Names are always important. A name is a definition, and carries with it all the various permutations and connotations present in the words used to name the thing. For instance, there is a quite a variety of names for the person that provides the structural backing for a role-playing game. For instance, TSR with "dungeon master" really sets the tone. The job involves dungeons, and exercising complete control over them. I personally prefer "Referee," (note the capital) for, in my mind, that captures the nature of the job most succinctly. Snaps go out to Galileo Games for G.O.D., game operation designate, the name with the most moxie.
White Wolf, when they set out for their line of games, decided upon the term "storyteller." In fact, their name for the whole shebang is the "storyteller system." It is an interesting emphasis, like the Referee should be someone with a flashlight and a campfire, or an oral poet reciting ancient epic in rigorous meter as opposed to someone drinking Mountain Dew and saying things like "suddenly…" What I find especially interesting is that the term has even become something of a derogatory one, accusing the Referee in question of dwelling too far in the abstract.
While gamers making fun of one another is an interesting development, it is not my topic, but does serve to open up the idea of story, and its place in games. In my opinion, and apparently that of White Wolf based upon their naming conventions, the singular reason why role-playing games have become so popular is their relationship with story. A wild assertion, you say? Allow me to back it up. First let me thank White Wolf for being, if not the instigator, the most significant disseminator of these ideas to a general populace, and I cannot deny that the ideas that they espouse in their collective texts on gaming have had the most profound affect upon my understanding of the topic.
Why games are so popular is that they allow the creation of stories. This is not stories in the limited definition, i.e. a plot synopsis for an individual game, but stories in a vast definition. We play games so that we can tell stories about our games. There is precious little that can be brought out of a game otherwise. There is no definite moment of victory, and the only score that can be kept, the numbers of the character, are fickle and far too easily faked to mean anything. Victories in the context of a game, such as implanting your character as emperor of the world, are equally intransitive. It is too much like life; call no man happy until he is dead and all that. We get things like camaraderie, escapism and generic happiness out of doing it, but there are many other things in the world that provide such a satisfaction, and none as peculiar as gaming.
Besides, why else would a t-shirt that reads, "do not tell me about your character," be funny if it were not so true, if it were not that one thing that we wanted to do all of the time?
The essence of gaming is narrative construction. As a game progresses, the narrative of a character, of a group of characters, of a entire world, progresses, and, what's more, we get the chance to participate in the story. We get to craft the story, because the story is a dictation of our actions. We get to own the story, and then tell the story to others and watch them marvel at the victories, weep at the losses.
But what is it about these stories that make them special? For instance, as opposed to making a story with a bunch of friends in somebody's basement, we could be out finding stories, out walking the world searching for experience and adventure. There are many possibilities. We are inherently lazy, and will take our stories the easy way. These stories do not stand a chance at causing us bodily harm. The stories that we can make by gaming can break laws of reality and history at whim, and this is appealing from an escapism perspective. The ownership of a story is clearer when it is made in a controlled context. We have a higher degree of insurance that the story will be a good one, as opposed to a non-event and time wasted looking for a story.
There is another more compelling and profound reason, and that is the stories that we make through role-playing games are far more essential than the stories that we find in our lives. This is when I get to invoke the name of the patron saint of gaming, Joseph Campbell. I will save you the lecture on his work, only urge you to go out and read any book he is involved with. It had a great influence on the early White Wolf games, but, of late, they have began to turn from the faith. The stories that are gleaned from gaming are somehow more vital to our lives than the stories that can be found out there in the wild world. The stories are more mythologically oriented, and I do not mean that they have to do with various mythic symbols or facts, but that the stories are more primal, more basic, and more archetypical than the stories we find. The story of a game is more about how anyone should live than the exacting tale of any one man or woman's life.
Consider this idea in the context of the traditions of gaming. The basic game of AD&D is one big psychological fiesta with dice. Not only does it follow all of the standard tropes of myth, the Jungian/Campbellist heroes' journey, it is representative of the most basic sorts of internal journey. A collected group of character classes, which tend to fall nicely into some sort of definition of the conscious mind, (warrior – action and physicality, cleric – grace with defense and blunt weaponry, etc), descend into the depths of the soul in order to defeat the beasts of the subconscious and bring back the gold of self-knowledge. I mentioned in a previous essay that there was another reason why combat was so prevalent in gaming, and this is that reason. There needs to be an expression of conflict, some force to strive against in order to achieve the hidden gold, and the most archetypical representation of conflict is combat, a brutal struggle for life. What's more, the base core of the story is still the same, even today. Consider the prime modern game, Vampire: The Masquerade. The story is absolutely the same, but only left more metaphorical. It is struggle in the psyche of the vampire against the beast that rages within. Decent into darkness, overcome darkness, return: quick definition of any gaming story, and sure beats a singles bar for story potential. Well, I suppose it depends on what kinds of bars you're used to going to, but you get my drift.
There is no reason that this motif is a necessity for any game, but I think that it is far more common than you may think. So, in short, gaming is so popular because it is a story factory We come out of a game with fantastic stories to tell, both of our actions and of the feel of the world itself. These stories, if not better than stories we can find elsewhere, are more basic, more mythological, and therefore more translatable to others and more meaningful to the questions of how we should live our lives. Are there games that violate all these rules? Yes, but they are another story entirely.