The Enigma of Role-play
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years from reading forums, blog posts and chatting online, it’s the fact that gamers play games for many different reasons. Furthermore these differences can be quite pronounced and often you’ll find each respective group equally dumbfounded by each other’s motivations and personal preferences. As a result gaming is a very broad church and certainly not the homogeneous, stereotypical group that the some would have you believe.
I mainly play games for entertainment and leisure. I usually prefer games with a strong narrative, although I do occasionally succumb to the instant gratification fix that the FPS genre can provide. For me gaming is very much akin to an interactive book, with potential puzzles and obstacles to be overcome. However I am aware that many gamers have different criteria and although they may not be to my taste I understand their allure. The competitive nature of PVP and high level raiding are easy to understand, as are the motivations of the gaming completionist. I can also appreciate the relaxing nature of simpler games that provide so many people with a means to unwind after a hard day’s work.
However there is one subset of gaming that is more enigmatic than others and for some a little harder to relate to; namely role-play and role-players. Furthermore it is a form of gaming that is often pilloried not only by those who do not play games but also by those who do. This is something I find very curious. For years gamers have endeavoured to dispel the myths and stereotypes surrounding their activities and yet some will happily indulge in this form of internal discrimination when the fancy takes them.
I must admit, role-play is a very nebulous term. Within the confines of an MMORPG it may cover simply writing a back story for your character to developing a completely separate persona for your avatar and playing and interacting with the virtual world through that prism. Role-play often involves a great deal of social interaction and can facilitate events and bespoke activities. Some role-players extend this beyond the games and runs websites or blogs associated with their characters. Some enterprising players have extended this in to such mediums as You Tube and Twitch TV. There are also bespoke guilds and social groups based around role-play.
I recently spent some time on the Landroval server in LOTRO, as this is a designated RP community. The Prancing Pony in Bree is often filled with players exchanging stories and news “in character”. The music system found within the game provides a major platform for role-play. The server features a wealth of musical groups and regularly hosts major festivals. Such events are well attended by players, each sporting a bespoke avatar with an individual identity. Some dismissively see role-players as “playing dress-up” but I believe it is a far more complex issues than that. Role-play is a virtual form of self-expression outside of a real world of increasing uniformity.
However it is this level of immersion and involvement that often flummoxes other players. Some see such pursuits as childish or running away from reality. Yet our affinity for narrative is just as common place as our competitive nature. Both are examples of the human need to express oneself. Ultimately role-players, raiders and PVP players are essentially scratching the same itch just in different ways. Furthermore role-play is just another means for humans to create an environment that can be controlled and then projecting a persona that we choose in to it. This is something that we have always done as a species and is the basis of all our literature and plays. It is a facet of human culture that we now see reflected in social media. Writer and social commentator Charlie Brooker argues that twitter itself is ultimately a game where we adopt a virtual approximation of ourselves and play that role with the intent of gaining more followers for personal validation.
So perhaps role-play is far from the province of the eccentric and is in fact an intrinsic part of the so called human condition. Perhaps we all do it to various degrees in other aspects of our life. Think about how we interact with different people and groups in our day to day lives. Is not that interaction both contextual and situational? Is the "you" that Colin in the HR department at work knows, identical to the "you" that your partner or your children sees? Modern life, especially the internet, gives up a perfect opportunity to project the best version of ourselves, free from the reality of our personal imperfections.
I am still not sure that I fully understand all facets of role-play within MMOs and I do not feel the need to participate in such activities myself. I guess I express myself through the medium of this blog and prefer to talk about the things I enjoy or find interesting that way. For others fiction, art or music provides more appropriate outlets. But I do see that role-play can be a lot more than just the sum of its parts. It certainly offers an alternative window upon both gaming and the world. Whether it provides a means of expression or psychological comfort to those who adopt it, I see no harm in it and certainly see no reason why people should be denied it. Role-players as a group certainly seem to be more positively orientated and contribute a great deal to the community. That said they are not free from vanity and other human failings. I do get the feeling that some role-players are very much in it for the “me, me, me” factor. However that is a personal issue rather than a role-play issue.
So in conclusion perhaps the enigma of role-play is the fact that there is no enigma associated with it after all. It is simply people exploring the medium of games through a different but no less valid path. It is curious that some games developers understand this and nurture it, by offering dedicated servers, where others are not so accommodating. Yet despite this role-play still seems to thrive within the MMORPG community. Perhaps it is the dogged determination of the role-players themselves along with their perceived “difference” that gets them noticed and labelled in so many ways. As for myself, I do my best to keep an open mind.