In Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Justin Parsler’s essay Role-play vs. Gameplay: Difficulties of Playing a Role in World of Warcraft this question is explored. The authors conclude that World of Warcraft (WoW) is a MMORPG. They reach this conclusion mostly by pointing out the lack of a uniform definition for a role-playing game. Stewart and Parsler explain that WoW, while offering no incentives for role-playing, is still a role-playing game because the players themselves choose to role-play.
But I don’t agree with their assessment. Players choosing to participate in role-play while playing WoW may make them role-players, but it does not make WoW a RPG. The reason that WoW cannot be classified as a RPG is because all role-playing takes place outside of the workings of the game.
Alexander Galloway in Gamic Action, Four Moments breaks down a game into four sections. First is diegetic machines acts which is simply the gaming environment. In Wow, roleplaying cannot affect this quadrant, even if my character were to slay a non-player character (NPC), the NPC would regenerate so that another player can kill it again. Second is non-diegetic operator acts which are acts that happen outside of the gaming world. This is fundamentally against the entire idea of roleplaying, since a role-player is trying to manifest as their character at all times. The third section is non-diegetic machine acts, this section controls the coding behind the game such as what clicking on a specific item will do. In WoW roleplaying will not affect this section at all. No matter what backstory a character has, clicking on a piece of food in your bag will cause your character to sit down and eat.
The last section is diegetic operator acts, this section refers to the actual play of a game such as attacking or walking. This section would make most sense for where roleplaying would fit into WoW, however it does not fit into this section either. Stewart and Parsler use the excellent example of Abercrombie the necromancer. In WoW, Abercrombie enlists your character’s help to gather resources that will eventually allow him to attack the village. The entire quest line is highly suspicious and if this were a true RPG many players would choose a different course of action then simply blindly assisting the necromancer. However, the game does not allow any other course of action if you wish to finish the quest line. Therefore, even if you chose to role play at that moment, you really could not make any type of decision on how to precede.
Since role-playing in WoW does not fit into any of Galloway’s categories of ‘gamic action’, I feel that WoW cannot be viewed a RPG. The definition that I choose to apply to a role-play game is rather strict and requires that the game itself be affected in some way by the role-playing. Stewart and Parsler chose not to use such a strict definition and were able to conclude that WoW is a RPG.
Some may wonder if my evaluation allows for such a thing as MMORPGs, I think that it does. I believe that so long as the roleplaying of characters has an impact on the game, then it is a RPG. An example of one such game is The Star Wars Combine. It is a browser based game with approximately 2500 members. When one person makes a change to the environment, i.e. builds a space station, then that alteration is there for everybody to see and will remain there.
This type of ability to alter the game is, in my opinion, the true standard of a RPG.