This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
Most all games abstract some manner of real-world behavior. Press the jump button in a game that allows it, and it'll make your character leap into the air in an animated approximation of how humans jump, but that's usually it – the rest of the jump has more to do with the needs of the game's level design than anything else. Even those aspects that aren't real, like casting magical spells, have consistent in-game rules, which often abstract other concepts, like a mage theoretically chanting magical words in a way irrelevant to the player.
What separates RPGs from most other genres in terms of abstraction is the style's origins in pencil-and-paper games. You want to punch an orc? You can punch that orc, but game rules simple enough to work with a couple of die need to exist in order to make that orc-punching workable for a group of people playing a game. Players need to know what the numbers are in order to make informed decisions. So you have things like 'strength statistics,' 'unarmed damage skills,' 'orc hit points,' 'dexterity rolls,' and so on. Shifting to the computer may have allowed these mechanics to be calculated faster as well as potentially more complex. But critically, even though those mechanics could have been masked, RPGs generally kept the numbers transparent and public.
Interestingly, the RPGs that cause the most arguments tend to be transparent outside of combat, the most traditionally common mechanic. For example, Skyrim's combat may lack transparency, but its practice-improves-skills approach, without experience points, ends up being quite transparent about what your character does. Mass Effect is transparent in how its conversation and reputation system combines, even as its combat sections seem more similar to a Gears of War than a Baldur's Gate.
Transparent abstraction is part of what gives role-playing games their charm, which is why fans dislike it when it's removed; but it also leads to weirdness. When RPGs take a vague concept and give it concrete meaning, it can end up corresponding to the real world in surprising or unfortunate ways. For example, many older RPGs give female characters slightly different base attributes, like Wizardry VII bumping women's strength down and charisma up. Perhaps to you this seems appropriate in those circumstances, but RPGs also tend to give the same transparent abstraction to things like race without corresponding to the real world. That is, it's normal for games to treat Elves as faster and smarter than Humans, but just imagine the deserved outcry if a real-world RPG said that some races were smarter or faster than others.
This is part of why RPGs go so well with fantasy specifically, and speculative fiction generally. By moving outside of real-world rules, a game can be transparent and abstract without being ridiculous. Want to say that a certain clan of vampires are all ugly and have certain rules applied only to them? You can do that in speculative fiction. This helps explain the rarity of real-world settings for RPGs outside of a few tactics games, like Jagged Alliance and Silent Storm.
Of course, RPGs aren't alone in using transparent abstraction. Strategy games, particularly wargames, often utilize it. This makes sense, as all of these genres have tabletop origins. It has similar effects, as gamers generally consider the genres old-fashioned, while fans debate the authenticity of games use real-time and other less overtly transparent systems. There are also some odder effects. I've seen the strategy game Crusader Kings II praised as being one of last year's best RPGs, thanks to its excellent, transparently abstract relationship mechanics virtually demanding that you mentally play the roles its world provides.
You can't define role-playing games only by transparent abstraction, as the Crusader Kings II example indicates. RPGs also tend to have fewer characters, stronger written narratives, and more linear progression models, to name a few traits. But how RPGs model/publish their mechanics, with their dice-rolling history always there in the background, may be their most important component.
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.