Monday, July 27, 2009

The experiment of roleplaying in SL

I regularly read Prokofy Neva's blog Second Thoughts (in fact, far more often than I ever look at the official Linden stuff). Many people frequently find Prokofy's long-winded commentaries to be infuriating or impenetrable (I will freely confess that about 54% of the time I don't even understand what the conversation is about), but Prokofy's writing almost invariably sparks intense debate and discussion, and by golly it sure as hell makes you think, even if your conclusion is to violently disagree with the blog's author. If Prokofy didn't exist, I suspect the SL blogosphere would have had to create him in some form. And periodically, I think what Prokofy puts out there can carry a certain degree of profundity, such as his most recent post "Second Life is a Crystal Ball" in which he expresses the idea that SL can be seen as an "emergent behavior panopticon." Prokofy observes:

"There are a thousand things you could be studying in Second Life, whether it is how disputes are resolved, how protest emerges and dissipates, how corporations manage people online, how people communicate and adjust their goals and compromise -- and lots of other separate tributaries of things like prototyping a car engine or a medical procedure, and they're all happening in SL -- yet largely unstudied."

This got me to thinking about what I have been observing and reflecting upon in recent months: the various different directions that the various SL roleplaying communities have been taking while playing out as experiments in creative cooperative recreation. Each rp environment is an experimental playground of the imagination, and as the people who are utilizing them experience problems and see new potential, they either make that environment evolve in response to the difficulties and perceived possibilities, or some of them move on and and create new communities and environments that try out new guidelines and forms of organization.

And right now, let me say, there is no perfect, one-size-fits-all rp environment. One style or system is not better than another. I am not a social Darwinist who thinks that rp communities are steadily evolving towards a single ultimate and ideal form, while the other versions are left behind to die off as some kind of inferior evolutionary dead-end dinosaur kind of thing. I firmly believe that the development of different forms of rp communities with different social structures is a good and healthy process, which accommodates the wide variety of people who are taking up this form of virtual recreation.

We are all different in terms of experience, how we learn, how we play, how we interact with other humans, and what we need to get out of that interaction. Consequently, it makes sense for a wide variety of roleplaying experiments to develop in-world, building upon and growing out of one another, and just because a new type of organization comes along, or an existing community develops in a different direction from what it had taken before, does not mean any of the various experiments are less legitimate, less fun for certain people, or deserve to go extinct.

Mind you I am very happy in Deadwood and am intrigued with how it has evolved since its inception (which is to a good extent different from how it functioned in its early months). But I am also intrigued with how other communities are evolving and what kinds of systems and structures they are establishing. For example, I recently decided to look into a community that is based upon the world of Harry Potter, not only because it sounded like a fun and interesting rp environment, but because its community leadership has set up a highly structured system for bringing in new players and fostering an enjoyable rp experience.

This is very different from so many rp communities which have a relatively loose induction system, that bascially comes down to "hey, read these rules, join this group, put on the right stuff, and please don't act like too big of dick." So I was very very curious about this "Hogwarts United" group. They start with not only giving you rules and guidelines to read, they also ask you to fill out an application (compete with well-thought out backstory), attend orientation class, and go through an interview. And THEN, if you are intent upon playing an adult and want to go to work for the Ministry of Magic or the Hogwarts School, you have to fill out another application to the folks who are in charge of those entities.

So far I have filled out the application (a process I really enjoyed being as so much of it was about developing a backstory, a process that I find to be really fun). I attended the class, which was a pleasant and efficiently-run (and not overly long) review of rules and guidelines with an opportunity to ask questions. And I had my interview with a charming and friendly admissions rep. This was more like a conversation than an interview, and again I found it to not be particularly onerous or intimidating, and the interviewer, Katerina, was very nice about listening to me ramble and answering my questions about this and that. I felt pretty good about it, not only because she approved on my ideas for what I wanted to do with my character, but because it felt like this process will ultimately be helpful in my transitioning into the community.

I'm still waiting to hear about my application to the school (to work as a special archivist dealing with the "restricted" collections), but hopefully, the Headmaster won't decide that it's too out-of-the-box or that I am too huge of a goober to pull it off. I'll keep you guys posted on how it turns out.

Anyhow, the whole thing has me curious to see what the community will be like and how it functions. I have never been a part of quite such a highly structured rp environment,and while I am sure it is not ideal for everyone, I could see how it could produce some interesting results, both in severely limiting access by potential griefers and in facilitating the introduction of new players into the environment. I suspect the next step in the evolution of rp communities may be something that combines elements of this highly structured approach with elements of the some of the looser systems.

Like Aldo says, "SL is a big social pressure cooker and you never know how the soup is going turn out, but at least it gets done pretty quick."

So what do you all think about what kinds of rp communities and environments best suit who you are, and what kinds of experiments might develop next?


