Rob Gallagher is a postdoctoral researcher working at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games lab. His research considers videogame aesthetics in relation to questions of temporality, embodiment and gendered identity.
While game studies has had plenty to say about roleplaying games (RPGs), and particularly about Massively Multiplayer RPGs, less attention has been paid to roleplay as a play style, whereby winning the game becomes secondary to fleshing out and performing as a coherent character. When the practice has been discussed scholars have tended to focus on roleplay as a communal activity undertaken within MMORPGs, many of which have dedicated ‘roleplay servers’ (e.g. Paul and Pitmann). As more and more gamers begin recording and streaming gameplay via sites like YouTube and Twitch.tv, however, other forms of roleplay and modes of engaging with roleplay culture are emerging. In this essay I want to look at Youtube videos made by roleplayers of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011). An offline singleplayer RPG, Skyrim has nevertheless attracted a sizeable roleplaying community on YouTube, from comparative veterans like the UK-based SorcererDave – whose hundreds of videos have attracted over 25,000 subscribers – to newcomers whose output might garner no more than a handful of views. From a scholarly perspective their recordings represent a fascinating, ever-expanding corpus that, beyond its virtue as an archive of gameplay, serves to document the emergence of new, hybrid forms of expression, entertainment and play. In this case a single-player game is repurposed as a platform for self-representation, debate and emergent storytelling as roleplay shifts from an evanescent activity undertaken by particular (groups of) players to a mode of individual improvisational performance recorded and offered to a non-playing audience.
In the process various questions are raised – questions about sociability, creativity and ownership, the expressive potential of games and the nature of intimacy and identity online. In what follows, however, I want to concentrate on what roleplay videos tell us about the appeal of gaming. I will argue that roleplay can be seen as a form of futile ‘face work’ whereby players attempt to flesh out and affirm the game’s diegetic reality even though their attempts are doomed to backfire (Goffman 12-13). There is an irony here: that while roleplayers draw on a rhetoric of ‘immersion’ and ‘realism’ their activities in fact demonstrate the fallacy of the idea that games appeal because they transport players to coherent, comprehensively realised worlds. What comes through in these videos is not the power of immersion but the pleasure of acquiring and playfully showcasing a mastery of generic and mechanical conventions by playing at being immersed. Having made this claim I develop it by considering the social and expressive dimensions of Skyrim’s roleplay culture. I draw on sociolinguist Mary Bucholtz’s work on subcultures’ performative affirmation of particular ‘language ideologies’ to address what the identities that Skyrim players’ project and the affinities and knowledges that they showcase tell us about gaming’s developing role in online culture.
Playing at Being Immersed
In his analysis of roleplay Markus Montola identifies an apparent contradiction: “that any role-playing game… can be participated [in] without role- playing” (22). Thus, while Skyrim is an RPG, most people do not roleplay Skyrim, focusing more on fulfilling ludic objectives. Those who do roleplay go to great lengths to elaborate and better integrate the narrative and mechanical dimensions of the game, concocting complex backstories and motivations for their avatars, elaborating on the game’s lore and plot and imposing additional gameplay constraints upon themselves in the name of ‘realism’ (a term I will be interrogating presently).
Such activities can be seen as attempts to take video game marketing’s promises of identification, immersion and verisimilitude seriously. By roleplaying, gamers strive to invest their in-game choices with consequence, context and plausibility, rendering play more “meaningful” (Salen and Zimmerman 33). Bart Simon’s work on player/NPC interactions frames this kind of play in terms of Erving Goffman’s concept of “saving face” (167-8): if humans work to sustain social interaction by tactfully smoothing over one another’s misapprehensions, slips and awkward silences, roleplayers help games to ‘save face’ by playing in such a way as to camouflage the limitations of the technology and software.
As an example, roleplayers often obey social customs and physical laws that Skyrim’s simulation does not in fact enforce; thus Zemalf opts to change his avatar’s clothes in a warm and secluded spot even though Skyrim characters will neither catch a chill nor be arrested for public indecency should they choose to strip in the middle of town. Beyond following their own supplementary rules (the text accompanying The Roleplay Gamer’s videos outlines his particular code: “No fast travel, no cheating, no loading saves, dead is dead… should the character succumb to death then the playthrough ends and we begin the next one”) many roleplayers make use of mods that purport to render the game more ‘realistic’ and/or ‘immersive’ by, for example, obscuring the graphical user interface or making it a requirement that avatars eat and sleep regularly.
