Life Lessons from Online Role Playing

Hayboria It’s Wednesday in my BLOGGING FOCUS WEEK, and after a productive Monday I found myself falling back into playing WildStar, the multiplayer sci-fi online game that I’ve been talking about recently. As I noted in my production-vs-consumption breakdown, I’ve been spending 35-40 hours a week playing this game, staying up way too late. That is an AWFUL LOT of “consuming” behavior, but I’ve started to realize that it’s actually not pure empty-headed button mashing. I’m actually learning how to be a more social, outgoing person because of the online Role Playing (aka RP) community. In fact, for the past two weeks I’ve actually not been playing WildStar as a game. I’ve instead been living inside the game’s virtual society!

The long, bizarre tale of this two-week journey, plus the three life insights I gained from it, follow below. It’s really long and rambly, I’m afraid, but a few of you out there might find the idea of “learning how to make small talk” by “pretending to be a nice blue cat girl” interesting and weird!

On Being a Pretty Blue Cat Alien

SriThe general idea behind role playing in a MMORPG, which I’ll call RP from here on out, is that you create a character with personality and a backstory that’s relevent to the game in some way, and then you act out the character’s reactions. For example, I made a character named Sri, a member of a nature-loving race called the Aurin who have made the mysterious planet Nexus their new home alongside a rag tag assemblage of renegade humans, rock-like mercenaries, and hyper-intelligent space zombies locked in civil war against another group of races called the Dominion. The challenge of RP is to create a convincing (or at least not boring) character that exists within the context I just described, and tell a group story through improvisation. This interaction happens through text chat, so even though I’m a deep-voiced male playing a blue cat-like female humanoid, the text allows suspension of disbelief on the part of other RPers playing their own characters.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality of participating in RP, which I participated in reluctantly at first, is that you are essentially reliving the angst of your freshman year of highschool or college; the initial challenge of RP that I faced was I didn’t know anyone, was searching for an identity, and learning what the group structure was and how it worked. To get the process started, I would actually have to make new acquaintances and find out who my “real” friends were. This meant meeting the other RPers somehow. It’s the same challenge I would face if I were to move to another city amd start my life from scratch. Ugh!

On Being Seen

So what I did, as I was playing the game as a regular gamer, was to lurk in the OOC (“out-of-character”) channel where RPers talk about whatever they felt like. This is similar to what I did when I started hanging out at the local Starbucks every day at the same time, until people started to recognize me. Eventually, you strike up a conversation or run into someone in another context, and then because you are at least familiar with each other you might have something to talk about. And so it is with RP. I eventually ran into someone in the game world outside of the chat channel. And then, I was invited to participate in an IC (“in-character”) session.

An initial RP session is kind of a simulation of meeting strangers and engaging in small talk. These are two things that I find difficult to do in real life already, and it was amazing just how awkward my initial RP sessions were. I was very unsure about what the proper etiquette was. How does one know when to type? What kind of questions do I ask? Am I being boring? Is the other person bored? Am I bored too? What can I do to make this a more interesting conversation? I also discovered the awkwardness of being a straight male playing a rather pretty blue cat with soulful eyes and a perky grin, when other RPers are interested in engaging in ERP (“erotic role play”). The agenda of these players is to have SEXY FUN TIMES in text chat, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Working in my favor was at least the adherence to the principles of good RP, which is to guide a story through suggestions that the other player can choose to follow as opposed to forcing them. For example, a decent RPer might emote, “Billy-Bob swings his fist toward Sri’s stomach, hard”. This describe an action that I, as Sri, will choose to either allow to happen or not. Depending on how the scene is going, I might believe that the punch should connect because it makes the most sense in terms of the evolving narrative: “Sri tries to duck, too late, and takes the punch. She tumbles backwards, a surprised and desperate look on her face.” That’s an acceptable RP interaction. What is unacceptable is something called “God-modding”, in which the offending RPer emotes what happened, not what could happen. Rewriting the previous example this way, “Billy-Bob punches Sri in the stomach, knocking her on her butt in surprise because he is an awesome space pirate.” That’s god-modding, and it’s super-lame because it’s no longer a collaborative, two-way improv session. Instead, it’s one RPer stroking his/her ego by using someone else for self-gratification. Anyway, even though I faced situations where ERP was in the offering, the principle of collaborative improv meant I ensure that this WOULD NOT HAPPEN in humorous but plausible ways. Nevertheless, the experience was draining and somewhat creepy, and I decided that I would just continue to lurk on the channel for the entertainment value. There were also a few other aspects of RP that bothered me, which was the prevalence of “characters with tragic pasts and darkness lurking in their troubled souls”. It’s certainly understandable given the game’s own lore, where everyone seems to have had their homeworlds blown up, relatives slaughtered, enslaved, or infected by terminal diseases. However, WildStar uses these well-worn sci-fi tropes in the spirit of grand space adventure, like the Golden Age Buck Rogers or even Indiana Jones, with a healthy dose of Warner Brothers cartoons thrown in. That’s what I wanted more of, because I’m more of a goofball and not that interested in exploring dramatic character themes.

