I’ve been playing a fair share of role-playing video games lately. RPGs. And actually, I’ve primarily been swapping between two right now — Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on my desktop and Fallout 3 on my PlayStation — but have dabbled in a bunch of others in recent months and years, too.
RPGs are the types of games where you take on the “role” of the central protagonist of a vast and interactive story. This is different from a first person shooter (FPS) game because — even though they look very similar on the surface, the third-person over-the-shoulder view of a character running around and fighting critters or baddies — in an RPG the character is not a mere static set of statistics to improve your chance at succeeding at a round of gameplay, but rather the ever-changing, purposefully-growing, centrally-driving force behind what happens within the game.
An analogy? Pizza. An FPS pizza is a delivery pizza; You order it, it arrives at your house, you pay, and then you eat it. On the other hand, an RPG pizza is a bag of flour, a can of tomato paste, cheese, toppings, an oven, and a lot of spare time; You mix it, stretch it, build it, cook it, serve it, and then you eat it. The end result is the same — you get to eat a pizza — but how much you enjoy that pizza depends on how you want to get from point “A” (wanting a pizza) to point “B” (eating a pizza.) Me, I usually like cooking my own pizza. And in gaming I enjoy building my own character, leveling up, and playing through a narrative… before I get to blast something to smithereens.
Some people just like to blast something right away.
The reason I bring this up however is not to discuss pizza.
Rather, I want you dear reader to get a good sense of the difference in emotional involvement in an RPG video game that is at stake herein versus an FPS video game, because I’m going to take you one level deeper. While there is a big buy-in and committment to character and “who” you are playing as in an RPG, that buy-in is split even finer than the up-to-now discussed FPS versus RPGs conundrum. I’ve come to realize that there are two distinct groups of RPG players out there and this has a big stake within what I’m about to admit. See, the deep, dark reason I bring all this up is because — it has recently come to my attention that — I’m not the only guy who plays RPGs as the fairer gender.
There are two camps: guys who play strictly as guys, and guys who play as whoever they feel like.
Yeah. Ok. I admit it. Since I’ve been in my thirties, and when I play single player RPGs I usually suit up as a female. This has nothing to do with sex, sexuality, or self-identity. It’s just a game, after all. But it would seem I’m not the only gamer out there who swaps genders when they play. And I thought it might be interesting to consider why…
As far as I can figure it — and all in-game statistics and game-balancing being equal — there are two schools of thought on playing RPGs. To which school of thought you personally ascribe tends to bias you towards either the virtual gender flopping side or towards the more strict look-down-and-choose approach.
There is option one. You might be a ROLE playing gamer: in this case you probably are partaking in a bit of emotional transferance of yourself onto the character. You probably play in first-person mode more than third-person mode. You probably and rarely save your game and then more often than not let the story play out as life would: with one chance, steamed whenever the game kills you off and you’re forced to replay any section over. You probably play RPGs because you want to imagine yourself running across the virtual post-apocalyptic wasteland or yourself slaying a fierce dragon atop a snowy mountain peak. You play to assume a role, and as such any thought of assuming any role that so obviously deviates and distracts from your inner heart and soul is unthinkable. If you’re a guy, you play as a guy. If you’re a girl, you play as a girl. No questions.
On the other hand, there is option two. You might be a role PLAYING gamer: in this case you are probably enjoying a game more as a narrative for the sake of the game itself, dabbling in an interactive story from a third-person observational perspective. You probably play in third-person mode more than first-person mode. You probably subject your character to experimental side-distractions, letting them interact with part of the story, changing your mind, then rolling back to an earlier save game to try it a different way. You probably shelf the game for weeks or months at a time before coming back to play again. You play to experience it as a toy or a distraction more than you play to immerse yourself, and getting so caught up as to get personally invested in the outcome seems unthinkable. If you’re a guy or a girl, you play as whatever entertains you most.
Either option works for someone, and this is just how you play.
I just play, too, though in the last five to ten years I find that I’m fairly planted in the second camp. So, not caring how emotionally immersed I become in an RPG I ask myself the obvious — yes, completely conscious — question: who’s digital gluteus maximus would I rather look at for the potentially fifty to two-hundred hours I’m going to be playing this game? Do I really want to stare at some virtual muscular jock’s tail for a couple hours at a go while I sit by myself in a dark basement office late into the evening? Or is the alternative choice preferable? I mean, I don’t play the game with the purpose or intent of watching a high definition rear-view sprint through the forests of an imaginary kingdom — that’s just how the game works — but given the option of Jack versus Jill, well, hey… red-blooded male, here.
So, here’s my questions: if you play RPGs who do you play as? And are you really playing an RPG if you don’t completely wrap yourself in the virtual skin of your character? (Or, am I just a FPS guy at heart here?)