Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/04/18/role_play_in_sl/

Role-players amok in Second Life

Games within a game

By Destiny Welles

Posted in Media, 18th April 2007 23:34 GMT

Column A woman did something to me not long ago. At least I believe so; I'm not certain, because think I blacked out at one point. I'm not really sure what I remember; maybe I hallucinated when I blacked out. If I blacked out.

I think I saw her suffer a ghastly injury to her leg during a fight, and when it was over, she asked me to help her. Everything about her scared me. I wanted desperately to run away, but my legs never quite got the impulse to move. Every instinct told me: danger; get away from this woman; run. Yet there was something powerfully attractive about her, and the desire to stay was as strong as the instinct to escape. I found her repulsive in ways: she was so pale and looked hard-hearted. But she pleaded for help, and my mind searched for rationalisations: she was pale from blood loss; she might go into shock; it would be wrong to leave her.

I stood with an arm around her to let her walk. She was horribly cold; I was sure she would go into shock. I told her to go to the hospital, and she agreed, and led me. But she led me away from it, and I knew it perfectly well, and all I could say was, "I think we might be going the wrong way".

Destiny Welles

She led me to a cemetery, and opened the gate. "You really need to be in hospital," I suggested weakly. Things were going very wrong, I could sense that, but I didn't have the will to resist. A voice in my mind urged me to run, and I wanted to, but I simply could not. She opened the main crypt and led me downstairs into the damp cold, immersing me in a chill and the earthy smell of wet stone and decomposing soil.

"My family are here", she said, as I sat with her on a bench and she laid her head on my shoulder.

"Shouldn't you see a doctor?" I asked softly.

"This is exactly what I need", she whispered.

She turned her face, as if to kiss my neck. I think I struggled. I think she kissed me, and maybe she bit me. The voice in my mind became fainter, weaker, more distant. Almost like an echo, like a voice calling out in the dark, barely audible. "Run, Destiny", it said. But it came from so far away. I remember a calmness descending on me. I remember feeling blackness surround me - so warm and dark, like the womb. I floated in a state of incomparable comfort. Drifting....abandoning myself....embracing this darkness of warmth and joyous peace.

I must have blacked out. As I returned to consciousness, I felt so confused. Memories came and went in fragments; I couldn't hold on to them, couldn't focus on them. But the woman seemed lively, strong, happy. It made no sense that she would recover so quickly from such an injury, and - well, I know this sounds crazy - but for a moment I thought she had fangs, like an animal.

I was so confused. "Your teeth", I said weakly, "there is something wrong with your teeth."

She turned and smiled. "Is there, dear?" she asked. Her smile was perfect. I must have been dreaming; I just don't know.

"Let me take you to the hospital", I said.

"Why on earth would I want to go there?" she asked with a laugh.

"Your injury," I said.

"My injury?? What injury do you mean, dear?"

I was sure that her leg had been gashed severely. Yet I could see that it had not. I must have been dreaming. My memory is so poor. Fragments of recollection come back to me as nightmares. She is always in them. I dream that she attacks me like an animal, and I cannot run. She tastes my flesh and my blood, and I feel that I want to give myself to her completely. I wake in a cold sweat, trembling and terrified.

Then I check my messages to see if she might have called. I can't wait to see her again.

Damage enabled

Such was my first session of role-play in Second Life. It happened in Midian City, a dystopian RP sim that I once described as Grand Guignol informed by Blade Runner and Doom. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful sims in all of SL: pure dystopian urban decadence - assuming you like that sort of thing, as I do very much. Predators lurk in its decaying alleys, overhead catwalks, and sewers. Victims flit nervously about, waiting to be taken. Fighting between factions (sometimes involving major street battles), kidnap, gang rape and torture, all figure into the RP. Whether you prefer to be a victim or a predator, there is a lot of play to be enjoyed at Midian. Indeed, merely wandering about as a visitor is satisfying, because the place really is beautiful.