Let me pause and note Life Imitates Art #1: It’s easy to be seen if you just say something nice, because everyone likes to be seen and appreciated. An activity that I’ve been enjoying in the game has been assembling cool costume sets from the hundreds of pieces of clothing and armor in the game. Every RPer wants their character to look great, because it’s part of their IC identity. So when the conversation in the OOC Chat Channel turned to clothing, the players would be in the Marketplace trying stuff on. If I wasn’t in the middle of some quest, I would teleport to the city and see in-person what people were trying on, and type in the channel what I liked about each set. It turns out that people like to be seen. When people didn’t react to my comments in OOC Chat, I reminded myself that it wasn’t something to take personally either. Over time, I got to meet some interesting people who cared about their costumes, and this formed a rapport. It took two or three weeks. It reminds me of this article about Barbara Walters and her interviewing technique, which is all about being not just a good listener, but an engaged conversationalist.

So it perhaps isn’t that strange after all that, in the process of doing all this RP, I found that I started behaving different in real life. The role playing strategies I was employing as Sri also worked at Starbucks and the supermarket. I found myself smiling more (Sri is constantly smiling a Bugs Bunny-like grin, which I really like). I also found myself more easily making comments like, “That’s a really interesting pen!” or “That looks delicious” as openers, because I was so in the habit of doing it in WildStar. I’d discovered that a lot of RPers are just regular people trying to figure out how to have a good improv session, and that that there was no sense in taking anything personally because that wasn’t what RP is about. RP is about telling a good story and making friends. And you know what? Real life is an awful lot like that too.

Friendship First Contact

I made an acquaintance with another player named Peppercorn who was obsessed with her character’s costumes, and we got to recognize each other’s names from the OOC chat channel. One day, she announced an “open RP session” taking place at someone’s virtual house, and I decided to quietly check it out.

Houses in WildStar are virtual plots of land (called “skyplots”, since they are in the sky) that can be personalized with all kinds of props, and the RPers on our server (the official North American RP server, Evindra) have been busy creating space ports, castles, bars, shopping districts, battlegrounds, high-end hotels, secret laboratories, robot factories…you name it, someone’s probably made it, You can also make these houses public, so anyone can visit them. RPers create these plots in the hope that other RPers will like them, and want to come visit and RP. So there’s always a lot of talk on the OOC chat channel about someone opening a new location, inviting people to come check it out. I had started attending these open houses because it is another way to make connections with people, and also because I just love checking stuff like that out. It’s amazing just how far beyond what the designers of WildStar imagined the RPers have gone, and I love seeing this kind of passion on display.

The skyplot, as expected, was impressive. The regular house had been dwarfed by a massive player-created mansion kit-bashed from simpler props. I hadn’t even thought this was possible, so as I wandered through the house I took mental notes and accidentally ran head-on into an ongoing RP session. I immediately fled upstairs, and ran into a second session run by Peppercorn in a room full of people I didn’t know. I waved “Hello” to Peppercorn, but oops! I had forgotten that we had never actually met ICly (“in-character life”), so I had to backtrack and go through the meet and greet. This took several minutes of awkward stumbling around with phrases. But to break up the monotony, Peppercorn had declared that she was giving “tours of th’ giant’s house”, and this gave everyone something to do. I didn’t know if anyone knew each other from before (I assumed they did, and that I was the stranger). So we followed her, all of us IC, as she lead us from room to room. It eventually became apparent that she didn’t really know anything about the house at all, which was kind of funny. We eventually arrived in one room with a giant bookshelf and a chest, and Peppercorn answered someone’s question in a way that suggested that there might be some kind of TREASURE in the room. Maybe in the box. So this gave the people something to do in the room, improv-ing the searching of the box, asking questions about the origin of the treasure, and so on. This was kind of interesting, like playing make-believe when you are a kid.

