Role-Playing Games (RPGs)

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Overview and common mechanics

Role-playing games (RPGs) form a genre that has evolved from early video game adaptations of pen-and-paper role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. RPGs tend to be focused strongly on story and character development, but the genre is a diverse one, and even these basic characteristics can take very different forms in different games. Numerous sub-genres of RPG exist, which tend to be more consistent in their style and gameplay than the broader genre.

Most RPGs include at least a few of the following elements:

  • Prominent narrative about saving the world
  • Fantasy or science fiction setting
  • Narrative progression is driven by the completion of discrete tasks ("quests"), which may be optional or required
  • Multiple main characters forming a "party," some of which may be computer-controlled
  • System of representing abilities and character traits (such as health, dexterity and strength) as numbers visible to the player, often referred to as "stats" (short for statistics)
  • System of rewarding the player by improving character statistics ("leveling up") and/or making better equipment available
  • Player can talk to numerous computer-controlled non-player characters ("NPCs") throughout the game world


Role-playing games appeared on mainframe computers in the 1970s, when student programmers adapted the rules of pen-and-paper RPGs into computer games. As home computers and home video game consoles became available, the genre migrated to these platforms. RPGs were introduced to Japan in the early 1980s, and Japanese RPGs have evolved separately from western RPGs, leading to much of the diversity reflected in the genre.

Subgenres and characteristics

The following definitions are only summaries of general trends. There are many exceptions to these definitions.

Japanese RPGs

Japanese RPGs tend to feature linear plots and predefined characters. Players have little choice as to their role in these stories. Gameplay tends to focus instead on inventory management, exploration of environments, and complex strategic combat systems. Players progress through the game by fighting monsters and other enemies, and are rewarded with plot exposition provided through animated cutscenes. This game design allows the game developers to closely control the narrative arc of the story.

Western RPGs

Western RPGs tend to feature large, explorable worlds in which players can make their own way. Players' avatars are less likely to have strongly developed predefined personalities than in Japanese role-playing games. Gameplay tends to include inventory management, combat and exploration, just as in Japanese RPGs, but it is also more likely to include complex dialogue systems in which players manipulate the story of the game through their interactions with other characters.

Tactical RPGs

Tactical RPGs tend to remove the player's ability to explore the game world in favor of a more complex combat system, which becomes the primary focus of gameplay. Gameplay in tactical RPGs tends to be turn-based, with all actions selected from a series of menus.

Massively multiplayer online RPGs

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are a relatively new genre, but have quickly become one of the most popular styles of game. These games tend to combine the exploration, equipment- and statistics-based character development, and tactical combat of traditional single-player RPGs with compelling social elements. Thousands of players may coexist in the same MMORPG game world, allowing these games to feature additional features and game mechanics such as resource trading, cooperative or competitive questing and combat, and social interaction.

Value for education

Role-playing games have been used successfully to teach in classrooms. Two approaches in particular have been studied:

  1. Having students play dialogue-heavy role-playing games in order to improve language skills. Megan Glover Adams found success with this approach using the fantasy RPG Neverwinter Nights.[1] Many popular RPG franchises also have tie-in novels—educator Kristie Jolley found success using video game properties to appeal to reluctant readers in this way.[2]
  2. Having students modify ("mod") commercial role-playing games in order to craft interactive short stories, as a combination creative writing and technical exercise. Studies include Carbonaro et al[3] and Robertson and Good.[4]

The nature of many western RPGs as open worlds in which the player has great freedom opens up educational possibilities related to ethics and appropriate behavior. Maya Kadakia has written about using the game The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in this way.[5]


  1. Adams, Megan G. Engaging 21st-Century Adolescents: Video Games in the Reading Classroom. English Journal (2009) vol 98 (6) pp. 56-9. Retrieved from
  2. Jolley, Kristie. Video Games to Reading: Reaching Out to Reluctant Readers. English Journal (2008) vol. 97 (4) pp. 81-6. Retrieved from
  3. Carbonaro, M., et al. Interactive Story Authoring: A Viable Form of Creative Expression for the Classroom. Computers & Education (2008) vol. 51 (2) pp. 687-707. Retrieved from
  4. Robertson, Judy, and Judith Good. Children's Narrative Development through Computer Game Authoring. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning (2005) vol. (5) pp. 43-59. Retrieved from
  5. Kadakia, Maya. Increasing Student Engagement by Using Morrowind to Analyze Choices and Consequences. TechTrends (2005) vol. 49 (5) pp. 29-32. Retrieved from
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