Midian City

That's but one example of the myriad opportunities for role-play in Second life; in this column, we'll explore a small sample of RP sims that I hope will give readers a sense of the possibilities. This is not a survey; it's really just a selection illustrating the variety of RP available.

Of course, SL wasn't designed for role-play (or was rather carelessly designed). It's certainly not a dedicated RP environment like World of Warcraft, nor can it be. There are serious scaling problems, so that a sim with 25-30 people is overcrowded and laggy, and one with 45-50 is destined to crash after a painful period of near-immobility for everyone there.

However, SL is relatively open and flexible; admittedly, it's not an ideal RP environment - at least in the sense that its scaling issues prevent large groups from playing together - but it does enable creative residents to design and build their sims from the ground up. So what RP in Second Life lacks in population density, it makes up with flexibility and its by-product, variety. And this is good if you're a bit of a dilettante role-player. No doubt there is much to be said for developing a character over time and becoming something of an expert; but perhaps you prefer not to be stuck in a particular role, in a particular environment. In that case, you'll probably find a few RP communities to your liking in SL.

All nerds report to the holodeck immediately

For an RP about as far from Midian City as one can get, and a good illustration of the variety SL is capable of supporting, consider the Galaxy sim, where role-play centres on the comparatively sterile, rationalistic world of Star Trek.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Star Trek! Ugh, that's for total nerds". Oh, but that is so wrong. Trek is a significant milestone in the history of television entertainment, and here's why:

Think, for a moment, of what American TV viewers were watching in 1966, when Star Trek appeared. Frontier sagas and Westerns dominated. Even the supposed "sci-fi" series Lost in Space was merely an American frontier saga clothed in 21st Century trappings.

Post-war American narcissism was approaching its climax through television. Here was this marvellous new invention, but Americans used it to look within and backward. Fascinated not by the possibilities of a fresh technology, but instead by their own myths of origin, Americans, incredibly, spent much of their TV time immersed in the 19th Century: Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Maverick, The Rifleman, Cheyenne, Bonanza, The Virginian, The Lone Ranger, Death Valley Days, Wagon Train, and scores of similar series. For a good quarter century, the TV Western reigned supreme.

And then there was Trek. It marked the moment when American TV dared to look outside, and forward. It had a detailed back story; it had a consistent world view; and it proposed social values sometimes in disagreement with the prevailing culture from which it emerged. In television's repetitive universe of an American foundation fantasy, Trek was truly revolutionary: it was, literally, a history of the future.

It wasn't a commercial success like Gunsmoke, but it did attract a core of loyal, affectionate fans -- loyal and affectionate enough to keep it in syndication for 40 years. You can tune into Star Trek or one of its spin-offs any day. Gunsmoke not so much. So it's hardly a surprise that the fans who have kept the franchise alive for so long might also enjoy Star Trek role-play, as indeed they do. There's plenty on line, although much of it is done via email.

Second Life brings far more to it by providing animated RP. At the Galaxy sim there are several USS Enterprise sets; role players wear authentic-looking uniforms, and there are even sound effects from the TV series.

Trek RP

The sets and uniforms are based on The Next Generation. Scenarios are original and loosely scripted, but they remain loyal to the overall history and culture established in the numerous TV series. That is, you would not find an RP where it's assumed that the Vulcans are the Federation's fiercest enemies, or where Kingons do not, in a sense, serve as anti-Vulcans.

So Trek RP is not as free-form as some others. Missions are plausible within the context of the series. Participants try to behave as TV fans would expect a person in their role to behave. That is, if you're playing a Starfleet science officer, you try to sound like one, taking care to use the same Treknobabble that has entertained generations of fans.

I had an opportunity recently to observe a couple of Trek RPs at Galaxy. First, I was amazed by the set: it really looked like the TNG Enterprise bridge. The uniforms were fabulous, and the players really spoke the way one would expect them to. It wasn't a matter so much of imitating a character from the series, but rather of conforming to the role in general, and adding one's own personal touches.

