Playing Roles: The Problem with Power Gaming

Take a dive into gaming with our Playing Roles series.

Published: April 22, 2016 11:00 AM /


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With Dark Souls III out now, we have seen a major influx of folks taking up the challenge and fighting their way through hordes of enemies in a dying world. The Souls games have become renowned in the gaming world for its purposeful difficulty and meticulous gameplay design, to the point where the cries of “git gud” towards detractors have become the unofficial slogan for the series. Dark Souls III, much like the other Souls games, is a pure power fantasy in that regard, scratching the itch for anyone looking for a power gaming challenge that RPGs often provide. 

However, with so much focus on the difficulty of the Souls series, we lose a lot of the flavor and drive that keeps people playing—the contextual backdrop that supports the gameplay completely. While I have already discussed how the Souls series is not my cup of tea due to its focus in design, the Souls series nonetheless has a fascinating backstory to it; a world that is decaying, doomed to rot away regardless of the actions of stalwart heroes trying to turn back the tide of darkness. Without saying much, it is bleak and depressing, where heroes don’t fight for glory or goodness, they fight to delay the inevitable.

All of this context, which offers a frankly amazing setup for the series and makes your actions ultimately heroic, is often drowned out by the main focus of the game's design: its challenge. Of course, fans of the Souls series know this context very well; it serves as the motivation for the game's very existence, but for many, the title is defined more by its mechanics. The Souls series is a power gamer’s dream.

It requires you to optimize, strategize, and through perseverance and trial and error, memorize what comes next. In this way, Dark Souls III is an excellent role-playing game, but in another, it highlights a character flaw most RPGs suffer from, the power gaming aspect that embodies the game's perception.

Of course, it would be useful to define what power gaming is, although in practice that is quite difficult. For most RPGs, power gaming is finding the exploits and synergies of the game's built-in system, often exploiting it for maximum gains and returns to make the game easier to play. This can come in many forms. Min-maxing, for example, is a common tactic during character creation, where players optimize their primary stats for a character build to offer maximum returns in-game. As graphics have become more complex and role-playing games tend to eschew numbers for more abstract mechanics, power gaming has changed its definition to encompass optimized strategies or methods of play, such as maximizing invincibility frames in the Souls series.

Do role-playing games suffer from power gaming? Such a thesis is of course ultimately subjective, but power gaming in RPGs has gone hand in hand with game design since the first Wizardry titles. Much of the framework for early RPGs is about party configurations, with balanced parties arguably becoming the most effective method of persevering through challenging scenarios. During the 1980s, most RPGs, save some exceptions like the Ultima games, were designed for power gaming because the best recreation of tabletop mechanics was always through in-game systems. Your character sheet—how well you construct your characters via stats, equipment, and abilities—was more important than your overall role in the world.

In tabletop parlance, there is often a difference between what is considered “Role-Play” vs. “Roll-Play,” terminologies. It is an old argument, one that is impotent in explaining anything other than being a buzzword for the style of gameplay you may encounter. Both styles, one that is focused more on narrative and purposeful character interaction, and one where players detached from their characters focus on their stats, are ultimately both valid ways of playing tabletop RPGs. It stands to reason that role-playing video games should follow a similar principle, but a video game ultimately has limitations that a tabletop game lacks, namely through the design and scope of the product you are playing.

For video games, these differences ultimately have a bit more weight to them from a design standpoint. In an article for Gamasutra, author John Harris discusses how early tabletop games, most notably the original versions of Dungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, did not even consider “role-playing” as part of the game's design. Even common terminology such as role-playing was absent from the game, which Harris notes is an important detail regarding early CRPGs, important because of how proscriptive a term like “role-playing game” is.

“It implies that players, to an extent, personify their characters. D&D arose out of a marriage between wargaming and fantasy fiction, so narrative is in its blood, but early on the most frequent type of adventure was a simple free-form dungeon crawl. If you count OD&D as a role-playing game, then you necessarily have to admit that RPGs don’t have to be games of storytelling, or at least not games of “top-down,” DM-driven storytelling. (RPG’s have always been games of what we might call “storywriting.”)

In this sense computer versions have more in common with early social roleplaying sessions than later ones. Few people play CRPGs with an eye towards acting out their characters’ roles.”

Harris is correct in assessing that not all RPGs have to contain a narrative or context; early RPG titles such as the aforementioned dungeon crawlers like Wizardry, were minimal when it came to plot and progression. The reward for playing was not a narrative denouement, but a personal triumph of overcoming a difficult challenge. The original Dungeons & Dragons is what directly influenced early CPRG design; character death was commonplace, the narrative was simplistic, and how you build your character is purposeful to your chances of survival over narrative conceits or quirks.

