December 23, 2007

Role-playing vs. Powergaming

I've heard a lot of discussion about role-playing versus powergaming. In the context of a tabletop RPG, I understand the dilemma. Gamers are given an explicit goal. But a lot of the fun of the game comes from role-playing. Sometimes, winning the game and role-playing in an interesting way are contrary goals. For instance, finding a stranger in the woods, killing him, and taking all of his stuff is not interesting, but it helps beat the game.

The problem is that what you (the player of a game with an explicit goal) would do is different from what the character (a fictional person in the game world) would do. Role-players tend to enjoy the story that is created in a game, so they make an effort to inhabit the mind of their character. Powergamers are more interested in the competitive and game-mechanical aspects, so they just do what it takes to win.

A lot of games cater directly to the powergaming crowd by dropping most pretenses of a story and offering great mechanics. Team Fortress 2 doesn't explain, for instance, what these two color-coded teams are doing trying to kill each other. A much smaller subset of games cater to the role-playing crowd. Morrowind, for example, isn't a whole lot of fun unless you get into the lore and try to inhabit the game world.

Most games will offer at least a context for the role-player parts of us to enjoy. Counter-Strike, for instance, has the context of a terrorist vs. counter-terrorist battle. That mindset adds to the fun, as we peek around corners and defuse bombs with seconds to spare. But if a game like Counter-Strike encourages behaviors like bunny-hopping through its mechanics, then the role-players are generally forced out by the powergamers.

The ideal games, then, are the ones that have mechanics that encourage the character's intentions directly. Sports are the best example, since the player and the character are the same. Powergaming vs. role-playing even seems like a stupid way of looking at sports since the only story context is the real world.

Other games do a good job of this as well. Uplink, for example, casts the player as a hacker. Winning the game entails hacking systems, making money, upgrading your own computer, etc. There's no motivation to break the story context; you're not doing anything that your character wouldn't do. The party game Mafia is another good example; the mafioso's character has to lie, scheme, and deceive in the same way that the player must lie, scheme, and deceive in order to win.

I think that the issue might ultimately come down to character identification. The best games make us inhabit the character in every way. Our goals and the characters goals are the same, and the game world operates according to the character's world (i.e. if the character is a counter-terrorist agent, then bunny-hopping is simulated as being ineffective). Catering to both powergamers and role-players is just a matter of simulating the fictional world with enough depth that what we must do to win and what the character would do never diverge. Let nothing in the game be unrealistic from the character's point of view, and you've got a winner.

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