I participated in real-life RP once in my life, during a summer at uni when I was living on campus doing research, and I can say I've never had a desire to experience it again. There weren't many students about and there was little to do for entertainment, so I got Shanghaied into a D&D thing with about six others. It went on for several weeks, and I rather dreaded each meeting, but I had agreed to see it through, so I was stuck. The people I was playing with were all very pleasant, but the whole thing was so silly and tedious. I found it a little embarrassing, to be honest.

So naturally, when I began investigating RP in Second Life, I was prepared to hate it. Much to my surprise, I've really enjoyed it. The Star Trek one was the first that I observed, and I couldn't get enough. Time flew, and I just couldn't believe how quickly it was over. It was almost like watching an original episode.

Admittedly, it was a bit static: people don't move their avatars nearly as much as actors on the series would do, and there's no camera that cuts from set to set, and you do read rather than listen; but considering that it's being done in an animated chat room, you would be impressed by how absorbing it can be.

And just plain fun, too. One thing my friend Tateru pointed out about role-players - and I noticed this myself, even during my unfortunate introduction to D&D - is that they tend to be knowledgeable, bright, affable people. So it's really easy to make new acquaintances if you do a little RP in Second Life. Even if you find that the play itself isn't for you, you might come away with a few new friends.

Iron my shirt, bitch

Next, there is Gor, another large RP context for which a good deal of background material exists. Gor is the fantasyland of author John Norman, whose many sci-fi books describe a planet populated by captured humans and administered loosely, and more or less in absentia, by advanced alien bugs. There is a huge Gor community in Second Life with their own very large territory, and a role-play culture based on the sci-fi novels.

The Gorean culture is conveniently human, and conveniently unburdened by Earthly inhibitions. It's essentially a paternalistic, tribal slave society, with cultural elements drawn from Greek, Roman, Viking, Native American, and early European roots. Women are essentially property, and this supports a great deal of BDSM-themed role-play, although it tends to be heterosexual and male dominated.

Of course there's much more to it than that: players adopt roles such as priest, warrior, merchant, peasant, and the like, and they enact these roles in far more than a sexual context. There are also freelance characters such as hunters and outlaws, as there are everywhere. There are various cities with distinct cultures, and various hunter tribes as well. Some cooperate, and some compete.

The online version of Gorean role-play has evolved independent of the books, so there are occasional differences between the world of John Norman's texts and the online worlds that Netizen role-players inhabit. Purists will have to lighten up a bit of they decide to play in SL.

Again, the ability to move about, create scenery, erect buildings, design costumes and artefacts, and interact with others in an animated environment has contributed much to Gorean role-play on line. It's not unusual for Gorean sims to be very detailed and lovingly built. I've visited a few of SL's Gorean sims, and observed some RP there, although I have not participated.

And I do not expect to participate, as Gor in Second Life is a world within a world, with its own rules and conventions separate from the mainstream grid. Actually, the regulations in many Gor sims are so mind-numbingly elaborate that they are off-putting to a visitor or observer. If you just want to enjoy an occasional RP, Gor is not the place. It's almost as if you have to become a citizen first. The lists of foods, drinks, animals, plants, places, and roles one needs to memorise in order to function at even a basic level are far more trouble than the role-play would ever be worth to me. Not everyone will feel the same, I know, but many occasional role-players will find Gor to be too much. It definitely requires a commitment.

Some rules can be quite odious to outsiders. There are sims where, for example, one consents to the possibility of force-collaring. This means that you would become the slave and property of whoever collars you, if you should wander into the wrong place. If you teleport away after being captured, you might be violating the sim's rules, and this could be brought to the attention of Linden Labs. It's really quite irritating if all you want to do is look around.

However, this is easy to defeat without breaking any rules, if you should end up making a mistake. First, you need to set up your SL client in Edit / Preferences / General / Start Location, and choose "My Home". If you don't own land, don't worry: "My Home" will launch you in one of the newbie hubs. So, if anything goes horribly wrong in a Gor sim, you can just shut down your SL client and log in again. There's no rule against that.