These design choices would make their way to some of the first video games to emulate the tabletop experience. It would take a long time for “role-play” to make its mark in the RPG market, as the rule of thumb for many games was power gaming out of necessity for maximum enjoyment. It was about outsmarting the game through optimization over progression, with players becoming the custodians of their own characters, essentially making up quirks and flaws for them or simply ignoring that aspect and focusing on their build first, characterization second.

This, of course, begins to change by the early 1990s. The glut of CRPG titles with poor design, mechanics, or simply coding led to a major decline for a time, while the console market saw a major surge in role-playing games such as Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Quest. Other PC stalwarts, such as the Ultima series, would also see success in the 90s, but that was arguably due to their already hybrid design of character progression. These games, however, would finally introduce the “role-playing” aspect of RPGs, to mixed success in the RPG community.

Many have argued, sometimes stemming from the WRPG/JRPG debate, that console role-playing games are simplistic because of their more linear progression. Where there is truth to that in one sense, it is important to note that console RPGs still contain a healthy amount of choice in their design, just in a different way from before. It is easy to power a game in a title like Final Fantasy, but doing so actually made the game less fun, mostly due to pacing and narrative conceits already baked into the game's design.

This can be seen as a flaw in some games by role-playing fans. By systematically “beating” the game at its own design through glitch exploits, min-maxing, or other forms of manipulation, the inherent problems with the game, along with its challenge, become a focal point of discussion—usually in negative terms when players find an RPG that doesn't allow for conventional power gaming, or rely on manipulation to power game in the first place. Of course, this is rarely a measurement of how easy an RPG can be. Outside of in-game difficulty settings, which is a more recent trend in general for video games, manipulation of the game is exploiting the weaknesses of its inherent design over the actual challenge.

This also doesn’t mean power gaming is inherently a bad connotation. Many have argued that power gaming stems from an elitist position, which resides in an all-inclusive club of few players who are worth their salt by their skill. The “git gud” phrase becomes a stereotype of the power gamer—a person prideful in their abilities over others often called the pejorative “Munchkins” in tabletop circles for their over-reliance on power gaming and strong-arming tactics against what they considered outsiders.

In some respects, this fulfills a power fantasy in its own right; after all, having skills and abilities beyond the majority is a sense of wish fulfillment, and video games can provide that sense of escapism quite easily. There is more to it than that, however. Sociologist Mark Silverman argued that power gaming stems from a social construct called “Serious Leisure.” Serious Leisure refers to amateurs and hobbyists who become engrossed in the machinations of their interest, acquiring special skills and expressing them through their knowledge and experience in that particular field.

Taking this concept of Serious Leisure, Silverman compares it to “Casual Leisure,” which is a more passive, but still fledgling interest in a topic or hobby. An amateur photographer, for example, would be considered Serious Leisure because they would know more about the inner workings of light, contrast, shadow, and camera angles. Contrast this with a more Casual Leisure hobbyist, who gets the same satisfaction from taking pictures with an old camera, sometimes without the technical know-how to get the perfect picture.

This of course is ultimately up for debate, as it boils down to semantics, but power gaming is synonymous in design for a reason. For many, it is the choice to “git gud” and play a game through that lens. In RPGs, the choice to power game is deliberate because of the degree of choices RPGs offer mechanically—optimized equipment, character builds, and even conversation trees become based solely on the promise of achievements, useful rewards, or both.

In its wake though, it leads to the problem inherent with titles like Final Fantasy: they were not built for power gaming. Narrative-driven role-playing games, emphasizing the role-play aspect that is found in modern tabletop RPGs, are deliberate in progression since it is fully tied to a narrative, not the progression choices of the player. Many RPGs have taken this approach even further. Modern popular titles such as Dragon Age, The Witcher, and the Tales series try to have their cake and eat it through design that caters to both the hobbyist and amateur, often with mixed results. Complaints about a lack of challenge, about “story mode” difficulty, or Mary-Sue protagonists become rampant for these games because they ultimately don’t deviate from their narrative mandate, contain narrative flaws, and become more pronounced because optimized character building contributes to the uneven character progression.