These efforts to affirm or extend Skyrim’s claims to realism tend, however, to be pathetically counterintuitive. When LuckyLoremaster tries to “get out of this armour and into something a little lighter’ before getting into bed but finds “I don’t know how to not wear [a shield].. I guess we’re just wearing our shield to bed” the situation is all the more ridiculous for the lengths he has gone to in order to behave ‘realistically’. If anything, such moments demonstrate that games are simply not designed to be taken so literally. In this way roleplay affirms what academics have long held: that ‘immersion,’ its longevity as a marketing buzzword notwithstanding, is a vague and misleading descriptor of in-game experience. If, as Huizinga famously claimed, play occurs within a ‘magic circle’ then digital play scholars have shown that circle to be bounded not by a concrete wall but a porous and imperfectly opaque membrane (Huizinga 10). Games never absorb players to the extent that they forget their virtual worlds are fictions; at best they might be said to provide a basis for “willed illusions” that players must actively and consciously work to create and sustain (Kirkpatrick 74). In such instances play resembles face work: a playing at being immersed.
Roleplayers also witness the magic circle’s permeability via lapses out of character, vacillations between first- and third-person narration and switches in register, repeatedly shifting from taking the game’s posited reality seriously to highlighting comical bugs, directly addressing viewers or discussing the hardware they’re using. Extra-gamic reality intrudes in other ways too: from ambulance sirens to what seem to be bird calls, videos are littered with inadvertent gestures toward who is playing and where. In one video LuckyLoremaster gamely attempts to explain what sounds like someone doing the dishes in the background as “one of those alchemists over there dropping something”. The comment archly splits the difference between acknowledging and attempting to disguise workaday domestic reality’s intrusion into Skyrim’s fantasy realm – though it doesn’t account for the fact we can hear what seems to be a microwave beeping two minutes later.
Even without such interruptions, performances can be hard to sustain. Accounts of who characters are biographically, psychologically and ethically repeatedly shade into descriptions of what they are mechanically, and while roleplayers make efforts to bring these facets of a character into alignment (Zemalf explains in the preamble to one roleplay that “as far as gaming mechanics goes [his character will] eventually be a mage” because he finds the brutality of physical combat “disgusting”), the fact that players can only choose from a limited palette of actions in any one scenario means that there are few satisfactory opportunities to express a character’s depth and complexity while playing. Roleplay videos remind us of the complex affects and ingenious interpretations to which games can give rise even as they foreground the inability of games’ interfaces to register any but the most concrete and unambiguous forms of response. At the end of the day, whether or not you refute the divinity of Talos has little bearing on how you swing a sword.
Playing at Being Oneself
Talos, it should be said, is one of Skyrim’s gods, part of the series’ dizzyingly extensive (if rather derivative) body of lore. YouTube comment threads often see roleplayers praised for smoothly incorporating ‘lore friendly’ touches, castigated for their ignorance or offered advice on, say, how to swear (“In Tamriel they would usually say something like ‘By the gods.’”). Defending himself against charges of being uninformed about the lore DeathBlackWish suggests that commenters are erroneously conflating him with his avatar, casting the latter as an unreliable narrator: “[my character] right now knows nothing about [that]… He eventually learns…”
Such exchanges support the idea that gamic pleasure is not about ‘immersion’ per se but the command of a game’s fiction and systems – and the ways in which this command can be performed. For a grasp of lore is not enough on its own to make for compelling roleplay: there is also the matter of style, of how the roleplayer’s expertise (or lack thereof) is witnessed and affirmed, becoming a basis for self-expression, competition and social interaction. We might note, for example, that Skyrim roleplayers tend toward fussily antiquated syntax and vocabulary, linguistically connoting ‘the past’ without, in fact, conforming to the linguistic conventions of a particular period or place. Indeed, while Skyrim is rooted in Medieval Romance, Anglo Saxon poetry and Norse Epic, roleplayers tend to affect style closer to Victorian English – stiff enough to register as ‘old fashioned’ while still being understandable to listeners.
