So a discussion developed on Twitter yesterday over what it means to roleplay in an MMO. I got into a fairly lengthy debate with Scott of Pumping Irony over what turned out to be a difference in use of words rather than a difference of opinion. I only realized this upon looking back over the Twitter feed to research this post. Please note, Dear Reader, that I have edited some of these tweets only to sift the wheat from the chaff or for grammar.
I had made the comment, "Most of my MMO avatars have backstories and personalities different than my own. Do I portray them all the time in game? No. . ."
To which Scott responded, "To split hairs: an avatar represents *you* so why would you RP it? An RPG character however, is not you, and open for RP."
I interpreted this to mean that Scott didn't think he could roleplay in MMOs, partly because of a previous tweet. "CPUs can't RP." This interpretation was reinforced when I asked, referring to PnP RPGS, "So y'all had conversations in character and made decisions solely based on roled personality?" and Scott responded, "Actually my first 3 months in [Star Wars Galaxies] -- YES! I did exactly that because I came from heavy RP tabletop & didn't know better."
I was mistaken however, having missed this interchange between Scott and Petter of Gamereactor. Petter asked in response to Scott's splitting hairs about avatars, "Are they? That gnome in WoW looks nothing like me, often it's just a character I control. Or am I jumping into something again?"
To which Scott answered, "No, you made my point. It's a character not an avatar."
At this point, without knowing it, I entered into a (mostly) three-way discussion with Scott and Maxwell of Phentari Press over semantics. It turns out that Scott RPs in his head (I think), while playing MMOs, much as I do. The hang-up was more over my use of avatar as a synomym of character in the context of RPGs in general, and computer-based RPGs in particular. Scott's distinction between the two terms is an interesting one to me, particularly because I became a gamer in mid 2006, when those two terms along with "toon" had become synonymous to many players during the rise of MMORPGs. Ysharros has a similar problem with the use of toon instead of character.
Scott doesn't consider characters to be avatars. Both Maxwell and I took the stance that; regardless of whether the character resembles the player in appearance, personality or values; it does represent that player. I also proposed the converse, saying the player represents the character in the real world. Scott disagreed, "If I create the character, personality and make my choices based on that, it's not representing me at all. It's a character."
For my discussion, avatar can be defined as a movable image that represents a person in a virtual reality environment or in cyberspace. Character can be defined as the combination of traits and qualities distinguishing the individual nature of a person or thing or a person represented in a play, film, story, etc; role.
So an avatar is something that represents, and a character is something that is represented. I feel that the characters I play are a projection of me into the game world, even if that projection's "combination of traits and qualities" bares no resemblance to me. Perhaps the two words are not synonyms but metonyms, words interchanged because the concepts behind them are related. We could even say, in the case of CPRGs, that avatar is a synecdoche of character, because you can't play a character in a computer game without a graphical representation of that character.
Part of the Twitter discussion also included the proposal that actors performing in a production are not the characters they play, and may even choose to play characters fundamentally different from their own personalities. As Scott said, "That's akin to saying every actor who plays a murderer has the values of a murderer." While I agree with this assessment, I believe it to be a flawed comparison, because actors' roles are largely scripted. They do not make decisions for the characters the way roleplaying gamers do. It could even be said that the actor is the avatar of the character he portrays; that is, the physical representation of the character created by the writer. Also, having seen many interviews with actors who do play sinister characters, they do actually enjoy "playing" the role of someone with a radically different mindset from their own, to understand or even "become" that character. I believe Roleplayers do the same thing when they choose the assassin. It is a safe way to explore a different mindset.
I have previously, and often, set forth my own ideas on roleplaying and character development. In the end, I realized that Scott and I were basically on the same wavelength. Both of us roleplay in our own way whether online or around a table with friends (I have never done this, but am interested). Interestingly, Scott himself pointed out that most PnP RPGS don't include rules for roleplaying as a progression mechanic, either; though some DMs, such as Elementalistly of Lowered Expectations, do give out points for good roleplay.
This was what I got from the conversation. Lest anyone be offended by my post title, it was I who had missed the point. I encourage Scott, Maxwell, Elementalistly, Petter, and everyone else involved in the Twitter confab, to post their more complete thoughts here, or at least post the links to your own blog posts on the the subject. I'd love to hear from you.