Sarah Stang is a PhD student in the Communication and Culture program at York University in Toronto, Ontario. Her research focuses on race and gender representation in video games and other media, with particular interest in nonhuman characters, monstrosity, androgyny, and hybridity.
Earlier this year, Shawn Dorey (2017) wrote a piece for First Person Scholar on play-by-post roleplaying (PBPRP), which is broadly defined as a form of text-based online roleplaying. In this activity, participants take on the role of specific characters and take turns contributing to the creation of a fictional world through narrative storytelling. Sometimes the world and characters are based on existing media, but all the writing is expected to be original. In her article on Livejournal roleplaying, Sarah Wanenchak (2010) provides a detailed description of PBPRP and observes that this kind of activity “is not a ‘game’ by the most traditional definition: there is no ultimate goal and no system of points, and the focus is on the creation and development of an ongoing story” (para. 18). Since, as she states, “[g]ameplay takes the form of written narrative in the style of traditional fiction[,]” this activity is often thought of as “collaborative writing” rather than playing a game (para. 18). However, Dorey sees the socialization involved in this type of roleplaying “as a form of metagaming” and argues that navigating through the rules, plot, and social hierarchies “functioned a lot more like playing a game than simply participating in collaborative writing” (para. 3). In short, Dorey argues that PBPRP is a game and that the contributors are players.
I was involved in a PBPRP community when I was a teenager, though in this case the “community” consisted solely of my circle of school friends. Involvement in the activity functioned as a kind of gatekeeping practice: once you were part of the roleplay, you were considered truly in the friend group. Although this was an unspoken arrangement, it was clear to me when I first started spending time with this group at school that they were involved in something special, something secret. At lunch time, they would discuss their characters and their current adventures. One of my friends would even draw pictures of these characters, in the cute chibi anime style that was popular at the time.
I knew I was missing out on an entire level of friendship, and I felt left out and jealous. I did not have many other friends at this point and I desperately wanted to be an integrated and accepted member of this new group. I started digging around and found out where they were playing this secret game: on a Neopets forum, of all places! Neopets was immensely popular in those days, and I fortunately had my own account. However, I was too shy and nervous to ask to join in – I felt that I had to be invited, otherwise I was overstepping the invisible boundaries of my welcome. This group of people had been friends for years, and I was a newcomer, an outsider. So rather than risk rejection by asking to join, I created a separate, secret Neopets account. I pretended to be someone else, and I asked to join the forum.
Behind this mask of anonymity, I found the courage I lacked in real life. So I made up a name, made up a persona, and I even found a picture of someone who looked like the girl I was pretending to be. I made a character so I could then proceed to make a character and join in the game. I was cautiously welcomed into the roleplay by the de facto leader of the group: a girl with whom I desperately wanted to be friends. I knew that if I could win her over, I would be truly in the group, safe from the perils of lonely adolescence. So I tested the waters with this fake persona: I became “Aila,” a quirky girl from another country. I read every post made by the group up until that point, and I started contributing.
Before I go on, I should elaborate on the process of contributing. I never thought of this as “game” – though in hindsight, of course it was – rather, I thought of it as “collaborative writing.” The group had a story already in progress, and each contributor had a character of her own of whom she was in charge. No one else could write dialogue from the perspective of that character without the express permission of his or her creator. The leader of the group was effectively the Dungeon Master: the master storyteller who contributed the most, drew the characters, and directed the basic plot. The world was created by her, and so we all had to follow the rules of her world. We each had our own character who played a role in her world, but we all knew who was really in charge of it. She was a very good writer and her world was compelling – I was instantly hooked.
I started writing passionately, and soon became one of the principal contributors. She and I would also talk privately, getting to know each other and building up an online friendship. This friendship was, of course, built on lies – she told me the truth about herself, whereas I was telling her about a person and life which did not exist. I am not certain exactly how long this double-life lasted, but at some point I decided to end it. I felt comfortable enough and confident enough in my writing skills that I wanted to get real credit for my writing, instead of letting the fictional Aila take all of it. So I asked to join in the roleplaying, acting as though I had never done anything like it before, and I was invited to try it. I created a new character and wrote myself into the world. Strangely enough, Aila, the mysterious new girl who lived in another country, disappeared around this time. She made up some excuse and simply vanished. Fortunately, no one connected the dots between my joining the group and Aila leaving it.
Again, the leader and I became the principal contributors. She and I grew closer as friends, and she even drew a picture of my character (I still have it to this day, as she and I are still very close friends). It took me years to find the courage to tell her that I was Aila all along. I was afraid she would be angry at my lies, but instead she thought it was adorable that I was so frightened of rejection that I needed to hide behind a false persona just to be able to participate in their roleplay. Although she said that she had no idea that it was me all along, I have a feeling that she figured it out but was too kind to say anything until I was ready to confess.
Without more elaboration on the internal politics of my friend group, it might seem ridiculous that I felt the need to play a role in order to play a role. However, if you have ever been a lonely thirteen-year-old who wants only to have the safety net of friends (and dreads another day of eating alone at lunch time), you might understand my need to protect the new friendships I was making. I had to make sure I was good enough at the game before I was willing to play for real, lest I embarrass myself and jeopardize my new friendships. The stakes were high: events, conversations, and drama that occurred within the friend group would often take some form in the roleplay, and vice versa. If you did something wrong, took the story in the wrong direction, or, the unthinkable, killed someone off before the others agreed to it, a real-world fight might ensue. Some of my friends’ characters would begin romances with other characters, or fight over the love of a non-player character. Some would get jealous over the amount of time two characters were spending together, and feel betrayed in real life.
