I have a confession to make. I didn't read all Bartle's "Designing Virtual Worlds." I'm cherry picking to make a point. The more I skim through the more I see a context there which does make sense. When he talks about the main sequence of player development where they start out as killers to test their environment, become explorers to learn more about it, achievers to succeed at what they've learned and finally to retire as socializers to hang out with their friends I recognise this.
In fact, where we see roleplayer populations taking over is on Unofficial RP Servers in older, or struggling, games. Everyone else is moving on but roleplayers keep on trucking. Much of it is socialization but the unique power of roleplayers to create content and context for what they're doing, and their emotional connection to the game's setting, the shared narrative continuity of their characters and so on keeps them in the game longer.
The guy still doesn't get roleplaying, he's almost too technically minded like an engineer. I know engineers. They can't just enjoy anything naively without breaking them down and analyzing them. No wonder Bartle sees roleplaying as being almost impossible because self-editing, consciously, kills immersion. He's probably analyzing each thing his character does with the idea he needs to control the experience and understand where it's coming from.
Roleplaying a character is much more like improvising in a jam session than deliberately creating a robot. Kids roleplay, play pretend, all the time. If I sat down with one and tried to explain in detail how what he was doing worked he'd just give me a blank look. Which I'd justly deserve. He's a Transformer and that's that.
As roleplayers get more sophisticated they start running into problems. It's harder to maintain immersion and suspension of disbelief. They need verisimilitude: a context that's internally consistant that rewards a player's understanding of the character and the setting he belongs to.
Generally, in MMOs, roleplayers are forced to get that context from other players because the game designs simply don't cater to it. They're focused on technical stuff, on bulletpoints, not on aesthetics beyond graphic design in most cases. More aesthetics in the actual code and gameplay and setting design would be a welcome turn of events.
Right now, I'm flipping through pages trying to find Bartle's description of the role of melieu or setting or theme. That's what I wanted to deliver today. They're not in the index nor the table contents. I know I read that passage a few months back and it set me off. Getting set off, along with a cup of coffee, is a great way to write a blog.
Unfortunately for me, and my agenda, I'm instead stumbling over more stuff that makes sense. That's bloody counterproductive. He does get immersion and quite a few of the things I talk about he does too in his own way. There's even a chapter called "It's Not A Game, It's A..." which talks about different perspectives on MMORPGs if in a much broader, and more scholarly and documented, sense than my article "It's Just A Game" did (mine focuses mainly on the difference between PvPers and RPers and speculates about what motivates RP-PvPers).
Bartle's views of roleplaying may be tinged, and this seems to be a recurring theme, by his own ideas about self-exploration of personal identity in MMOs as much as his analytical nature. He takes this very seriously. I won't dwell but I would suggest folks interested pick the book up and not do what I'm doing. Read the whole book through. You'll learn a few things.
In fact, I have to call the win in this debate for Bartle. And he's not even here. It's clear to me he's got a keen interest in immersion and roleplaying, though I'm not sure he really understands the latter on a gut level, and frankly is more clinically studied in both than I am (and many other things besides). Which probably is to be expected. There's a reason Bartle's Bartle.
"It's not that players don't know about virtual world design, but their knowledge is too personal. Players tend to view all worlds in the context of the one they "grew up" playing. If a new idea is suggested, many players will immediately consider how it would fit into their preferred virtual world, whether or not the virtual world for which it is intended is remotely similar. If the debate actually concerns "their" virtual world, they'll figure out the short term repercussions of their own playing style and use this as a basis of whether they are for or against. They'll only refer to long-term effects or other playing styles when they're trying to win allies or convince the live team that they are responsible people whose opinions should carry weight." Bartle, 122
I am so busted!
Still, even if I am of a "different religion" (Bartle, 122) than another player or a designer I'd be falling down on the job if I didn't try to proseltyze a little.
I'll close with this which tends to reinforce my sense of why Bartle doesn't quite grasp, perhaps can't grasp, what roleplayers are about on an intuitive level:
"When I enter a virtual world, all I see is the machinery, the forces at work, the interactions - it's intellectually interesting and can be artistically exciting but it isn't fun. Other designers are the same: The price you pay for being able to deconstruct a virtual world is that of being unable to not to deconstruct it. Magic isn't magic when you know how the trick is done.
This is why most players aren't good at design. They still sense the magic." Bartle, 123
Roleplaying is the magic at its most pure when it's working right. I envy Bartle's intellect and keen sense of observation but, man, I wish he could enjoy the magic himself one day.