This kind of ‘exaggeratedly formal’ ‘superstandard English’ is also a key characteristic of what Bucholtz calls “nerd” speech, as are the kinds of “playful knowledge contests” roleplayers engage in (2011, 157). Bucholtz’s work provides a valuable way into thinking roleplaying style, for where other scholars have suggested that nerds simply ‘lack the basic communicative competence necessary to function successfully in society,’ Bucholtz understands nerdiness as “an actively claimed identity produced through semiotic practices’, including various strategies of ‘linguistic representation’ – ‘the use of stylized language… in which various elements of language… become reified and linked to social meanings” (2001, 229-30; 2011, 139-40).
Roleplayers shed light on this process not just through their choice of words but also through their accents – which, whether assumed or real, offer a window onto the globalised imaginary from which video games emerge and the global markets through which they move. Across multiple videos and comments we begin to build up a picture of how connotations and associations attach to particular linguistic practices. Subtleties of inflection, stress or pronunciation can speak volumes about the vernacular understandings of history, geography, personality and generic convention that make a particular voice sound ‘historical’ or ‘European’ or ‘heroic’.
As this suggests, roleplayers are also experimenting with their own voices and identities. Indeed, the roleplay video might be understood as an aural equivalent of the “selfie” – a form that, as Mendelson and Papacharissi show, is commonly used by young women to develop strategies of self-representation. Documenting the discovery and development of ‘flattering’ attitudes and expressions, these women’s self-portraits witness the work of performing gender even as their “exaggerated… poses and… playful attitude[s]” encourage viewers to write off this work as mere play (236). Roleplayers, too, can be heard toying with different rhetorical registers, vocal characteristics and modes of gendered performance. The majority of those who roleplay Skyrim – or, at least, of those willing to share their roleplay online – are men. While some adopt a ‘macho’ style (deep voices delivering terse, assertive threats ), most perform a different style of heroic masculinity: sardonic, knowing, exasperated. The wry, world-weary persona adopted by LuckyLoremaster is typical in its emphasis on having a keener intellect and a quicker wit than one’s fellows (something easy to achieve in a world of AI-controlled automata). As per Bucholtz’s comments on live action roleplayers, it would seem that these players want “not only to take on a new, performance-based identity, but also to publicly celebrate a nerdy identity that is stigmatized in many other contexts” (2001, 247).
Bucholtz’s suggestion resonates with Esther MacCallum-Stewart’s analysis of the nascent culture of ‘elite fan-producers’ like the Yogscast, whose popularity suggests there is a sizeable “gaming community desperate to find spokespeople able to represent them in articulate, visible ways” (168); something hardly surprising given the continuing currency of unappealing ‘gamer’ stereotypes in popular media. MacCallum-Stewart’s work is a reminder that in voicing their characters, roleplayers may also be acting as avatars for fan communities who, whether justly or not, often feel misrepresented or shamed into silence. Here YouTube’s mechanisms for ranking and grouping content become tools for gauging how ‘gamer culture’ sees itself – or wants to see itself.
There are, then, many ways to read roleplay videos, and many reasons for doing so. Offering intriguing insights into who plays what, how and why, they also suggest that games are becoming an important means of negotiating creative expression and self-representation online, allowing players to toy simultaneously with fiction, system and selfhood.
Marie-Laure Ryan is an independent scholar. She has published on narrative theory, genre theory, linguistic approaches to literature, and digital culture. Notable publications here include Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (2004) and the recently-released co-edited work, Storyworlds across Media: Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology (2014).
In defense of Immersion.
