What happened to text-based roleplays?
In the early 2000s—precocious but barely literate—I logged onto America Online, entered a chatroom, and observed a funny conversation.
It read something like this:
Username_1: *pulls out my wand* WINGARDIUM LEVIOSA! Wait… why isn’t my wand working?!
OnlineHost: Username_3 has entered The Tavern
Username_2: ((shoving Username_1 aside))
Username_3: OOC: wait… r u guys rping harry potter?
Username_2: OOC: yes
What was going on in this chatroom, exactly? It was a real-time, text-based Harry Potter role play, a regular fixture of AOL chatrooms back when people used AOL.
Imaginative, collaborative play online.
Chatroom roleplays (stylized just as ‘RPs’) worked like this.
Someone would start the game by posting a “starter” or “intro.” The intro would give some basic information about the setting and time of the role play and the user’s character. Typically, in the character description, you’d include something about their appearance, age, and anything pertinent to the plot—in the case of Harry Potter, their year, and Hogwarts house.
Sometimes, the starter would also include rules, especially if they were different from the chat's regular rules, like whether NSFW content like cybersex was permitted. Other users might come in at a specified time, set during the last roleplaying session, or they would enter randomly.
As each new person entered, they would usually observe for a little while, introduce their characters, and jump into the game. The action was denoted with asterisks or double parentheses depending on the person’s preference. If a user had a question or concern about the story or chat, they’d ask it by pre-fixing their statement with OOC, or “out of character,” or parentheses. In the example given above, username_3, the new user, is asking if the roleplay happening in a chatroom called The Tavern is Harry Potter-themed right now.
Role-playing was something betwixt and between the real-life imaginative play I was doing with my little sisters and friends, playing with dolls, and collaborative storytelling. I quickly became hooked.
Eventually, I graduated from real-time chatroom role plays to slower, asynchronous “play-by-post” role plays on forums, where the writing style was more literary.
Instead of denoting actions with asterisks or parentheses, the writing in these games would resemble fiction writing. Posters would retain their unique style and tense, but everyone would work together to build an ongoing story.
For example, the above chat log would be stylized like this:
Hermione pulled out her wand. She shouted, “WINGARDIUM LEVIOSA!” to find that her spell wasn’t working. Flustered, she asked Ron, “Wait… why isn’t my wand working?!”
Draco, standing in the entryway next to Hermione, pushes her aside.
I roleplayed religiously until I was a teenager, finally abandoning it for good before I went away to college.
But before I gave up roleplaying, I fell deep into the subculture. I learned that there were many different styles of roleplaying and that roleplaying had a long history, a history deeply rooted in the formation of the Internet as we knew it.
A micro-history of online roleplaying: the original metaverse?
A complete history of online roleplaying is a dizzying journey through the very beginnings of networked communication with a detour through tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons before finally arriving at Meta nearly 60 years later.
Before we jump into any history, though, the most important takeaway is this: It used to be that roleplaying was a central mode of engaging online. Roleplaying communities are considered some of the first digital communities and have defined so much of the scholarship on digital interaction.
Here’s a rough overview of how they started.
The answers vary depending on who you ask, but most agree that the first text-based virtual world was created in 1979 by Roy Trubshaw at Essex University, using the MACRO-10 assembly language. He named the game “Multi-User Dungeon,” or MUD1.
MUD1 was inspired by a suite of teletype, single-player, text-based adventure games (the genre of game the first Oregon Trail belongs to). All you need to know about these games is that they drew heavily from Dungeons and Dragons, were story-rich, and, to the chagrin of nerds everywhere, lacked a saving capability. They gave you a taste, without allowing you to immerse yourself, the way tabletop D&D did or MUD1 would.
From Trubshaw’s MUD1, the technology blossomed over twenty years, with different variants spinning up to accommodate different gameplay styles, commands, and interactions (MUCKs, MOOs, MUSHs, etc.). What remained static throughout was that people were entering these environments as characters; it was interactive; it was persistent; the culture, etiquette, and the topics were informed by or a part of fandom; and there was a vital element of collaboration in world-building.
What existing scholarship—or at least the scholarship that I am aware of—has largely, though not entirely, neglected is the parallel rise of real-time and play-by-post roleplaying, which is similar in texture to what you find on MUDs and others but does not occur in the same digital environment. My best guess is that some fandoms or roleplaying genres didn’t have complementary MUDs, so people improvised on Bulletin Board Systems, forums, and chatrooms.
The impact of text-based roleplaying…
Text-based roleplaying games still exist on today's Internet, though they’re a less visible piece of the ecosystem.
I don’t know if I would call text-based roleplaying obscure, but it’s not something you’ll encounter as easily as other modes of engagement (e.g., posting selfies or memes). It happens everywhere, on nearly any platform you can imagine—including Google Docs and wikis—but it’s somehow below the surface.
