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Role-playing refers to the changing of one's behaviour to assume a role, either unconsciously to fill a social role, or consciously to act out an adopted role. While the Oxford English Dictionary offers a definition of role-playing as "the changing of one's behaviour to fulfill a social role", in the field of psychology, the term is used more loosely in four senses:
- To refer to the playing of roles generally such as in a theatre, or educational setting;
- To refer to taking a role of an existing character or person and acting it out with a partner taking someone else's role, often involving different genres of practice;
- To refer to a wide range of games including role-playing video game, play-by-mail games and more;
- To refer specifically to role-playing games.
Many children participate in a form of role-playing known as make believe, wherein they adopt certain roles such as doctor and act out those roles in character. Sometimes make believe adopts an oppositional nature, resulting in games such as cops and robbers.
Historical re-enactment has been practised by adults for millennia. The ancient Romans, Han Chinese, and medieval Europeans all enjoyed occasionally organising events in which everyone pretended to be from an earlier age, and entertainment appears to have been the primary purpose of these activities. Within the 20th century historical re-enactment has often been pursued as a hobby.
Improvisational theatre dates back to the Commedia dell'Arte tradition of the 16th century. Modern improvisational theatre began in the classroom with the "theatre games" of Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone in the 1950s. Viola Spolin, who was one of the founders the famous comedy troupe Second City, insisted that her exercises were games, and that they involved role-playing as early as 1946. She accurately judged role-playing in the theatre as rehearsal and actor training, or the playing of the role of actor versus theatre roles, but many now use her games for fun in their own right.
A role-playing game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterisation, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, they may improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games.
Role-playing can also be done online in the form of group story creation, involving anywhere from two to several hundred people, utilizing public forums, private message boards, mailing lists, chatrooms, and instant-messaging chat clients (e.g., MSN, Yahoo!, ICQ) to build worlds and characters that may last a few hours, or several years. Message boards such as ProBoards and InvisionFree are popularly used for role-playing. Often on forum-based roleplays, rules, and standards are set up, such as a minimum word count, character applications, and "plotting" boards to increase complexity and depth of story.
There are different genres of which one can choose while role-playing, including, but not limited to, fantasy, modern, medieval, steam punk, and historical. Books, movies, or games can be, and often are, used as a basis for role-plays (which in such cases may be deemed "collaborative fan-fiction"), with players either assuming the roles of established canon characters or using those the players themselves create ("Original Characters") to replace—or exist alongside—characters from the book, movie, or game, playing through well-trodden plots as alternative characters, or expanding upon the setting and story outside of its established canon.
Role-playing may also refer to role training where people rehearse situations in preparation for a future performance and to improve their abilities within a role. The most common examples are occupational training role-plays, educational role-play exercises, and certain military wargames.
One of the first uses of computers was to simulate reality around its participants in order to role-play the flying of aircraft. As early as the 1940s, flight simulators used computers to solve the equations of flight and train future pilots. After World War II the army began full-time role-playing simulations with soldiers using computers both within full scale training exercises and for training in numerous specific tasks under wartime conditions. Examples include weapon firing, vehicle simulators, and control station mock-ups.
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- "Definition of Role Playing from the Oxford English Dictionary". Askoxford.com. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- Rilstone, Andrew. "Role-Playing Games: An Overview" 1994, Inter*Action #1".