Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Comment: Drama, Godmoding, Metagaming

Something which really interests me, maybe even amazes me, in the study of human behavior in virtual spaces, is how apparently paradoxal behaviors can emerge. For example, what is referred as “drama”. “Drama” not like in a Shakespeare’s masterwork, but “drama” like in “I used to really like you, but now that your character tried to kill mine, I really hate you so much”. Especially in immersive role-play environments (note that drama can occur in so many other contexts, but in role-play environments, the disconnection is more evident … for other examples of where and how drama can come, please go in the really nice blog A is for Avatar at the letter D … for Drama, of course).

So, if people go in an immersive role-play environment (such as for instance the Gorean role-play of the Star Wars role-play of Second Life, which both provides on regular basis excellent examples of role-play, and excellent examples of drama), it is arguably to do role-play. In other words, to enact “imaginary” characters in an “imaginary” setting, the setting usually being derived from a science-fiction, fantasy, or historical universe. Role-playing is not a new activity, but the visual support of immersive interfaces such as Second Life, it becomes even more enjoyable. However, the bases are the same than for any of the old table role-play games. With a few exceptions.

First, in a table role-play game, one of the player is the “game-master”, or “story teller”, the one who tells the story and describe the setting so other can inhabit it. In an immersive non-directed environment such as Second Life, there is not such a thing. Role-play SIMs will have Admin (people with out of character powers, having a “out-of-character” police role, such as kicking or banning the griefers, and so on), and GM (“game masters”, whose role is mostly to settle the numerous disputes between players). And indeed, there are a lot (but really A LOT) of disputes between players it seems … Second, in a table role-play game, you KNOW or at least see the real players behind the characters … those players are your friends, you are altogether to “enjoy” a pleasant time and construct a common story. Well, in an immersive role-play environment, it should be the same. But it seems it is not the case.

Indeed, more than often, some disputes emerge between the players. Most of the time it is based on the fact that people put themselves in opposition to each others, and that, like in real life, nobody really wants to be the loosing one. But if there is a conflict, somebody is likely to loose. And then, things go to drama. My character is stronger, no it is mine, and so on and so on … Using a “meter” (an attachment adding some systems of life points to bring more realism to the role-play fights, and used theoretically to remove drama: if you lost the metered fight, you lost it) does not prevent drama to occur AT ALL. I would think that drama comes even more commonly in the SIMs heavily using meters (but that is just a feeling from an “observer” point of view). The current answer against someone calling you to create drama is that this people is “Godmoding” (playing a character with God-like powers: my character is too strong, I can not lose, I can not be beaten, etc …). Or “Metagaming” (using information and knowledge your character is not supposed to have to foster your character purpose … for instance, reading the Tags or profile of the other characters … if your opponent write in his profile: I am a Vampire, directly attacking him with Holy Water or any kind of weapon supposed to damage a vampire without giving him the chance to actually give you role-play clues suggesting he may actually be a vampire).

But now the question remains … if everybody comes to enjoy, why this need to show that you are the strongest? And why this need to develop your character at the expense of others (who come here for the very same reason somehow)? That is simply fascinating me really … Something even more interesting that I observed a few time … When a new comer steps out of character in main chat in a role-play SIM, immediately, dozen of GM, Admins, and older players will rush at him. If they are nice, the new comer will receive a full lecture on how to role-play (by people who may actually not have such amazing role-play skills … for having observed kind of a lot of role-play settings and situations over the last few years, I am always surprised to notice that those who come to you to claim: “I can give you some advices on how to role-play” are often not the best role-players). But more than often, they will simply threaten the new comer with a kick or even a ban.

However, and that strikes me by the contrast, I observed a few times that when people get very respected in a role-play SIM, they can freely step out of character. And then, everybody in the SIM seems to applause with two hands: “Look, he (or she) is such a REAL role-player, he can allow to go OOC” (huh? That’s against SIM rules, no? What if I go OOC? Oh, right, I am not a good role-player).

I somehow would be very interested to study this phenomenon. What happens exactly during the inter-individual exchange process … What are the initial steps of a drama situation … usually they do not resolve nicely (people seems to get durably hurt by drama), so how could we find ways to reduce the negative side effect of such conflict-related resolutions? But then, how to experimentally study drama without interefering with the process? (an observer can hardly come and ask people: Hey, guys, fancy for a bit of drama? Let’s go, I observe you!).

