i got my character sheet already guys, let's play
- Have a set of rules -
Games are always structured environments. There are always actions that a player can, and cannot do, that are defined by the game world. You cannot pick the ball up with your hands in soccer. You can shoot at the monsters in Doom with your available weapons. You cannot jump in Bulletstorm. If games did not have these definitions they would cease to be games because distinguishing a winning condition and a losing condition would be impossible.
- Present a challenge -
Why do games challenge players? There are a multitude of reasons, but I believe that a game's difficulty is there to provide some sort of mental or physical stimulation for the player. People play games to have 'fun' or receive a positive reinforcement from overcoming a particular challenge, either by thinking actively or performing a physical action. Being challenged allows you to learn from the encounter and grow as a person, which is a generally enjoyable experience.
- Require a skill -
A game does not have to be very difficult, or require a lot of practice, but it must have a set of skills that players can acquire and improve within the game world. Soccer has a very low "skill ceiling"; the minimum required skill being the ability to walk. It does, however, have a strict set of skills that the player can improve upon to become better at the game, like ball control, speed, and accuracy. Games without a skill involved would be shallow, because with nothing to learn or improve upon the potential excitement is greatly reduced.
- Contain a goal -
This is what separates traditional games from 'sandbox games' or toys. The player needs a clear goal to work towards, something that will give positive reinforcement when the player is doing well, and negative reinforcement when they are doing poorly. If you were to remove goals from games, then there would be no point in playing them. If scoring more goals than your opponent does not cause you to win, then why score goals, or play the game at all? Sandbox games may be more suited to 'gameplay without goals' but because games are defined by their rules and challenges, they ultimately require a quantifiable outcome.
I am certainly not alone in defining games. Here are just a few examples:
some people are actually boring enough to write about games
"A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context." - Clark C. Abt
"At its most elementary level then we can define game as an exercise of voluntary control systems in which there is an opposition between forces, confined by a procedure and rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome." - Elliot Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith
So we've defined games. Then why are Role Playing Games not games? Well, I'm afraid to say that Role Playing Games violate rules 2, 3, and 4 at a fundamental level. In essence the 'gameplay', the feature that defines an RPG as a game, is either non-existent, or borrowed from another game system to give the illusion of being a game. Take Mass Effect: it is repeatedly described as an RPG, but what exactly makes it an RPG? The actual game system (the challenge, the skill, and the goal) are all within the realm of Mass Effect's third-person cover based combat. Everything else is fluff. So while Mass Effect is a game, it is so because of the combat mechanics, not because of the role playing choices.
To take it further, what separates Gears of War from Mass Effect? The obvious difference is that Mass Effect has the standard role playing mechanics: you can make decisions regarding dialogue that shape your character, as well as the standard number progression of RPGs. Neither of those things, however, defines gameplay. What makes a Role Playing Game unique to other game systems fails to make it an actual game.
Role Playing Games lack any real challenge. Looking at the core mechanics of shaping the player character, it is impossible to lose; or rather it is impossible to make the wrong decision. This is obvious, as 'role playing' is all about shaping a character unique to the player, a system that explicitly requires that there be no optimal play. Role Playing Games are usually characterised by their story, the narrative, the dialogue, and the choices shaped by the player. They have about as much challenge as a movie, or a book.
this might surpise you, but i play games in order to play the game
While a lot of Role Playing Games might have actual challenges within the game, those challenges are not part of the role playing system. The skill and challenge in Mass Effect comes from the third-person shooter gameplay, but wouldn't that make Mass Effect a third-person shooter game, instead of an RPG? Dragon Age: Origins was a game that I enjoyed very much, but not because of its RPG elements. I enjoyed the tactical nature of the gameplay and the difficulty presented by correctly wielding your party's abilities to overcome obstacles.
When an RPG has actual game mechanics that are represented by playing a role at the player's discretion, the game mechanics are artificial. That is to say that any success or failure that exists in a Role Playing Game is not defined by a player's skill, but whether they had invested enough time, or whether they had known what to do in advance. Most of this difficulty can be seen in games like Pokemon, and MMORPGs, where if you fail you simply need to invest more time. Or perhaps you now know what is coming and can actually prepare for it.
This leads me to my next point: RPGs require no skill. Look at the game systems that are unique to Role Playing Games. For something like Star Wars: The Old Republic, there is no identifiable set of skills that a player can learn and improve at: you either know what button to press when, or you do not. You cannot improve your reflexes, or your strategy, or your problem-solving abilities. Your ability to win or lose in SW:TOR is defined purely by the amount of in-game hours you have invested compared to your opponent.
rpg grind, not quite as good
Let's go back to soccer as an example. Say that, instead of spending your time practicing the applicable skills (ball control, speed, accuracy, passing), you could win the game simply by pressing the number one key on your keyboard over and over. You haven't really become any better at the game, you've simply created a situation where the amount of time invested is more than the other player.
this is a good game
So Role Playing Games aren't games. All along I’ve been playing with a device specifically built to give little challenge, in order to maximize the emphasis of the narrative and the choices the player makes. I suppose this is a better explanation of why I find them so dull. This kind of false labelling really hurts me because I have certain expectations when I play a game, and to have those expectations subverted in such a polarizing fashion makes me wonder why games have moved in such a direction, or why people choose to partake in such mindless exercises.