The relationship between rolelplaying and real life is a multifaceted one. If you have read this column before, you've probably seen some mention of roleplaying as a creative art form, but for some readers, it might be a bit difficult to imagine roleplaying as an art. After all, some might say, it's just a bunch of people sitting around, pretending their characters are real people, having real problems and real stories, all in spite of a game environment in which one's character can't actually affect the world in any way that matters. Problems of continuity, such as instanced dungeons in which many people can slay the same monster at the same time over and over again, make some people feel as though there's no story value to the game at all, and that anything roleplayers do is a waste of their time.
The trick for roleplayers is to think of roleplaying as something more like freeform play art, in which the main point of the art isn't so much the end product that results from one's efforts (as it would be in painting, novel-writing, or composing music), but rather the thoughts, feelings, and inspiration that come to mind when we actually engage in the process of the art itself. The closest parallel to another art form might be improv acting games, where the whole point is to make things up for you and the other actors to enjoy, rather than to deliver a performance for a separate audience; but if you've enjoyed something so simple as building a sand castle on the beach, then you probably have a good sense of what it feels like to roleplay. Fingerpainting, mandala-making or even just freeform music and dancing can all give a similar feeling like what you get in roleplaying: the sheer joy of creation.
Some roleplayers need no more justification for their art than that they enjoyed themselves. But others look at their own roleplaying careers and see certain things that they've taken away from their roleplaying experience over time. These things are usually not as solid as an actual painting or recorded song, but they still have a kind of solidity in the roleplayer's mind, as they positively impact his or her real life in several ways.
Most roleplayers view their in-game characters as the touchstones of their ability in this art form. A good roleplayer often feels like he has accomplished a lot when he or she has a variety of interesting characters that bring great enjoyment to others, as well as to the player him or herself. Sometimes a roleplayer only has one character that he or she focuses on, and over time polishes that one character to a near-perfect shine.
Ask any roleplayer about their roleplaying experiences, and they will more than likely start telling you about their characters -- who they are and what sort of stories they have experienced in the game. They'll show you how they invested a certain amount of thought into the character beforehand, and then allowed the character to really take shape and bloom through interaction with other people. To my great delight, people often share such brief stories about their characters in the comments section of "All the World's a Stage," and other readers sometimes comment on each other's characters as good sources of inspiration.
Often, a player will smile whenever they talk about how very absurd their gnome character is, or how very badass their tauren warrior makes them feel. Each character is associated with an assortment of feelings that the roleplayer and his or her friends enjoy, almost as if each character belongs to a certain genre: some are for comic relief, such as gnomes with their silly antics, or big dumb buffoon characters among the larger and more savage races; others are more dramatic, such as warriors with a tragic past, or warlocks with a terrible addiction to demonic power; and still others are more romantic in their inspiration, with characters in search of love and caring in the dangerous world of Azeroth, just as so many people are looking for it in real life (note, many roleplayers play "romantic" characters without ever getting into inappropriate situations -- the important thing is the feelings the characters have, not the gritty details of the things they do to each other. When people deviate from this and place more emphasis on the actual descriptions of sexual encounters between characters, that becomes something else entirely).
A roleplayer can sometimes get a lot of inspiration if he or she considers which "genre" his or her character belongs to most, and follow the archetype that comes to mind when thinking of how such a character would act. The player chooses the type of feelings they enjoy most, and then the character serves as a conduit for those feelings in the same way that movies and books of various genres do. Someone might log into their gnome character if they want to have a laugh the same way that another person might watch the latest comedy movie.
The prevalence of weddings as special roleplaying events shows how important the "romance" genre can be in stories, even stories about fantasy adventurers who fight monsters for a living -- after all, the one of the essential elements of any story is the connection between human beings. Some people lament how many of these RP wedding events feel shallow, however, because they just come at the high point of an RP relationship that is destined to fail in a short time. But to many players, the breakup which may or may not follow a wedding is as much a part of their character's story as the beginning of the relationship was. Seeing a character's relationship fall apart may offer insights on relationships the player has had in real life.
Another aspect that gets less attention in roleplaying but is actually quite significant, involves this kind of thinking and reflection that roleplayers do based on the experiences of their characters. One dear friend of mine told me how roleplaying a more open and friendly character actually helped him to open up himself to more friendships in real life, overcome his distrust for people in general, and work through a deep-seated fear he'd had for a long time that his friends would abandon him. When I talk to him now, he seems quite cured of many anxieties that plagued him before, and he counts his reflections on his roleplaying experiences as one of the major things that contributed to this improvement in his quality of life.
For me personally, roleplaying has given me lots of ideas about real life which have inspired many articles here on WoW Insider. My favorite example of this came when I started thinking of the social dynamics of roleplaying and realized that a posture of humility actually goes a long way toward helping roleplayers get along with other players and get more out of their roleplaying experience. Another time, I got to thinking about how logging into your character in the game can sometimes be like jacking into the Matrix, temporarily trading your more mundane life for a more fantastical one that nevertheless stems from who you are as a real person.
If you look through these articles, you can see ideas about real life all over the place, most of which came to mind by standing back and thinking about my roleplaying experiences, as well as those of my friends, just as one might stand back and think about a series of paintings in an art gallery, or think about how a series of books you love actually helps you make sense of things that are happening to you in real life. For me, that has been the point at which roleplaying becomes more than just entertainment, and blossoms into a true art form: it can be more than fun, it can illumine one's own reality -- you put yourself into it, and what you get out of it is something more.