The Souls series is the polar opposite, reveling in the power gaming design, and it is not alone. The Elder Scrolls series had popularized the “power fantasy” well before Skyrim was released, not due to difficulty but due to player agency, as have a myriad of sandbox RPGs and MMOs such as Monster Hunter and World of Warcraft. In terms of design, these games are successful not because of narrative or cohesiveness of design, but because of progression and small-choice optimization. Skyrim, for example, has a janky narrative that freezes the game world in place until the player interacts with it; events only happen in a vacuum because you are involved in them. Likewise, the thrill of Monster Hunter becomes the preparation for a hard battle against a massive creature; preparation that takes time, a precious commodity for games, to do correctly. Even World of Warcraft has been lampooned for their passionate guilds filled with power gaming aficionados, using spreadsheets to shave .4 seconds off their casting time against a drawn-out dungeon delve.

Yet for all of these perceived flaws, games like Skyrim and Monster Hunter continue to be popular because of the opportunities they present players. Roll-playing is after all a choice, usually one done by the player when they first create their character. Power gaming comes in many forms this way, and in its wake, it can lead to games becoming subpar overall or at the very least, feeling incomplete to role-players. This of course doesn’t preclude dominance of one sphere of ideals over the other; to say that the narrative-driven focus of Final Fantasy is not a good example of a role-playing game is missing the point entirely, likewise dismissing the likes of Skyrim for being purely a power gaming haven. Both games ultimately fulfill a niche in the role-playing space; a niche big enough to be inclusive for different ideals.

It is the happy medium between the two that is the ultimate future for role-playing video games. The nostalgic days for hardcore challenge have changed; difficult RPGs from the 1980s will never become a mainstream success (nor do they have to), but players can fulfill that itch by playing the Souls series, where the penalty for failure is to keep trying until you succeed, only with smoother gameplay interaction and an environmental narrative to enjoy in the interim. Likewise, more narrative-driven games can provide enough of a challenge and attention because of how their mechanics are built. Power gaming works well in some games, and poor in others, but to power game every RPG you play in and of itself is a common mistake leading to such frustrations. 

Whatever difficulty you choose, at least the game gives the player a choice.
Whatever difficulty you choose, at least the game gives the player a choice.

This is why the inclusion of “story modes” or “hardcore” difficulty, while a recent development for RPGs, should be a welcome one. From a design standpoint, how you make a game easier or harder is usually through tweaks to AI protocols, health and abilities, and even character placement and regeneration, which doesn’t necessarily change the narrative or design philosophy of a said game, it only changes the challenge behind it. A few games—most notably The Witcher 3Pillars of Eternity, and Mass Effect 3—have experimented with these diverging difficulties, offering a narrative-driven experience directly tied to mechanical challenge, or divorced from it at the leisure of the player. While not fully fitting the power gaming schema perfectly, it is a step in the right direction for providing more options for players. A casual or difficult-to-play experience depending on what the player wants in their role-playing experience is a fair compromise to games wishing to cater to the wider RPG audience. 

Ironically, it is usually the “story mode” that receives the most criticism, often tied to the simplification of role-playing games on the whole, despite hardcore modes being introduced simultaneously. That attitude from power gamers, along with the attitude towards power gamers, presents the eventual problem. Power gaming is not going to go away, but as role-playing games continue to evolve and new players become introduced to RPGs, the power gaming mandate will continue to occupy the Serious Leisure sphere, not the general audience sphere. There is nothing gained or lost by fans dedicating time and effort to something they love, but criticizing players to “git gud” is antithetical to what role-playing games have become. In the same token, so has dismissing power gaming outright as well, leading to a final problem of perception over an actual problem of design.

So is power gaming a problem? Well, it really depends on how people act about it. Tabletop gaming has discussed this issue between “role-play” and “roll-play” by leaving the players in charge of their own amusement, by encouraging both sides to enjoy themselves, over worrying about what constitutes a proper playstyle. Esoteric debates within the tabletop circle over the issue become one of casual discussion, over a serious belief, and one conclusion is to encourage players to practice both methods—to role-play while power gaming. Role-playing video games would do well in following some of these footsteps, encouraging players to make the same choices in a way where perpetuating stereotypes stays in the realm of nonsensical discussion over serious accusations, and providing the choice for players in what gameplay experience they want, in most instances.  

In other words, players need to stop taking these questions seriously and just enjoy the game in how they play it.  The Souls series, despite its deficiencies in clearly showcasing the environmental narrative to an outsider, is still appreciated by the hobbyist as much as the amateur in the end, even if the said hobbyist may have no interest in playing it because of the challenge presented. That form of inclusivity is what role-playing games should be about; after all, part of the allure of enjoying RPGs, on the whole, is how different styles of play exist in the first place. 

This post was originally published in 2016 as a part of our Playing Roles series. It's been republished to have better formatting.

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| Staff Writer

A longtime player of games, creator of worlds, and teacher of minds. Robert has worked many positions over the years, from college professor to education… More about Robert