Posted by: Sean | February 19, 2009

Why do we role-play? revisited.

I had an experience yesterday – My laptop overheated on the bus, that’s why you got no column from me yesterday. (If anyone can explain my a macbook pro would overheat periodically and, if I’m not misremembering, habitually overheat while running on battery on a Wednesday morning, please let me know.) But I had an experience the evening before, too, and if it hadn’t overheated I would have written about it then. As such, I’m writing about it now instead.

But why am I writing about it at all? Surely the majority of readers of this site are role-players or at least role-playing friendly. You see the appeal. You appreciate why it is that we do what we do. However, many people don’t, and somewhat annoyingly/frighteningly get quite aggressive about their lack of appreciation. You get comments like, “I punch roleplayers in the nuts” or “I cant believe you post **** like this. And i cant believe im wasting my time actually posting. I’ll light a candle for you at church and hope god helps you”. (David Bowers gets all the best comments.) Even my own brother, who used to play WoW and isn’t aggressive at all, freely admits without prompting that he just doesn’t get role-playing. So I guess this post is for them. It’s an attempt to argue why we role-play, or at least, why I role-play.

See, two nights ago was an interesting night for me. Jess wasn’t at home and so I didn’t feel the need to play with her and pursue our mutually inclusive goals (which usually means levelling and role-playing). Instead, I decided to see if I couldn’t finish up the Orgrimmar reputation grind on my level 62 undead warrior. I was only a few thousand out from Exalted, and I’d wanted to hit Exalted with Orgrimmar since at least level twenty. The one problem with this is that it meant finding those few quests I had not yet done for that reputation. I hit the Barrens and road out for the Crossroads, and cheerfully discovered two quest givers I’d somehow overlooked.

Delighted, I set to the task of one-shotting quillboars and committing casual genocide. It went reasonably well. A few of the objectives were harder to find than I expected, but that was fine. I even found Chen’s Empty Keg along the way – Terrific, I said! I also brought in a slew of low level green world drops. Pretty soon I’d managed to slaughter a few dozen quillboar, romp down south to get the ingredients for various tasty brews, and otherwise bring my Orgrimmar reputation to within two thousand of Exalted. Making my goal looked more and more plausible.

So back to Crossroads, and I jumped on a set of quests involving killing harpies. That’s worthwhile, I remarked, and hurried up north. The first brief here was pretty straightforward: KIll a whole mess of harpies. Easily done. The second quest was somewhat different: Kill less harpies, but specific types of harpies. Sweet, doable. The final quest was the logic extreme of this chain of thought: Kill one harpy, named Serena. As I was marching out to do this, I ran into a lower level tauren druid. She was valiantly charging her way through the second stage of this questline (fewer harpies, but specific type) and I offered to help in a manner that could or could not be in-character. Grateful for the help, she dropped off the quest and came back to do the last one with me. I also lobbed at her as many of the green world drops as I could use. We fought our way through the harpies, killed the named one (I let the druid do most of the work) and said good-bye in character, which was a nice touch.

But it still wasn’t enough for my Exalted status. So it was a quick trip down to Feralas, where kicking the chitin out of some insects finished off the job. The green light show flashed, I had Exalted status, and the promise of a wolf mount was intoxicating.

… except it wasn’t. To be honest, it felt flat, boring and abstract. Yay, I was Exalted now. Really, it strikes me as a lot like turning sixty years old. You get to ride around in some vehicles you wouldn’t have when you were younger and there’s some nicer discounts available to you but it still feels remarkably like being fifty-nine.

No, you know what the most satisfying part of the night was? Killing Serena with the aid of a tauren druid. That’s right, the bit which got me nil experience, money, or anything beyond 350 reputation and a sword that was way too low level for me.

But why? The obvious answer is, “Because, you were with other people, and it’s always more fun playing with others than alone.” True, but not explanatory enough. Had we merely been accomplishing the actual goals of the quest (And presumably communicating out of character, along the lines of: “hey you need help with this quest?” to which she’d reply, “I’m actually quite capable of punctuation.”) then it would have felt just as flat, boring and hollow. Could it have been that I was helping someone, which always feels nice? It would have, but again, a simple, “thanks” like most people would offer would have been equally unsatisfying to me.

No, you know what it was? Why this felt so good?

It had a context.

It was no longer just about some boney configuration of pixels on a screen making a number at the bottom go up to 21000. It was about a crazy undead baron finding a struggling young druid and helping her with her quest. He exhibited some typical generosity which was met with surprise and happiness, and they departed with a cheerful wave. Was it great role-play? No, it was simply a charming simple little scene.

But it was enough to give the whole affair a context.

This is why, I think, I role-play, and I’m willing to go out on a limb and say it’s a huge part of why we all do. To whit, we see the game as fundamentally abstract – Random pixels bashing up other pixels by way of random numbers. Truly, earnestly “full of sound and fury, meaning nothing”. It’s not a story. It’s not meaningful. It’s certainly not worth playing in that form.

Which is why, I think, most role-players see non-role players leaping about and cheering that they got a full set of tier 6 armor and have exactly the same reaction as most non-role players have when they’re acting out a scene. In the latter case, they just can’t see the reward, the appeal, the point. In the former, we just can’t see any context, any meaning, any payoff.

“What’s the point of wasting all your time doing that?” They argue, “You don’t get anything for it.”

“What’s the worth of that stuff?” we reply, “You’re just going to replace it again soon enough.”

This, of course, makes the chasm seem unbridgeable – role-players forever misunderstood by non-role players and vice versa. Which I don’t truly believe; for starters, I think role-players to non-role players is a continuum, not a pair of categories. And even if we can’t convert non-role players to role-players, I hope that we can at least make them understand why it’s far more satisfying for us to make a new pair of epic goggles if we also get a scene out of them wherein we test them and make sure that they work. Maybe one of the other ‘blogs out there will explain for me why it’s so satisfying to put together a tier set.

All I know is, I want a context to my game. Role-playing is that context.



  1. Your laptop issue could be a few things from the battery being defective (which Apple will replace within the first year of ownership of your Pro) to a problem with the power supply on the logic board or the heat sink. If you are still in the first year of ownership or have AppleCare I’d bring it in to the nearest Apple Store or the nearest authorized repair shop if you don’t live near an Apple Store. Any of the parts and labor will be covered under your warranty if you have it. If your local place can’t repair it and have to dispatch it to one of Apple’s repair depots their turnaround is pretty quick.

  2. /signed

    Agree 100% with everything in this post.

  3. I would suggest that you download the iStat nano widget which will give a quick and easy readout of temperatures. This can be found on the Widgets page of the Apple Downloads section:

    It is in the Top 50 section.

    If the temps are unduly high, say constantly above 60 deg C., then I would suggest looking in Activity Monitor for a process that is taking up a lot of processor: sometimes these run away and they need to be quit for equilibrium to be re-established.

    This is usually the cause for overheating – the processor in constant overdrive.

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