What’s So Awesome About RPGs?

If you’re anything like me, you like role-playing games.  You’ve found yourself ignoring your phone, you’ve stayed up way later than most insomniacs, and you’ve gone so long without eating that your jaw muscles have atrophied.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent countless hours of your life playing RPGs and don’t regret it even for a second.  Yes, if you’re anything like me you think role-playing games are, simply put, awesome.  Which brings me to my question: why?

What is it about RPGs that makes them so awesome?  Specifically, what is it unique to RPGs?  Because really, I think everyone can agree that no other console genre can suck up as much time while giving its user as much pure, pleasurable delight as a good RPG does.  Of course, this is not to say that RPGs are in general better than any other genre.  Rather, my point is that there is something unique to RPGs, and it is this ‘something’ that divides gamers into RPG lovers or haters.  So, for the lovers out there, what is this something?  What is this awesomeness?

Well, first I’ll give you the short and sweet version of what I believe to be the answer:  I think what RPGs offer that no other genre can is a sense of control and power unavailable to gamers in most other aspects of their lives.  In contrast, for example, many others would enjoy a more competitive-based game, such as an online FPS or a sports game – a game in which you actually have to fight for a sense of control or power within the game.  In an RPG, one simply has the power to go anywhere and do anything (within the limits of the game), whereas in an online FPS, for example, one has to earn their power over the game world by fighting with others.  Simply put, I suggest gamers like RPGs because of the possibilities they afford, and find a resulting happiness that is hard to come by in the rest of life.  Now I’ll try my best to explain what I mean by all this, with the help of a philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche was a late 19th century philosopher who, in his time, was considered a loner and outcast from academia.  However, 100 odd years later, Nietzsche is now one of the most written about philosophers.  He was the one that wrote ‘what won’t kill me can only make me stronger’ (translations vary), as well as his rather misunderstood claims that ‘God is dead.’  Relevant to our discussion though, he wrote quite a bit on the subject of happiness.

Nietzsche writes, “Individual happiness springs from one’s own laws, and prescriptions from without can only obstruct and hinder it” (Daybreak, aphorism 108).  In other words, Nietzsche claims that one is only as happy as they are free from external pressures and restrictions.  (By ‘external’ I simply mean pressures and restrictions you did not choose, but were rather imposed on you.)  For instance, imagine you are playing an RPG.  You want to go clear out a dungeon, and begin doing so.  However, suddenly the power in your apartment goes out, thus stopping your dungeon raid.  In this situation Nietzsche would say you will become unhappy because of the restriction from doing something you wanted to do.  This, if you ask me, isn’t incredibly insightful.  However, we can take this quotation a step further.  In his mention of ‘one’s own laws’ we gain another element to happiness.  Beyond requiring an  absence of external restrictions, happiness also requires one getting their own way – in the dungeon example, you were happy before the power went out, because you were doing something you wanted to do.  That is to say, Nietzsche tells us not only does happiness requires freedom (an absence of restrictions), but that the more free one is the happier they are.

In no other genre of game does one have the degree of freedom to move and act than in an RPG – think of all the things you can do and places you can go in a game like Skyrim for example.  This point may be contested.  One can easily point out sandbox games such as GTA and say, ‘There, that’s an example of lots of freedom in a non-RPG game.’  This is true.  However, and this is cheating a bit, I think it fair to say that in the case of a GTA-like game it has elements of an RPG – specifically the freedom it affords the gamer.  Think back to the NES days; RPGs have always given the player the most freedom – games like Zelda II offered more terrain to travel and more actions to perform than a game like Mario Bros. for instance.  By making this appeal to  the traditional norms set in the history of gaming I do not think it controversial to claim that RPGs, by definition, offer the gamer the most freedom on average.

However, not only do RPGs offer the gamer the most freedom, they also do so in a world similar enough to ours to make this freedom actually matter (e.g. there’s usually similar geography to that of earth’s, a day and a night, a main character that is at least humanoid if not human).  This combination of lots of freedom and a semi-realistic game world is what I think is unique to RPGs.  That RPGs provide the most freedom suddenly becomes very important when considered along with the Nietzsche quote.  We are able to see that, since freedom correlates to happiness, RPGs provide the gamer with the most happiness.

I get the feeling some people won’t agree.  They might say something like: ‘Sure RPGs are great, but it’s not the freedom that makes them so, but rather the activities we are free to do.’  For instance, it’s the fighting bad guys or the hunting that’s so cool about RPGs because that stuff seems really fun in real life.    I would simply reply that I don’t think there would be anything fun in reality about a lot of activities you perform in an RPG, for example fighting for your life or slaughtering ugly demon creatures with a sword.  Besides, a lot of activities one performs in RPGs can also be performed in action games, and thus can’t be what is unique to RPGs that makes them so awesome.  Therefore, we have two separate reasons for dispelling this counter-argument.

A second, related counter-argument would be to appeal to the fact that we, in a sense, live a vicarious second life through our video game characters – that we actually feel like we are our characters.  This counter-argument would suggest that it is this possibility to live a second life that is so great of RPGs.  My reply would be to point out that there is again nothing unique to RPGs in this extent, that nearly every video game allows the player to live vicariously within the game.  I would also point out that this effect of a vicarious second life can also be achieved, debatably even to a greater degree, via other mediums such as film, novels, and storytelling in general – for instance this vicarious second life effect could be suggested as what makes a good movie so effective in bringing out emotional responses in its viewer.

Another counter-argument would be to claim that it is actually the character development that is so awesome about RPGs.  However, I don’t agree, and one can see why once we clarify what character development means in terms of being unique to RPGs.  A character can develop, within a narrative, in terms of personality and values; however, this happens in nearly every story that involves people and is not limited to RPGs.  It is, in my opinion, something that is really great about narrative in general, but cannot be said to be what is unique to RPGs that makes them so awesome.  The type of character development that is unique to RPGs is the levelling up type – it provides a satisfying sense of accomplishment and progression as you earn experience and use it to improve your character.  However, while this sense of accomplishment is unique to RPGs, it feels different than the constant happiness of playing a game.  Happiness from reflecting on your character development requires you stop and take stock of all the progress you’ve made – something that most gamers aren’t doing moment to moment while they play.  And since most gamers are happy in the moment-to-moment sense while playing, I suggest it would be wrong to attribute this to something they aren’t doing moment-to-moment.  Therefore it can’t be character development that makes RPGs so great.

So, there we are.  I hope to have shown that if you agree that RPGs have something unique to them that makes them great, the conclusion is that it is because the degree of freedom that RPGs allow gives the gamer a correlated degree of happiness unattainable through other genres.  Now, and more importantly, if you’re anything like me you can go excuse the next four hours of obsessive gameplay to ‘testing a philosophical theory’.  Enjoy!

About This Post

April 8, 2013 - 7:52 am

Gaming, Opinion