From Toddlers to Tabletops: The Evolution of Role-Play
  • From Toddlers to Tabletops: The Evolution of Role-Play

    Gamers who went gift shopping this past week likely came across a curious result when searching for "role-play" -- an entire category of kids' toys. Analyzing how we role-play as children is illustrative of how we role-play as adults.

    A Pretend Play Primer

    Sandeep Gautam defines pretend play in five stages. The first three stages are an important part of child development, but all five stages provide a road map to classifying how adults approaching role-playing games:

    • Stage I: Imitative Play -- This form of play takes place when a child mimics people and objects they are familiar with. It's usually a solitary activity, as the child pretends to do what adults do -- talking on a phone, feed a baby, etc.
    • Stage II: Make-Believe Play -- Moving beyond props, the child can form pretend play without reliance on real-life objects or people. Still primarily a solitary activity.
    • Stage III: Socio-Dramatic Play -- The child acts out imagined scenarios with another. It requires some planning and negotiation to make this work. This is the roots of tabletop role-playing games, which is participatory, with the rules providing an agreed-upon "common ground" for the participants to share in imaginative play. It's worth noting that gaming simulations in which the players and/or game master don't actually role-play their characters' actions stop at Stage III.
    • Stage IV: Mythological Role-Play -- The child adopts a persona that isn't her own, likely influenced by pop culture. This kind of play can also involve adults. Like socio-dramatic play, this is an important element of tabletop role-play as well. Cosplay fits in this sort of role-play, in which cosplayers take on elements of others but don't necessarily adopt the entire persona of the characters they portray.
    • Stage V: Novel Role-Play -- Rather than take on a persona the child knows, the child makes up a persona entirely. This is the level of story-games in which the players are encouraged to create worlds and individuals from whole cloth.

    No Longer Child’s Play

    Research indicates that role-play is a formative part of a child's development:

    The research reviewed by Berk, Mann & Ogan, (2006) and Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer (2009) suggest that make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. When children use toys to introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally. Taking on different roles allows children the unique opportunity to learn social skills such as communication, problem solving, and empathy (Hughes, 1999).

    Tabletop gaming scholars have found role-playing games to have similar benefits. W. Hawkes-Robinson and William J. Walton have both found role-playing to be a net benefit to individuals who engage with tabletop play as a hobby. Patrick Allan enumerates the many benefits, including exercising creativity, increased social skills, teamwork and cooperation, and problem-solving skills.

    If we follow the development arc from the first three stages of play development, gamers who regularly engage in role-play should also exhibit better self-control and increased empathy, a topic explored in Shared Fantasy by Gary Alan Fine. Fine grouped the justification for players investing their time and energy into role-playing into four themes: educational components, an escape from social pressure, a sense of personal control, and as an aid in dealing with people.

    Fine also listed other acclaimed attributes derived from role-playing games, including the ability to synthesize information, decision-making, leadership, and role-playing as a skill. Role-playing is by its very nature a teaming activity, which requires both decision-making and leadership for the team to be successful.

    Role-playing as a skill is better described as empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes to help understand them. Child psychologists, adult counselors, and business people all use role-playing as a teaching tool to help understand a different viewpoint, and fantasy role-playing can help in much the same way.

    Role-playing games are also a form of mental escape. Gamers get the opportunity to take on other personas that are smarter, faster, stronger, and more attractive than they are. They alternately might choose a character who is more bold or ferocious, exaggerating traits they are unable to exercise to the fullest in their daily lives. Role-playing also allows players to break common social conventions and taboos without fear of repercussion. Their characters can be as violent or conciliatory as they wish, with the only consequences concocted by the Game Master.

    Although role-playing games are less popular than other forms of more mainstream entertainment, role-playing nevertheless requires social interaction. This helps certain players who might otherwise have difficulty socially interacting by finding a peer group they can relate to and pretending to be someone else.

    Many of these skills have overlap with what makes a successful employee, as determined by Google's project, Project Oxygen:

    In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

    Role-playing isn't just an important part of emotional and social development, it seems it can even make you more successful in the workplace. So when your niece or nephew receives Thor’s hammer, a doctor’s play set, or a doll house as a gift this holiday, remember: they’re just taking the first step in their journey to become lifelong fans of role-playing. Happy holidays everyone!

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      I have never seen role play as a part of a job interview, but I can easily see the value of it, especially in an interaction-heavy position.

      Even better still:

      ”Well, Mr. Jones, you seem to have quite the impressive skill set; six years at MIT, an internship at Google, and even a patent to your name. Now, if you can complete the final exam, we’ll conclude the interview.

      On the table you’ll find six dice and a pencil, and your choices are Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, or Rogue...”
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