There's a wildly popular, but under-discussed role-playing game that only includes a tiny amount of violence. It's The Sims, a game that shares almost every trait with role-playing games ... except combat. Don't believe me? Well, what do you actually do in The Sims?
Once your characters are set, you engage in the core structure of any role-playing game. Your characters are given quests, and they use their skills to succeed in those quests. If they are too difficult, then the character can work on improving their ability to succeed in those quests. In The Sims, there are three primary motivators. First, your Sim has a career path to follow, getting promotions in order to get more money and buy cooler items, which increase its happiness, making promotions more likely. Those promotions get more complicated later on -- make a certain amount of friends, for example, or have specific skills improved. It is the conventional "beating the game" motivation, accomplished through RPG-style mechanics.
The second motivator in playing The Sims is to make your Sim behave the way you think they should. You turn them into a character, and the world is their story. Maybe career success is the way you want to do this, but it doesn't have to be. It is playing a role through a video game, which is of course directly related to being a role-playing game.
The third motivator is simply to see what happens. This is not directly RPG-related, but instead exists in any game that creates an open system for interesting events to occur within, from Skyrim to Grand Theft Auto.
With all these mechanical similarities, it seems pretty clear to me that The Sims is a role-playing game. So why is this controversial statement? Perhaps some of you have given up reading this article and are now angrily scrawling comments below in retort.
One charitable reason is that The Sims is open-ended. Instead of having a specific narrative to be followed, you can do whatever you want with your characters, and see what kinds of stories emerge. This is more common in strategy games (notably SimCity) but it's not totally foreign to RPGs. Massively multiplayer games tend to be open-ended, and Roguelikes also tend to have a similar feel due to their randomness and constant restarts. The Elder Scrolls games are entirely playable even when skipping the main plot.
The setting is another probable reason The Sims isn't considered an RPG. The vast majority of games within the genre are fantasy or science fiction, with a few science-fantasy games in-between. There are a tiny amount of real-world RPGs, like Jagged Alliance or Alpha Protocol, but these are focused on niches of society that reward violence, which brings me back to the original point: violent struggle is implicitly considered a necessary component of role-playing games.
There are reasons for this. Role-playing video games started primarily as simulations of the mechanical combat aspects of tabletop RPGs, and most refinements they've undergone since are built around making combat better and making the world surrounding it better to deliver stories and pictures about violence. This is hardly limited to RPGs, of course. Successful application of violence has been the goal of most conventional genres of games, from first-person shooters to real-time strategy games to sidescrolling platformers. In all of them, complex modeling of violence and survival takes precedence over other considerations.
So let's open gaming generally, and role-playing specifically, up to a wider variety of styles. We don't need every single RPG to be about stabbing dragons in the belly. Not that there's anything at all wrong with dragon-stabbing, but we can also have science fiction games with guns, spies with gadgets, and yes, families struggling to make ends meet. As long as the core mechanics are there, and as long as there's room for players to play roles, why not acknowledge The Sims as a role-playing game?
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.