You won't be surprised to know that I spend a good portion of my time thinking about how the divide in roleplaying has happened. It's definitely there, and it often gets painted as a divide between newer and older players. There are people who point to Star Wars Galaxies as one of the greatest games for RP of all time, and there are those who look at it and just don't see what the big deal was. It's too much to come down purely to difference in taste.
The idea has been rolling around in my head for a while, but a few discussions on the topic finally pushed me into the conclusion that what we're looking at is a split between ramblers and orienteers. We're treating two distinct hobbies as the same thing because they've got a lot of overlap, but despite what we think, that overlap is narrower than it seems at a glance.
These groups, unfortunately, don't have names because this isn't really acknowledged on a whole as being a thing. So I'm going to make names: structural roleplayers and interactive roleplayers.
For the structural roleplayer, the whole point is that the game gives you the tools to do things. That is the heart of what they enjoy. They interact in-character because the game has mechanical foundations to enforce it. Playing a farmer is a matter of finding a game with complicated and immersive farming mechanics and then molding your behavior to fit the setting.
For the interactive roleplayer, the whole point is that the game gives you a medium of interesting things to do and a place to interact. The mechanics are relevant, but they're not central. Playing a farmer is a matter of thinking about what sort of character that farmer would be and then telling stories and sharing experiences with that character. Whether or not there are actual farming mechanics is secondary.
Obviously, these two groups seem similar. But they're not really the same, and they don't really look for the same enjoyment in a game. So because I love examples, let's look at Jef Reahard and me as our guinea pigs for the day because we're both roleplayers, just on opposite sides of the split.
When Jef makes a new character, his goal is to make someone who fits into the game mechanically. In World of Warcraft, he sees a game where all you can do is be some sort of combat class because all of the character options are combat classes or meant to facilitate those classes (crafting, for instance, exists solely to make better gear or combat consumables). In EVE Online, you can be a lot of things because the game has mechanical frameworks to let you just be a miner or a trader or whatever.
When I make a new character, my goal is to make someone who fits into the game thematically. In World of Warcraft, I see a game where you can be all sorts of things as they exist in lore; my character is a farmer if I say he's a farmer, and the only reason that needs to come up is if it's actually relevant or interesting. In EVE Online, there are a lot of mechanics to support being things, but they're rather dry and tedious, focusing on the functionality over the fun parts.
You get the idea. For me, mechanics are a part of the game that you can feel free to work around. For Jef, mechanics are part of the point.
Neither approach is wrong, no more than preferring one style of music over another is wrong. (Within reason. If you legitimately prefer Nickelback to XTC, then yes, you're wrong.) It's reasonable to say that the mechanics are there for a reason, and it's silly to play a moisture farmer if the game doesn't let you actually farm moisture. It's also reasonable to say that being a moisture farmer is the mind-numbing tedium that main characters happily escape in the opening moments of a film, and being one should only come up when it's relevant for dramatic purposes.
Unfortunately, most of us reading this are not actually part of the development staff at a company. We can't really dictate what is or isn't in games because we play them. But we can recognize that we're not all playing the same game, and we can try to be inclusive as a result of that.
Some games are just naturally more suited to one style or another. Star Wars: The Old Republic is rather lacking in game mechanics that don't directly encourage fighting things, and Wurm Online is the sort of game where character advancement consists of not getting eaten. As a player, if you recognize where you fall on the spectrum, you can make somewhat more informed choices about which you'd like to play over the long term.
We can also recognize that "roleplaying tools" mean very different things. A farming simulation mechanic is not really a roleplaying tool for me; it's a game mechanic, one that might wind up being less fun than just glossing it. But for some people, this is a valuable tool, moreso than built-in biography tools. These people don't need to have elaborate backstories; they just need a setup to go farm.
More than anything, it means that there's a clearer picture of why something that can matter so much to a group of roleplayers can matter so little to another. It's not that these features make a game more or less friendly to roleplay; it's that we're talking about two separate and related fields that aren't really the same thing.
We're not all trying to do the same thing, and that's good. And it's interesting to understand.
Feedback is welcome down below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, planning before a game is actually available for playing. The week after that? Handling grief.
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.