I would like to question the common assumption that what we do is ‘just’ roleplay. The word ‘play’ in ‘role-play’ has led some to believe that it is ‘just a game,’ which to a serious roleplayer sounds like telling a novelist that their craft is ‘just’ fiction. By this logic, it would also be ‘just a game’ when musicians ‘play’ their instruments, when a theatre company spends weeks and months preparing to stage a ‘play,’ when an athlete undergoes years of hard training to ‘play’ a good ‘game’.
True, in computer jargon, virtual worlds are categorized as games, but must this limit the way we see and use them? You can play in a virtual world and in the ‘real world,’ but that doesn’t make either a game. Serious endeavors can also be undertaken in both, from education and training to artistic creation. The dictionary defines a game as ‘a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one, played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.’ Games are often seen as lacking any practical, productive purpose other than just relaxing and having a good time.
However, virtual worlds can be much more than that. Many of us take them as seriously as we do our ‘first life.’ Tom Boellstorff also says, “Second Life is not a game… like a soccer stadium isn’t a game; you can play a game in it… but you could also have a rock concert in it… It’s a space… not the game itself.” Some people treat their entire life as a game, but even RP can be so much more than that. Gary Gygax, the ‘father of RPGs,’ said,
Many games are mere pastimes, but RPGs are enjoyable pursuits of a sought-after nature and are hobby-like, rather than pastime creations aimed at filling an otherwise empty period of leisure. While some games are aimed at rainy afternoons or social gatherings that might bring boredom, role-playing games are designed for and should be played under far different circumstances. Participants engage in playing such games because they have an active desire to do so. This is because games of this nature provide fun, excitement, challenge, social interaction, and much more on an ongoing basis.
In other languages, ‘roleplay’ translates as something more akin to acting a part, as in a theater performance: desempeñar un papel in Spanish, svol-gere un ruolo in Italian, and so forth. As William Shakespeare famously said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” He goes on to describe several of the ‘roles’ that we play during our lifetime, as sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, fathers or mothers, students or teachers, employees or employers, and so on. Similarly, mystical masters speak of ‘multiple selves,’ and social psychologists even hypothesize the existence of ‘sub-selves.’
Gary Gygax, the father of modern RPGs, reflects on the same idea when he says, “As children, we all, in all cultures and societies, learn behavior from observation, imitation, and encouragement of various kinds. So we all pretend most of the time.” Think of the ‘persona’ you present on a first date compared to the one you show after being married for several years. Would you be the same person had you been born in a different country, ethnic milieu, or with a different socioeconomic status, if your life had been very different from this one? Not likely.
Words have the power to define reality. They make us believe our way of seeing the world is the ‘real’ world when it’s actually only one way of perceiving it. The term ‘virtual world’ has created a false dichotomy between VWs and the so-called ‘real world.’ When the Lindens named their VW ‘Second Life,’ it invited objections such as why you would need a second life unless you had no first life. VWs such as InWorldz, Avination, Kitely, OpenSim, and Sansar usually do not spark that kind of comment because their names do not create the impression that they are in any way opposed to ‘real life.’
In someone’s profile I once read, “This should never have been called Second Life, but rather a participatory, immersive artistic endeavor, a unique opportunity to give fuller expression to special facets of who we are, a space for global encounters, a place beyond place that transcends geographical distance and obstacles.”
Virtual worlds also offer opportunities to form deep, lasting friendships with people from all over the world, safe places to share joys and sorrows, venues for teaching and learning, spaces that enable fuller, richer expressions of creative talent, chances to give and receive support in times of need, peaceful environments to meditate and pray alone and with others, and so much more. Carrie Tatsu, virtual baby designer in SL, says,
Roleplay implies ‘I’m pretending,’ and I don’t think that’s true. People like to care for things, to nurture things. Human connection is human connection. We have it when we meet people face-to-face, and we have it virtually. Both are valid. I don’t think we should make assumptions about how people spend their time in virtual worlds, that it’s just play. I see it as a space where people can be creative. It removes isolation… We’re just regular people who want to connect with other human beings across the world.
Just as many of us feel we are in the physical world to learn and grow spiritually, we can also use virtual worlds for spiritual development. Both worlds challenge us to become more loving and kind, more tolerant and forgiving, more empathetic and compassionate. These qualities are latent within our beings just as a tree’s beauty lies dormant in the seed. It is through experiencing these worlds that the hidden is brought to light. So let’s try to rise above false dichotomies such as roleplay versus real life, and approach our art more seriously. If we do, we will find it much more satisfying and fulfilling.