Gaming in the 20th century conjures up images of solitary figures hunched over keyboards, eyes locked on the soft blue glow of a monitor screen. Massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft count millions of subscribers while single players games like Fallout 4 have eager fans taking days off to fully enjoy the experience. Other games fall somewhere in between the two experiences, such as Halo with both single and multiplayer modes. Communication, when it happens, is often limited to barked orders and running commentary on daily life as gamers tackle their online challenges. For all the technical innovations and attempts to develop open worlds, there is no chance to go completely off script, to push beyond what the programmers anticipated. On the surface, it appears the rise of video games have limited the ability of players to shape worlds in the fashion that old-style role-playing games allowed. Yet through Google hangouts, forums, and DIY publishing, the face-to-face role-playing of the past has found a home online.
We stood before colossal doors of the castle, four adventurers thrown together by chance. We had all heard whispered rumors of fantastic wealth protected by unimaginable horrors within the massive walls of the grey stone keep before us. Already a clue as to the might of the otherworldly denizens within was evident to us. The doors, easily forty feet tall, were hanging askew, wrenched off their colossal bronze hinges. From the darkness within, we heard the distant sounds of battle. Had someone else gotten to the castle before us? The corrupted warlock flung his arm outward and a tiny demon scampered off his shoulder and into the darkness to investigate. We readied our weapons, risking our lives on the word of an inherently untrustworthy imp.
Modern online gaming strips away a layer of agency for players. They are playing in someone else’s sandbox, a world governed by numbers and equations. For most large scale MMOs and online games, combat is the only resolution to a dilemma. Players need to learn a fight—and there is plenty of opportunity to do so as the capacious hand of RNG ensures that even the most practiced team can fail now and then. For competitive raiding in World of Warcraft, powerful equipment and the ability to inflict damage or heal at certain levels while dodging attacks is the key to success, not clever role-playing. A poorly equipped team of underdogs simply cannot win against the major bosses of the game, nor can a single player overcome the greatest challenges of the game. At one point in World of Warcraft, certain talents and abilities were considered essential to defeating a boss. Players were often forced into roles and specializations they may not have wanted in order to fulfill the requirements of an encounter, to maximize the chances of success dictated by the mechanics of the game.
We ran as fast as we could from the oncoming horde of giants. The four of us could not hope to stand against such numbers, so we readily agreed discretion was the better form of valor. Samara dove awkwardly through the door as soon as it was pulled open to the amusement of Johanna, the ranger. The giants were still a hundred yards away but there were no points for honor, only survival, although Samara’s theatrics were not to be soon forgotten. Slamming the door shut we quickly surveyed the room, our lamplight illuminating the form of a knight in battered armor lying prone in the center of the chamber.
Online games have tried to make provisions for role-playing. World of Warcraft began with specific role-playing servers where players where off-topic discussion like commenting on the Dolphins-Jets game was discouraged and a policy of appropriate fantasy names for characters was enforced by the community. The idea was to build immersion. It is difficult, however, to be the chosen one in a world of thousands—millions if you count the entire of a large game like Warcraft. The actions of a single player could not impact the game world, not when there were thousands of others whose stories and experience had to be taken into consideration. Everyone had to be offered the chance to defeat the dragon Onyxia. No sudden twist in the plot would reveal a regular player as the lost sister of the Lich King, nor would the mantle of kingship be bequeathed to a player. The story of the game was still determined by others. In such a cauldron, multiple styles and viewpoints on role-playing mixed—and not always happily. Lorebreakers, godmodders, erotic role-players—they all shared the same virtual territory with players who simply wanted to log in and knock out a few quests and comment on the new Star Wars movie.
As our gamemaster described Beadle Bailey’s encounter with a magic mirror, I leaned back in my chair to look closely at my fellow players. Before the game began, I had never met any of them. They had been recruited through an open call put out by our gamemaster. Just like our imaginary characters, we started off as strangers, testing one another’s limits and intentions as we progressed through the castle. A quiet joke by Bailey set the tone for a light atmosphere. An off-the-cuff remark by Johannas to the warlock resulted in an inspired back-and-forth that lasted the entire night, eventually moving Johannas’ player to reconsider her character’s career. As we talked, we jelled into a team as night wore on, weaving our own threads into the story as the gamemaster took his queues from our actions.
We played through video chat on Google Hangouts. Johannas’ player kept her screen dark, a sensible precaution in an uncertain age. Bailey’s screen showed only the top of his face, as he relaxed back in an recliner, his laptop camera tilted up to the ceiling. The bright light flooding Rueng’neiEl’s living room belied his location down under, somewhere in Australia. Through the narrow focus of the webcams, I was allowed a small glimpse into the lives of the random group of players that had come together that night, an insight rarely available or given in a more anonymous video game culture.
Older than MMOs and modern staples of gaming like Call of Duty is the notion of playing with a small group over the phone or even through the mail. In the great heyday of the forum, role-players would post their additions to a story without resorting to dice or the mechanics of a game system. Now players are taking advantage of easily available technologies to form communities and to develop their own style of games. Unlike the friend who you couldn’t get away from in high school, online gaming allows for like minded players to find each other. An element of trust is baked into the equation, as characters move from adventure to adventure, gamemaster to gamemaster, gaining skills and abilities that transfer from game to game.
The advent of print on demand and online distribution has players creating their own adventures, their own game systems, fan art, compilation stories, and all the trappings that come with an enthusiastic fandom. Systems have been developed to support online role-playing of every facet. Mainstream game designers have offered open licenses for authors to develop additions to their games, in the hopes the home-brew crowd continues to find its niche. It is a niche occupied by storytellers and those determined to build their own worlds, but technology may very well catch up to the ideal.
By the flickering light of our torches the three guards looked like melted candles, their features constantly dripping and reforming as they blocked the passage ahead. In response to their demands for identification, the warlock reached into his robes and produced a scroll. “We are on urgent business for the Elven King.” The waxmen stared for a moment, their gaze alternating between our party and the flickering red runes that danced across the parchment. “Of course,” they said as the confusion evident in their tone changed to acceptance. “We shall take you to the Elven enclave.”
“What was that?” Johanna whispered as the now-content guards led us down the corridor.
“My laundry list,” the warlock replied in a whisper. “I always write it in the dark languages. Keeps me in practice.”
Late in 2015, the company AltSpacevr has unveiled a virtual reality desktop specifically made for playing Dungeons and Dragons. Rather than an immersive experience where players are put directly in the shoes of their characters, gamers can sit on their couches and pretend to be sitting around a dinner table with friends, pretending to be warriors and wizards in a fantasy world.
We have come full circle.
Adams, Aubrie S. “Needs Met Through Role-Playing Games: A Fantasy Theme Analysis of Dungeons & Dragons.” Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal Of Qualitative Communication Research 12, (November 2013): 69-86.
Williams, J. Patrick, Sean Q. Hendricks and W. Keith Winkler, eds. Gaming as Culture : Essays on Reality, Identity, and Experience in Fantasy Games. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2006.