Roles in Games

There is a rally call from those that prefer the longer draw from their addictions in the video game circles. Wanting to say that their own take on the medium, their own specific genre, is more important than another, many supporting games that are traditionally marked as role-playing games will point toward the other genres and say that all games are in this category. In every game, they say, you play one type of role or another. In the fighting game, you fight as a player. In the strategy game, you are a commander. Pick any game, any genre, and you will be placed, upon playing the game, into a role of some type. Shouldn’t all games just be classified as role-playing game then? Of course, they say this as if, with all the other genres, somehow theirs will be diminished somehow among the all the choices.

While promoting a general chaos about how to classify games, especially video games, the only real respect this argument gets most of the time is a resigned nod and a general agreement that the person who brought it up should probably just leave. However, it is right. In all games, there is a role to play. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that within any medium, there are roles. They might not be fixed, or even labelled, but they exist. In books, it might be the reader and writer. In theater, the performers and the audience. In video games, however, this goes even farther. Not only is there one role, the player, but also the often neglected duality of the interactions, the character.

There is a nice way that many users who try to raise the level of verisimilitude in a experience use to describe those that both act and are acted upon: the player-character. This hyphenation joins together the idea that there exists a larger world beyond that of the game why also linking the player into the environment. The player exists in reality while the character is rooted in the game-world. Neither is one alone but a combination of them both. In order for the player to interact with the world, access the “magic circle”, they must act through the character, must project themselves. The character too is not just a shadow of the player but is a combination of the actions taken by the player, the rules of the game and the interaction between the two. The joining of the two is a bridge, ‘the simulation gap’, through which the “circle” is accessed and through which communication is possible.

Going back to the MDA model of design, the character portion exists in the world of the Dynamics, the “run-time behavior of the mechanics”. While the character is defined by the mechanics, the rules and overall content restrictions, the character only truly exists during the session in which the player inhabits the role of the character. The interaction between the two interlocking states, player-character, drives the continued input, the further Dynamics part of the triangle, and leads to the Aesthetics, the emotional response, while also prompting more working of the system, the Mechanics. Thus, the entity called player-character spans the flow of information from one side, player and Aesthetics, to the other, character and Mechanics, while existing together during the Dynamics phase.

While models and frameworks might help some, it might be easier to consider the two roles, the player-character, as more of a metaphor for something different, director-actor. Among the many media consumed, the movie and television industry fuel the more popular forms of scripted performances. Within those production environments, there are two important roles that are important for this metaphor: the director and the actor. Driven by the script in part, the director is responsible for interpreting the orders — the rules — in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, while also moving the actors around on the stage. While the director can change the scripts — switch games — she must abide by the constrictions of the physical limitations of the space, the actors and the schedule — the mechanics. The actor too must abide by the script but is limited even more the director. The actor must, in this perfect world, follow the word of the director AND follow the script — the character. The player is both of these roles. She must direct as well as act. In order to express will upon the world, the director role must make action happen while the actor role is also followed — dynamics.

I’ll admit that the director-actor construct is not as strong as the player-character one. Both though demonstrate the necessary duality that must exist for the player world and the character world to co-exist. To answer the question that was raised at the beginning, yes, all games are, in fact, role-playing games. However, the idea that players just exists in one role, the character onscreen, is very simplistic. It is not as easy to say that because some something is controlled, it is the sole way to express the entirety of the relationship. The player exists in all contexts of the categorization. Yes, all games are role-playing games, but this also means that not only is there a role, a character, but also someone providing input, a player.