Any suggestion welcome …


  1. Hi Matthieu

    Interesting observations and I think you have pretty well summed up Second Life role play quite well. However, it is not like that everywhere all of the time. There are in fact many very good role players in SL whom I would rate very highly. I've role played since 2000 and began in Yahoo chat rooms then eventually ended up in Second Life where I continued to role play. At first I was in Gor but eventually I scripted my own meter and set up my own role play sims based on 18th century pirates and corsairs of the Barbary coast. I have in recent times blogged on role play and become a big supporter of the Open Metaverse.

    I know Gor very well and I actually left Gor out of sheer frustration with people and their petty OOC dramas but, believe me, it happens everywhere and not just in role play. However, one can roughly define certain types of behavior that inevitably leads to OOC drama. There are those who just have to win in combat and their role play, such that it is, is generally very aggressive and confrontational tinged with a liberal helping of egotism and bravado. From what I know a lot of them are very young and split their time between video gaming and hanging out in one or a number of RPG's. Dark Gothic vampire, Gor and the more sexual themes are popular of course. They remind me of street gang kids and you can pretty well guarantee they will break out into OOC drama if they are on the loosing end of an encounter. Another type is the power gamer who seems to know all the rules (or their version of the rules) and I think you mentioned the type. These people tend not to be the best fighters but what they lack in speed they more than make up for in bringing a game to a shambles. You will see them yelling at their opponents and accusing them of metagaming or godmodding but they may well have played a few tricks themselves already like logging off (claiming to crash) or leaving the area only to return when their meter health has recovered. The end result often is that players leave a game and move on and then, guess what? Yeah, the power gamer moves on too!

    I have seen so much of this where a game progresses very well and the traffic increases then someone starts to Lord it over others both in the IC and OOC. Very soon it is no longer role play and bunch of people are dominating the game by driving others out with verbal bullying. Some times a player turns up and they have a mission to cause as much grief as possible to spoil the fun others might have. Some even have an agenda and their mission is to make friends and poach their little group to another sim. In Gor this might happen where a male gains himself some slaves then moves on taking them with him but too often they are not content just with that and actively try to cause friction in the rest of the players. In Gor a number of cities have their agents, their poachers and their assassins!

    In some ways the role play is so thinly layered and mixed with OOC content that it isn't really role play at all. And yet, it is in a way for fight's can break out and even raids might accrue as a result of metagaming or pouching. I long since came to the conclusion that Second Life role play is 90% soup opera - seriously!

    1. Oh, I fully agree with you ! Drama is (thanks to the numerous amazing role-players inhabiting Second Life) only a "margin" phenomenon. Most of the time, in role-play SIMs, you see role-play going on (at least when there are active avatars on the SIM). Most of what I published in Second Life was possible because of active and quality role-play, being in Gor, or in Star Wars Role-Play (the two settings I investigated "systematically" so far, even if I am now looking at some other role-play settings as well). What I am find interesting in "drama" in role-play environments, is "how it emerges" ... what are the first behavioral signs that a drama event will arise ... Well, actually, you answered it really well: when a drama arise, usually, we all "feel" it is coming, due to the behavioral stereotypies of the people likely to make a drama emerge (such people, reacting in such ways, are likely to make drama come faster). But not always. Anyway, how could I quantify it ? That is, I find, an interesting question, from a methodological point of view at least.

  2. Thanks for another thought provoking post. I think there's a vast difference between in-person role play games and virtual role play with pseudonymous participants. No matter how much people are caught up in the story of an in-person game, there is little psychological confusion between the character and the person; neither in self nor other. In a virtual game or within online RP communities (or any pseudonymous relationship for that matter), the brain processes sensory input and interpersonal interaction in the same way it does a RL experience. It seems to me that this process often kicks up old emotional trauma that may root back all the way to early childhood.

    I wrote quite a bit on this topic during my first year on Second Life. Here's my basic premise:

    • A human's sense of reality is based on a just a homeopathic dose of sensory information from the external world. Stories fill in the blanks.

    • Humans experience internally generated conception as the direct perception of external reality.

    • When external information contradicts internal beliefs, humans tend to ignore, discount, reject, distort or otherwise co-opt the new data instead of modifying the story.

    • Early childhood trauma can disrupt psychological development and create long-term emotional deficits and dysfunction. Very few people reach adulthood unscathed.

