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WoW is a Work of Art, part 3: All the world's a stage

We have discussed ways in which World of Warcraft is not only full of audio-visual art, but presents in itself a gaming experience that can reward players the same way that art forms like music or film can. For some, however, WoW is not only a game, but a stage. For them, the gaming element may sometimes fade into the background, when it becomes only a means to an end; they use WoW as a combination of acting and creative writing, telling stories and making performances all their own. They call it roleplaying.

One kind of roleplaying that is getting a great deal of new attention these days is "machinima." For those who don't know, machinima is basically a kind of film in which people use the game's existing 3D models and environments to make their own movies, and then share these movies with everyone on the internet (or very rarely on TV). As we have seen here at WoW Insider and elsewhere, these movies are especially powerful as comedies and music videos, especially for viewers who are already familiar with the game that they're made with.

But for most people who roleplay, it is not a scripted performance, but an improvised one; it is not carefully lip-synced, edited recorded and for all to see, but imagined, written out, and remembered only among those who played the parts. Someone not familiar with roleplaying might wonder why people bother with it.

Many who do not roleplay can understand the desire to make machinima, but cannot understand why people would sign up on an RP server, develop backgrounds for their characters and then have them interact with each other in various text messages and emotes like that. To make an actual movie is one thing but to just improvise with others, some of whom one may not even know, may seem like a waste of time.

Each roleplayer brings his or her own reasons into their experience. For some, roleplaying is a chance to be silly and make others laugh. One of my friends plays a gnomish warrior named Pockletock, who, due to an accident of some sort, was left without much of his memory and intelligence, but with all of his kind and innocent heart. As such, he endearingly refers to himself in the third person, and comes up with his own cute phrases like "Pockletock squeesh 92 orcs today!" Whenever girls flirt with Pockletock (which happens surprisingly often) the character completely misses their meaning, totally misunderstands any innuendoes, and somehow manages to get away with his innocence blissfully undisturbed. Characters with such a sense of humor make everyone around them feel happier, as if we had just watched a comedian at work on TV or in a book.

For another of my friends, roleplaying is a way to explore the depths of his psyche. His female character, for example, is a representation of aspects inside himself which don't normally get to be expressed, and which he refers to as his "anima." By playing his characters intuitively and interacting with others in a way that gives him a chance to explore different ways of thinking and feeling, he gains a greater awareness of himself, his own reasons for doing things, and his own place in the universe.

For myself I am probably a mixture of these two approaches. I really enjoy playing a character who engages other people actively and uplifts them somehow, either through humor, through an interesting perspective, or through a generally positive attitude. Sometimes I'll make up problems for my characters with the hope of allowing others to reach out to them in support, giving them a chance to show the things that make them a good person. (I always try hard never to overdo this and become a drag on people -- if someone seems to be genuinely bothered or annoyed I find a way to turn it around again.) I find myself often learning a lot from my characters, getting a feeling for how my life might have been if I were them, finding out what makes them so strong, so attractive, or even so flawed. I might spend some time being silly with one friend, and some time being philosophical with another, and both feel like true expressions of who I am and who I want to be.

I'm sure each roleplayer can tell you a different story about why they roleplay and what roleplaying brings to their lives. Some, for example, like to make complicated storylines, and orchestrate things with their friends to flow according to a certain predetermined but open-ended plot, more like a regular pen and paper roleplaying game. Others just roleplay on the spur of the moment in order to get away from the stresses of life for a while. Many more have an interest in roleplaying but don't know how to get started with it.

In some ways, roleplaying is like finger-painting; it's an open space for you to explore, try things out, and develop something creative of your own. If you have any experience with acting or creative writing, then there's a lot you can bring from your experience into the game, which other people are very likely to enjoy. Even if you don't consider yourself a writer or an actor, you may find a talent hidden within you by trying your hand at roleplaying. Your roleplaying style may not appeal to everyone, or you may encounter others whose roleplaying really bothers you for some reason, but as you explore your own creative style in roleplaying, you are sure to attract others who are similar to yourself. You will learn from them and they will learn from you, and together you'll create an experience of art.

In fact, roleplaying in WoW is very much representative of any experience of art one might have in the game: World of Warcraft is participatory art. No matter what you're doing, you'll only reach the art in WoW if you approach it with the desire to participate in that artistic experience. If the whole game is just so many damage meters, key bindings and gear upgrades to someone, then that person probably isn't going to see it as art. If someone puts themselves in their character's shoes, however, even to the slightest degree, then they may be touched by the landscapes, the music, the story, the challenge, the teamwork, and perhaps even the performances you and your friends make together. While most art lets you just sit and appreciate it, World of Warcraft asks you to take a step inside, look around, and enjoy how things are in an alternative world that is actually a reflection of our own.

"WoW is a Work of Art" is a three-part series. Part one focuses on the author's personal discovery that video games are an art form, based on his experiences in World of Warcraft. Part two explores how WoW is not merely another work of visual and musical art, but a work of interactive, team-oriented problem-solving art as well. Part three looks at WoW as a stage on which some players choose to play writer, director, actor and audience all at the same time, in their own improvised theater.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Virtual selves, RP, All the World's a Stage (Roleplaying)

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