Torill Elvira Mortensen explains the joys of the role-playing
high, in which the player no longer has to contemplate how her
character might act in a given situation; instead the player simply
reacts as the character. Mortensen develops the case to argue that
role-playing experience can lead to a cynicism about the sincerity
of people's out-of-character (or real-world) personae.
"What are you?" is the first question asked as you meet another role-player either in a digital or a flesh world. In daily life "what are you" normally addresses our professions or other signifiers of social status. Occasionally, it addresses nationality or ethnicity, if there are indications that these are not coherent with the immediate impression. In either context, it is a sensitive question: to define yourself to a stranger is a matter of anchoring the other person's impression of you. As we declare what we are, we also declare our position in life, work, religion, nationality, social status, and a myriad other factors that let others define us.
When you answer the "what are you" question in a role-playing computer game, it has an infinitely wider meaning. First, you can choose to interpret it as addressing your flesh world character, or you can answer the question as if it concerns your game character. Second, you can choose to leave out several otherwise obvious facts if you answer on behalf of your flesh self. You can say, "Woman, forty-four years old, Norwegian," and leave it at that. You can lie about these things, and nobody will know. Or you can select facts that may be flattering: "Tall, blue eyes, long dark blonde hair." The "what" which you are can be severely edited to suit any fantasy.
Imagine then how freely edited the "what" can be when the limitations of the human race do not apply. My most current other identity is something I could never achieve in the flesh. "What are you?" the other gamers ask, and without blinking I reply: "A female orc shaman, capable of doing spirit magic, skilled in the use of shield and mace as well as a staff, member of a clan that is planning to take over the world to make it safe for orckind." Only later may the other questions come out, if I am male or female, where I live, what I do, how old I am. These are not secondary questions; they are important and carry meaning in the social structure that informs the game, but for the game structure, the important "you" is your character, and the second person they address is not "you, the accountant from Wales," but you, the warrior who needs to get up and hit those aggressive NPCs before they kill the rest of the group.
Figure 44.1. Female orc and female troll in World of Warcraft. (Blizzard)
Next, we explore the relationship between you and "you," starting out with how we define ourselves and play roles in the flesh world, to go from there to how we play roles in the game world. There is a connection between these two activities that makes the gaming far from alien; quite the contrary, it is a familiar and human game.
The Mechanics of Role-Playing in Games
Role-playing ranges over a wide area, from free-form role-playing used in theater and therapy to the strict, formal world of re-enactment. If we imagine that there is a continuous line from free-form to re-enactment, role-playing games (in the tradition of the fantasy games developed over the last twenty years) inhabit an area from somewhere to the right of free-form, and all the way up to re-enactment. Different groups of role-players will claim that their form is the correct one and should be called role-playing, but for the purposes of this chapter I maintain the position that everything from improvization to re-enactment (as done by historical societies or the American organization Society for Creative Anachronism) can be called role-playing. To include re-enactment is a disputed position, as it enters the domain of formal theater, but at the same time, re-enactments tends to be a lot less strictly scripted and directed than theater. The participants will, for instance, get a role-sheet with directions more focused on the historical data and the historical acts than on how to play the actual part. Thus, the playing may depend on how the individual imagines, improvises, and interprets the role on the basis of contextual information rather than on stage directions, and this can and will change from one re-enactment to the next - to the point that history, in some cases, may yield to the enthusiasm of the participants.
Figure 44.2. Example of staged front: White horse and knight in World of Warcraft. (Blizzard)
The enthusiasm and creativity of the participants is the source of fun role-playing. To be able to commit to a role-playing situation, you need to suspend your disbelief and accept that your fellow players have good reasons for their actions. This may not always be easy: good role-playing demands knowledge of the relevant background, imagination, and quick thinking. In contemporary settings, the background may coincide with the real life of the participants, and it will need no further description. In historical, futuristic, or fantastic settings, the background may cover several books worth of information. We see this in the literature for tabletop role-playing games such as Vampire: The Masquerade, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, or Alternity. Each game has extensive descriptions of the world the role-playing happens within, rules for the different aspects of the game itself, and specialized information for players and for administrators, or Gamemasters.
The most common type of role-playing game not played with a computer is the tabletop game. These are games with fairly strict rules and much restriction on the play, but the restriction isn't that of a manuscript with predefined events for each role. In games, the restrictions serve to introduce a limited amount of randomness, which is what makes a game a game.
