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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.
Some of my favorite shows ever on TV are Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. They also happen to be a couple of my greatest RP inspirations (along with Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood), for the simple fact that each puppet on those shows are and were a fully believable character in their own right. Did you ever see who was manipulating Ms. Piggy, or providing the voice for Cookie Monster? Sure, maybe you knew who it was, but come show time, they didn't appear themselves. When was the last time you ever heard someone say the quote, "Do, or do not. There is no try.", and not think of Yoda? Did you also think of Frank Oz in the same instance? It is an awesome testimony to his superb RP skills that the premier way we have come to know Yoda is as 'Yoda', and not as 'Yoda the puppet with Frank Oz's hand sticking up his butt'. The puppeteers' trick is to control an object outside of their own physicality with such skill as to get those of us watching to believe that that object is alive.
In this sense, I think this is a much more difficult task to accomplish than being an actor. I'm not knocking the art of acting, mind you, not in the least. But through the lens of role-playing, this aspect can be a very daunting thing, and is why you'll never see or hear me berate anyone who says they don't know how to RP, or are frightened simply by the notion of doing so. I don't think anyone else should, either.
We RPers use a very similar tactic, in that we use a computer and its peripherals to control an electronically generated form to interact with other electronically generated forms. This is what I mean by the 'physical' aspect of RP, and this is what makes any answer containing "like acting" an incomplete answer. The above examples show the 'mental' aspect of RP, in that the believability factor of your controlled character comes first and foremost from your own mind, and is why I think "like a puppeteer" is a more complete answer to that vaulted question.
So, what is role-playing? Simply put, it is using the tools you have to the best of your physical and mental ability to walk your character through whatever MMORPG you are playing, thinking, talking, and acting as you want your character to think, talk, and act. Role-playing is the act of being a character, instead of merely having a character. And, in my humble opinion, it's the most fun way to play any massively multiplayer online role playing game. Role on!