Roleplaying, where does it end?

This article was submitted and posted as an opinion editorial at During a site upgrade, there was a major crash, and the original boards were lost. At the time, the names of the person I wrote about (Altariel/Katie/Rob) were changed (Sundancer/June/Steve) because this was written immediately after the incident I describe, and because there was no reason to use RL names. This is the original text that was submitted. 

“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls,
It’s a mixed-up, muddled up, shook up world,
Except for Lola.
Lo, lo, lo, Lola, lo, lo, lo, Lola.”
The Kinks

You might be asking yourself, what does a song about a drag queen have to do with role playing? Well, it has to do with what I’ll call “gender-identity” in a way. In traditional pen-and-paper RPGs, you and your group of friends are sitting around the table, and unless one of those friends is female, chances are all the characters being played will be male.

For some reason, in traditional D&D, guys just will not play girls, because if your group actually does RP (by speaking in character, haggling, leering at the pretty NPC barmaids, etc.), then most males just will not play a female character. Or if some brave soul does “gender-bend,” then the results are usually a male character with a female name. In general, guys just can’t get into the role of a female very well.

In the case of online RPGs, this can be even more of a truth. Despite the rise in female gamers, the vast majority of female avatars in any online game are still played by real life males. I’ve heard many reasons for why this is, ranging from “If I have to stare at my toon’s ass running around, I’d rather look at a woman’s than a man’s” to “I can act all girly and stuff and get free things from other guys.” To be honest, I have no problems with this – to a certain degree. Eventually, the “fake females” will be exposed for the males they are, and then it’s over. But what happens if this unveiling never occurs, or if it occurs long after the fact that you would have thought it would?

Since I’m female in RL, I just prefer to play female characters / avatars in games. I’ve always had female avatars in games like Quake and Tribes, so when I started playing AC way back in August of 1999, I automatically created female characters. I made no secret of the fact that I was female in RL, but I also never made any real effort to broadcast that fact either. I have RPed in AC quite a bit, and have even had an ingame “romance” with another character, but one thing that was clear – anything going on was between the characters only. I spoke out of character with the other players involved regularly, yet our character were always “on,” so to speak.

My current character started out as an adventurous mage that liked to flirt with men – all men. I came up with a backstory for her, wrote stories about her life ingame, and generally had a great time. At the same time, I played a different character (also female, long since retired) who was very reserved and shy. There were many people that were surprised when they discovered the player behind those two very different characters was the same.

Role playing isn’t always standing in town proclaiming “Forsooth! Unjust knave, I shall smite thee for thine offenses against mine lady!” That’s not even normal speech for the medieval time period most online RPGs are set in. It has to do with deciding on a certain set of actions for your character and following through. Just as I had decided my mage was going to be a flirt (and she did flirt, outrageously), others may decide to play a savage caveman that runs around killing anyone and everyone, and only communicating in grunts and one word sentences. There was even an entire guild in the early days of AC that decided to role-play their decision to become rPK, and even though they were blasted for it (RPing had almost died out more or less on DT by then), they did a great job of it.

But the whole idea of role playing is generally thought of as something you do when you play your character in the game. It has no bearing on what you do in real life. Although, as a friend mentioned once, “You can do both…there is no better person to RP than…yourself.” He’s right, because after all, most RPed characters end up just being extensions of our own personality eventually. Or in a game environment, especially if you have been playing with the same group of people for a long time, you simply drop the role-played aspect of the character and it becomes “you.”

This is what happened to me basically, once I began to use voice comms with the rest of my guildmates. It’s foolish to talk over the internet to someone and having them call you by a character name. We quickly reverted to using RL names, and have become friends online. After a while, you think you know a person a bit, and begin to consider them a friend. For me, the friendships I’ve made ingame have helped keep me interested in whatever game I’ve been playing, since if I can’t stand the people I’m gaming with, why bother?

Now, making online-only friends can be a foolish thing to do, because you are trusting that what the other person tells you about themselves is true, especially when you talk / laugh / joke/ argue daily in IRC, on message boards, ingame, etc.