  1. Good luck with this - and do keep us posted, I'd be reallt interested to hear how you get on. You are our embedded reporter :-D

    I have a simliar view of Prok - I don't understand a lot of what he says, find his way of saying it quite harsh at time but damnit if he ain't out there fighting a corner. Problem is I couldn't take the huge agry posts and comment wars any more. I found they altered my moods, bummed me out, made me angry, so I've stopped reading it now - after all, it's only a game ;-)

  2. Hey HB, I've got an interview scheduled with the Deputy Headmisstress to see if I can get hired on at the school.

    And yes, I know what you mean about Prokofy and the confrontational comment exchanges, which I frequently skip, particularly if its on a subject that I'm not really doing the big comprendo on. For that matter, I can't really say for certain that I actually understood what this particular post of his was really about, but the key thing was that it got me to thinking--pondering on the "laboratory" nature of what Linden Labs has created. It reinforced to me the notion that SL is not just an animated chatroom, but an opportunity for people like us to try out a wide variety of social and creative endeavors utilizing this technology, and to study and evaluate our experiments (or social/cultural prototypes) as they progress and evolve.

    Another thing that my friend Aldo always said was that SL is "not just a transitional product it is a product in transition." That applies not just to what LL does with the software and how they sturcture their managment of the platform, it also applies to what we are doing with it. The kind of activities I engage in on SL are very different from what I was doing in 2005, and even in the last year, those activities have further evolved.

    Like I say, I may have completely misunderstood what Prokofy was trying to say, but my muddled reaction to it did give me some inspiration to reflect here on what is going on and to try some new experiments.

  3. I think the Potter people have a good system, but it requires true dedication from involved players to guard the gate. Unfortunately, many rp’rs have the attitude that a sim should just entertain them, rather than require they put forth any effort to improve the place. The system also puts a barrier in place that while preventing griefers, also prevents any casual players who can add a richness and diversity to the rp. Still, I give kudos to the Potter people for working so hard and helping so many new rp’rs.

    You’ve made some excellent points, but I think the best sims tend to follow the quality of the administrators. Is it someone that overlooks what their buddy is doing while nit-picking newbies? Or someone that won’t lift their av’s rear off the chair to handle a situation? A firm set rules which apply to all, with sensible and fair administration, seems to be the best answer I’ve seen.

  4. Hey Merryann,

    yes, that's true there are plenty of folks who are simply looking to be entertained without giving back very much themselves, as well as those who think the rest of the world is there to serve as an adoring audience for their rp genius. I'm not going to lie -- neither of those two types of players are my favorite kind of rp'er to hang around with, but hey, it's a big grid and there are plenty of sims and environments where those kinds of folks can find what they are looking for, and they can contribute successfully to the activities there.

    The heart of the matter is finding a place that is best suited to what YOU enjoy doing and find engaging. That's why I asked you the readers what you look for in an rp environment, and what kind of system or structures is best suited to your temperament and way of playing. In your case, you seem to be saying that you feel most comfortable in a community that is fairly open and easily accessed by a wide range of players including the casual rp'er or someone who is just getting started. But at the same time you refer a well-managed system with active admins who try to be balanced and keep the ensemble functioning as smoothly as possible.

    There are of course other people who prefer a more wide open, free-form rp environment, with minimal interference by the management.

    And if that is what you are looking for and enjoy best, there certainly are places to find it.

    But don't go into someone else's sim that isn't set up that way and insist that they accommodate your style of rp.

    In the case of the Potter-based community that I am looking into, the highly structured admissions process does turn some people off. I have heard very experienced rp'ers who I have great respect for say that they wouldn't care to play in a sim that requires an application. And that's cool. We all have to go play where we feel most comfortable.

    I could also see how someone just starting to rp could find an application and interview process like this to be somewhat daunting (though as it is actually applied, I could see it possibly serving as a means by which inexperienced players could possibly be prepped and nurtured so that their introduction to the rp in that sim wouldn't be quite so "sink or swim."

    But then, as I say, it isn't about finding a one-size-fits all system. No one has any right to spout "that's not how to run an rp sim" as some people are fond of telling us about Deadwood, or as I have heard some people say about the Hogwarts United community.

    Plenty of people seem to be showing up to play at both places. When I took my orientation class (one of maybe a half dozen being held inthe course of the week), there were ten new players around the table taking the class.

    Myself, I suspect that if I was to develop the structure for a new rp community, I would probably take an approach that incorporated some of the elements as you see them today in several different places: perhaps a loose, self-directed entry system for the general population and very careful and highly structured system like HU's for key roles and roles in which the problems usually arise, and a mixture of free-form interaction and larger structured storylines that people could slide into.

  5. It makes sense a Potter community would have to be run a bit like the school. And it makes sense that a Wild West sim might be as anarchic as the time and place being recreated. They both sound appealing for different reasons.

    What never makes sense to me is the folks who want to bend a culture into what they want. I wish I had saved a wonderful notecard I got once at an RP sim that said, basically, "You know, sometimes you do your best and the roleplayers do their best, and things just don't work out. Come back as someone else or go somewhere else." If folks could accept that, their online experience might be happier.

  6. Hey Blitz -- that makes a lot of sense, that rp sims have a tendency to develop admission and management systems that reflect the nature of the theme. Not sure why didn't I think of that before -- but then hey, I've been up since the middle of March.

    As for the "bend a culture into what they want" issue, it is odd how a lot of folks here seem to think that they are universally entitled to have the free and unfettered utilization of any sim, and that they should be able to play anywhere, anyway they want. But then hey, a free-ranging sense of entitlement is something we all can fall into, especially among those of us who aren't all that goddamn bright to start with. Still, surely even the thickest narcissist can figure out that if they aren't fitting in with a particular community, one of the beauties of the platform is that for a modest investment, any moron can jolly well go and start their own little version of paradise on a stick, functioning exactly the way they want it to.