In roleplaying, participants adopt and act out the role of characters, or parts, that may have personalities, motivations, and backgrounds different from their own. Roleplaying, also known as RP to some, is like being in an improvisational drama or free-form theater, in which the participants are the actors who are playing parts, and the audience.
People use the phrase "role-playing" in at least three distinct ways:
- to refer to the playing of roles generally such as in a theater, or educational setting;
- to refer to a wide range of games including computer role-playing games, play-by-mail games and more;
- or to refer specifically to role-playing games.
For learning, political goals and therapy Edit
Simulations and roleplaying exercises are one of the oldest of educational methods, having been used in ancient times and from young age. (Young children role play "doctor" and "nurse", "customers" and "shop owners" etc.) They have been used extensively in vocational training situations and in vocation-oriented higher-education courses (e.g. Law, Medicine, Economics) since the 1960s.
Roleplay simulations fall into the category of "multi-agenda social-process simulations". In such simulations, "participants assume individual roles in a hypothesised social group and experience the complexity of establishing and implementing particular goals within the fabric established by the system". 
Since the 1920s, roleplay simulation has been used in politics and international relations contexts, including model League of Nations organizations, which gave rise to model United Nations simulations. Mock Trials, and model legislatures, such as the YMCA Youth in Government program, are good examples of political role play too. Typically educational goals, real world political goals, and entertainment goals have all been important to political role play. Project ICONS and Fablusi role play simulations allow role play simulation designers to model human relationships using different rights structures in communication environments, differential information and amount of wealth.
Roleplaying has been an important part of military training for centuries. The Prussian term for live-action military training exercises is kriegsspiel or "Wargames", a term that has entered English as well, although the contemporary military prefers to call them military exercises.
Roleplaying is used as a form of psychotherapeutic intervention in several approaches, with Drama therapy using it as a primary therapeutic intervention. Often, conflicts with others will be acted out and embodied by a client or clients, providing insight and promoting sympathy. These techniques originate with psychodrama, a form founded by Jacob L. Moreno which employs playing roles as well as other techniques. Role-playing is widely used in learning-based psychotherapies focusing on skill acquisition.
Role-playing in the form of historical re-enactment has been practiced by adults for millennia as well. The ancient Romans, Han Chinese, and medieval Europeans all enjoyed occasionally organizing events in which everyone pretended to be from an earlier age, and entertainment appears to have been the primary purpose of these activities. Within the 20th century historical reenactment has often been pursued as a hobby.
Another role-playing tradition is the improvisational theatre tradition. This goes back in some sense to the Commedia dell'Arte tradition of 16th century. Modern improvisational theatre began in the classroom with the "theatre games" of Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone in the 1950's. Viola Spolin, who was one of the founder the famous comedy troupe Second City, insisted that her exercises were games, and that they involved role-playing as early as 1946, but thought of them as training actors and comics rather than as being primarily aimed at being fun in their own right.
- Main article: Role-playing game
A role-playing game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, they may improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games.
There are many different types of role-playing games (RPGs). Many, and particularly those that came first, are centered around characters being created in fantasy universes. Of particular note is the advent of such games as Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970's, invented and propagated originally by Gary Gygax and David Arneson. Many different versions of this game were developed, and other types of games were spun-off from this original template, causing what was first developed as a hobby to become a multi-million dollar business venture.
- Main article: Sexual roleplay
A form of roleplaying in which partners take parts in a drama that provides sexual gratification; these might include a teacher and pupil, or employer and maid. Sexual roleplaying is common in BDSM, and is integral to most pseudonymous or anonymous forms of cybersex.
Sexual roleplaying in online gamesEdit
Sexual roleplaying also occurs, albeit rarely, on various forms of online games. This is a generally less accepted type of roleplaying in an online community, though opinions about it vary. Social acceptance and attitudes to sexual roleplaying differ within various communities, often dependent on the community's genre or purpose (e.g., adult BDSM and fetish communities not only accept this behaviour but promulgate it as the main activity around which the online community functions). It is also not uncommon for players to form personal attachments or friendships with the player that they roleplay with.
The above mentioned example is generally better accepted in an online environment than roleplaying a character that involves sexual-related content in public or in abovementioned adult-themed roleplaying games.