But what happens when it turns out that what you thought was a friendship with a particular person, formed over 2 years of gaming, turns out to be false? What happens when you discover that everything you thought you knew about a person, formed over months of talking in IRC, ingame, over the message boards, is a complete and total lie? Some people would say that it was my fault for taking as truth anything told me by someone I didn’t know. And perhaps that is true, but after such a long time, I find it hard not to think that what I’ve “seen” isn’t true.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, some guys will play and RP a female character in order to get things from others. This is the reason why one female guildmate of mine said “When it comes to the whole issue of believing if someone is actually female in real life, I think that the more “feminine” someone seems, the less chance they actually are female.

If they are constantly making sure everyone knows they are female IRL and doing an excessive amount of flirting etc. (except maybe when roleplaying a flirt *wink* Rhyssa), there’s a much greater chance they are simply a guy trying for handouts/attention, whatever.

I’m not even sure why so many people care if someone is male/female IRL, its not like they’ll ever meet anyway. When I play female chars, I get asked the question “Are you really female” all the time, and it gets kind of tiring. That’s one reason I like to play male characters once in awhile, since no one has ever asked if I’m male IRL.”

She has a valid point. Males are never asked that question, because it’s generally assumed that anyone playing an online game is probably male anyways. I have a male guildmate whose maintains that “in regards to individuals online that claim to be female…if I don’t know them, they’re treated as your average male pencil necked geek…

As corny as it sounds, there is a sort of vague “sisterhood” between females in online games – mostly because even now we are still playing in what is normally considered a man’s world. Most females playing RPGs don’t feel the need to trumpet that they really are female in real life as well (generally – I have met exceptions to this). That’s why when I got to know a young woman who joined my guild back at the end of 2000, I didn’t think anything of it. I had known her casually before she joined the guild, spoken to her plenty of times in IRC, etc., and had given her plenty of advice about various subjects.

Altariel hung out a lot in our IRC room during the day, joking with everyone in there and talking about RL issues with us, including me when I could hang on the internet all day at work. As I said, I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m female in RL, and since I am over 30, I had no problems talking to her (or Katie, as she finally felt secure enough to let us know) about “girl things” when she would ask for advice – about dating, guys, how to handle jerks, etc. – especially since I was talking to someone who was only 20 at the time.

Granted, she could be temperamental sometimes, but she never really tried to trade on her gender, and generally acted like what I expected a young adult of that age to act (hey, I’m old now, what do I know?). Finally though, there was a series of events that lead to her leaving the guild and then AC. It was her choice, many of us felt bad she’d left, but we still talked in IRC regularly.

There was one incident, not long after she quit AC, when another guild member posted (I forget why the topic came up) that he’d heard the player of Altariel was actually male, not a female as everyone thought for the past 2+ years. An allied guild’s monarch has access to our message boards, and being as he (and 2 other friends) were all RL friends of Altariel’s, we all believed him when he said that Altariel was definitely female in RL. Why would he lie to us, especially since she no longer played the game and it would make no difference if she were male or female anyways?

Recently though, the RL friend that had offered his assurances came back from a road trip he and 2 other friends took with Altariel/Katie to see another former guildmate of theirs. They made a video of the trip, and he posted it, promising “a big surprise” for us all.

Anyone who can’t see the surprise coming hasn’t been reading. Yes, Altariel wasn’t a young woman named Katie; Altariel was actually a young man named Rob who was playing a character named Katie who was RPing a character name Altariel. And he was good at it, very, very good at portraying a female. While I don’t claim to be the most insightful person on the block, I was surprised and more than a bit pissed off about it. And I wasn’t alone, judging by a few of the comments posted in regards to the “coming out” that occurred.

A lot of us were hurt by this revelation. Why? Well, the other female guild mate I quoted earlier also said “I don’t mind that Altariel roleplayed a female, but it’s wrong to give the impression of being female IRL when you’re not. That’s no longer roleplaying…that’s lying.”

