Everyone Role-Plays in Video Games, Study Finds

What happens when you put on your robe and your wizard hat.

Leif Johnson

Leif Johnson

Image: Ignacio Domínguez.

For years now I've played on World of Warcraft's largest role-playing server, a place where the game's other players give us a hard time for taking our in-game roles a little too seriously (to say nothing of the people who like to strip off their digital clothes and do the Macarena in a certain notorious inn). But a new study from North Carolina State University shows we just embrace a trend everyone else is already caught up in. If offered a role in a roleplaying game, almost everyone ends up playing that role to some degree.

For their paper, researchers Ignacio Domínguez, Rogelio Cardona-Rivera, David Roberts, and James Vance (from University of Wisconsin-Stout) set out to discover whether a playing as a particular role in an RPG influenced a player's behavior, and their results seem to prove it does beyond a doubt. They call this "the Mimesis Effect."

"We found that people's behavior was consistent with their role, regardless of whether it was assigned or chosen," says Domínguez, the paper's lead author. "What's more, we found that people's gameplay was consistent with a single role even if they didn't have one. In other words, people exhibit consistent, role-based behavior even if they are given no information about what their role should be."

Or put it this way. If I'm playing as a warrior, I'm almost certainly doing to deal with a problem the game poses by smashing something with an axe rather than flinging spells at it, even if I'm allowed to.

Image: Ignacio Domínguez

The team created a simple single-player RPG of their own for the study, which allowed participants to play as either a fighter, a mage, or a rogue. They let 91 players choose their own roles (by picking up a battleaxe, a staff, or a pair of daggers respectively), while 78 were assigned their roles and 41 were given no specific role at all.

I had a chance to play their game myself earlier in the week. For convenience, they ripped its aesthetic right out of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and they kept the main character neutral by making it little more than a gray foam wedge waddling across a retooled version of early '90s Hyrule. There's no actual combat, and I find myself wondering how I would have reacted to certain situations if I'd had the choice of switching between melee or ranged in real time. Instead, scenarios play out with multiple-choice actions, each of which was carefully worded to reflect each role based on the results of a previous study.

Thus, when tasked with the legendary feat of getting a cat out of a tree, I had the option of levitating, shaking the tree, or performing an "acrobatic climb." I'd chosen the battleaxe, so I gravitated toward the "rawr smash" tactic of shaking the thing.

My playthrough was tainted, of course: I already knew the purpose of the study. Even so, I found myself continually playing as my chosen class probably would, whether it was by charging a group of bandits or offing a manticore with a "fierce blow."

Image: Ignacio Domínguez

And so it generally went with everyone else. Domínguez and his team found that players with fighter roles chose the fighter options 65.7 percent of the time, while rogue players chose the rogue options 69.7 percent of the time. Mage players were much more dedicated, as they chose the mage-oriented action 76.1 percent of the time.

The point of all this, Domínguez says in the press release, is that it shows game developers that "they may want to focus their content development efforts on actions consistent with character roles, and spend less time on content that players are unlikely to use." In addition, their work demonstrates that "researchers studying gaming and player choice need to account for roles within games, or else their findings may be skewed."

In a conversation over email, Domínguez identifies Epic Games' upcoming Fortnite as a game that could have benefited from the lessons of his study.

"Designing games without keeping the roles it affords in mind can also cause problems with the gameplay experience, adding an unintended layer of complexity," he says. "[Fortnite] has a ton of content, and complexity, but no notion of what the roles are, and what actions ought to be pursued. This lack of tacit direction may be discouraging for some players."

Making all this secondary content is tremendously costly effort in terms of time and resources, he says, and in the process the main storylines of many modern games like The Order: 1886 end up feeling too short. But, he says, this doesn't mean games should toss out secondary content altogether.

Image: Ignacio Domínguez

"People tend to be consistent with previous actions they have taken, or with previous statements they have made," Domínguez said. "We'll even come up with arguments to defend our choices, even if they are not particularly rational or optimal in the behavioral economical sense. In essence, once players make a commitment to a particular role that they see as narratively afforded, it becomes easier to continue the commitment instead of backing off and exploring other options. This may not be true of all kinds of players, but the data we have supports that intuition."

The team will present their paper, fully entitled "The Mimesis Effect: The Effect of Roles on Player Choice in Interactive Narrative Role-Playing Games," at the ACM Computer-Human Interaction conference in San Jose, California on May 11.