Everybody needs somebody to hate. It's one of life's cuddliest comforts: everyone, no matter how oppressed, downtrodden, and marginalised, has someone upon whom they can look down. Cats can take refuge in the fact that they're not dogs; disgraced investment bankers regularly praise Quetzalcoatl for not making them videogames journalists; and MMO players, still considered by a vast majority to be daylight-averse, socially crippled man-children, can direct their pathos at a very easy, very near target: role-players.
A subculture of a subculture - recently described in a University of Minnesota study as "psychologically much worse off than the average [MMO player]" - role-players (or "RPers", as they're often known) engage in many, if not all, of the same activities as the average MMO aficionado. But they do so with an interesting twist: they do it "in character".
This practice can entail anything from injecting a few "thees" and "thous" into orthodox raid-speak, to creating elaborate storylines with other players that can take years to complete. It's a kind of shared fantasy that, in a positive light, brings to mind a sort of emergent, collaborative virtual theatre. On the other hand, it could be (and often is) considered a kind of participatory self-delusion; a dysfunctional consensus reality where potato-faced database programmers can invest their fragile psyches into playing at being dashing, raven-haired, florid romantic heroes and pouting, porcelain-skinned maidens (often simultaneously).
Whichever stance you take at the outset, the questions are the same: why do they do it? What does it achieve? Doesn't the abuse they encounter ever get to them? According to Nüwa Oakes - her unusual name, she virtually shrugs, stemmed from her American parents' fondness for Chinese culture - it does. The co-coordinator of a large RP community in EverQuest II, Oakes isn't the lumpy troglodyte you might expect. She's a charismatic, creative - and, it must be said, rather fetching - thirtysomething who runs day-to-day and more lengthy role-play storylines with the help of her equally respectable de facto, Sam Orchard, an IT specialist.
"I have felt silly," she admits, "especially when surrounded by people who are obviously not RPing. Sometimes people try to grief us by jumping around, disrupting, or acting like assholes. Especially back in EverQuest 1, there were lots of people who'd make fun of RPers. Sometimes they still giggle, but back then, it was meaner. They'd have this attitude of RPers as being stupid, incapable of playing the game well, thinking we always used 'thee' and 'thy' … I used to be super pissed-off about it, and I'd rabidly defend the intelligence and capabilities of RPers."
These days she's a mellower soul, but that's undoubtedly because the culture's shifted. A veteran of the EverQuest series since its March 1999 debut, Oakes has watched the EverQuest player-base, if not MMOs at large, become friendlier to the idea of taking that extra step in online world immersion.
"We put on big events now," she says. "Once, we had people bargain for the use of a Champion weeks before, then we brought those Champions to fight against each other at a festival. Kind of like Pokémon, but with other people. It brought low- and high-level people together, and we had a duelling tournament with the Champions for prizes. Then, good guys showed up who tried to stop it. It was a great conflict. It is a lot of work, though, and some people feel silly doing it. There are actually a whole bunch of people who are fascinated with trying it … In fact, most non-RPers I meet have thought about doing it, or doing it more often."