In several cases (not all, as any dedicated gamer will tell you quickly), to play a tabletop game you need a player handbook to learn about the world you play in, and the challenges, adventures, obstacles, and tools for the players. Each player needs a player character (PC), and this player character is developed according to the preferences of the player. It can, for instance, be a male dwarf rogue, and such a character will have certain skills, strengths, and weaknesses, all of them expressed as names and numbers on a character sheet.
But each character should also have a history, a background that makes them react as they do. So our male dwarf rogue may have been the runt of the family in a traditional dwarf community in the mountains of Magroor Daum, and because of his small size he was constantly abused by the rest of his family and told what a disgrace he was. This caused him to run away at age twenty-seven (very young for a dwarf), and he survived by turning more or less to crime. As we meet him, he is a hardened criminal skilled in things like backstabbing, pickpocketing, stealth, poisons, and other shady pursuits. He appears to be bitter and disillusioned, but has a deep hidden respect for traditional dwarf values, and secretly dreams of meeting a nice dwarfess and settling down to run a nice, respectable, clean inn: his idea of the ultimate comfort and luxury.
When the game starts, each character will play with the other players against the non-playing characters of the game (NPCs), depending on how strong their various skills are; characters also occasionally have individual goals that cause them to cooperate or compete within the group. The Gamemaster (GM) - the person who is responsible for setting up and administrating the game progress and often telling the story as it develops - influences the process by choosing which NPCs may appear and by giving the different characters different challenges and goals, and can ultimately determine the entire outcome of the game, depending on how much power the group has agreed to put in the hands of the GM. If our dwarf tries to stab the human he has been paid to assassinate, but the human has better armor and a lucky saving throw, the assassination will fail. So far, mainly the numbers and skills on the character sheet are important.
Now, given that our dwarf manages to escape, he has to make a decision: will he return and try again, or will he just shrug it off and disappear? At this point the background or personality of the character becomes important: Perhaps the sum to kill that human is just what he needs to buy his nice little inn and start looking for that cute dwarf girl. In that case, he will try again. Or perhaps the human is a dwarf-hater, who wants to eradicate the dwarf culture. In that case, our tradition-bound rogue may want to be a hero and redeem himself, even if he has to do it for free and die in the attempt. In tabletop games these decisions are what make up the role-playing, and it can develop into mutual story-creation as all players present their characters' motivation, decisions, and desires. The dice rolled and the statistics of attributes (strength, intelligence, stamina, etc.) and skills is what creates the gameplay, the aspect of randomness and tension that is necessary to create a game.
In tabletop games the complex mathematics of the statistics is carried out with pen, paper, quick head estimates, and the occasional calculator. In computer games the computer rolls the dice and gives the responses. In a computer game such as World of Warcraft, the player will be aware of these calculations if he or she watches the numbers that seem to rise from targets when the character fights other player characters or NPCs. These numbers represent the result of the kind of calculations which the tabletop player does by hand: when the dwarf rogue hits with A weapon and with B skill on a target with C armor and D skill, the chance to damage the target is X high, and according to the roll of the die to see how hard the hit is, the dwarf rogue damages the human he tries to kill Z much: for instance, taking away 278 hit points out of 498. Once the game statistics are transferred to the computer, these calculations happen quickly and smoothly, and the players only see the end result: if they win or lose the battle, and how quick or slow the fight is.
The battle/game mathematics is not role-playing. To a role-player, the game mechanics act as a context and a directive for the events that create the story. Rather than, "And then he rolled a twenty-four attack but I had a fifty-five saving throw, and could use retaliation," the role-player translates it into: "The infernal rogue attacked me from behind, but I was lucky and stumbled over a stone. That put him off, so he missed. I was able to strike back, and survive yet another attack on my life." In this way the game platform creates the surprise and the events, while the interpretation process forms them into a story to be told and shared with the other players.
Figure 44.3. The computer does the calculations, not the humans. (Blizzard)
In online multi-user games, as the burden of mathematics and so the delay of the battles has been delegated to the computer, the player can use more energy on the story and elaborating the events. In the multi-user dungeon (MUD) Dragon Realms, a text-based online computer game, where role-playing was highly encouraged and rewarded through GM intervention and favor-points given out by fellow players who acted as role-playing spies, it was still hard to fight and role-play at the same time. Only in "wartimes" - when the different clans of the game would be in conflict over different pieces of fantasyland - was role-playing smoothly integrated with the battles. In times of peace, it was rather complicated to explain why the characters would engage in long sessions of slaying different species; it took an inventive mind to come up with a plausible story for why characters would kill every single wolf in the forest, or all the dolphins in an area. In some cases, there would be quests, where the explanation was woven into the game. It was still hard to explain why the monster you had killed ten minutes earlier was back.
