The nature of SL is such that, no matter how realistic we try to make it, we are all role players to at least some extent, even those of us who have no desire to pursue that particular route. The moment we adopt an inworld persona, modify and dress up our avatar – even if only to reflect the real world reality – we are, in effect, role playing. It’s hard to avoid it, and indeed it is in many ways a necessary evil of the virtual world that we have to embrace in order to achieve a sufficient degree of realism and connection to make the platform work on a relatable level.
It doesn’t stop there, of course: Just as in RL, there is nothing to stop us indulging ourselves in more specific forms of role play for fun and for profit – it’s perfectly normal, usually healthy and often beneficial to stretch the boundaries of reality in favour of pursuing a different lifestyle, even if only a made-up one, and SL is the environment par excellence in which to pursue those leanings, as we well know.
Role play however, even in a virtual environment, needs to be tempered by reality, if it is not to get too out of hand. I always chuckle when I recall seeing a medieval re-enactment group preparing for battle before which they received a stern and solemn health and safety briefing: “I don’t want to see anyone being hit by swords, and please be careful, the ground is muddy, watch that you don’t slip!” It was amusing, but I suppose it was also necessary, in the same way that in character/out of character conventions are there to be followed and safe words are meant to protect. Role play is serious business!
There comes a time too, when we need to ditch the fangs and slave garb, put away the weapons and Middle Earth speech, and return to a semblance of normality; and sometimes I think people – especially in SL can lose sight of where that boundary may lie. I’m sure we can all think of occasions when we’ve encountered people who can’t seem to switch off the role play at the appropriate time and who remain in character even outside the appropriate setting. It can be irritating to be the unwilling participant in somebody else’s fantasy, and some would go so far as to say that the non-consensual appropriation of an unwilling participant into another’s role play scenario is both rude and overstepping the mark.
It can also be wildly amusing – particularly if those unwilling participants choose to humour the errant role player and play them at their own game.
A stranger turned up in the midst of one of our social get-togethers recently. We didn’t know her, but as always, we made her welcome and tried to involve her in our conversation. This is a double-edged sword in some respects – our conversations can range from the bizarre to the intense, and whilst we do try to help out those who might fall victim to them, we also don’t take any prisoners and are more than likely to have a bit of gentle fun at the expense of those who might show any weakness.
So, when it became clear that our new friend seemed to be struggling to understand that some SL pursuits fall squarely into the category of ‘not real’, it was inevitable that we were going to take advantage.
She told us that she couldn’t stay long because she’d be off to work shortly. Her job, a volunteer carer at a homeless shelter. I’m sure that you’re thinking what we thought: What a selfless vocation, and good for her. Except, it turned out that the homeless shelter in question, was inworld and her job as volunteer, was to attend to the needs of homeless men, in the 65+ age range, in a variety of ways. She would feed them, put them to bed, dress them and bathe them… And all of this explained matter of factly and in a way that clearly seemed to indicate that, as far as she was concerned, all of this was as real as the legitimate world in which we live. It was both surreal and a little disconcerting: We had inadvertently been subsumed into a parallel universe where virtual was, apparently, reality.
It was one of those moments where you wonder whether there’s more to the story of the person you’re dealing with than was immediately apparent, or were they just having fun with us – hard to say, although we’ve subsequently seen her again and it’s quite disconcerting to hear about her tending to her ‘homeless’ folks as matter of factly as anyone else would talk about RL.
Intrigued, the last time she disappeared to wash some virtual dirty old men, I did let curiosity get the better of me and allowed my cam to wander after here… And now I’m no so sure about her vocation, after all, unless looking after unfortunates in a homeless shelter is the same thing as sitting on the beach at the far end of the sim, chatting to a furry wearing bondage gear! (But who am I to judge?)
In the all night cafe
At a quarter past eleven,
Same old man is sitting there on his own
Looking at the world
Over the rim of his tea-cup
Ralph McTell – Streets Of London