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."
Why the attraction? Western MMOs certainly invite it to a certain extent, with their extensive character customisation features and plethoras of social animations. Oakes compares the personal appeal of role-playing to acting, and perhaps even a bit of communal cognitive behavioural therapy. "It's cathartic," she explains, "and in the beginning, it took a lot of bad behaviours out of my life, and gave them a more appropriate outlet. I don't get real life confused with RP, but it does let me feel a lot of the same emotions sometimes, kind of like how dreams get rid of stress. I like to think of it in acting terms: improv, and to some degree method acting. A lot of times the scenario is planned vaguely, with improv filling the blanks."
Oakes admits to an interest in an acting career, but has never pursued it. Her real passions are tabletop role-playing games and graphic novels, and she's building a career in both. "In that way," she decides, "the role-play has served as a way to note what people enjoy in a fantasy world. It definitely helped me be a better GM, and to write stories of interest. I have our RPG ready now, and it could probably go to a publisher in a few months, if it had dedicated work. There's already artwork for it and everything."
This is the case for many of the role-players I surveyed in Oakes' vicinity. On a popular role-playing forum for EverQuest II's premier RP server, Antonia Bayle, a countless number of players had either published, or were in the process of writing, a fantasy/sci-fi novel. In that way, their online community is a sort of sheltered workshop for aspiring creatives of all stripes in the fantasy genre. As with Oakes, though, it also serves a more atavistic purpose. On another RP forum, in between the literary and anime references, players have described their characters as "my true nature", "the mentality I had when serving in the army", "a corruption of how I am in the real world", "my greedy side", and "everything I can't be".
It would seem that, in addition to nourishing certain players' creative skills, RP appears to afford a kind of projected self-exploration; exactly the sort of thing, in fact, that game designers like Warren Spector, Richard Garriott and Peter Molyneux have striven to achieve at various points in their careers.
"I think it awakens the best and worst in us," Oakes reasons, "giving us inspiration to find the lofty ideals of our spirit amidst a world of mundane work and survival. Sure, it's escapism, but for so many of us, it's like living out those fantastic dreams you have once every few years, or actually being the things you've read about in books. It coexists, and helps us improve ourselves by providing a means of collaboration."
Still, the amount of emotional investment role-play seems to necessitate has a downside. Oakes has seen marriages founder because of one partner's RP commitments, and in other cases, players have read far too much into another character's (fictional) advances. "I've seen people be stalked because they thought there was a real relationship," she says. "Once, despite it having a pretty clear disclaimer of a relationship being purely a story element, someone became pretty upset that feelings weren't mutual outside of the game, for a friend of mine."
In another instance, two players, RPing a marriage for story purposes, found themselves attracted to each other out-of-character (OOC). Unfortunately, as Mark López, a 20-year-old law student in Chicago discovered, a relationship borne of escapism isn't necessarily conducive to lasting intimacy. He recalls the all-consuming romance he developed OOC with one of his fellow players, Rachel, a 39-year-old bookstore owner and single mother.
"I lied about my age at first," he says, "trying to make myself sound older. We were RPing being a husband and wife, which I found kind of boring. But when I stopped lying, it developed. She was nice; kind of motherly, like someone who would take care of things. And she liked, probably, my humour and intelligence. Then again, maybe it was just that she likes young guys - her boyfriend before me had been 18."
The relationship, still devoid of any physical element, intensified to the point where Mark was planning to move out of his parents' home and in with Rachel in Maine. Interestingly, however, the romance ended over exactly what had facilitated it: RP. "She kept wanting to RP being pregnant," he sighs, "and I wasn't into that. And she started RPing a lot with someone I didn't like - as a character and as a person. Her biggest problem was just a total inability to handle conflict and she'd just fall apart at the first sign of someone being unhappy with something. And she had a total aversion to reality, I discovered - she was obsessed with this British show called Dr. Who. Honestly, if I had to watch one more Dr. Who rerun, I was seriously going to contemplate suicide. F*** you, David Tennant!"
The breakdown of their relationship convinced Mark not to renew his subscription. That said, he still harbours fond memories of his time in the game. "I think RP can be a good creative outlet for people," he decides. "For certain people, anyway. For others, it's definitely an escape from reality. I think the relationship and sexual aspect of RP dumbs the whole thing down a lot. When I got past that stuff and really started RPing proper stories, the quality of my RP and my enjoyment of the game went way up. Things were fun. But after a while, I just sort of started taking a look around. I'm a good-looking guy. I'm funny. I was the stud of the debate team. I have a beautiful Venezuelan girlfriend. That all just started seeming more important."
While Oakes has found herself similarly uninterested in RP more times than she can count over the ten years she's been doing it, she has no plans to quit any time soon. She's tried to move on to other MMOs, too, but keeps coming back to EverQuest II for its community and RP compatibility. "Star Wars Galaxies was actually even better for RPers," she notes, "but I didn't like the graphics much. I'm not planning to quit, but I do know now that taking breaks is necessary. It can be taxing on emotions, cathartic, but all things in moderation."
Popular opinion tends to depict RP as being the dominion of, at best, tragic nerds; at worst, obsessive, sociopathic nerds. Is it? Probably not. Not all the time, anyway. The amount of imagination invested into RP communities is considerable, and one does wonder whether the stories, dramas, and relationships that emerge there could somehow be used in the design of emergent narratives in traditional videogames. But if role-playing found legitimacy, to what scapegoat would regular MMO players direct their righteous hatred? Oh, yeah: gold farmers. Suck it down, you dirty botmongers.