I think we need to look at the question from a much higher vantage point, because to me there is an obvious interpretation of what “winning” means in the context of a game, but this definition gets very muddled in the context of an RPG. to explain myself…
IMO, going by the most commonly accepted amorphous definition of a game (I’ll know it when I see it), roleplaying games aren’t games. I don’t think it worth redefining the name, RPG is too far ingrained, and collaborative storytelling experience is not the kind of punchy title that gets people excited.
Why do I not think RPGs are real games? We could spend hours defining “game” but the gist of it is: an event in which one or more participants are using their skills to achieve victory, known as “winning”. For 99% of the RPGs I’ve played, read, and heard about, the players (I include GM as a player) are not trying to “win”.
Now, there may be challenges presented by the game, either structured by the rules or defined by the GM, but even when a player consciously says it, I don’t think the goal is merely to beat these challenges. The challenges are there because the we enjoying experiencing them. In a Role-Playing game, we are playing a role, a thing that is not exactly us. We do this because when we act as something else, we get to experience the things that other entity would experience, presumably because we don’t get to experience these things in our real life. After all, if you were using an RPG to do things you can already do, why wouldn’t you just do the thing for real?Trying not to keep running away with my tangets. The point being, in our role-playing, that role does not always involve winning. In the same way that not every movie, book, song, etc. tells the same story, not every role we play should be expected to “win”.
This is gonna seem like I’ve veering off but stick with me. Why are role-playing games different than other games? We instinctively know they are different even though we lump them together in the same media conglomeration of games. Role-playing games are different because in a role-playing game, you are intentionally performing non-optimal strategies to inhabit your role. In a board game, the ideal strategy would be to perform actions that cause you to win, regardless of how they align with your own ethics, morals, beliefs, etc. We call a board game “immersive” when the ideal strategy also matches with the story the game is telling us. When I use spies to infiltrate a location and assassinate my friend’s forces in Tyrants of the Underdark, even though I just told them I wouldn’t if they took out one of my enemies, that is contiguous with the game which has told me I’m playing a power hungry, backstabbing Drow. When I do the same thing in a game of Risk, I’m an a-hole because the game hasn’t presented itself as a dismal political thriller of secret deals and betrayals.
But in an RPG? I’ll do whatever represents the character I’m playing, regardless of its bearing on “winning”. For many RPGs, they try to steer your towards making characters whose motivation is identical to “winning”, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s also only the great RPGs that make sure to prime the player by telling them their goals are not to win, but to be their character. When I play the chivalrous paladin I expect to resist temptation and slay evil just as much as I expect to sell out my friends and escape with the loot when I play a backstabbing thief. For a game like Dungeons and Dragons, that thief isn’t a great character to play, because the game isn’t about that sort of thing. But for say, Shadowrun? Did I “win” when my runner betrayed his teammates to megacorp and then in turn was shot in the back by Mr. Johnson? It doesn’t look like I did, I died after all! But I also signed up to do that very thing.
So I think “winning” is not important to RPGs. In fact, I think there’s is so much baggage attached to the word “win” that it isn’t ever really the goal. A movie can be good when the hero stops the villain and saves the day or when the hero fails and the world is ended. A song can be good if it’s about space pirates fighting an evil empire or just about a person moving on from a bad breakup. The exact same thing can be said about RPGs. They are a different beast than other games, even though they’ve been forced to swim in the same pool, so I hope we can acknowledge they don’t need to play by the same rules.
That was long, I hope I got my point across and didn’t ramble too much.