Of course, excessive regulation isn't the norm for all Gorean sims in SL; there are many different Gorean subcultures on the grid, even if most subscribe to an overarching theme established by the books. So if this sounds intriguing, by all means search about. Goreans are a very large minority population on the grid, so they are very easy to meet.

Making it up as we go

Other RP opportunities are more free-form, such as street combat, medieval fantasy, capture, and various forms of sexual exploitation, where there is no corpus of literature or TV shows to draw upon. Often, there's little more than a general agreement to the type of scenario that will be played. Midian City does have a culture and a background - a back-story, if you will - but it still allows for considerable freedom and spontaneity in play. Oh, and if you like Midian, check out Toxia, aka Toxian City, and City of Lost Angels. The three are somewhat similar, but the differences are enough that if one isn't quite your cup of tea, another might well be.

Some RP sims are really just physical environments for various forms of play. One, called CARP, is based on capture and BDSM, and is nicely set up with mazes. Players choose to be predator/Dom or prey/sub, and the prey characters run through the maze attempting to elude the predators. The maze works for, and against, participants of both sorts. For example, a target will find it easy to disappear momentarily and make a move where the pursuer will need to guess the right direction; however, because the maze is elaborate, prey characters are often turning corners and running into other predators.

When predator and prey collide, the prey is automatically captured and cannot move unless the predator chooses to release them. Since the capture script is triggered by a collision, accidental captures are common when the maze is crowded. Normally, a person caught accidentally is released. But in the event of such a capture, the two parties can certainly have a conversation and decide whether the accident is a happy one for them.

CARP is fast paced and not very talky, at least until after the capture. In the maze, it's more like a video game than RP, but there are rooms with various scripts and equipment for post-capture role-play involving bondage, torture, rape, etc. There's also a lounge where visitors can chat and learn more about it - and the place is exceptionally furry-friendly, which I always take as a positive sign. (Actually, I think it's under furry management, although it is used by quite a few humans.)

For something in a similar vein to CARP - although a good deal less anonymous - do check out Drifter's Passage. This is a much smaller, and far better-looking, kidnap and capture community where it really pays to take your time, get to know people, and develop a character with connections to others in the sim.

A lot of Second Life RP involves BDSM, or is at least influenced by it to some degree. It is one of the most pervasive themes running throughout SL sex - and since sex occupies people's attention a great deal, BDSM, or hints of it, turn up pretty much everywhere on the "mature" grid. A sim featuring schoolgirls trapped in a decaying reformatory with cells and torture rooms (there are two rather large ones, btw) might not sound like proper BDSM, and it's not, really: it's better to call it a BDSM-influenced fetish RP. Strictly speaking, BDSM is a lifestyle, not a fetish or an RP game. But there are fetishists and role-players who draw a lot from the lifestyle - and they do seem to be everywhere in SL.

Of course, there's a lot more to Second Life RP than torture and rape. If you search Places and Groups for "roleplay" you'll find scores of places to explore. But don't make the mistake of assuming that a role-play sim is necessarily good because it's ranked high in the search results. Search rank is connected to traffic, but "traffic" is hardly the same as involved, regular participants. A lot of the "traffic" in a busy sim might visit occasionally, play a bit, and return only when they can't find better things to do.

So don't be reluctant to look further down the search list. Quality, popularity, and search rank are not always so well connected. Overall, you'll find that "street" RP is very big, Medieval, faerie and dragon are as well, vampire and neko (cat) are common, and of course, there's every manner of sexual RP, particularly involving abuse - and including age play, which I'm afraid I simply am not inclined to investigate. You'll just have to rely on your own imagination for that. ®

Previous columns

My big, fat, lily-white Second Life (NSFW)
BDSM blossoms in Second Life (NSFW)
The ins and outs of a Second sex Life (NSFW)
Reg embeds hack in Second Life (NSFW)