As time went on, most of my friends stopped roleplaying, but the two of us – the leader and I – continued. We loved it, and made up stories just for ourselves. At some point, we moved away from Neopets and began to have private roleplays on MSN Messenger. My friend started a first-person story in which she roleplayed as a man named Jack. This activity blurred the lines between story, chat, and game: she was interacting with me through the guise of her character. Jack flirted with me shamelessly, complimenting me and trying to seduce me. In this way, my friend and I explored our queer desire for one another through the guise of heterosexual flirtation. What we were too afraid, or too ashamed, or too unsure to do in real life, we could do through roleplay.
As Emma Westecott (2016) observes in her chapter “Playing with Gender” in Diversifying Barbie and Mortal Kombat, “[g]ames hold remarkable potential for experimentation” (p. 234). Like many game scholars, Westecott articulates gameplay as a performance, observing that games “offer the player an opportunity to experience agency and affect whilst enabling her to act as a fictional ‘other’ in a bounded play experience” (p. 237). This observation perfectly articulates our shared experience as my friend adopted the role of a fictional “other”: it granted us both the agency to express our feelings for one another and fostered incredibly cogent affective responses (the thrill I felt every time she “became” Jack is indescribable). However, our play experience was not bounded: eventually she and I translated this fictional romance into a real-world one, but it took a great leap of courage to do so without the mask of “Jack.” Just as I needed to use the mask of “Aila” to protect myself from potential rejection, she and I both needed to use the mask of “Jack” to test the waters of our own feelings.
There Was No Magic Circle
In thinking about PBPRP as a game, rather than simply as collaborative writing, I am reminded of why arguments against the “magic circle” – Johan Huizinga’s (1938) idea that play occurs in a bounded, demarcated space which remains separate from the “real world” or “normal life” – are so compelling. Scholars have long noted that games can be incredibly impactful for their players, and so the boundaries between play and “real life” are actually porous and sometimes nonexistent (for example, see Turkle, 1994; Steinkuehler, 2006; Taylor, 2006; Malaby, 2007; Consalvo, 2009). Roleplaying games, whether digital or analog, text-based or graphically-rendered, allow players to act out fantasies, express themselves, and engage in complex processes of self-discovery. Certainly not everyone uses the activity in this way, but game scholars and players have provided enough evidence of the gravity and influence of roleplaying that its potential power cannot be denied.
Since my teenage years, I have used PBPRP for many purposes – from creative writing exercises to the exploration of erotic fantasies. My friends and I still remember our roleplaying with fondness: we all recognize that it shaped our friendships, gave us the creative outlet we were lacking in the public school system, and let us test the boundaries of our imaginations. In writing on their own experience with PBPRP, Dorey observes that “I am literally changing the game world for everyone with my writing” (para. 10). As I read this, I realized how meaningful this kind of roleplaying was for my self-confidence, my friendships, and even the exploration of my own queer sexuality. Those masks, those personae, those characters were both powerful and empowering. I am one of many people whose social and romantic circles grew within or were profoundly shaped through roleplaying as characters in make-believe worlds. With my writing, I was literally changing the game world, but I was also changing my physical world. For me, there really was no “magic circle”: roleplay was as important to me as any other type of social interaction, perhaps more so.
Consalvo, M. (2009). There is no magic circle. Games and Culture 4(4), 408-417.
Dorey, S. (2017). Play by post roleplay: Where player becomes designer and designer becomes player. First Person Scholar.
Fine, G. A. (1983). Shared fantasy: Role-playing games as social worlds. University of Chicago Press.
Huizinga, J. (1938/1950). Homo ludens: A study of the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon.
Malaby, T. (2007). Beyond play: A new approach to games. Games & Culture 2(2), 95-113.
Steinkuehler, C. (2006). The mangle of play. Games and Culture 1(3), 199-213.
Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play between worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Turkle, S. (1994). Constructions and reconstructions of self in virtual reality: Playing in the MUDs. Mind, Culture, and Activity 1(3), 158-167.
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. Simon & Schuster.
Wanenchak, S. (2010). Tags, threads, and frames: Toward a synthesis of interaction ritual and Livejournal roleplaying. Game Studies 10(1).
Westecott, E. (2016). Playing with gender: Promoting representational diversity with dress-up, cross-dressing and drag in games. In Y. B. Kafai, G. T. Richard, and B. M. Tynes (Eds.), Diversifying Barbie and Mortal Kombat: Intersectional perspectives and inclusive designs in gaming (pp. 234-246). Carnegie Mellon: ETC Press.
Hi Sarah — Thanks for this intimate look into your past experiences with PBPRP. It is always fascinating to consider about how real life and roleplay are necessarily wound up with one another (on Neopets, no less)! What your commentary made me think about was the extremely different role that Neopets played in my own life as a coming-of-age adolescent. For me as well, it served as a site where these school relationships were hashed out and my actions online had real consequences in my friend-group. But for us, role-playing was never an aspect of our interactions. Instead, Neopets served more as an artists’ community. We “played” Neopets, and yet, my memories of it are not of my pets or the various eggs I worked to collect. Instead, I think about the teenage drama surrounding art commissions and competition. Like you and your friend, many of us eventually migrated off to pursue similar art-making in new spaces, such as Gaia Online. Reading about your experiences made me incredibly grateful for these kinds of flexible spaces that we could use however we pleased alongside a type of “play” that certainly exceeds the boundaries of any “magic circle.”
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