
Thanks to Ralph Koster's quotes I have managed to locate the original paper online.

My immediate thoughts on skim reading are, in no particular order:
1. The study only considers EQ2 players. EQ2 is a far less mainstream game than WOW and it would be interesting to see if the figures for WOW are the same. A mischievous person might conclude that only people who RP in EQ2 are "psychologically much worse off".

2. The health comparison is made with the general population, rather than those of a similar demographic group. This is a basic methodological shortcoming and one that should have been highlighted in the text.

3. The study considers two possible scenarios: that playing the game impacts mental health or that people with mental health problems are motivated to play. It does not discuss the (entirely plausible) possibility that there is no causal relationship of any kind, but that there is a common environmental factor (e.g an unfulfilling job or relationship) that both increases likelihood to play RPGs and impacts mental health. This, again, is a basic shortcoming that should, at least have been mentioned by Williams et al.

Overall, whilst it isn't as dreadful as the sensationalist reporting suggested, the apparent shortcomings of the study (and the authors' lack of discussion of them) weaken its credibility. I'm surprised the reviewers didn't pick this up.
 
"Crank that up a level to a person who is actively seeking to not just play a game, but to do their best to BE another person while they play it, and yeah, as a whole they probably aren't the paragons of mental health."
Whilst that may be true, one could also apply the same argument to method actors. Most roleplayers aren't trying to be someone else - they're just taking on that role for the evening and quite happily go to bed as themselves.

I'm reminded of the (probably) apocryphal story about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. To quote the version in the British Theatre Guide:

According to the story, just before filming a scene in which he was supposed to be exhausted from running, Hoffman did exactly that: he ran until he was really pretty shattered. Olivier had watched this, and the subsequent conversation went something like this:

Olivier: "What on earth are you exhausting yourself like that for?"

Hoffman: " I've got to get the right feeling for the scene. What else could I do?"

Olivier: " Try acting, dear boy."

Mosr roleplayers are just acting, dear boy.
 
Oh yeah Sven, I'm sure your right that most RP guys are fine.

But really, comparing them to actors... probably not the best comparison if you want to cast the RP'ers mental health in a good light.
 
So your stance is pretty much, a bunch of scientists analyzed some data but your relatively unsubstantiated opinion that "in reality most of the self-styled true role-players are pretty normal" is somehow more valid?

Personally, I have no doubt that people who roleplay in character a lot are more likely to have psychological issues. Just log onto a RP only Neverwinter Nights server if you don't believe it.
 
But really, comparing them to actors... probably not the best comparison if you want to cast the RP'ers mental health in a good light.
A fair point, but one that I think goes wider than the initial study. If there is evidence that a similar study has been done on actors (both amateur and professional), it would be interesting to see it. On the same measure, where do they stand relative to roleplayers? If they're similar to or worse than RPers, it would suggest that MMORPGs are a distraction and that acting itself correlates with poor mental health. Which is an interesting find in itself.
 
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link



<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

  Powered by Blogger   Free Page Rank Tool