And then Peppercorn stopped moving, and for five minutes we waited for her to say something. Then, her character disappeared from the world entirely, due to an apparent internet connection problem on her end. “I guess that’s the end of the tour,” declared the tall alchemist/medic, leaving the room. I hadn’t finished seeing the rest of the house, and the other remaining character, an Aurin male named Outo with a white mane, stood nearby. I typed into chat something like, “I’m going to go look upstairs” and he said something like, “Yeah, I’ll go too!” So we went up the final flight of stairs, arriving in a very large attic that overlooked a stupendous spiraling staircase with a humongous painting of a wealthy-looking human. Not wanting to be boring, I tried some dialog. “You don’t suppose that’s the giant that lives here?” I said, IC as Sri. “That’s some famous guy”, said Outo, scratching his head as he remembered, “according to this loud drunk Granok that was here earlier.” And then we fell into silence. I wondered what to say next, thinking that I was being incredibly boring and that I was really bad at this small talk stuff in real life, so why the HELL was I doing it in a computer game when I could be doing something way more fun in the REAL world. Lamely, I asked Outo “what he did”, somewhat half-heartedly as I would at a real world horrible networking event.

I was surprised by his answer. Outo was an explorer! He was curious about everything! He wanted to travel and show the world something he liked to do, but someone earlier in the day (before I arrived) had said he should do something more “professional”.

If you are still reading, and if you know me at all, you know that this is exactly the kind of personal story that piques my interest. “What do you mean, not professional?” Sri asked.

Outo responded not with words, but by casting a spell that filled the air around our characters with shimmering golden fish that sparkled and slithered their way around us. I was charmed, and emoted, “Sri gasps with surprise and delight. She reaches with a tentative finger to touch one, and laughs as her hand passed through it.” And then the effect was over, and Sri enthused, “That was AMAZING! What was that?”

“Magic”, Outo said, simply. “I want to make magic and show it to people and make them happy.”

And at this point, we had the hook. The spirit of Dave descended upon Sri, and she told Outo that what he was doing was simply awesome, and that the human who had told him it was not “professional” was full of beans, and that he should take his show on the road. And as an example, Sri then launched into a bit pretending she was the Master of Ceremonies at a big circus.

“Ladies and Germs, presenting the AMAZING Outo and his MYSTERIOUS SKYFISH”, Sri said, gesturing theatrically toward Outo. She looked at Outo, loudly stage whispering, “C’mon, take a bow! Then do the fish thing!”

Outo, quick on the uptake, bowed, and then produced the fish illusion once again. Sri applauded, and laughter ensued. I had made my first IC friend, a stranger that performed magic. At this point Peppercorn reconnected, and had walked up the stairs to find us in the attic. I had forgotten that everything we were typing could be seen by everyone else in the house, and she had come up to see what she’d missed. So we did the magic routine again, with Peppercorn emoting a similar reaction of amazement, followed by praise. And then Outo announced that Sri would be performing the next trick. This, I wasn’t prepared for, since my character’s can not create illusions. I emoted, “Me? A trick?”, looking startled and at a loss. To which Outo said, “I’m sure you can do something, maybe disappear?” And then I realized that Outo knew that Sri’s character type had an ability called “void slip”, which makes you disappear from view for a few seconds. From a gameplay perspective, it allows me to drop out of combat if I’m about to die, and escape. From the RP perspective, however, my character would actually fade from view and reappear somewhere else. The effect would be appear to everyone in the room as a disappearing act…magic! And so Sri nodded, and said, “Oh! I think I know what I can do.” And Outo did the same introduction I had done for him, and on his cue I stabbed the “6” key on my computer keyboard and disappeared. I walked invisibly behind Peppercorn and reappeared. “Shazbot!” Sri exclaimed. Peppercorn was suitably amazed, and she said that we should form a magic act and perform. This was a new idea, but naturally we wanted to pull her into it as well. Did she sing? Could she dance? We talked about magic shows, being positive, and the need for making cool costumes with great hats. At the mention of hats, Peppercorn remembered a friend she had, a really smart scientist, that could probably MAKE us a hat. Except that she wasn’t supposed to talk about his secret lab, oops. But Sri said she wouldn’t tell, and offered Peppercorn a “solemn fist bump of secrecy”—this had been part of a character trait I’d written a few days before—to make it OK that she told us by accident. She hadn’t heard of this (it is not lore from the game), but was willing to go along with it, and Outo joined in because he liked the sound of it, and we visited Peppercorn’s friend Karst, another RPer, who then RP’d being VERY IRRITATED at having Peppercorn show up AGAIN with unexpected guests. What followed was a highly entertaining tour of a mad scientist’s lab, with a bunch of curious Aurin who pressed buttons they weren’t supposed to press while giving backhanded compliments and unwelcome dating advice. It was like an episode of Animaniacs. Hours of improvisational antics followed, until everyone was exhausted and logged out with a cheery, “Thanks for the RP!”

