Most gamers draw a clear line between real life and the games they enjoy, but for some the line wavers. Some gamers even refuse to break character, getting so absorbed in games that they won’t acknowledge the real world while they’re playing.
“Roleplaying” games come in all shapes and sizes. From your more traditional titles, such as Dragon Age or Skyrim, where you create and play a character within a story; to the more open, personalised worlds, found in games like Second Life and IMVU, where players can create just about anything—there are all manner of ways to get into roleplaying. And it’s in these games that players form communities where they take on the personas of their characters, playing the role of whatever they’ve chosen.
In past ages, we had the masquerade ball. The rich and powerful could take part in events with their identities hidden, using a certain mask to show off a certain persona. Likewise, players can create a character they wish to be. Roleplaying in games is the modern interpretation of the masquerade ball. Throwing aside societal expectations and stigmas, players can be as they wish and can respect each other through it.
ADVENTURES IN ROLEPLAYING
My first foray into roleplaying was in Mount and Blade: Warband, TaleWorlds Entertainment’s fantasy guerrilla and political warfare game, where I discovered a player-created “mod” for the game called “Persistent World.” Using this mod, which lets players manage kingdoms and pit them against one another in online multiplayer, players had created a Game of Thrones-inspired world, complete with honorable soldiers defending the Wall and even some cruel Lannisters.
When I entered the game, a player advertising his guild offered help to new players without equipment and tips on roleplaying within the world. I accepted his offer, alongside another new player, and we were rushed off on horseback to the Wall, which we were to defend, as the Night’s Watch. We were somewhat self-sustaining, maintaining neutral relations with other factions. Leaders of each faction had heated arguments over politics, warfare, and petty matters, each trying to embody their character from the Game of Thrones world. I had no idea who these people were; they were simply the characters, confident, powerful men and women. What they were in the real world didn’t matter.
Some time ago, I spent some time in “DarkRP,” a mode for a game called Garry’s Mod where players are given jobs and can be a part of a small town. These servers were often filled with people who took their roles seriously, many police officers keeping the peace, with other people supporting each other in their jobs. Rather than something where people roleplay as seafaring captains, starship pilots, or villainous royals, DarkRP is simply a roleplay of exaggerated life. Alternate rule sets make it clear that, while in-character crimes are allowed, cruelty is not. Stealing is fine, although police officers will “arrest” you in the game as part of the roleplay; scamming other players, meanwhile, isn’t OK.
The MMO (massively multiplayer online) genre is pretty well-known for having communities of roleplayers. MMO games are huge worlds, where hundreds of people can play together, completing quests and exploring whatever they desire. Players will often spend hours upon hours in their characters, and many will choose to roleplay as them.
To support this, players in World of Warcraft have made many tools that give more options to roleplayers. Want to give your character a background that other players can read? Perhaps you want to create quests for the character, even? There’s even a player-created mod that enforces language barriers, making characters of different races unable to communicate with one another. Well, humans wouldn’t be able to speak orc, would they? These tools are one of the key ways players can immerse themselves in their character, and the world.
I visited some the of the popular roleplay areas in Guild Wars 2, another MMO, recently, and asked some of the people around a few questions about their time as roleplayers.
In Rata Sum, a major city in the game, I met Zeboh, a self-defined “casual roleplayer”. They’ve been roleplaying since 2009, across multiple games. They don’t take it especially seriously; roleplaying is a form of taking in the world of Tyria, Guild Wars 2’s setting, through the eyes of the character. Combined with the graphical style and gameplay of the game, they enjoyed using roleplaying as a method of immersion.
In contrast, I spoke to another character, Kormise, in Lion’s Arch, the game’s common city for all the races, who spoke about roleplaying as a way to make stories with friends. “I don’t even remember the storyline of [Guild Wars 2]’s main quest,” Kormise told me, “but I do remember the name of a man who was hired by a nobleman to assassinate a mercenary company leader.” For Kormise, these stories evolved and made with friends stood out far more than anything written by the developers.
The player behind the character told me about how they have moderate to severe Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes Kormise “struggle to socialize [in real life]”. By socialising through textual roleplay, things became far easier. “I find that subtle social cues are what I miss in real life, but they are all spelled out in a game, because they have to be. This means I can almost always respond appropriately.” In a roleplay environment, everyone is given an opportunity to take part in a social, community-driven world.
I later logged in to Neverwinter, Cryptic Studios’ MMO based on the Forgotten Realms setting for popular tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons. On a floating island, off the side of the main city after which the game is named, sits a tavern, the Moonstone Mask. This is where the roleplayers typically gather. At any one time you’ll often walk into a few different conversations going on. I met Arak’var there. He was the most experienced one I met—12 years of experiences, across video games, tabletop games, and forums—and one of the most serious. “I’m very selective with whom I roleplay”, he told me.
There I also met Mizore Hawthorn, who made it abundantly clear that their love for roleplaying in Neverwinter came from the world. “The stories they put together to make this game are amazing!” they said. For Mizore, part of roleplaying was weaving themselves into the stories that had been crafted, alongside taking part in the community. “Taking part in the world is fun and all, but you need to socialize or it wouldn’t all fit together.”
PLAY TO FORGET
Each person I spoke to seemed to have different ideas on roleplaying, but Kormise summed it up nicely at the end of our conversation. “I think that as soon as you forget you’re playing a game, you’re roleplaying.”
No matter what you’re doing it for, whether it’s escapism, socialising, or simply looking at a world through the eyes of a fantasy species, everyone who roleplays is part of a community. “They are accepting and friendly,” Arak’var told me. “Whatever your race, color, or creed, you are welcome in the community’s story.”
And that’s true. When I first began visiting these communities, I half expected rolled eyes, tuts, and rebuffs—people ignoring or shunning me for not knowing the basics about roleplaying. Instead, I never got a single negative response.
Visiting these games and taking part in some of the roleplays was a refreshing experience. Rather than being told to prevent the end of the world, or go on an arduous quest to save royalty for a pat on the back, or strategise with other players to defeat a monstrous evil, I could have a chat in a bar. I could hear about someone’s background, listen to the story of how their group was almost slain in an ambush, then go out and complete some quests together. Some take it seriously, writing backgrounds that could be short novels for their characters; others like to be a bit more casual, and some like to just have a chat in the role of their character. The acceptance of the community, as well as how wide it spreads, means everyone is welcome. Roleplay isn’t as niche as you think, and you’d be more than welcome to join in.
Hannah Dwan is a freelance games journalist who spends too much time rambling about her favorite titles. You can see those opinions at @hoeyboey.
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