My Love-Hate Affair with Online Roleplay

Two weeks ago I was musing over the gameplay and features of the original version of Star Wars: Galaxies, and in particular how at least a few aspects of it forced you to slow down and actually enjoy the company of your fellow human beings — whether or not they currently were appearing in the guise of a seven foot tall walking carpet.

Filthy, filthy humans.

For all that I champion the cause of roleplaying in online role-playing games (go figure), the truth of it is that for at least the last eight years or so I’ve felt conflicted on the subject. I don’t really practice what I preach, anymore.

It probably goes back further than that. My wife never MUSHed, so she still has some bright eyed and bushy tailed enthusiasm going on. She did chatroom RP prior to the age of graphical MMORPGs, but chatroom RP never approached the sophisticated, persistent worlds and interpersonal character relations the best of the MU*’s could provide. In the decade or so I was part of them, I think I worked most of the need for intense, angsty, meaningful roleplay out of my system. In the 90s I was a lonely nerd searching for existential answers and love (or at least some form of pseudo-emotional masturbation fodder), but mostly scared to go outside and interact with actual people in the cause of that. The latter hasn’t arguably changed, but the former eroded away as years went by and I dealt with several in-character and out-of-character meltdowns on the part of myself and others.

Is it merely a function of age? I remember gleefully looking forwards to the beach as a tyke. Sure, there was cold water, and stinging salt, and afterward there would be sand in places where sand Should Not Be, but somehow, at that time, it all seemed worth the price. Now, not so much.

Blind? Or simply old?

Online roleplay for me often feels like the idea of going to the beach these days… something to be looked at skeptically (any sewage leaks lately?), and, if it must happen, something to be enjoyed on the shores, without actually immersing too deeply into the experience. I’ve just seen it all before and I recognize the signs of undertow churning away out there. Nerds went online to these games to escape the social awkwardness of the real world, but the real world kept intruding itself onto the hallowed ground of fantasy, and we slowly realized that the petty cliques and feuds we hated so much in high school were alive and well even amongst those we thought would understand. And the meaningful, intense shared storytelling experiences you sought after were exactly the sort of breeding ground for the most unfortunate crossovers between character and player.

As an example, early on in my online play I was still a virgin and the idea of cybersex was pretty damn awesome. I could get girls to have sex with me! … well, not really me… and for all I knew they weren’t really girls… but booyah. Sure, I still created characters and tried to keep them consistent, but I won’t claim I never chucked everything occasionally in the cause of poon. On the other hand, I also at least once knew the shame of being the creepy person who confused an in-character relationship with having something with the player, to the point I was personally devastated to find out I had been “cheated on” as she… well, chucked everything in the cause of dick. Some weeks after that I met the player in person at a group offline get-together… it was awkward. But hey, after that I got to know the warning signs really well when someone seemed to be getting similarly clingy (and I got to be on the receiving end at least once… boy howdy…). Eventually I started being a lot more picky with such matters, putting character first and even asking for the “Fade to Black” option for any hanky panky rather than going through the motions. By the time I’d reached graphical MMOs I started creating characters that either made fun of the whole thing or just didn’t bother with sex and romance at all. It probably didn’t help (or from a saner perspective, helped just fine) that by then I had met someone, completely offline, who turned out to be the love of my life.

In text-only I'd laugh at the overwrought "sexy" descriptions people tried to make. MMOs just made the silliness visual.

When I finally started with graphical MMOs, I recognized almost immediately that most were the direct descendants of MUDs, which I had always avoided because if all I wanted to do was kill monsters and grab loot, I’d be playing something offline instead. Why bring other people into it? To prove your superiority by killing them? That held no interest for me either. But the new breed had something the MUDs didn’t have, and that was pretty pictures. Lots of pretty pictures. Virtual environments you could run around in… see the mountain over there? Go climb the mountain, then look back at the lights of the city you were standing in several minutes ago.

That appealed to me. I wanted to be part of that. I had transitioned, in Bartle Test parlance, from a Socializer to an Explorer, and as long as you kept throwing new vistas my way I was a happy man. Oh, I’d still spend time creating a character with a background and personality to interact with others, but besides Galaxies most games just didn’t have any reason for you to do that, and if it wasn’t particularly scintillating RP I quickly grew bored and started pondering all the pretty pictures I was missing out on.

Well check that, most games do give you a reason to interact with others, but it’s all based in fighting and dungeon-running. There is precious little room for RP and often not even room for exploration as your fellows keep pushing along. Not to mention the repetitive set-up where most of these scenarios get repeated until even the most die-hard achievers are sick of them.

But as stated, I had reached a point I wasn’t much interested in sitting around and talking, either. I’d been doing that for over ten years. When a lady Wookiee in Galaxies started trying to have a relationship with my Wookiee, I not only was intensely bored at the thought of going over to her virtual house and sitting in her virtual hot tub, it made me acutely aware of the fact I was playing a character that didn’t wear pants. Nor did she. The idea of even getting to the point of “Fade to Black” honestly made my brain scream a little, because there was no getting around the awkward visuals.

This would also not have been so bad had the player not proceeded to repeatedly passive aggressively bother me to the point I would ask Dawn (who had her own account) if said Wookiee was online, and if she was, I’d find something else to do than Galaxies. I was officially Too Old For That Shit, and I don’t care how bored she might have been, I was not going to be bored in turn so that she wouldn’t be, especially when I was actually paying to play the game.

Sooner or later, every RPer becomes Murtaugh.

Yeah, so, while I appreciate the concept of RP and still indulge in it from time to time, I try not to get too involved. I’m usually never in a hurry to join any sort of Guild, either, because Guilds (or fellowships, or supergroups, or knittingcircles or whatever the fuck the particular game chooses to call them) inevitably fall into the same old patterns of internet drama that I’ve grown entirely tired of dealing with.

The greatest irony, and the reason I write this now, is that after all my complaints about roleplayers being the redheaded stepchildren of the MMORPG world, Dawn and I have finally found a server for Lord of the Rings Online where they genuinely seem to be in the majority. And while at first this seemed fantastic and immersive, it wasn’t long before old memories kicked in and I started making a mental checklist of just how much things have stayed the same since last time I was part of such an environment, including:

– People brooding alone in dark corners, then getting on OOC channels and complaining how bored they are because no one will RP with them or the other dozen Strider wanna-bes doing it.

– People “think posing” and either expecting a reaction or perhaps just being selfish douchebags unaware that a multi-player game is not the proper place for them to narrate their stories: “Theobob wonders if Horfux is aware of how much of a stupid idiot he is.”

And of course, my favorite:

– People spending more time OOCly arguing about how to RP than actually RPing, to the point it drowns out anyone who tries.

The new BSG series may have had a bullshit ending, but the quote rings true: “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again…

Have I given up? Not yet, since at least this time around the game is free to play. And part of me recognizes that everyone has to start somewhere and I made a lot of idiot choices and mistakes along the way and God bless their hearts but these young’uns are trying. I do love that there’s still folks out there who want more out of their online games than repetitive kills and loot grabs, but I do wish that every new RPer was required to read and accept the Pretendy Fun Time Games blog as their Terms & Conditions before they started delving into the magical world of communal roleplaying.

It’d save them a lot of head and heartache. And maybe they won’t end up old and busted like me, twenty years down the road.

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About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
This entry was posted in Home of the Bizarre Rant, Nerd Alert and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My Love-Hate Affair with Online Roleplay

  1. Andrew says:

    Did you ever find out what the SH in MUSH stood for? The last time we discussed it, over 15 years ago, you speculated that it was Shared Halucination.

  2. Clint says:

    As far as I know that’s still the best explanation.

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