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Ahh, the quintessential question: What is role-playing? If I only had a gold piece for every time I've been asked this question, or heard and seen it asked in game. Well, I'm not asking for gold here, but if you are one of those who have asked this golden question for your own gaming edification, then read on, as I'll do my best to provide you with a golden answer, at least as far as it concerns role-playing in MMORPG's.
What is Role-playing?
Try Googling that question, and you'll be bombarded with thousands of websites regarding roleplaying, with only a very few actually giving a comprehensive answer. Now, of those very few, fewer still point out a thorough and logical answer to what it means to RP in MMORPG's. As for my own opinion on the topic, I want to show you my thoughts about what I think it means via two points of view - by looking at the 'physical', and at the 'mental', aspects of RP.
For my exhibit A, I submit to you the grand examples of two of the greatest role-players who, as far as my personal and common knowledge can testify to, never played a role-playing game in their life: Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
Ask the person next to you (in game or out) what their definition of role-playing is, and I'd say, nine times out of ten, you'll get an answer that includes 'actor' in it. The same or similar answer can be found on the vast amount of those aforementioned Googled websites. Now, that's the most common answer, sure, but it's only so common because it is the fastest and perhaps easiest to provide and be understood. However, while any such 'actor' answer is not completely wrong, it is also not completely correct.
A more precise answer to the question is not 'it's like acting', but rather, 'it's like being a puppeteer'. Hence, Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Here's my reasoning why:
Actors, for the most part, don't project their character past their own being, past their own physical presence, and I mean that in the literal sense. Whenever we look at an actor acting, no matter the character they are attempting to portray, we are always looking at them. The trick is for them to get us to believe they are someone else, despite the fact we may have seen them in twenty other movies trying to portray someone else entirely. They have a few tools they can use to help manipulate our belief, like makeup, costumes, and CGI, but it still does not change the fact that we are looking at the physical presence they occupy in the world.
With this example, take a look at yourself the next time you are in game and RPing. Are you acting? Are you wearing any makeup or a costume in an attempt to get other characters in game to believe you are a Troll, or a Gnome? I also doubt (or at least hope) anyone in game or out can see you, the real you, through the game. You are most likely doing the same thing I'm doing, which is sitting in a comfortable chair using your computer, mouse and keyboard to try to make your in game character seem much more than it is. Again, going back to Jim Henson and Frank Oz.