The experience had been hugely enjoyable. It had been creative, smart, goofy, fast-paced, and challenging. Peppercorn, Outo, and Karst were, I realized, highly experienced roleplayers that knew how to give-and-take. And more importantly, not once did anyone offer to show me their penis. It had been a lot of fun than I imagined it could be. I had made new friends!

On Becoming Srilana, Queen of Hayboria

It was about a week later, I think, that I ran into Peppercorn again. This time she was at the Arborian Gardens in the Exile’s capitol city, RPing with some other characters I had seen in the OOC channel. I didn’t really know them “personally”, so I went through the awkward, “Hi I’m Sri, nice to meet you” routine. At some point Outo showed up too, and mentioned that he’d actually booked a gig at a “fancy hotel”. Sri emoted how awesome she thought that was, congratulating him. Other RPers in the vicinity didn’t know what we were talking about, so we did the whole magic shtick again. This time, Outo had figured out that if I could time my disappearing act with one of his other spells, it would be as if I turned into a tree! But I’d misunderstood him, thinking he was going to cast another spell that covered me with a temporary golden armor from head to toe, and during that time I could actually do a costume “quick change”. So we blew the trick, big time, but laughed and practiced again. RPers nearby applauded appreciatively, one shrieking like a fangirl at how cool it was. I noticed that one of the bystanders was wearing a costume very similar to one of mine, so I whispered to Outo that we could make it look like I had turned into a CLONE of the other, a very tall human. He agreed, and we performed the trick, and while I was covered by the golden armor illusion I switched costumes, so when the armor faded I was dressed like the tall human, and I emoted in a deep voice, “I am so tall. I like to eat lots of meat” as I lumbered around dressed in the same costume. Peppercorn marveled, “You can’t tell which is the real one!” as I stood next to the tall human I had been “transfigured” into. Then Outo cast the spell again, I switched costume back, and there I was again. Everyone played along, RPing that they thought it was a cool show and that they wanted to know where to see it.

At this point, it had become clear to me that I liked RPing with Peppercorn and Outo, and that perhaps I’d found some kindred storytelling souls. I had no idea who they were in real life, but within the world of WildStar, they had become good friends. OOC, Peppercorn helped me understand the finer points of RP and its history, which gave me confidence to continue to do what I was doing. I guess all those years of being an online host in the 80s and 90s, where I had to keep entire rooms full of people talking in a chat room, had given me the skills to type quickly enough to do passable RP. Plus, I like making stuff up.