Much of the role-playing needs to be independent of the game mechanics, and be created through player interaction. It is possible to create a story for your own character, but the best role-playing situations are the ones that happen when players provoke each other, and the story grows in quick exchanges. One of the players of Aarinfel describes the pleasure of these exchanges as a role-playing high.
According to Jack, the high is a state of flow, when one feels that the borders between the player and the character have been dissolved and the player no longer needs to consider the next move of the character, but acts as the character:
TM: Can you explain the role-playing high to me?
Jack: The role-playing high is just a pet theory of mine, which I find a lot of other role-players understand, and necessarily a lot of actors and writers - people who seek to achieve almost a mentality outside of their own. And it is the point at which you have stopped thinking about: Given this situation, what would my character say? Given this situation, what would my character do? - and start thinking from the point of view of your character and say what you want to say and do what you want to do. To fully immerse yourself into the character. I find that it's very enthralling. (Mortensen 2003, 164)
To reach this state of mind, the players need to practice being the character, until the mental leap from "What would I, the player, do?" to "What would I, the character, do?" becomes as smoothly ingrained and automatic as the spinal cord-controlled reflexes of physical actions.
In our normal, mundane, everyday lives, we still play roles, if not the roles set out by some identifiable gamemaster, as in role-playing games. Human beings play roles, and shift between them, smoothly and subconsciously: I go from teacher to mother in the time it takes me to turn from a student to my child. As Erving Goffman discussed in his classic work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Goffman 1959), human beings are constantly playing such roles. "Sincerity," in this context, is not a measure of whether you play a role or not, but of how much each one of us believes in our own role. A sincere person is one who thinks that the role is the reality, and acts as if it is the only possible reality. At the other extreme Goffman positions the cynical person: the one who does not believe in the performance.
I have suggested two extremes: an individual may be taken in by his own act or be cynical about it. These extremes are something a little more than just the ends of a continuum. Each provides the individual with a position which has its own particular securities and defenses, so there will be a tendency for those who have traveled close to one of these poles to complete the voyage. (Ibid., 9)
In this way, Goffman points out two opposing positions to the act of performing everyday life. If you believe in the reality of your own act (and that of others around you), sincerity inures the individual from seeing through his own act or that of others. On the other hand, once you have chosen to be cynical, it all becomes an act, and sincerity is irretrievably lost.
This creates a tremendous tension between the two positions. Languages are rich with words that express this conflict; "cheater" and "fool" are only some of the milder versions of these. There is an emotional investment in each position; each party has something to lose if they were to be proven wrong. To be in between is painful, and expressed through self-doubt and frustration. In our time and age, what we are supposed to do when confronted with such a dilemma is to start the search for self-realization: the true self.
It is tempting to compare this with Johan Huizinga's descriptions of play and, being easily seduced, I will go there. Play, in Huizinga's words, is tense (Huizinga 2000, 11). It absorbs the players, and creates a feeling of having invested something in the game. When the game is over, something is lost; while the game is played according to the rules, something is gained. The same can be said of this position between the sincere and the cynical individual. For either one to admit that there may be something in the other position means to lose something they have invested: time, status, identity. And where there is potential loss, there is tension.
But this everyday role-playing is not playful. We play our everyday roles, either cynical or sincere, with a tension that has no release and no relief. The arena is not separate from the rest of our lives; there is no set time for when the role-playing starts and when it ends, and most importantly: everyday role-playing is something we must do. Even the cynic who is aware of playing a role cannot stop playing. In order to function, the cynic must be aware of and relate to the rules of everyday role-playing. This opposes the nature of play:
Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not serious," but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (Ibid, 13)
To several of the players of Dragon Realms, however, in-game role-playing did give them a more "cynical" view of the roles of everyday life. By playing a different character, or several different characters, they became aware of the front, which would apply to the character, and how manipulating the front meant manipulating the impression they made on other players. Goffman describes the front in this manner: "Front, then, is the expressive equipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed by the individual during his performance" (Goffman 1959, 22).
This expressive equipment includes clothes, manners, language, stance, and stage setting. The king positioned on the throne activates and uses one very obvious front: We see the chair, the elevated dais, and the ceremony around it as a clear frame for our interpretation of the situation. The perhaps less-obvious aspects of the front are gestures that might be seen as involuntary (and as such, more "sincere"), the behavior of others (apparently not under your control) or outbursts that appear to be "out of character."
