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The Strange "World" of Internet 'Role-Play' Has Gòne Mäinstream

On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. Unless you tell them you are.

On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. Unless you tell them you are. Or that you’re a vampire. Or a werewolf. Or a 90s-era professional wrestler.

The fake social media profile is an old joke, but lately it’s evolving. Maintaining a fictional online identity has become a lifestyle, a social pursuit, an act of collaborative fiction. The role-playing universe has migrated from the fringes of the internet to that blandest of social networks, Facebook, where it ticks along in parallel to reality. And as role-playing edges closer to the mainstream, it raises questions about just how ‘real’ any of us are in our everyday online lives.

This month has been an interesting one for issues of internet identity. Most recently, Google Plus retired their ban on fake profiles after three years of steady refusal (this would be a landmark in online privacy, were anyone still using Google Plus). Joanie Faircloth, a woman who used Tumblr posts and XOJane comments to accuse musician Conor Oberst of rape, retracted her accusations after months of campaigning against him, admitting she made the story up. And Gilberto Valle, the ‘Cannibal Cop,’ was released after his conviction for plotting to murder and eat several women online was overturned. Consulting messages gleaned from Valle’s profiles on fetish websites, the judge dismissed his plans as nothing more than fantasy role-play.

Facebook has become host to countless role-playing communities, with one for every conceivable fandom.

The question of whether something online is ‘real’ or not remains blurry. Somewhere between the Instagrammed cupcakes that no one actually eats, the dubious viral children and the tiger tamers on Tinder, we smudged the line between fact and fiction. Social media thrives on self-delusion: even Facebook, for all its regime of innocuous Likes, encourages us to present only the positives in life: the sunsets, the restaurant meals, the group-hangs at the beach. The issue is that we all lie online: anyone who’s tried online dating knows that.

Now, we find ourselves at a curious cultural moment: that of fantasy games going mainstream. Facebook has become host to countless role-playing communities, with one for every conceivable fandom.

The role-playing game dates back to the 1970s, but social media has allowed these collaborative fan fictions to rapidly evolve and cater to tiny niches. What differentiates Facebook games from their predecessors is the players’ readiness to blend their own persona with fiction. Facebook is notoriously strict about fake names, even asking users to rat out friends who use them, and this doesn’t sit well with role-players. Even now there is a split between those who play as themselves and those who chance it using pseudonyms, with fake profiles clustering around controversial RPs like ‘Mental Asylum,’ ‘Slave Market,’ and anything involving wolves (‘wolfplay’ communities appear to be a literal bête noire of the role-playing world, with their lexicon of ‘wolfspeak’ coming in for targeted, often hilarious, criticism).

But by and large, players are content to combine role-play with their personal profiles. The consensus is that most of these players are very young, likely in their early teens. As a generation who learned to write fanfic before they learned to tweet, it makes sense that they view Facebook as a creative outlet. The games they engage in—everything from werewolf conventions to Sherlock-themed mafia wars—serve as an outlet for the bitching, the drama, and the Machiavellian self-advancement which might otherwise turn into cyberbullying.

Screenshot of Sherlock Mafia RP Facebook page

They have grown up with a very different concept of ‘me IRL’: any online setting is fair game for self-fashioning. Fantasy role-play, the ultimate anti-selfie, helps to ease players into real life. It serves as training for the day when they role-play as themselves.

The time and care the average player puts into building up their character could put a 90s Tamagotchi owner to shame. Reputations and relationships are slowly forged through one-on-one chats supplementing bigger events on the group page. Finding a partner is crucial, and those who can’t must resort to trawling singles pages.

Role-playing is thought of as one of the more female-friendly parts of the gaming world, one where the male gaze and gender roles can be subverted (one where, for example, Sherlock can be impregnated with Watson’s baby). There is something benign about role-play games: thematically they range from the inane (K-pop groups and shows like Glee and Pretty Little Liars) to the baffling and forlorn (the ‘Roleplay Prom,’ anyone?). They lean towards camp, dwelling on old TV shows, rewriting unsatisfactory endings and keeping long-forgotten fandoms alive.

At times it feels as though role-players hide behind their dense web of abbreviations for protection from a skeptical public. There’s a lack of coherence across role-play communities, with no two identical explanations of how the games actually work. To make up for its conflicts, this unruly world polices itself: each page specifies an age limit and their own grammatical etiquette.

To join the social network but then act out of character confounds the patterns Facebook aims to record.
Formatting and spelling are valued, as are the word counts which ‘literate’ role-playing communities enforce (“Your starters and replies MUST be at least five sentences long” states the group “Literate Roleplay!☆彡”). Posts are gently overwritten in that very internet way: players include accents, vocal tics, even animal noises. The fourth wall is occasionally broken with messages enclosed in brackets, politely asking for permission to take part.

Role-players disapprove of ‘god modding,’ when a player writes an invincible character who is boringly immune to attacks. Another common complaint is failure to finish games: players drop off, life gets in the way, and communities diminish. As with blogs where the author apologizes for being ‘so busy’ only to disappear several posts later, Facebook is littered with communities which have streamed off into nothingness, sounding boards full of unheard ‘prompts’ and bitter announcements that the page owner is thinking of giving up.

Roleplay Gateway, a site which claims to be 50,000 strong, features a chart of its most popular role-plays. Those which thrive consistently are not always predictable: Harry Potter plots do well, as do Skyrim and Hunger Games role-plays, and various factions of vampires and werewolves from Twilight. One of the more surprising themes is WWE wrestling, a hyperbolic world unto itself which is detailed in this Reddit post (expect multiple marriages to WWE Divas, family feuds, and a prison term for a man named ‘Nitro’).

For all its eccentricity, role-playing appears to come naturally to those who do it. And yet it goes against everything Facebook wants of us—a service that even manages to harvest shadow profiles on people that haven’t signed up. To join the social network but then act out of character confounds the patterns Facebook aims to record. In a small way it disrupts the slow, pernicious blandness that social media encourages, letting our alter egos spill out messily around the edges.

It gives rise to a new age of consensual catfishing, one in which we are finally at ease with the fact that our online presence has always been a little bit fake.

90s roleplay

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