Name any game!
Whatever the game, there are very specific rules. And even for those situations where the rules don't clearly cover a corner case, the house rule, resolution, or consensus-based solution is also a quantifiable action!
This is why in game theory and design the definitions of the terms must be clear and succinct.
In many games with broad design space, this is very true. Mana cost, tempo, psychographic profiles, color pie; each of these is very specific jargon that allows Magic: the gathering designers to communicate clearly about the structure of a game.
Communication is about shared meaning. So lets share some meaning and clear up some terms and how they are frequently misused.
Railroading (v.): The act of removing agency from a player in a game.
Railroad (n.): A game or situation in a game where the agency of the player within the structure of the game has been actively removed.
Player Agency (n.): “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the [virtual] world whose effects relate to the player’s intention” -Mateas, 2001
[Edit: Added the definitions of Player Agency, since I guess some people don't know it]
I have often seen these terms applied to JRPG's like Final Fantasy or to situations where a player says "Let's run this module or adventure path." These are not railroads. If they were railroads, then the fact that you have to pay mana to play spells in magic would be a railroad because it limits your choices.
Please please note that the actions you can take are proscribed by the rules of the game.
Games are designed. That means there are places where the player has agency by design and places where they do not.Final Fantasy games aren't railroads, because the agency is in how you level up your party and fight the battles*. The agency in checkers is which diagonal you select for your piece. If you were given a list of where you had to move each piece in order, you would no longer be playing a game. Why? Because you would no longer be making choices.
When does railroading happen within a role playing game? That's right! When player choice or ability is invalidated! Because this most often happens in situations that are important, it is especially galling for players. (e.g. Do we kill the bad guy or does he escape? Can we bypass this encounter? Can we ambush and kill this dangerous encounter without having to fight it?)
Note that railroading is an active process. Generalizations are often inaccurate, because cases where this occurs are specific. i.e. There are many examples of older Dungeons & Dragons modules where the Dungeon Master is encouraged to railroad her players in specific situations.
This means that if you like knowing where the story is going or you enjoy playing in role playing adventure paths, this does not mean you are a fan of railroading. It just means you like your agency to be in other areas. The insight that the agency is not always in deciding the direction of the story was noted by Jason Alexander.
If you were being railroaded, you wouldn't be playing a game, because by definition your agency is being invalidated. No one likes that.
Updates from the comments:
Brendan: "In other games, there is no such expectation. PCs can go wherever they want and do whatever they want and the setting will respond appropriately. This is not extreme improv either (a setting can be designed to handle this)."There should be terminology for this difference as well, because it is important."Yes, but this terminology exists without needing to overload the word railroad.
Module. Sandbox. Adventure Path. Series:Episode:Scene. Campaign.
"If you think about the original metaphor-- a train that starts at one place and goes to another-- expectations have little to do with it. If we both play a video game and the game makes us meet the same people, watch the same cutscenes, fight the same bosses, we are essentially trains on the same rails. . . "I think railroad is an important descriptive term and shouldn't be discarded because people have become familiar with railroads or enjoy them."According to the example given, every game ever is a railroad, because by following the rules of the game, you are stuck on the train. Every game must have some sort of agency. Otherwise it would be a movie or book - a passively consumed experience.
*Since XIII actually removed part of this agency, having basic stances that determined how you fight battles, it is one of the most reviled of the series.