Shawn’s an MA from UW. Shawn also works as a social media manager for First Person Scholar. They spend their days stealing your soul as a videographer and photographer, and nights playing too many JRPGs, writing too much fan fiction, and occasionally posting thinkpieces about games and culture.
Recently, I have gotten back into the habit of online roleplaying. When I say online roleplaying, I do not mean playing Dungeons and Dragons online or MUDs, MMORPGs, etc. No, I am referring to the natural evolution of playing Pokemon, or Digimon, or various other shows or games on the playground at school. I am talking about the act of taking the role of a character, and implanting them into an imaginary world that may or may not be based on some greater metafiction. I am talking about using the power of prose to bring these worlds to life through lush description and carefully implemented dialogue. I am talking about Play by Post Roleplaying (PBPRP).
While I have found plenty of papers looking at roleplay in computer games, like Sherry Turkle’s “Aspects of the Self,” I could only find Sarah Wanenchak’s piece, titled “Tags, Threads, and Frames: Toward a Synthesis of Interaction Ritual and Livejournal Roleplaying,” that looked at PBPRP. Her piece explores how “theories of interaction and observations of many different kinds of RPGs can fit together in a coherent way, as RPGs contain a significant and vital element of socialization in how they are played [through the lens of one play by post roleplay live journal community]”.
I didn’t find the discourse I was looking for in pieces like Wanechak’s or Turkle’s. Wanechak’s is a good discourse-focused read, and Turkle’s piece is great for seeing how people put themselves into the games they play. In contrast to this work, I want to look at PBPRP as a game. Wanechak frames PBPRP as “not a ‘game’ by the most traditional definition:” because “there is no ultimate goal and no system of points, and the focus is on the creation and development of an ongoing story, both on the individual and the communal level.” My goal is to look at my own experiences on various play by post message boards and think about the socialization in which I participated as a form of metagaming and how navigating myself and my characters through the rules, PBPRP plot, and social hierarchies functioned a lot more like playing a game than simply participating in collaborative writing. In short, I want to examine what it means to “play” by post in this context.
Plugging into the Games of Writers
I have participated on and off in various play by post roleplay communities since 2005. I have forged friendships, romantic relationships, and rivalries through the various communities I have been a part of. From my experience, independent boards hosted on the servers of Jcink, Proboards, and zIFBoards (formerly InvisionFree) are the most popular venues, though Tumblr now, and LiveJournal before it (though some still use it), are often hotbeds for a plethora of roleplay environments. My experience and focus are centered in the former.
There are many interesting social practices and reworkings of the idea of what is or isn’t within the realm of the game by the players on these websites. Beyond that, players blur the lines between player and designer. I will focus on one example, Monstrum Digitals, for which I recently helped redesign its website. Like many PBPRP boards it has since closed its doors, its members having moved on to another site. The archives of posts are currently available–though the site may one day be taken down, or the posts deleted, like many sites before it–but for now we can look at it as a source of players doing double duty as both player and designer.
There are a host of ways that these sites can be set up. Every thread can be its own discrete universe. In contrast, the more frequent setup has every thread existing as a scene in a much larger narrative. The exact mechanics of that universe are dictated by the site’s staff, however, members play a large part of creating the collaborative game. It is from this latter example that I draw the majority of my play experience.
PBPRP is a unique genre of internet activity. While the core of the “gameplay” occurs through reading and writing, strong visual aesthetics are a priority to players. People employ posting templates in order to provide an attractive wrapping for their written word. This was not always the case, but even in the earliest days of my PBPRP career, it was common practice to at least have dialogue highlighted as a different colour in paragraphs as well use edited avatars and signatures, often called “siggys,” made in Photoshop, interlacing text on images that are stitched together and edited appropriately. Much like the screen shake a developer puts in a game to give an explosion that extra “je ne sais quoi,” visual wrappings give an extra layer of fun and pleasure for those reading the thread.
This fixation on good-looking posting templates in modern PBPRP has a host of reasons. For me, it was about shortening the gap between the affective experience of playing a video game and reading the written word of another roleplayer. The visuals give more hooks for remembering the characters your character is interacting with and allow for a deeper connection to the co-constructed fictions. They’re one of the many ways that players blur the lines between game player and game maker. “It is in no way required though”. I highlight this to indicate how players come to create their own brand. Your visual representation leaves a longer, stronger memory than your words alone. I have recognized people across boards by their templates and siggys. Much like how a good-looking CV can land you a job, a good-looking signature image leads to people wanting to post with you quickly. People do less research when something is visually appealing – you grow to trust that good writers have good-looking posts. It is a way for people to further communicate how much they care about the game. Relationships develop based on how committed you are to the forum and create hierarchies. This implied expectation creates a barrier to entry for those who might not be Photoshop experts or can’t tell the open tag of an html post from the close tag, but that is also what makes it interesting. From my experience, people are always willing to help, but it’s just as easy for someone to exclude another with these practices.