During the wedding of the Norwegian crown prince in 2001, cameras focused on the hands and eyes of the bride; her tiny nervous movements and her tears added to the formal proceedings as proof of her real feelings, the truth of emotions beneath the spectacle of ritual. In everyday life we also stage a front: we show people what we want them to see. We clean away the clutter before having important guests over, we dress in clothes we think will impress or tone down our presence, depending on the situation - we create the front we think will be suitable for the task at hand. And while visiting others, we accept this, but look for the telltale signs to reveal how things really are: the nervous hand movements, the too-loud laughter.
Figure 44.4. A role-play situation.
What the players of DR reported was that by role-playing different characters, they became aware of how a certain position was composed not necessarily of real power and respect, but of the appearance of it. By acting as if their character was a high-ranking officer, they could get the other players' characters to treat them with the respect and obedience offered high-ranking officers. Also, by acting cruel, they could get the responses offered a cruel person, or any other response they desired. Mariah describes how her role-playing lets her explore further into understanding society:
Torill: What about playing? Why do you play computer games?
Mariah: I like the contact with other people. It's something you do with other people. It's something also that you - discover. I'm a social science major, so I am very interested in people and how they interact with things, and how the communities form and break up, and how people are choosing to portray a specific character. Hopefully you are not playing yourself all the time, but you have a character in your mind, and if you think - okay, this is it: My character is shy, then you have to use the stereotype of shy and portray this character as shy, and I am very interested in what people think shy is, and what people think angry is and what people think cold is . . . icy, and angry, and I'm very interested in how people are choosing to portray a specific person, and I think that the really good people are the ones who are willing to sacrifice their own personal way of doing things in order to do something in the way of the character in a stuck situation. (Mortensen 2003, 211)
Mariah does not use the words front or setting, but stereotype. However, the meaning is overlapping: the acts and surface trimmings that serve to establish position in a social system.
The game role-playing is distinguished from everyday role-playing in form by being more exaggerated and flamboyant. The communication needs to be so clearly informed by the fantasy of the role that the other players do not mistake the acts for being of that other, everyday role, but belonging to the game role. Role-players are like professional wrestlers, overstating the obvious and turning it into a parody of what is being portrayed. Roland Barthes calls this a language of excess:
Wrestling, on the contrary, offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. In judo, a man who is down is hardly down at all, he rolls over, he draws back, he eludes defeat, or, if the latter is obvious, he disappears; in wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness. (Barthes 1973)
It is this flamboyance that makes the game fun: with the large, overstated gestures there is no doubt about what is happening, no need to pause to interpret the actions of the other, none of the mundane ambivalence of everyday life.
A Firm Grip on Reality: IC and OOC
So do the players mistake role-playing and reality? This is a common idea about gamers, that the game identity replaces the "real" identity. People who are not part of the culture often react strongly and negatively to some of the behavior displayed by role-playing gamers in non-gaming contexts. Signs that can be taken for proof of a mixed or "weakening" identity can be things like using one's handle rather than one's legal name when meeting in the flesh or in non-game settings. Other such signs of what is perceived as a skewed understanding of the "real" are a deep emotional attachment to other characters, efforts and resources spent on the game rather than on more common pursuits such as style and career, and adopting rituals and phrases from the game, to use them in the non-game world.
However, the gamers themselves are very clear about the distinction between the socially real world and the world of play. They call the distinction IC and OOC: In Character and Out Of Character. In the play-world they are In Character, in the mundane world they are Out Of Character. This has an interesting parallel in Goffman's description of communication out of character (Goffman 1959, 167). He devotes a chapter to this phenomenon, and describes how in everyday life we signal and use the distinction between IC and OOC in order to negotiate between potentially conflicting roles. Some examples of OOC communication that Goffman gives are: exclamations of surprise that acknowledge an error, backstage derogation of the front-stage clients, planning or staging conversations or talk, or perhaps simply gossiping and cues meant for other team members only, as well as techniques for establishing cooperation across accepted social borders.
