Role-playing: To assume or act out a particular role. To assume or represent in a drama; act out.
Assume: Suppose to be the case, without proof.
Game: For me, a game is about organization of play, with a definitive end. Where play is an abstraction of life.
When looking up the definition of role-playing, I saw that they used the word assume quite a bit, and decided to include that definition as well. This makes the definition of role-playing much clearer, as it means that you are taking a role and making assumptions about it: The role of a boss, of a teacher, or of a level 12 paladin.
"As a boss, I suppose I would sit like this, and I would talk like this. I suppose I would go and check on the employees about X, Y and Z."
"As a teacher, I would get the students attention. I'll wait until they are quiet then I'll start the lecture on multiplication."
"Okay, my 12th level Paladin is going to Turn Undead this turn."
So a role-playing game is the organization of playing a role, where there is an end goal to be reached (storyline, dungeon, etc). That role is formalized in the rules of the game.
Perhaps this view is too broad, because now, many adventure games, and action adventure games can fall into this category.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater is a role-playing game. You role-play a skater at a competition with a time limit. What lines will the skater choose? What tricks will they do? You suppose that a kick-flip would be what they would choose to do here? Then that's what they do.
There is no assumption of turn based, fantasy, equipment, stats or experience. But Tony Hawk Pro Skater doesn't "feel" like a role-playing game.
The Last of Us is also a role-playing game. Most games with a story are role-playing games. You take on the role of the hero (whether specifically, such as Mario from Mario Bros, or generically, as in World of Warcraft, where your created character is now the hero).
Now this definition is pretty broad, which is why we add modifiers to it, Action RPG, MMORPG, Turn-Based RPG, Tabletop RPG.
But, if all these games are RPGs and so many games we have played fall into the category of this definition of RPG, then what does RPG elements mean in a video game? Why do we refer to Experience gain and levels and stats as RPG elements?
This has to do with the origin of the Role-playing genre. Dungeons and Dragons was the first game to be known as a role-playing game. It sprouted from the war game Chainmail, and it changed the focus from controlling armies to controlling individual characters. The rules involved in Dungeons and Dragons, the very mechanics of the game, is what lead to the concept of RPGs having stats and character growth.
So does this mean that we need to change our definition of Role-playing games to specifically include these game mechanics? If we do, then some tabletop RPGs may very well cease being RPGs and will revert to just being games in which you role-play.
Instead I think we need to better define what it means to role-play as far as games and video games go. I don't have an answer for this, since really, this should be a public conscience kind of thing.
For example, if we say that video games with role-playing are games where a player makes in character non-mechanics decisions, then many story focused adventure games should be considered RPGs (Telltale's The Walking Dead for example), where games where the only decisions are game mechanics based (Naughty Dog's Last of Us). Yet, Walking Dead is an adventure game with some action in it, and Last of Us is an action adventure game with some RPG elements in it (pills allow you to power up, essentially counting as a form of experience gain), or elements that modify game play by increased character ability and not necessarily player ability (health gain, less weapon sway).
So, with RPG elements being mechanics that originate from RPG games (leveling system for example), but having those mechanics not be the definition of an RPG, means that aside from the confusion, we can simply agree to this, continue to use it as we currently do, and not worry too much more about it.
It's good to talk about these things, as heuristics are important to simplifying conversations and allowing us to reach a goal of understanding each other faster.
If you agree or disagree, please respond below.