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The Roleplayer's Redoubt

Is there a really place for roleplaying in MMOs? What do roleplayers bring to the table? How can developers foster stronger roleplaying communities? How do traditional concepts fit into the realities of contemporary online roleplaying?

Author: OddjobXL

The Problem With Bartle, Part I

Posted by OddjobXL Monday March 16 2009 at 10:41AM
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You can't really blame Richard Bartle for the Bartle test.  That was someone else adapting his ideas to another end. But here it is:  Explorer, Killer, Achiever and Socializer.  This is the checklist of motives that drives players in the minds of most game designers. 

Roleplayers are, evidently, socializers.  To an extent that's true.  You can't roleplay alone (that's just writing) and much of what happens in practice is socializing if in costumes and with adopted personae. 

But roleplayers are also killers, achievers and explorers.  You'll find them as the most colorful pirates in Eve Online.  They  lead guilds and look for recognition in SWG.  They explore not just world topography but the meaning of a setting and their character's place in it in every MMO I've found roleplayers in.

Roleplayers are, as a group, immersionists.  They want to lose themselves for a time and become someone else somewhere else.  I talk about the key elements of this in "On Immersion" and "The Power of Selective Perception."

This something that doesn't make the checklist.  We don't hear many folk talking about this in cogent ways.  It's fine when talking about any other form of media to discuss how effective a book is at drawing one in to its reality or laugh when a mic drops into a shot because we all know that ruins suspension of disbelief.  But when it comes to MMOs this line of analysis seems to be utterly missing.  Even singleplayer computer or console games about some known setting are compared to it, how it works, as a matter of course.

When skimming through Bartle's "Designing Virtual Worlds" the other day it seems the man has some odd ideas about roleplaying.  He even offers a checklist on how to pretend to be someone else that includes cooking up a different RL identity for yourself in an, evidently related, section called Masquerading.  But let's get to the nubbins of it.

"Players can adapt their characters.  Role-players determine not to.  Role-playing is therefor a sub-class of playing.  Both are paths to fulfillment, and both offer the same overall goal:  Being someone else in order to become a better you." - Bartle, 190

I roleplay because it's fun to be someone else for a while and it can be a challenge to play someone different from myself or to research a new wrinkle to exploit in a setting.   I'm pretty sure nonroleplayers aren't grinding mobs and levelling characters in order to achieve enlightenment either.  I may misunderstand Bartle's point here but it seems an odd perspective.

"Role-players map themselves onto a character.  They don't map the character onto themselves.  In so doing, they can come to an understanding of what makes their character tick.  The key is they change but their character doesn't."

"This then is the roleplaying paradox:  As a roleplayer, you try to become your character however if you succeed then you're no longer roleplaying. 

So roleplaying sets up the necessary conditions for immersion, but the harder you role-play the less immersed you get:  Thinking about your character as a seperate entity breaks immersion.  The more you think about a line to decide whether it's right for your character, the greater a distance you put between yourself and that character.  The conscious post-editing of your characters words means the subconscious seperation of you and your character."  Bartle, 191

Now this doesn't match my experience at all.  Yes, we do map ourselves onto characters but the characters often push back over time.  They take on lives of their own.  Writers often talk about characters that come alive and surprise them as they're setting down a story.  This happens constantly with roleplayers as a byproduct of immersion.  Some part of our brain is making notes about our planned and improvised choices as we play and, over time, hits autopilot. 

The more you roleplay a character the less hard you have to think about what he or she will say or do.  Yes, we do edit as we go but I'd describe it less as a "conscious post-editing" as a "post-conscious editing."  It comes instinctually.  Selective perception, as described in my other post, also works wonders for a player's internal editor.  We compartmentalize without realizing it and immersion is sustained.

A character grows and develops all kinds of nuances and quirks the longer you play him.  There's often something unplanned that pops out of his mouth a player may find himself wondering about that adds depth if it's explored.  Always notice what you notice, right?.  I suspect once a character becomes that established in the imagination that auto-pilot tends to reel in related stuff on a subconscious level.   More than one time a character's tossed out a word I had to look up afterwords only to find I'd used it right.  Evidently resonant associations on a subconscious level are part of the process.

Part II will explore how Bartle sees setting and its role in MMORPGs.