All RPGs are, at some base level, "cooperative ventures."
At least all the ones I've ever owned and played. By "cooperative," I mean, as opposed to sports or business or organized crime. When you sit down at a table to play an RPG with some "people" (they may not even be friends or relations!) you are agreeing to abide by certain rules of engagement, based on the game being played. Kind of a malleable (by game) Geneva Convention.
That, I believe, is what is referred to as a "social contract." If the some guy (or gal) is not on the same page as the other players, it's up to the group (or the designated referee, often referred to as a "game master") to oust the troublesome person...like a ref ejecting a player in a sporting event.
Now cooperation in an RPG can look many different ways, depending on the game. Some players work with each other against a common antagonist (usually the game master, sometimes a player). Some games pit players against each other. Some RPGs have players voluntarily upping their own characters' stress levels and aiding fellow players in doing the same with helpful suggestions.
Regardless of the form of cooperation (determined by the game, genre, and/or style of the group), each player brings his or her own objectives of play to the table. These may have nothing to do with the "cooperative style" of the game itself.
These objectives of play can be weak and watered ("just to have fun" or "hang out with some people") or they can be strong and specific. Often, unless a player is already familiar with the game, group, and particular setting, the objective brought to the table is hazy and general and only becomes more specific over time. For example, one might sit down at a table thinking "I just want to play a badass wizard," but over the course of the evening this might be distilled into "I really want to find the Wand of Wazu, key to ultimate power," or even "I really want to make Ted's character look like a douche after he went and palmed that diamond."
When the objective of the player matches the objective of the character, then you are engaged in fantasy role-playing.
Conversely, if your character's objective and player's objective is different, I would say you are engaged in something other than role-playing. Oh, it's still "play," and you're still playing an RPG (maybe...the definition of an RPG seems to get hazier and hazier over time), but I'm not sure I would call it role-playing. Certainly not "fantasy role-playing."
Let's look at some examples:
My character is a paladin. I would like my character to find a holy avenger sword. Why? Because it is one of the most badass weapons in the game (increases character effectiveness), it has special powers only paladins can use, making me a stronger party member (team considerations), it is a rare and powerful weapon and would indicate I've reached a personal milestone (prestige/status implications). Does my paladin character care about finding a holy avenger sword? Probably not. If he was really so mercenary or status-minded, he'd probably lose all his "paladin special powers."
WHAT IF - my Dungeon Master presents my character (in-game) with a choice: you can have your holy avenger sword (here it is, go ahead - take it), but doing so means ten innocent people will die. And die horrible, agonizing deaths. And if I choose to sacrifice the sword, the innocents will be freed.
What's more, my DM tells me: this ain't no "test." This is the real deal. I can have the sword or not...and if I decide to give it up, I'm not going to get something better or "nearly as cool." Instead, I get nothing...besides the lives of these innocent villagers. Maybe some satisfaction. Oh, yeah...this may be the only holy avenger sword in the campaign world, so my character will probably never see another.
Now as a player, I could say something like, "well, taking the sword will allow me to save and protect more innocents in the future." But that's a bullshit justification. There's no guarantee my paladin won't get hit by a bus the next day (or a poisoned arrow) before he ever has the chance to save another single person. I see paladins as fairly Kantian, black-and-white types who would know the end doesn't justify the means.
On the other hand, I could simply game the system...the rules of AD&D allow me to screw people over, lose my powers, and then ATONE for my failings ("say five Hail Mary's and ten Our Father's...") to get my powers back. And THEN I'd have the sword, too!
But then, why the heck am I playing a role-playing game?
If all I'm doing is killing monsters and acquiring stuff to become more badass, why not simply play World of Warcraft or another video game with no such moral quandaries and where I am assured I will be reward with treasure drops by playing within the bounds of the virtual game world?
After all, I didn't HAVE to play a paladin...shouldn't it say something that I chose to play one?
But if all it says is: I want to play a fighter that has special powers...well, then, you're playing the wrong damn game. Or rather, you're playing the right game, but you're not playing to the game's potential...you might as well be playing a vid.
And I wouldn't call what you're doing "role-playing."
[to be continued]