The Sheriff is patrolling the streets of Los Angeles. He stops at each red light, stays in lane and keeys his eyes open for trouble. A priority call comes in, the siren goes on and the Sheriff speeds towards his target. He arrives at the scene on Strawberry Avenue, cuffs a green-haired suit who was fist-fighting with another person who did a runner, chucks him in the back seat and starts asking questions about what happened. Satisfied the green-haired suit was not at fault, the Sheriff writes a "not at fault" accident report so green-hair can claim on the insurance for vehicle damage. He declares: "you are free to go." Then the Sheriff calls it in to HQ. "Kenny dispatch 309. Show me back in service."
It sounds like a day in the life of real life LAPD cop, but the Sheriff isn't real, the robber isn't real and the city is virtual. This is roleplaying in GTA Online.
Roleplaying in video games is a concept as old as video games themselves. RPing, as it's known, is an immersive experience in which the player takes on the role of their chosen character and works collaboratively to create emergent storylines with other members of the community. Populating unique servers and supported by mods, GTA Online's role-players have captivated audiences on Twitch, attracting viewers with their unique blend of diverse characters and fascinating personalities.
For the participants, roleplay acts as a way to immerse themselves further into the games they love and interact in more meaningful ways with other players online. For the viewers, this improvised form of machinima entertains in a similar fashion as a TV show or film would, with all the shocks and twists you'd expect. The community manager over on popular GTA roleplay server FiveRP, who goes by the handle Sniper, tells Eurogamer players are drawn to roleplaying in GTA Online because of the escapism it offers.
"I would say it gives you the ability to do things that you wouldn't necessarily be able to do in real life. It's kind of an escape for some people.
"They have the ability to forge their own story and take that character as far as they want to. In effect the possibilities are practically limitless."
This form of immersive escapism is achieved by the commitment of dedicated servers such as FiveRP in creating a living and breathing world comparable to the real world in as many details as possible. Featuring a police department, fire department, ambulance crews and various government systems, RPing in GTA Online is a serious business. As Sniper explains, making the world feel as believable as possible is paramount.
"We have businesses set up, so you have different areas like bars, restaurants and mechanic shops. Whatever it may be, we try and assist them as much as we can with trying to establish themselves in terms of the roleplay that they want to do.
"Some people will be experienced in the type of roleplay of police or maybe the fire department or maybe have a medical background or be studying at university in medicine. They can then lend a hand to assist us in establishing these different organisations as realistically as we can."
That certainly was the case for one of GTA Online's most popular roleplay streamers, Eli "Sheriff Eli" Thompson, who utilised his time in the services to portray a more authentic experience for viewers. Eli found roleplaying during a particularly difficult period of his life.
"I discovered Grand Theft Auto FiveM, which is the platform we play on that allows you to mod," he explains. "And right around that time, my little brother was shot and killed. He was a soldier in the US army, had just returned from deployment and was killed at his home."
After his brother's death, Thompson found solace in GTA's online community as an escape from what was going on for him at home. Through this cathartic process, Sheriff Eli, the hard-line, no-nonsense cop was born, a character based on the likes of Full Metal Jacket's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, The Terminator and John Wayne - so not a guy you want to mess with.
"I think everyone as a child played cops and robbers or something like that where you assume a personality that's not necessarily identical to your own but has elements of you in there and you kind of fold into that role." Thompson says.
Roleplay didn't come naturally to Thompson though. In fact, he had his own assumptions about what he thought roleplayers got up to before he became involved with the community.
"When I heard roleplay before, I used to think of people dressing up as knights and squires and stuff and going and fighting with foam weapons on a football field. I was not, could not be less interested in it at all." he says.
Thompson isn't the only ex-serviceman to adopt video game roleplaying as an outlet. We also spoke to Lieutenant Rowland, a senior member of FiveRP's Los Santos Police Department who gave us some of his own thoughts on what attracts people to GTA Online's roleplay community.
"For me personally, it's definitely at the time I was applying for police departments in real life, so to get a chance to experience that and play around with that idea without actually doing it was kind of entertaining and intrigued me."
Becoming a police officer on a roleplay server is no easy task either, there are numerous hoops you will be required to jump through if you're serious. You'll have to fill out applications, go through interviews and even pass exams if you want to make it as a lawman in many of GTA's RP communities. These measures may seem excessive to the casual observer, but maintaining a level of realism in the servers is what makes GTA Online's RP community so compelling to watch, as Lieutenant Rowland points out.
"We follow the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and we want to make sure that what we're doing is in character, we're not just running around and grabbing people and arresting them without cause or you know, violating whatever rights they may have," he says. "It is very important to us that we do a lot of research to ensure that what we are doing is realistic."
The one thing that brings all this together and makes roleplay in GTA Online possible is the wide selection of tools created by a talented modding scene. Mr Moon, a Twitch streamer and well-known roleplayer, feels the tools are the most important element to creating emergent storylines.
"I think customisation is such a huge aspect of it because you're going to form a story, you're forming a character and his life. You want to be able to make it look the way you imagine it to look." Mr Moon says.
"Even being able to sit down, something as simple as that can make one roleplaying scenario better than another one."
These tools give players the ability to express themselves in more versatile ways then available in the base game, allowing players to display a range of emotions in their characters. Police officers can arrest people, run spot checks and sentence criminals to prison, showing people a more authentic side to video games where your actions have consequences. Mr Moon explains how this attention to detail attracted him to the community.
"I saw the police force going out and catching criminals and it looked very immersive," he says.
"They were pulling them over for not using their blinker, you know you had to obey all the street laws. It was so realistic."
It's clear community-based roleplay has a bright future in the world of video games as it draws in an ever-growing number of viewers on platforms such as Twitch. GTA 5's continued success can in part be attributed to these types of vibrant RP communities. In terms of development, it remains a relatively untapped area of gaming, with many of these servers relying on the work of modders to enhance gameplay mechanics. Either way, it seems the law and disorder of GTA Online's role-play servers is here to stay, as Mr Moon says.
"I only see it growing. And it has been growing since I've been here for three years. And it seems to only be getting more and more popular."
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