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Role-Playing Games: What Are They?

Businesses have long used a technique called role-playing for various training purposes: The sales representative plays the part of the ornery customer while the sales manager models appropriate techniques to overcome objections. Targeted role-play scenarios such as the sales example are common in the business world. But, role-play in the form of a game that is completely removed from the working situation may have benefits for training, as well. This article series is going to focus on the use of role-playing games for training purposes. The articles will discuss what a role-playing game is and provide a brief overview of the history; the types of role-playing games (such as traditional, online, live action, etc) and how each has benefited training or education; and finally, how to implement a role-playing game program in business and how to use them for team building and training.

In discussing role-playing games, we must first discuss the genre of games out of which they came: War games. In this context, we are discussing non-military war games, played by civilians. These games are strategy games in which combat is the primary focus. Typically, the game setting is either historical in which players re-enact historic battles (or create fictional battles in an historic setting) or fantasy in which the battles include a fictional world with fictional or anachronistic weapons. A couple popular war games include the Warhammer series, Axis & Allies, and Flames of War.

In 1970, Gary Gygax developed a set of rules for medieval war gaming, which was his area of interest. That rules set was eventually published as the game, Chainmail, and from that publication, Gygax and others began to develop a new genre of game called the role-playing game (or RPG).

It was 1974 when Gygax published the first Player’s Handbook for his game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Based on Chanimail, D&D blended the medieval warfare scenario with a fantasy setting. The focus was not, however, on combat as it was in Chainmail. Instead, the focus was on cooperative storytelling through playing the role of a character. If you would like a more in-depth chronology and explanation of Dungeons & Dragons, I highly recommend the book, “Art and Arcana” by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer.  

Gygax laid the foundation for the role-playing game genre. What started as medieval high-fantasy has grown into post-apocalyptic settings, space opera settings, science fiction settings, comic book settings, and more. But the thing all these games have in common is a cooperative storytelling setting that uses team work and creative problem-solving to accomplish goals. Players use a character sheet that has information on it such as their character’s name, physical description, background, profession, abilities, skills, knowledges, weaponry, armor, etc. Research has shown that playing a character opposite of a person’s disposition (eg., a timid person playing an aggressive character) can cause the person to develop posturing and traits indicative of the character’s (see Nick Yee, “The Proteus Effect: Behavioral Modifications via Transformations,” 2007).  

RPGs are based on strategy war games, which extend back into ancient history as a means for training. Modern researchers have demonstrated that playing RPGs can influence a person’s personality. Current research theorizes that the same effect can also improve leadership skills such as teamwork and creative problem solving. In the next article, I will discuss how a game is played and what the various roles are that can be played. Pull up a chair, grab a pencil and paper, and let’s play a game!

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