Gossip about inter-player relationships often leads to metanarratives around the power structures between players: in-jokes about the people writing the posts. It’s not as simple as people teasing each other though; they become tools in deciding which members you will choose to roleplay with. In-universe plot relevance is leveraged as a reward by people controlling the plot. Write (and behave) well, and your characters will have cool things happen to them. Some sites have actual inventories where you generate currency through acts on the site, advertising, posting, and small administrative tasks, which then let you buy items that make your character objectively stronger. Often power gaps generate on these sites for a number of reasons: people who just can’t be as active as others, the length of time you’ve been a member on the site, etc. In these instances, it is hard to deny how this also gamifies the mechanics. A player is rewarded for participation in the thread. Narrative agency is awarded for more participation in threads and keeping the site “alive.” The player’s reward is not unlike an employee’s (as I’ve gleaned from conversations with friends in industry) at a game studio who has output a lot of content. You are given prestige in the story which functions like prestige in a game company – incentive to stay around and continue to be provided with more paying work (play experiences).
Beyond simply being gamified however, these circumstances create an interesting relationship between those rewarded and those not. For example, if my character is granted the win against the bad guy of the plot, that permanently changes the game world. My actions become a new piece of content for other players to interact with. I am the designer giving the new plot for the other members of the design team, and it is their job to go forward with this new information to continue making compelling stories that follow the site’s continuity. I exist as both designer and player in this moment – it’s not as simple as becoming a bigger threat and resource in PvP and PvE; I am literally changing the game world for everyone with my writing in much the same way nepotism may lead to one person’s ideas on a game project being accepted and another rejected.
On Monstrum Digitals, our narrative is situated in an alternate universe of the Digimon Franchise. As such, one of the most important power progressions is “digivolution.” Basically, the higher “digivolution” level, the more powerful your character’s digimon is. The rules for managing this can be seen below.
The pedigree of who is posting often matters as a result. Your reputation as a poster can limit your potential. I was known for reliably getting out 2-3 posts a week for all my threads. As a result I was a popular thread partner and would often find myself with over twenty threads and often got burnt out as a result. In contrast, another friend of mine managed to get lots of threads thanks to how beautifully he wrote his posts – though my writing was often seen as good, his was phenomenal. So despite only getting maybe one post out every 3 days, everyone agreed his work was worth the wait. Meanwhile, another friend seldom posted at all and as a result, people seldom wished to thread with her, leading to her having less and less relevancy. Going back to the game development team example, my consistency and my friend’s quality kept getting us projects that paid us (in plot relevancy), but late, low-quality work led to eventually parting ways with the company (and not having plot relevancy).
Where do we go from here?
Though the study of games as texts to unpack and find cultural meaning is one branch of game studies, it is not the only branch and the very players themselves are often studied as well. All people playing, we should be studying. All ways people play, we should be studying. Looking at a PBPRP community and calling it a traditional game gives a valuable perspective that can unpack behaviors and more importantly, interpret how people are framing the narratives they write. There is no one text to analyze, but a host of them, all unique thanks to the creators who make them and the discrete communities they have generated.
People are remixing and modding the narratives they love in these communities. We need to look more closely at them and give them the scholarly care they deserve. The lines between game and fan-fiction, community form, and game space blur on PBPRP sites. These sites are a smorgasbord of practices and expectations. People implement what they only dream they could experience doing in a digital game in these spaces. Narratives are reworked and subverted. It is in this space that I play games that I never could experience from the industry at this point in time. Not only am I experiencing the façade of being another in a fantasy world, but I am getting a co-operative gameplay experience that is decidedly cognizant of the magic circle that I believe I can only dream of a board or video game offering. Beyond even that, for a brief moment, each post makes me a game designer, and it is in those moments that new worlds are formed.
Branden. “Monstrum Digitals.” Monstrum Digitals. N.p., 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
“JCINK.” Jcink.com Forum Hosting. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
“How to Roleplay on Tumblr.” Search Results. Tumblr, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
Proboards. Proboards Inc., n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
“Find a New RP Partner!” RP-Me’s Live Journal Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.
Turkle, Sherry. Aspects of the Self (n.d.): n. pag. MIT Media. Web.
Wanenchak, Sarah. “Tags, Threads, and Frames: Toward a Synthesis of Interaction Ritual and
Livejournal Roleplaying.” Game Studies 101. N.p., Apr. 2010. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
“Want a Completely Free Forum?” ZIF Boards. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.