There are lots of people playing World of Warcraft out there, and if you gave a survey to each one of them, asking, "are you a roleplayer?" most of them would probably say "no." But if you actually listened to them, or engaged with them in conversation about it, you might learn a lot of things that surveys usually miss. Many people who say they are not roleplayers actually have an imagination of their character's backstory, personality, or even just individual style. They may not know how to act out the character, and they may not have friends they feel they can act out with, yet at the same time, they do have a sense of their character as their own little creative exploration.
The distinction between roleplayers and non-roleplayers is not as clear as people seem to think. In fact, there's a whole spectrum of different kinds of players between those who say they roleplay and those who say they don't -- and most people probably find themselves somewhere in the middle.
The most noticeable, and most easily pointed at when it comes to blame and fault-finding, are those people at either extreme of the RP spectrum who simply cannot tolerate anyone else other than their own sort. On one end, the "RP Scrooge," believes that roleplaying is all hogwash and that anyone who roleplays is wasting their time, going demented in the brain, and so on. Some RP Scrooges are very vocal about their opinions and seem to seek out confrontations with roleplayers.
The opposite end of the RP spectrum, the "RP Fanatic," views roleplaying as the only worthwhile way to play the game. They tend to feel that they are the center of their realm's roleplaying universe all but a very few of their favorite roleplayers are simply unworthy of attention in their eyes because they just suck at it so badly, and they are very critical of anyone who roleplays the "wrong way."
This column isn't about either of these two sorts of people. They do exist, but they do not change their mind. If and when they interact with me, either in the game or through comments on this website, I tend to simply ignore them, or else to reply to them without arguing, and instead I just try to help provide a more positive alternative opinion, so that other readers can come away with good feelings rather than mere empty criticism. I never try to change their mind, rather I try to illustrate that things needn't be so extreme and full of blame.
The RP Atheist
What we might call the "RP Athiest" is a very different kind of player from the Scrooge. He may think RP is rather silly, or he may have no opinion on it at all (he may even enjoy in-depth roleplaying in pen-and-paper roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons or Vampire), but he does not enjoy roleplaying in WoW for some reason. Instead, he just goes about playing WoW in his way with his friends, as a computer game, without even a single thread of character development, creative imagination, or theatrical flair. He certainly does not go about insulting roleplayers (or anyone else) on account of their hobbies and interests.
I call this type of player an RP Atheist because he has no feeling or sense of roleplaying in WoW -- in a way, you could say he doesn't believe in it in the same way some people don't believe in God. They see that other people believe, and they have no problem with that, but they just don't share that belief themselves. An RP Atheist may be a very devout and religious person with regard to actual religion -- my use of such a word here has absolutely no connection with religious belief whatsoever.
The RP Agnostic
The majority of WoW players, in my experience, fall into a different category: they have a sense of their character as a person in one way or another, whether as just a vague characterization (e.g. "Wham! Bam! -- Zygor is so cool with his giant hammer."), as an actual personality (e.g. "Zygor only cares about battle -- nothing else, except maybe chocolate, occupies his mind"), or as someone with something of a background story behind him (e.g. "Zygor is the son of a heroic tauren general who died in a desperate battle for survival against the centaurs when Zygor was just 13 years old.").
None of this influences they way these people play the game so much as it changes they way they think and feel when they play the game. Instead of thinking only about the various strategies and dynamics of the computer battles, they also have a sense of their character participating in some kind of meaningful story; there may be no plot as such, but there is that feeling you get with stories, that something is happening, and you want to see what happening next. In a way, they are roleplaying only with themselves, and their character's story happens almost entirely within their own mind. If you ask them whether they are a roleplayer or not, they'd say they aren't, but if you gave them the right opportunity, they might give it a try one day. I call them RP Agnostics because of this vague sense they have that they are not a member of the roleplaying community, yet at the same time they do have roleplaying ideas of their own. These ideas may be perpetually vague, but they're okay with that.
This is a completely valid way to play the game -- "All the World's a Stage" is written as much for these players as for any others.
The RP Layman
Your standard "roleplayer" probably spends most of his time playing the computer game aspect of WoW, fighting monsters, raiding, PvPing, and whatnot. But he also enjoys finding time to hang out with his roleplaying friends, and may even have signed up on an RP server and joined a roleplaying guild with the hope of melding the computer game and creative roleplaying aspects together as much as possible. Alternately, he may keep both aspects separate but more or less equal (or at least significant), as different elements of the game which he enjoys. One might refer to these players as "RP Laymen" because they have a definite commitment (even if only a minor one) to the hobby of roleplaying and would identify themselves as a roleplayer on the aforementioned survey.
The RP Evangelical
A few roleplayers are especially enthusiastic about their hobby and view it as something more than a fun pastime. For these players, roleplaying feels like an art, or at least gives a more developed sense of passion and fulfillment. Again using religious terminology in a special way, one could call them "RP Evangelicals" for their enthusiasm and devotion for their magical hobby, as well as their desire to promote roleplaying in the WoW community. They do not view roleplaying as an actual religion, of course -- if they did, that might be closer to the extreme of RP Fanaticism -- but they are excited, and they hope more and more people will join them in this activity they find to be valuable.
Obviously people like me fit in this category pretty snugly. We may write about roleplaying on blogs or forums, or we may just talk and think about it a lot with our friends in the game. We may try out things like carefully thought-out character development, scripted roleplaying experiences, or even total-immersion roleplaying. Our preferences and styles differ widely and we don't always agree with each other, but we all share a love of our hobby that doesn't go away so easily.
Riding the Spectrum
Wherever you fit on the RP Spectrum, or however you would define your own particular category, the real point here is that there are a diversity of approaches to roleplaying and that the WoW community is not divided up into those who roleplay and those who do not. Each WoW player should feel free to explore any point along this spectrum (except, I hope, the extremes) and to shift between them at different stages in his or her WoW career.
You should even feel free to throw my categories out the window and define yourself in whatever way you like. You can make roleplaying as big or as small a part of your Warcraft experience as you want, and you can appreciate other people's experiences in this hobby whether or not you ever choose to join them in it.