Exclamations of surprise or dismay are common to both role-playing situations. A gamer who unintentionally hurts the feelings of, or in other ways disadvantages, a fellow gamer, will exclaim, "Oh, I am sorry," rather than cackle with in-game glee. In Goffman's example, a soldier who is about to give a general a reprimand can exclaim in the same manner when he discovers his error, by using an exclamation which is not part of his military front (such as, "Oh my God!") (Ibid, 169). The main difference is that where the gamer can ask for an OOC time-out before returning to the game (to check if the other player understands that it was not a voluntary act, and repair the illusion by explaining that he really did not mean to attack his in-game allies), the soldier in Goffman's description has no such option. His involuntary slip into the persona who was not the soldier was as bad as the error he had made by not recognizing the general.
Where role-playing communities reward a clear understanding of the different modes of communication and sharply drawn lines between the fantasy roles and the socially real roles, the mundane world treats it as a slip, a lack of sincerity. Rather than making the situation more understandable, manageable and real, mundane world OOC communication can undermine the sincerity of the individual, and make the boundaries between the different roles we play in our lives fuzzy, rather than crisp.
The issue of nicknames is one that comes up frequently as an example of how fantasy "invades" real life, and during the data collection period of my research on MUDs, a colleague mentioned in a conversation the weird experience of being introduced to somebody under their MUD name, and not their "real" name. In our society, the names on our birth certificates or passports are so important for identification that we mistake them for identity. And so we forget that identity is something we create through social interaction. When our social interaction happens under a different label, that is the label the others will recognize. In that context, the other label is as true as the name on the passport. And this is not only true of players of games. At the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) conference in 2004, a group of researchers all maintaining Weblogs met. They all introduced themselves by Weblog, as well as name, and frequently the Weblog was recognized where the name was not: they were more easily identified through the title of their more or less academic online writing than through the name on their tags.
In describing the role-playing high, Jack McLeod described a theory he felt he had extracted from his role-playing experience (Mortensen 2003, 164). It describes a euphoric feeling, a rapture, which he enters into through immersing himself in the role he plays. In Man, Play, and Games, Roger Caillois describes a comparable experience. A participant in a ritual dons the ritual garments and enters into his role:
It is he who inspires fear through his possessing this terrible and inhuman power. It was sufficient for him merely to put on the mask he himself made, to don the costume that he sewed, in order to resemble the revered and feared being and to produce a weird drone with the aid of a secret weapon, the bull-roarer, of which he alone has known the existence, character, operation and function, ever since his initiation. He only learns that it is inoffensive, familiar and all-too-human when he has it in his hands and in his furor uses it to frighten others. (Caillois 2001, 88)
The role-playing high is balanced somewhere between believing in your own play and still being aware that you are controlling the act: that it is, in fact, an act and that there is a mundane, everyday life to return to. Immersed in the play, the player can commit fully to the play only because this is not something that must be maintained continuously. After the game is over, it is time to let the energy go, and unwind in different manners.
Live-action role-playing (LARP) is very demanding of the players, as they not only create a setting as fantastic as possible, they also live immersed in it, with as few breaks as possible, sometimes for days at a time. They don the mask and convince themselves of the role in order to create a special place and space for all: a game space that is somewhat similar to a religious, mystic experience. Afterward, they need time to rewind. A live-action role-playing group in Bergen, Norway calls this "Afterlive": a meeting after the "live" LARP session. The Afterlive is used to discuss the events, ask questions, solve any potential lingering conflicts, and generally put the event in its correct setting: that of a game, a space separate from everyday life, something to be discussed and enjoyed safely at a distance. The game is not something they have to, or even want to, live in and with the entire time.
In computer games you do not have the option of a defusing, unwinding environment in a safe social space. What you have in computer games is the option of talking in different channels. The MUD that was my main focus of research, Dragon Realms, had at least five channels, one of which was clearly stated to be an OOC channel. In World of Warcraft, which owes much to MUDs in matter of gameplay and player relations, there are several options for OOC interaction.
World of Warcraft (WOW) assists the player in the act of immersion in their character through graphics and music, as well as through quests that teach and express potential narratives, if not a story. But it also offers a way to retreat from the story by way of more general chat. In one of my characters' guilds, "The Supremacy," the guild-channel is dedicated to role-playing, with stilted language, IC comments, and no reference to the mechanical aspects of the games such as levels, experience points, or armor values on weapons, or experience from other characters the players might have played. However, these topics are frequently and enthusiastically discussed on the officer's channel, to which all members of this guild have access. In this manner, the guild creates both an arena for fantasy and an arena for mundane socializing and backstage planning for its members: in a way, a continuous "Afterlive."