    One representative series started here: http://botgirl.blogspot.com/2008/06/impact-of-immersive-worlds-on-human.html

    1. Botgirl, your comment was really REALLY dense in terms of ideas and concepts, thank you a lot. I like this notion of "confusion" between the character and the player ... It is what I wanted to spot by the word "disconnection" at the begining of the post. Maybe role-play environments are not the best suited to study that actually, and direct immersion with avatars who are not supposed to be actively "role-playing" (but aren't we all doing some type of role-play when we are online ?) would give more insight. The idea of correlating social dysfunctions (such as the tendency to create repeated drama) with various forms of psychological trauma is really interesting ... but it would require to access the RL of the avatars acting in the virtual setting, and may bias the sampling (which is supposed to be spontaneous) ... but that idea may be one of the keys to go further. Thank you a lot for the insight ! And congratulations for A is for Avatars, it is really an extremely enjoyable reading !

  3. I'm glad you like A is for Avatars. It's a lot of fun putting together.

    I think there's often some kind of unresolved trauma driving people who go from one negatively dramatic relationship to another. These people are often quite "rational" until some environmental cue kicks off a wave of emotions and the underlying internal stories that are superimposed (and often contrary) to the external reality.

    I don't think the inner process is different for virtual and physical experience. It's just that the lack of substantive information is great kindling for any sparks from smoldering psychological embers to ignite.

    1. We were just having this exact discussion few minutes ago in the lab actually. I agree : I don't think either that the inner process is different for virtual and physical experience. It is exactly why I would like to study drama in virtual spaces, as it could provide an interesting way to study the aforementionned process. However, I am still blocked by how to investigate it experimentally (or even observationally, since it would means spending hours on SIMs hoping for a drama to happen just in front of you ...).

      And yes, A is for Avatars is a great project really !

  4. I'm not sure how one could study this experimentally, but from personal observation, drama can exist on quite the same scale in pen and paper RPGs. Instances of heavy tensions between players, because of exactly what you mentionned in your article (competitiveness etc.) are quite frequent, even between friends.

    I'm convinced that the notion that RPGs are collaborative, and not competitive, is a radical oversimplification. In any social setting, tensions will be inherent to the construction of a group. Sometimes they seem to be solved easily, when a clear hierarchy establishes itself from the start and everyone is happy with it (eg. all players in a tabletop RPG recognise the role of the game master as leader of the group, etc.). Sometimes, this takes a little more conflict. But what if people played RPGs not because they want to escape the competitiveness of real life, but because they want to "start over", in a new social construct that will give them a chance to achieve a more fulfilling station (not necessarily as leaders, but at least as significant members of a group)? That's consistent with your observation that some players can achieve a sufficient station to gain the right to step out of character.

    I tend to think that the collaborative aspect is often emphasised by gamers because it's a nice way to describe their favourite activity, but that it's, in fact, misleading. Every gamer has his or her specific ways to engage with a new social context, and the confrontation of these different approaches may be quite likely to create conflict. Perhaps it might be interesting to have a look at different individual ways to relate to, and engage with a group of virtual characters, to get a better idea of what players are looking for in a virtual social group, and maybe get a clearer view of how conflicts can be created?

    1. Thank you for this extremely insightful comment. There is a lot of important things in what you wrote ... I think that you are right in your way of "challenging" the collaborative aspect of RP environments, that is something we definitively should explore.

  5. I noted the competitiveness between who's the strongest, at the point some become unable to play with other players or other groups correctly. The community uses to say there is no main role for non military type... I think it's just a lack of imagination.

    I made my character (a harmless reporter), notably to show its strength isn't a factor to make a character interesting. And it works, except a few players, they like her and the warriors are happy to see someone they can actually protect.

    Role-play characters are usually liked by their players which grant them all of the graces. Someone reporting their story (like I do) is well seen when it show their story on a favourable angle, this is what we try to do, we're not here to trash on people, after all. But sometimes they dislike a detail in the story and fall out.

    In an environment without a strong GM control, characters often gain more and more without being used to fail. Even when it doesn't trigger a Drama, it impede seriously the role-play. I think it's a limit of the genre.

    1. Thank you a lot Daana for your comment. For those who don't know you, Daana and her team-mate Rakiko are the two leading reporters of "Galactic News Network", the main information network of the Star Wars Role-Play community of Second Life. I am extremely happy to see a comment which is an insight from "inside" so to say, directly, from people strongly involved in a very important role-play community of Second Life. But as you mentioned, you and Rakiko are rather unique ... most people role-play very stereotyped "fighting type" characters (Jedi, Sith, mandalorians, clones, ...). Very few people have enough imagination, and enough maturity to role-play truly original characters. Well, you do, and as the result, Daana is a central persona of the Star Wars Role-Play community of Second Life.