September 4, 2012

Why Tabletop RPGs Will Not Die

Some people have been talking about the decline of tabletop RPGs for years now. They say Magic the Gathering and CCGs have eaten dramatically into the market to the point where it will never recover. They say gamers can get the same thing with MMOs and other video games, but without the hassles of the tabletop. They say the interest in tabletop RPGs has reached its peak and is now a has-been form of entertainment.
I say ‘No’ to all of that. This is not wishful thinking on my part, wherein my love for this form of entertainment is blinding me to the realities of the industry, but rather an understanding of what tabletop RPGs bring to entertainment and the way we live as humans.

The reason why tabletop RPGs will never die is that – At its core, RPGs fulfill fundamental needs that no other medium can.

People need human social interaction. There have been numerous studies on the subject of human contact and the end analysis is that human interaction is one of the most important things to living a healthy life, on par with the physical needs of food and shelter. And at each person’s core, at an instinctive level, is a drive to fulfill this need. Some examples of the importance of human contact can be found here, here, here and here.

While the need for human contact is universal, there is a secondary need that RPGs fulfill and that is the need to take in and express imagination, to keep the mind active. The reason fantasy is such a draw is that it provides the greatest form of imagination, brings us furthest into our imaginations. D&D, and RPGs in general, tap into that need for imagination. And they do a superior job fulfilling this need.

Tabletop RPGs are a fusion between these two primal needs, human contact and imagination. By sitting across from another player and expressing self imagination (through the imagination invested in their character) and social imagination (through the imagination of a shared world) both needs are fulfilled.

Magic the Gathering, and others of the “tabletop destroying” CCG genre, is a static game. It has some elements of human contact and some elements of imagination, but it is not as all-encompassing as an rpg. The human contact is adversarial, which is not as powerful as an rpg wherein working together brings the players together and reinforces the social interaction. The immersion into the imagination is not remotely as deep.

MMOs and video games are excellent at tapping into that need for imagination and they create the illusion of human contact. This is done through interaction with digital human constructs and even with fellow players, but again, this level of human contact is not remotely as in depth as at a tabletop game. The subtle messages a human sends with body language and speech tone are lost over a computer line. The best times in an MMO is when a player is interacting and working with another player and they are working well together. Better times are when they can share voices over a voice chat channel wherein they actually hear the other person and the inflections therein.
In addition, the imagination of a tabletop game is substantially more intensive than that within a video game. The ability to have the game react to the player helps to create a greater immersion and attachment to the form of imagination.
Video games are a good substitute for human contact and imagination, but tabletop simply does it better.

RPGs have not reached their peak. As with all things, it goes in cycles. People may enjoy something, but human nature means looking for something new and fresh. People forget the joys and strengths of tabletop games. But there is a primal draw to tabletop rpgs that brings people into this form of entertainment. The only reason our favorite form of entertainment is not as prevalent is a lack of exposure (and some misconceptions as to what it can provide). While I firmly believe that rpgs can fulfill fundamental needs of us humans, it does no good if no one knows it exists or that it can provide what is needed.
While this is no statistical evidence, I see people much younger than my older self playing and enjoying tabletop games with much the same passion as myself. The genre of fantasy as found in media, such as film (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the super-hero genre and science-fiction), is one of the strongest forms of entertainment these days, generating billions of dollars. And tabletop games do it better. While the exposure of actual tabletop rpgs is weak, those individuals that find it are drawn in and stay.

RPGs will not die because nothing fulfills our needs more.

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