I fully agree with Rob Gallagher’s claim that the term immersion is being thrown around as a “vague and misleading descriptor of in-game experience.” But rather than giving up on immersion, we can try to tighten the term into a useful theoretical concept. I would like to propose two definitions: (1) Immersion is a state of mind produced by a work’s ability to captivate the user, whatever the work’s medium, as long as this medium has a representational and temporal dimension (print-based narratives, games, movies). Taken in this sense, “immersive” is a measure of artistic success or entertainment value, and it is the opposite of boring. It is therefore not an inherent property of video games. (2) Immersion is the imaginative experience that characterizes the response to fictional representation, itself a concept that encompasses video games as well as novels and films. Through this experience, players (spectators, readers) transport themselves in imagination into the fictional world, they pretend that it is actual rather than made-up and they adopt a behavior prescribed by the work. In a novel or film, immersion may be simply what Coleridge described as a “willing suspension of disbelief,” while in a game, it enjoins players to pursue the game goals and to identify with the avatar when there is one. In this second sense, all games (or at least all games that represent a world and involve role-playing) require immersion, whether the game is good or bad.
Now consider the author’s claim: “What comes through in these videos is not the power of immersion but the pleasure of acquiring and playfully showcasing a mastery of generic and mechanical conventions by playing at being immersed.” If we take immersion in sense 1, playing at being immersed would mean “pretending to have fun while in fact one does not.” This is certainly not what motivates players to produce videos. But if we take immersion in sense 2, “playing at being immersed” is tautological, since to role-play is to immerse oneself into an imaginary world and to identify with one of its members. So what does the author exactly mean? Neither sense of being immersed means that players are unable to tell the difference between the real world and the gameworld, nor that they identify so fully with their avatar that they forget about their real-world identity. Elsewhere the author writes: “While roleplayers draw on a rhetoric of ‘immersion’ and ‘realism’ their activities in fact demonstrate the fallacy of the idea that games appeal because they transport players to coherent, comprehensively realised worlds.” There are admittedly players who do not care for the gameworld, who only play games in order to improve their skills, achieve the game goals, or beat other players. Such players only create and share videos when the videos record their personal exploits. It is this kind of player that Montola probably has in mind when he claims that “any role-playing game can be participated in without role-playing.” But the kinds of pleasure that players derive from games are as varied as games themselves, and the author’s claim that “coherent, comprehensively realised worlds” are irrelevant to game appeal is not supported by the data nor by his arguments.
On the contrary, I believe that a strong motivation for producing role-playing videos is the desire to fill in the gaps left in the game for a fuller, more believable (I am not saying “realistic”) and therefore more immersive (in sense 1) representation of the gameworld. Most of these videos are a way to engage imaginatively with the gameworld and the avatar through a role-playing activity that goes beyond what is required by the game rules. But just as, in postmodern literature, authors may want to inhibit immersion through metafictional comments that openly acknowledge the fictionality of the storyworld, so certain players may want to distance themselves from the gameworld by producing parodies, or by introducing discordant elements. (For example, this game video has the characters of a medieval fantasy world buy weapons in stores, and it mentions contemporary issues such as gay marriage.) The authors of parodic videos find their pleasure in ironic distance rather than in immersion, in playing against the rules and generic conventions rather than in identifying with their avatar. Gallagher writes that “there are… many ways to read roleplay videos, and many reasons for doing so.” There are equally many reasons for producing the videos, and it would be preposterous to eliminate from these reasons a desire to perform immersion.
Bucholtz, Mary (2001). Play, Identity, and Linguistic Representation in the Performance of Accent. Texas Linguistic Forum 44(2): 227-251
– (2011). White Kids: Language, Race and Styles of Youth Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goffman, Erving (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour. New York: Pantheon.
Huizinga, Johan (2000). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. London: Routledge.
Kirkpatrick, Graeme (2011). Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
MacCallum-Stewart, Esther (2013). ) Diggy Holes and Jaffa Cakes: The Rise of the Elite Fan Producer in Videogaming Culture. Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds 5 (2): 165-182.
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Paul, Christopher, and Pittman, Jason (2008). Seeking Fulfillment: Comparing Role-Play in Table-top Gaming and World of Warcraft. International Journal of Role-Playing 1(1):53-65.
Salen, Katie, and Zimmerman, Eric (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Simon, Bart (2007). Human, All too Non-Human: Co-op A.I. and the Conversation of Action. Situated Play, Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference: 165-9