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All the World's a Stage: Oh the drama! -- When to "/ignore"

All the World's a Stage is a weekly column by David Bowers, published on Sunday evenings, investigating the explorative performance art of roleplaying in the World of Warcraft.

We've talked before about roleplaying as an art form, whether you think about it as acting or puppeteering, fiction or improv, there's definitely something creative going on here. But like any art form, roleplaying is best when it means something; that's to say, when it expresses something ultimately "true" about human experience, and perhaps even illumines the minds and hearts of the roleplayers in some way.

Roleplayers all want to achieve that creativity, of course, but one problem often stands in our way: it's a rare work of art that really works for everyone. That's why the regular old art world is such a complete mess -- one man's fingerpainting is another man's post-modernist masterpiece. People constantly disagree about what subjects make for acceptable art, whether some art pushes extremes too far and becomes obscenity, and whether real art actually requires talent and skill. One person may curl up with their favorite Jane Austen novel and read it for the 10th time, while another may come home from the comic book store with the epic adventures of the Bone cousins. Each story conveys very different things to the reader -- but then the people who want to read these stories are looking for different things to get out them as well. Each form of storytelling speaks its own language for its own special audience.

We have the same problem in roleplaying. To illustrate, imagine there's a teenage boy going through public school and not getting along with his peers very well. When he roleplays, he plays an intimidating character who likes to try to get in your face, pick a fight with you and insult you to show how very powerful he is. That power fantasy may be very annoying for you and me, but for him it really means something. That's not to say it's high-quality art by any means, but nonetheless, his feelings are important too, and he has his right to play a character on an RP server the same way we all do. It's just that for us, the "/ignore" command starts to look really tempting every time his sort comes along.

These creative clashes of one sort or another can pop up when you least expect them to. Just today I saw a character named "Ironotron," a female blood elf, whose player apparently thought it was funny to prance around and say things like "Cheese makes me soooo hoorrnnnnyyyyy!" and "mount me!" and so on. Once I heard that much I typed "/ignore" right away and fortunately I didn't have to bother about it anymore. It could very well be that the character was actually supposed to be a malfunctioning android robot whose player actually thought would be clever -- but just like I don't need to visit every museum in the world, I also don't have to interact with roleplayers (or any players, for that matter) who want to play or communicate ways that I personally find distasteful or completely off the wall.

A somewhat more difficult problem comes when we encounter the Sephiroth Syndrome we talked about last week: when someone's idea of an interesting character means copying a page from some other fantasy world and pasting it into WoW, or else making up something totally unrelated to the general context of the Warcraft universe. Such a character may have little or nothing in common with other characters in WoW. However, a player in the early stages of Sephiroth Syndrome can often be assisted by a compassionate and experienced roleplayer with an eye for talent, but if not they'll usually end up finding their own little circle and lose interest in you after you lose interest in them. They may bother you in some extreme cases, but "/ignore" should not be necessary most of the time.

Probably the most difficult creative clash, however, comes when players who are really reasonable and creative people, or even good friends, nonetheless have trouble enjoying their roleplaying time together. For example, one friend may want to play out particularly emotional, stubborn, or prejudiced character that just unintentionally offends the other; one may want to roleplay a romantic story that another isn't comfortable with; or one might want to goof around and be silly while the other wants to explore serious themes. This can be tough to work around, and sometimes ends in people losing faith in roleplaying altogether.

But the secret here is that creative clash isn't always a bad thing. In my experience, there was one time when one person's character wanted very much to have a romantic involvement with my own. I didn't feel that my character was in love with her that way, so I tried to be "just friends" instead. I didn't know this person in real life, but for some reason the other character didn't want to give up -- for her it had become a strong attachment to my character (though nothing spooky like a stalker or something). Naturally, as the one saying "no" in this case, I was the one with the power to determine which way the relationship would go, but by patiently coming back again and again -- showing a bit dedication to their friendship and recognition of the good things they shared -- our characters were actually able to work out a satisfying conclusion so that both could be friends without any negative pressure. By sticking with it rather than just going separate ways, I ended up forming a real life friendship with that player as well, which today means a great deal to me.

All in all, roleplaying can be somewhat more of a risk than the regular task of leveling up and fighting monsters. Any time you introduce new people or new characters into the mix, you may find yourself either looking for an excuse to get away, or having an unexpectedly wonderful time. Other aspects of the game such as raiding or arena fighting involve quite a bit of risk as well, but roleplaying is unique in that it is entirely a social, creative activity -- there's no concrete task to eventually overcome, no goal of loot or levels to reach.

Yet a lot of the same practical attitudes for learning and overcoming challenges are needed in order to have a good time. While obviously there are some roleplay situations it's best to avoid entirely, there are quite a lot in which the only way to succeed is to give it a break, think about it, and come back again the next time ready to try again. The phat loot you get might even be one of the greatest "true" human experiences: friendship.

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

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