The Game of Defining RPGs

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome!

Dear Chris,

Lately I’ve been thinking about how video games are identified as RPGs by different people. I’ve concluded that the identification of RPG video games is a game in and of itself. For example, Craig Stern has a very interesting piece that shares a universal definition for “computer RPG.” As meticulous as Stern is in rejecting and revising various claims, the comment section shows that a definition of an RPG video game is never quite universal. The reason for this seemingly perpetual disagreement relates to your third rule in The Rules of Game Worlds: “No-one plays alone.” Indeed, our understanding of RPG video games are influenced by “design, genre, fiction, and play practices that are sustained by a community.” But “Is it an RPG?” is nowhere near as simple as “Is it a shooter?” The reality is that people will continue to debate RPG genre parameters in video games due to different sentimental experiences.

To borrow from your broad approach to prop theory, our sentimental experiences are props that we use to put games in various contexts, including genre parameters. The original Final Fantasy on the NES was a sentimental prop that I used for most of my life in regard to defining an “RPG video game.” For me, Final Fantasy was not merely a benchmark in terms of design quality for a particular type of game (the RPG); Final Fantasy told me what could be considered an RPG in the first place. There are two sentimental reasons that this was true. First, a close friend of mine introduced Final Fantasy to me as an RPG, and he was the only kid that I knew who played Final Fantasy or even used the term “RPG.” Second, Final Fantasy was unlike any other video game I had played. Because of these two facts, I would go on to dismiss the idea, for instance, that The Legend of Zelda could be considered an RPG. Although I played The Legend of Zelda before playing Final Fantasy, no one introduced the former to me as an RPG. The Legend of Zelda was simply something all NES kids played back in the day.

Other people use the original Final Fantasy as a prop in understanding what a video game must have to some degree in order to be called an RPG. Sentimental experiences with Final Fantasy might differ, but it is a common standard for defining an RPG video game. We definitely don’t play alone — especially not as RPG-defining folk. There are other RPG definers we must fight, such as the people who say The Legend of Zelda is an RPG (nevermind that these people more than likely recognize Final Fantasy as a legitimate RPG!). Typically, when we debate what is or isn’t an RPG, we come as sentimental outsiders. But really, all we’re doing is debating other people with sentimental props. We’re not that different.

The funny thing about this RPG-defining game is that many of the Final Fantasy vs. The Legend of Zelda gamers understand RPGs mostly within the context of video games. They arguably “know less about RPGs” than those who started with the original tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. If I understand prop theory correctly, D&D people might experience RPG video games much differently than me, as they bring their personal experiences from that historically important game into the equation. Perhaps a historical perspective might argue that they, having played the original tabletop RPG, should have the final word on what constitutes an RPG video game.

Nonetheless, I’ve written two pieces — one about Mainichi and one about Actual Sunlight — that argue for a new type of RPG: the “unsentimental RPG.” Notice that this term differs from terms like “action RPG” or “strategy RPG,” which emphasize mechanical differences in combat and linkages to broad genres. My goal with the “unsentimental RPG” term is to challenge the idea that an RPG, by definition, must lean on our sentimental understandings — our individual and community props. I see value in this argument: games like Mainichi and Actual Sunlight can inject new sociological meaning into “role playing.”

I think an easy way to understand the potential sociological value of “role playing” is to look at the example of John Howard Griffin, who wrote the groundbreaking Black Like Me. Griffin, a white journalist, artificially changed the pigmentation of his skin to pass as black, with the idea to see how his place in society would change. People, even those who knew him, treated Griffin differently when he looked like a black man. Black Like Me explored uncomfortable social realities, and Griffin didn’t merely undergo stress during his experience — the threats his family received after the book’s publication drove him to Mexico for safety. By daring to role-play (or role-take?) in real life, Griffin revealed and dealt with the consequences of social power.

A game like Mainichi or Actual Sunlight allows us to see social reality from another perspective without the danger of Griffin’s real-world journalism. But these games aren’t simply stories about differential power in the real world; they comment on the power structure of RPGs and how we define RPGs — a power structure that, if not oppressive, is limiting in its sentimentality.

Perhaps I am wrong to call Mainichi and Actual Sunlight RPGs. Perhaps they deserve a different term, but I am convinced they must be called something in regard to “roles,” because they’re precisely about the roles we play in defining reality, even on that less important scale of defining RPG video games. I also believe calling these games “interactive fiction” is a joke. “Interactive fiction” is already muddy enough when it comes to text-based games, so the term doesn’t clearly describe an avatar-based game that resembles Final Fantasy during a series of stop-and-chats in a town.

In an interview with First Person Scholar, you mention the importance of nurturing “pioneering spirits” in video games. This raises an important question: how does one trumpet “pioneering spirits” in RPGs without sounding like one is playing alone?


Jed Pressgrove


  1. As a person whose views were crafted by both pen & paper RPGs and video games I thought I’d share my ‘criteria’ for what makes an RPG.

    An RPG provides agency for the player character. His decisions and actions, or inaction, change the plot and have repercussions that ripple through the narrative. There are classless, level-less, equipment-less RPGs so I find those unreliable for determining whether something is or is not an RPG.

    Unfortunately given the constraints of scripting for a video game, having a real RPG can create a big mess in variant stories and endings. Strangely it means sports simulation video games (especially those that allow you to play a single player’s career) end up being more RPG than most games labelled RPG. I realized after completing Ni No Kuni, fun though it is, never provided me agency to make a decision that would alter the narrative. I was merely progressing and already determined sequence of events. It can be fun to be a cog, driving the machine forward, but I don’t determine the machine’s output.

    But in a sports simulation game.. If my wide receiver doesn’t catch a pass, maybe we lose the game, maybe we don’t clinch the division, maybe we don’t make the playoffs, maybe my character loses his starting spot, maybe he gets traded or let go by the team. My decision, action, and success/failure can directly affect the game’s narrative for my character.

    Food for thought anyway.

    1. I find your comparison of Ni No Kuni and sports simulations very interesting. The way you say that the latter is “more RPG” than the former perhaps suggests that there is a continuum, rather than a binary, involved with defining RPGs. A continuum perspective definitely helps me think of RPGs in a broader context.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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