Compare this to the 80s and 90s, even into the early 2000s, where roleplaying was a well-known activity to regular Internet users and the people chronicling this new frontier of cyberspace.
A frequently given explanation for text-based roleplaying’s waning mainstream popularity may be the rise of video games. Much has been written about our decreasing attention spans, our increased inability to delay gratification, our insatiable hunger for stimulation, and the move away from text-based games, which rely heavily on imagination, to flashier games, replete with detailed, cinematic storylines, and exciting graphics feels like a natural step in the evolution of our relationship with technology.
Another possibility, however, is that our relationship with the Internet has changed in general.
The general Internet-using public is less likely to think of the Internet as a place where people are deliberately engaging in this type of imaginative, collaborative play. And while the Internet still may be, as Dr. Sherry Turkle described it in her book, Life on the Screen, a ‘social laboratory,’ it is no longer socially sanctioned to experiment with your identity explicitly. When roleplaying was a less obscure online activity, the Internet was also seen as a sandbox for trying on new lives.
Today, not only is online imaginative play stigmatized but so are more open explorations of the self. Switching career paths, sure; keeping your options open, yes; forever searching for your authentic self, of course, but only within a very narrow set of constraints. Even less dramatic activities like spinning up an “alt” Twitter or Instagram account where people lurk, post funny or obscene memes, or sexy photos of themselves carry a sense of the taboo.
Since we moved away from the primarily anonymous text-based Internet, where ‘no one knows you’re a dog,’ as one 1993 New Yorker cartoon famously put it, to the commercialized Internet attached to your real name, our digital selves are expected to be reflections of our physical world selves. If we change our digital self, we are expected to alter our physical self in kind.
Just think of one of the internet’s favorite insults: “you’re LARPing” (Live Action Roleplaying).
Discrepancies between the physical and digital are at best aspirational but usually just framed as deception, both intentional and delusional.
If a woman decides to use the photo-editing tool FaceApp to make herself appear younger (or, in some cases, a different person entirely), she isn’t ‘experimenting with her identity,’ she’s deceiving you. She is ‘catfishing,’ which is a betrayal of some imagined audience’s trust.
Of course, this behavior is different from the ‘social experimentation’ present on the early internet in so many instances. Things have changed—not least of which our primary mode of communication is the Internet now—there’s also an added commercial element. Does the woman who uses FaceApp to appear younger or prettier do it to experience an alternative digital life as a different person or increase the possibility of gaining social or financial capital? Perhaps it’s some combination of both.
But we rarely consider the potential for self-exploration here; it’s just lying.
It's a form of lying we’re constantly warned about, too. A familiar genre of self-help article now reminds its readers that the lives of internet micro-celebrities and even friends aren’t as good or as happy as they may seem on your Instagram feed or your TikTok For You Page. These warnings aren’t just about smoke and mirrors creating the illusion of a luxury lifestyle or edited appearances.
“As good or as happy as they may seem” reveals another snag. In today’s digital climate, affecting an emotion or personality that’s not “really you” is equivalent to being deceptive about your material conditions. Yes, not just emotions, but personality, too.
I recall an anonymous male Twitter user who had his photos vindictively leaked. The images revealed someone slight and balding. He was teased for all the usual reasons men get teased when they don’t fit a specific physical standard. But this also implied that he hadn’t been truthful about who he was because his internet persona was traditionally masculine.
As far as I know, even though he had never made any claims about his physical appearance, his attempt to convey a certain “toughness” was framed as a form of deception. This would have hardly been a betrayal in another life. Surprising, perhaps, but not a lie.
This isn’t to suggest that ‘catfishing,’ (or even role-playing outside of an explicitly defined environment) didn’t exist before social media. Tales of catfishing, before we even had that name for it, have been frequently evoked since the dawn of the digital community: the sexual predator hiding behind the mask of a little girl or young man; the fat guy at his desktop luring you into cybersex under the auspices of being a beautiful redhead.
It was considered part and parcel of the Internet, and more threatening situations were just anomalies to be aware of in an environment that generally accepted and encouraged this type of behavior. In early texts about the Internet, people would speak of their digital alter egos openly, “Online, I’m a 6’4” German man, and in real life, I’m….”
Often these digital alter egos didn’t involve deception: everyone was in on the joke; it was part of a roleplay. Sometimes they were ‘catfishing,’ though. Either way, people temporarily suspended their disbelief. It might have been “weird” to the non-Internet-using population, but a fact of life to other digital denizens.
This foreclosure on play by tying our digital expressions to our real selves has done more than just make roleplaying feel like abnormal or unusual behavior. I think it works in the opposite direction, too. For people who do still roleplay, an impulse grows to blur the line between game-life and real-life. The character ceases to be a character, and someone, something, to embody elsewhere.
Like this post? Check out my conversation about digital deception and the dawn of catfishing with Jack Crum and Peter Coffin here.