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Role-playing refers to the changing of one's behavior to assume a role, either unconsciously to fill a social role, or consciously to act out an adopted role. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines roleplaying as "the changing of one's behavior to fulfill a social role", the term is used more loosely in three senses:
- To refer to the playing of roles generally such as in a theater, or educational setting;
- To refer to a wide range of games including computer role-playing games, play-by-mail games and more;
- To refer specifically to role-playing games.
The term role playing was originally coined in the 1920s by Jacob L. Moreno, a Viennese psychiatrist who surmised patients gained more from exploring their problems by acting them out than by talking about them. Moreno first tested out his ideas by forming the Theatre of Spontaneity acting company in 1921 and two years later publishing his theories in a book of the same name. When the practice became popular in business and educational institutions twenty years later the problem solving aspect shifted towards the learning of a professional role for later real life assumption.
"What astronauts do in their practice for missions; what pilots do in learning to navigate in flight simulators; what thousands of soldiers do in the course of military exercises--it's all role playing. Teaching salespersons to deal with customers, teaching doctors to interview patients, teaching teachers to deal with difficult situations, all these require some measure of actual practice and feedback."
After its inception into the realm of business, role playing has steadily flourished for over fifty years expanding into multiple areas of public and private life.. Formal examples include: teaching (especially in the development of social skills, communication skills, and interpersonal skills), self-help groups, organizational management, leadership training, professional training, scientific research in the social sciences, and even sports. Less formal examples have also arisen including: role playing games for entertainment, and sexual roleplaying practices. Now in the 21st century, role playing as a form of personal entertainment may be overtaking in numbers the more formal practice of educational roleplay.
In social science, roleplaying is historically a reference to Psychodrama and Sociodrama, and more recently to Drama Therapy, which were originally created as a methodology for studying role theory by the social sciences. The study of roleplaying was modeled after theater and includes many counterparts. To roleplay one enacts various motives, attitudes, and postures. The protagonists are the participants who improvise their actions within a situation normally simulated about them. It is their life or abilities, their roles, that are being examined or tested. The auxiliary egos are anyone else who performs to place the protagonists within the situation. The audience is any onlooker who may provide feedback. The stage is wherever the practice is performed or perhaps fictionally set. The director is the expert who guides the exercise.
Role-playing may also refer to role training where persons 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 roleplay 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.
Historical re-enactment has been practiced by adults for millennia. The ancient Romans, Han Chinese, and medieval Europeans all enjoyed occasionally organizing 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 reenactment has often been pursued as a hobby.
Improvisational theatre dates back to the Commedia dell'Arte tradition of 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 founder 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 characterization, 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.
Sexual roleplaying is form of roleplaying in which partners take parts in a drama with a strong sexual theme. These might include a teacher and pupil scenario, or an employer and maid, besides other scenarios. These are common in BDSM and are integral to many pseudonymous or anonymous forms of cybersex.
Sexual role-playing may also be involved in various online games. This is a generally less accepted type of roleplaying in an online community, though opinions about it vary. Social acceptance and attitudes to sexual roleplaying differ within various communities, often dependent on the community's genre or purpose (e.g., adult BDSM and fetish communities not only accept this behaviour but promulgate it as the main activity around which the online community functions).It is also not uncommon for players to form a personal attachment or friendship with the persona assumed by their roleplaying partner.
The above mentioned example is generally better accepted in an online environment than roleplaying a character that involves sexual-related content in public or in above mentioned adult-themed roleplaying games.
- ^ Definition of Role Playing from the Oxford English Dictionary. 
- ^ Andrew Rilstone, "Role-Playing Games: An Overview" 1994, Inter*Action #1.
- ^ Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2nd ed. Gale Group, 2001.
- ^ The Theatre of Spontaneity 
- ^ Adam Blatner, M.D., "Role-Playing in Education" 1995, rev. 2002.
- ^ "Role Play: Theory and Practice" by Krysia M Yardley-Matwiejczuk, 1997.
- ^ Psychodrama: Resolving Emotional Problems Through Role-Playing, Lewis Yablonsky.