The calls that roleplaying is dead are quite convincing except for the fact that roleplaying continues and does not appear to be going anywhere. If anything, I'd argue (from anecdotes, so without much scientific merit) that roleplaying populations seem to be expanding, which makes sense, since with more and more people playing games online, more and more of them are going to be totally keen on pretending to be an elf.
But I can understand the sentiment because from another perspective it can seem totally on the mark. So I'm going to just go for the simple version and discuss the ways in which things haven't changed all that much after all.
No one ever actually cared
Guys, I don't know how to break this to you, but roleplaying has always been a niche hobby. Even in tabletop circles.
Yeah, tabletop gaming seems built around it. But let's be honest here: If you have a group playing Dungeons & Dragons, there's always at least one player whose characters roll up more or less as robots with very specific functions. The character talks when necessary and remains silent otherwise, performs only actions that bring the group closer to its goals, and generally waits until the combat starts up before being interesting in any way.
Part of the reason for that is someone is playing a Monk. Most of the reason, though, is that not everyone is keen on the idea of pretending to be someone else. A lot of people like the trappings but aren't as concerned about the flavor. Professional Magic: the Gathering players enjoy the whole fantasy flavor, but you'd better believe they're not pausing to read flavor text or put together a story whilst they sling cards.
I'm pretty sure that the only three things to do in Ultima Online were roleplay, gank other players, and try to walk down the street without being ganked. Yet people still flocked to the latter two. Roleplaying is not everyone's cup of tea, it never has been, and that's the nature of the beast.
You can roleplay anywhere
One of the questions brought up is one of mechanical support, which is something that touches upon a more overarching issue: Roleplaying isn't really just one hobby; it's two similar but ultimately different hobbies thrown together. This is a future topic, so I won't be elaborating here; the important point is that in the aggregate, roleplaying can happen pretty much anywhere.
Case in point? Monopoly. You have played Monopoly at some point within the past 30 years, I certainly have, and the game has always been boring as heck. Even if you're playing by the actual rules, it's still boring as heck. But there's still room for roleplaying as you build houses and laugh about winning someone's money, especially if you're with a bunch of drunken friends who begin describing the horrible slums they've built on Baltic Avenue.
All it takes to roleplay is an overactive imagination and enough of a framework for you to sketch out what's going on. MMORPGs provide varying amounts of mechanical support -- heaven forbid you wind up in a game without a walk toggle -- but you can wind up roleplaying in pretty much any game short of checkers or Tetris.
Communities are better organized now
Back in the day, having an actual website was not something that could be counted on, much less one that was automatically indexed by a search engine. If your guild was large, it might have a website, but the odds of having a single community site meant to organize all of the roleplayers in a community were almost nil. It took a long time for many games to warm to the idea that official websites needed forums.
These days... I don't need to tell you about how easy it is to get web hosting, do I? Enjin is a thing that exists, and I'm pretty sure I got a coupon for a free web server in the mail at some point. This means that we can actually have large community sites rounding everyone up, providing a common resource, and letting folks know where to start looking.
That's not to say that organization wasn't attempted in the past, but it was harder to do and fell down more frequently. These days... at the risk of sounding like I'm blowing my own horn, I think it's possible to actually make a living in part by being a columnist about roleplaying. This is not the sign of a dying hobby.
There's more stuff to do
I wasn't entirely kidding about what players could do in Ultima Online. In many ways, roleplaying was one answer to the question of what players could do in a world without any real boundaries or direction. Designers have learned a lot about games and design in the subsequent 16 years, and as a result there are a lot of other things that can easily occupy our game time other than pretending to be an elf.
The net result is that there are fewer people pretending to be an elf at all times because they can go kill dragons or fight other players or whatever else you'd like to do. That's certainly a downside, since you want roleplaying partners... but it also means that you wind up having more actual game to enjoy. Roleplaying can be fun without being your only worthwhile part of the experience.
Oh, and there is that two distinct hobby thing, but I'm running out of space here. I suppose I'll have to talk about that in two weeks, with next week's column talking about soap operas. Feedback on this week's column is welcome via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or the comments below.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.