I had a theory and would like to hear opinions on whether this matches the experience of other gamers:

Roleplayers tend to go through several major stages in roughly the same order as they enter the hobby and portray different characters. Some players very quickly move through the stages, while others will hit a particular stage and stick with it. Some players will even return to an earlier stage at times. No stage is intrinsically better than an earlier one, but there is a general trend along the line. Understanding what stage a player is currently in can give insights into how to make games fun for that player.

In order, the stages are:

  1. Roleplaying as Self Insertion: A player in the earliest stage is brand new to the hobby and most characters are intrinsically similar to the player. No matter which character picked (X), the character is actually “me as X.” This could be “me as Aragorn,” “me as a ninja,” and so on. How the character behaves is quite similar to what would happen if some magical event actually moved the player’s consciousness to a skilled body in a fantasy world: the character’s goals are intrinsically tied to what the player finds interesting. A player in this stage is able to be hooked primarily by intuiting what he or she would find exciting given a different set of skills and a consequence-free environment.
  2. Roleplaying as Wish Fulfillment: A player in the next stage has begun to craft characters with their own distinct motivations. However, the character’s goals have not become completely disentangled from the player’s own desires. Thus, the player is more likely to respond to goals in game that match his or her own longings in life (which may be anything from the ability to kick butt, create a stable home, or find true love). A player in this stage is able to be hooked primarily by intuiting what he or she is missing in actual life and providing it as escapism.
  3. Roleplaying as Personal Growth: By the third stage, the player has finished exploring insertion of self and personal goals within an RPG, and has begun to fully see games as a chance to deliberately deal with his or her own issues in a consequence-free environment. Intentionally or not, most characters created during this stage will reflect the player’s own insecurities or personal development goals, even though their other traits and goals might be quite different. For example, a player trying to develop leadership skills will make a lot of characters intended to be party leader and will try to take this role. A player with a passion for music but little chance to practice may make a series of musicians to see what life might be like if that path was pursued. A player in this stage is able to be hooked primarily by intuiting which personality traits the player is experimenting with and giving opportunities for those traits to shine.
  4. Roleplaying as Novelty Exercise: At the final stage, the player has portrayed a long series of characters and begun to crave roleplaying challenges. These players will often try to create characters that are interesting and completely independent from his or her own goals and desires; if the character shares traits with the player, it’s either coincidental, or the player is choosing to make some parts of the character easier to portray to better focus on the different parts. Essentially, the player is experimenting with bringing a three dimensional character to life. A player in this stage is able to be hooked primarily by intuiting what makes the character interesting to the player, and giving him or her chances to shine within that space.