The lying that she brought up was trounced upon by some of the others in the guild, that seemed to have no problems with what “Altariel” did, or did not know “her.” They claimed that it was role playing, not lying. The reasons that some people were upset were summed up best by someone else though “a lot of people were hurt in one way or another by the way [he] played and some are dealing with it by making jokes. It was a very drawn out lie (Yes…he was “Role Playing”, but to all of us who accept our guild members as friends, and in some cases an extented family of sorts, it was a Lie.) and that is quite offensive…especially when you toss in You backing it up.

No one hates you, and I’d say at least most people don’t hate [him] for how he played. Most of us are at least somewhat upset though, and that’s totally understandable.”

That explained the crux of the situation – many of us consider our long time guildmates almost like an extended, online family. There are some of us that have been gaming together for close to 3 years now, some for longer, and many of us are planning on gaming together for the foreseeable future. So to find out that someone you trusted, spoke to about RL issues, helped, were helped by, trusted and considered a friend was lying to you about one of the basic tenets of the relationship…that sucks.

There are some members of the guild who, despite having been part of the guild for a long time, simply do not consider the others they game with as “friends” of any sort. To one, the people he games with online, or replies to in the boards, or argues with in IRC, are simply other people traveling the same path, but they are not friends. He and I have actually argued the opposite sides of the “friendship” view for online relationships, and he was also taken in by “Altariel.”

“Well I don’t think it’s fair to simply say “[He] was role-playing, so it’s ok. Deal with it”. Altariel’s femininity was not merely an in-character thing; she was not role-playing her character all the time (not even most of the time). She spent a lot of time talking about out-of-game stuff with people, and she continued to mislead people even when she was “out of character”. That’s where the anger you are hearing is coming from. Because, no matter how you want to paint it, when she carried that fake personality over the line into real-life discussion… it was no longer role-playing. It was lying.”

I know I had several fairly lengthy “real life” type of discussions with Altariel. I remember one time she was feeling really depressed and was complaining how she didn’t have a boyfriend (in real life) and all kinds of stuff like that. I was trying to be a friend and help console her, help cheer her up a little. I probably spent an hour talking to her that time… one of many times we spoke as buddies. Turns out I was wasting my time… the person I was spending my valuable time trying to help out didn’t even exist. That’s not role-playing, my friends. That’s using people. That’s lying. That’s manipulation. And that’s why people are angry.

“I think Rhyssa and others are perfectly justified in feeling the way they do. What “[he]” did was wrong. But he’s certainly not the first to do it and won’t be the last. It’s actually pretty common online, from what I understand. It just goes to show why you can’t trust anyone online, period. It’s why I try to avoid making friends with people on DT or anywhere else online.

Anyway, I’m not nearly as upset as you might think. Just a little disappointed to see my theories about online friendships being proven valid yet again.”

So this brings about the question – when does role playing end in an online RPG? I can understand wanting to RP your character, but that should be something that you maintain separately from your RL self. I’ve gamed with people who simply do not break character, yet I have spoken to them out of game, and away from the game context that we normally interacted in, and he was not his character. Even RL questions that were asked were answered in character for him. That’s completely fine.

But while this is probably far more common than I think, the fact that someone would make friends with people, carry on conversations about RL topics (and I’m not just talking about game related topics. We would discuss anything and everything in IRC – yes, the conversation did get a bit raunchy at times) and generally get to know others, yet having it all be fake, is a surprise to me.

It’s sad that something as basic as making friends online has to be such a trial, but as has been said before plenty of times, “people are broken.” It’s discovering exactly how broken they are that is the hard part. I’m not planning on stopping being friends with those I only know online, nor am I going to try to discover if each and every new person I meet online is telling me the truth (I’m na├»ve, not stupid), but this “betrayal” almost, has helped to make me just a bit more jaded.

So where does someone draw the line between role-playing a character, and basically lying to your online circle of friends that you have made? Is there even any reason to worry about this sort of issue? I know that some people RP regularly (I still do in games myself), but is it still considered RPing in a case like this, or has it crossed the line into lying about yourself (which no one can prevent anyways.) It’s all about faith and trust. You have to believe that the person you interact with isn’t lying to you, and unless they are part of my current circle of online friends, I’d have a bit more trouble doing that now.

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