It's a simple enough question: Why do we love role-playing games? It's not like one genre is categorically better than another... or is it? There are certainly many things that are appealing about any given genre - the action and excitement of an FPS, the fine control and sensations of racing, the stretching of mental muscles in puzzle, even the simple joys of a classic arcade-style game. The role-playing game genre, however, has always sought to offer more of everything than any single other genre; indeed, it could be said that RPGs encompass many other genres.
There is nothing stopping RPGs from becoming action-RPGs, or FPS-RPGs, or arcade RPGs, or just about any other combination out there. However, at the same time, the title "RPG" has become a little bit tarnished over the years due to this constant mixing. In too many cases, "RPG" simply means "a few character customization options", where the entirety of the "role-playing" aspect is the ability to sink points into different parts of a skill tree. In just as many cases, RPGs combined with other genres tend to favor one kind of play over another: an FPS-RPG favors fast-paced action and combat over dialogue or mental puzzles. An arcade-RPG features flashy effects and uncomplicated storylines over realism and plot. While the "true" RPG may encompass many other genres, the balance has to be an extremely fine one between choosing some aspects of the game over all the aspects it could have.
Hope is out there, however. Many of the games most of us have played, such as Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, The Elder Scrolls (especially Skyrim), Assassin's Creed, and Deus Ex, have managed to combine many aspects of a game into one where a player can better experience their character and their character's story. The alignment system in Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights allowed us to play any kind of character we wanted, from the righteous Lawful Good paladin to the moustache-twirling Chaotic Evil warlock. The Elder Scrolls have consistently grown in the areas of sandbox play, where characters were free to wander anywhere their hearts took them, and have never stinted on the promise of an epic storyline. Assassin's Creed is full of shiny effects and awesome kill-moves, also advancing stealth play in a new direction. (The point is not so much to actually hide as it is to "blend in".) Deus Ex, though I'm told the series slumped a little with Deus Ex: Invisible War, came back with a vengeance in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with driving mystery, storyline, and some awesome kill-moves to rival Assassin's Creed.
But even this wide selection of games does not cover the whole appeal that RPGs have for us players. Few video games can, I'm sorry to say, for the other aspects that really draw us in to tabletop games are freedom of choice, the ability to craft stories as we play (instead of following along with the same plotline no matter what character we are playing), level of detail, and the sense of community and society. There is a damn good reason why Dungeons and Dragons, perhaps the oldest of the best-known RPGs, has survived for so long in its tabletop incarnation in spite of the many video games Wizards of the Coast has produced. There is a damn good reason why White Wolf has decided to republish the tabletop books for the Old World of Darkness, and why they chose to keep tabletop going with the New World of Darkness. Having a real live person across from you, a person who can think and adapt and react intelligently, is what puts the challenge and the draw into RPGs. Even in the fiercest FPS multiplayer games, there is only so much the characters can do to affect the world around them. RPGs have never had problems building, changing, or destroying worlds, and this, my friends, is what truly sets RPGs apart from any other genre out there: RPGs are imagination made manifest.
If you've ever played any good RPG, you know that this is exactly as epic as it sounds. Not only have tabletop RPGs survived since their earliest incarnations, if anything they have grown. Imagination is truly made manifest with Live-Action Role-Playing systems, game conventions, tabletop wargaming and role-playing, and the hours (weeks? months? years?) of our lives we spend trying to bring our fantasy worlds into this reality. We, as the community of role-players, have faced censure and ostracization for this in the past. The image of the be-pimpled geek in his mother's basement is still a recognizable one, but over the past ten-to-twenty years, I have noticed a very definite shift in how RPGs and their players are perceived by the wider world. Now, imagination and creativity are prized by a much larger segment of the world - they can win you awards now! There are television shows dedicated to covering major gaming events, not even mentioning the literally hundreds of shows out there that cover imaginative, dramatic, and fantastic subjects. Then there are the role-playing games based off those television shows, like Serenity and A Game of Thrones! The world is beginning to discover the appeal that we have known all along.
This appeal, at least to me, ends up being an extremely personal one. It's fine and grand to be able to tell any story, but it is a whole new level to be able to tell stories about something or someone *I* have created. Story, character, plot, background, imagination, detail creativity... these all combine to tell the story I want to tell, the stories that I want to take part in. RPGs, in a way that no other genre can really encompass, makes us care about what happens in them. I am not ashamed to say that I a deeply affected by many RPGs out there; as far as role-playing novelizations go, I still cry when Flint Fireforge dies, and I get blurry vision at the end of the Legends trilogy. (Sturm dying... eh, not so much.) I was right there along with Commander Shephard as he stuck it to the Reapers at the end of Mass Effect 2. I sat there in pondering silence at the end of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I applauded, just a little, at the end of Skyrim's Dragonborn questline. I was Caramon and Raistlin's third, silent sibling. I was the sole surviving "redshirt" of Commander Shephard's crew. I was Adam Jensen's conscience. I was Dovahkiin.
Role-playing games are the manifestation of imagination, and like imagination they can live on far beyond mere words on a page or pixels on a screen.