No Limits to the Real Play
Role-playing is a controversial activity. Parents fear their children will lose their grip on reality, and develop schizophrenia or just drop out of society. Society in general fears that it will cause demon-worship, crime, murder, drug addiction, and several other things defined as social problems. It is not hard to find a story in the news where somebody blames role-playing games for these things, to the point of suing game companies for their various problems. The best-known example, although not the last one, is the lawsuit following the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, where relatives of the children killed sued several different game companies (Ward 2001).
To a certain extent the establishment's fear of games is justified. Not because role-playing causes these current social problems, and particularly not such horrible tragedies as the massacre at Columbine, but because playing a role in a game opens up the possibility of a cynical rather than a sincere view of everyday role-playing. In Goffman's example, the cynic is the one who understands how to use a front to manipulate others. Once we have understood this, we also, like the religious performer who understands how mundane the religious object is, lose our fear of authorities. The uniform becomes just a way to dress, language is no longer a sign of high breeding and different blood, but of habit, education, and a desire to send a certain signal. Once we have seen through the layers of play surrounding us, what happens is not that we lose our grip on reality, but that we see it more clearly.
In this way role-playing games offer both an escape and an awakening. For the keen, observant role-player who understands the distinctions of different roles and fronts, the escape into the other world of the game becomes something it is possible to achieve through work and dedication. The flow experience as studied by Csikszentmihalyi is described as a state of mind for which the individual needs to work hard; it is an achievement:
These examples illustrate what we mean by optimal experience. They are situations in which attention can be freely invested to achieve a person's goals, because there is no disorder to straighten out, no threat for the self to defend against. We have called this state the flow experience, because this is the term many of the people we have interviewed had used in their description of how it felt to be in top form: "It was like floating," "I was carried away by the flow." It is the opposite of psychic entropy - in fact, it is sometimes called negentropy - and those who attain it develop a stronger, more confident self, because more of their psychic energy has been invested successfully in goals they themselves had chosen to pursue. (Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 40)
The pleasure of role-playing and the role-playing high is very much related to this experience of flow. The game offers a different context to adopt and immerse yourself in: energy can be freely invested to achieve your goals. But this is also a laborious process; it is not frivolous or easier than real life. Still, this is part of the seduction. To play a role in a role-playing game frequently involves having and hiding a secret - the character becomes attractive because it is holding something back. And so the player has to flesh out the character, take on the nature of the surroundings, but also guard the secret that seduces both me (the player who holds the secret) and also the other players who try to understand.
It is this mystery that keeps us all from becoming cynics in everyday life, because there is, behind every front, something, some secret that can surprise us. In some cases, the secret is that there is no real secret, no foundation for the front that is upheld with such effort. And so the knowledgeable role-players, the cynics, become a threat, because there are some secrets which we would rather not have revealed.
The Stranger Is Me
Most of all role-playing reveals what I am. In real life, I can hide behind circumstances and social connections; I can have a position through upholding a certain front, not necessarily because I am the person best suited to uphold the position.
Online role-playing games are ruthless that way. In a game, the front we grew up with, inherited or worked to create, no longer assists us. The anonymity of an online world not only protects, it also reveals. To appear intelligent in the game, you have to perform intelligent acts. It is not enough to look smart, to have the right name, to have the correct sociolect. Anybody can claim to be rich, wealthy, and well-connected, so these claims have no substance in building a front. Online, all who can connect are equal. This does not mean this is a utopian democracy - the threshold to connection is so high, most of the world's population can never get to that point. But it means that when connecting to an online role-playing game, the stranger, the other, can be anybody. In a lot of cases, the stranger is me.
Through role-playing it is possible to test out new fronts and new roles. As a player of games, I have the leisure and luxury to explore what it is like to be something totally other. "What are you?" you ask, and I don't answer with my real gender, nationality or age. I am an orc, a shaman, in Kalimdor, and I struggle to make a safe spot in the dry, searing desert heat where orcs can finally live in peace from demons, tyrants, and others who want to enslave or eradicate them. I still know very well who I am, but I am also something else, something other - and online, playing a role-playing game, I set some of that other free.
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Aarinfel. Jarok, Kierae, et al.; Self-Published. 2000.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook. Gary Gygax. 1978.
Alternity: Player's Handbook. Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker; Wizards of the Coast. 1998.
Dragon Realms. M. Dick, K. Grant, et al.; Self-Published. 1995-1999.
Vampire: The Masquerade (Revised Edition). Justin Achilli, Andrew Bates, et al.; White Wolf Games. 1998.
World of Warcraft. Blizzard Entertainment. 2004.