By now, we had done enough RP together that I had a clearer idea of what Sri’s personality was. She was positive, and she wanted to know how she could fit-in without compromising her own values. And this is Life Imitates Art #2: Finding a Way to be a Contributor. I had actually stopped playing the game as a game, and was just logging in to see what Peppercorn and Outo were up to, because it was guaranteed to be interesting and fun. And this got me thinking about my own skyplot, and how I could customize my house into something that reflected Sri’s own values while being accessible to everyone else. An appealing aspect to the style of RP we were engaged in was a kind of innocence and integrity to the character, without the “heaviness”. It’s what I aspire to be more like in REAL life. For the past few years, I’ve privately worked on simplifying my desires and opening my heart by embracing my geekiness and letting it show. This very blog post will strike many people as being superficial and really weird, but by posting it I am following through with my experiment in being open and geeky. Back in the game, Sri’s skyplot was a ratty mix of overgrown gardens and cheap props I had found in the world. However, I had managed to acquire, for 89 silver pieces, a pile of hay. Not having a lot of money, I purchased one and plopped it down on my skyplot, and really liked it. Who hates a golden pile of hay? No one I would want to be friends with! So I made the hay pile very big—the game gives you the ability to scale props arbitarily in size—and I liked it even more. I realized, based on the visits to other very cool skyplots, that I probably didn’t even NEED the real house if I covered the ugly foundation with enough hay piles. And so, I saved up more silver and bought 5 hay piles, stacked them up, and saw that it was Good. I then planted a big tree on top of the mound of hay, with roots that rose up in a way that they formed a kind of cave within its roots. I added a few throw pillows, and it became Sri’s official “house”. I loved the idea that Sri lived on a giant mound of hay under a big tree. It feels very storybook, and to my knowledge no one else had made a giant pile of hay as the focus of their skyplot. It was a simple concept, almost laughable, but I embraced it.

I was excited to see what Outo and Peppercorn thought, and was glad that they thought it was pretty cool. We RP’d sitting on the hay talking to a couple other RPers, playing with it and rolling around. Hay, it turns out, is a great prop for improv RP because of all the ways you can fiddle with it. But having a lot of hay isn’t enough…what was the REASON Sri had all this hay? I had thought that maybe Sri would have gone into hay selling as a business, but primarily she just liked having it. I had named the skyplot “The Nexus Hay Emporium” to indicate this. But as we were sitting around on the hay pile, I had a brainstorm: the homeworld of the Aurin—Peppercorn, Outo, and Sri are all of this race—is named Arboria. An even better name for the Hay Emporium would be Hayboria. “Winner”, declared Outo, and so I changed the name and this led to a slew of hay-related puns. Peppercorn mentioned this in the OOC chat, which led to inquiries like, “What the hell is Hayboria?” and people started to drop in and see all the hay. The hay pile was expanded, the ratty gardens were removed, and now Hayboria is a rather nice skyplot that feels very open. I’ve employed all my skills as a visual designer to make it feel like a friendly, open place. I even used forced perspective to create the illusion of hayfields that stretch all the way to the horizon. It’s become a place that people know and return to. I never imagined how satisfying this would be. And that’s Life Imitates Art #3: It is Immensly Satisfying to Build Something for People to Enjoy. I think this is what I want to do, in real life, with the Living Room Cafe.

Anyway, the name “Hayboria” happens to similar to “Hyborian”, which is related to “Hyborian Age” that the fictional kingdom of Conan the Barbarian existed in. Perhaps this is what gave Peppercorn the idea of making Sri the “Queen of Hayboria”, which led to the idea of sharing the Queenship every week between the citizens of Hayboria, which would be called the “Hayborn”, and appointing Outo as the Court Magician (because he didn’t want to be queen), and so on. Every so often, someone now will drop into Sri’s skyplot to see what Hayboria is all about. We made a slogan, Hayboria: It’s Neat! based on the one-word reaction of one visitor to the piles of hay. It’s amazing what a simple concept plus a catchy name can do for the reputation of a place. So I had been spending quite a bit of time building-out the facilities, adding a bakery for Sri’s “bug crackers”, a dry cleaning service as a perk for Hayborian citizens, a modern apartment for visitors who don’t want to stay in the big tree, a library, and so on. Much of it is pretty silly, but it gives people something to react to as the basis for a funny bit. It’s been fun.

Drawing Back

For all the fun this has been for the past two weeks, it’s taking up a lot of my time. Tuesday and Wednesday were largely consumed with the capital improvements I mentioned above, and I haven’t even done that much blogging. Other meetings, scheduled weeks ago, have burned up the rest of my energy, so I’ve decided to step away from the game during weekedays. I’m a little bummed by that, but I’m also very happy to have actually LEARNED a few things from the experience that are helping me in real life. Who’d a thunk it?