RPG Evolution: Wait, Are We Still Role-Playing?

The world of make believe can be a spectrum when it comes to how we bring ourselves to the game.

The world of make believe can be a spectrum when it comes to how we bring ourselves to the game.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
I was invited to play at Gen Con a play test version of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons as a member of the press. We were playing with an official Wizards of the Coast staff member as our dungeon master. This was early days of D&D during the playtests, and other invited guests were there as well. When we introduced ourselves, one person introduced themselves by a pseudonym, because it was what he used for his podcast.

It felt awkward. We had all used our real names. Everyone but this one person, who said "it's funnier that way." To the DM's credit he didn't bat an eye, and I suspected this wasn't the first or last time someone he met in-person went by another name. We had to refer to this person as their character, played by a pseudonym, who was obviously a real person. It got confusing fast.

Nowadays, this is not uncommon. In fact, it's so common that it's rare to see a person use their "real" profile on the Internet, for good reasons. It's easy for me, a white male, to use my face and name. That's a level of privilege I have that not everyone can afford, and more than one influencer, scholar, or gamer has left a space due to hostility from anonymous harassers.

There's a spectrum of anonymity that now runs the gamut, and there are people playing characters, characters playing at people, and somewhere in meat space, real people behind them all.

The Reals​

Folks like myself, often coming from scholarly or professional backgrounds, use our names and identity as part of our profession. That is, our names show up in a variety of places as a source, so if we went by a pseudonym, it would mean we would lose that connection to our work. I do use a pseudonym sometimes ("Talien"), often because my real name is taken by someone else or because one word names are easier to enter in some online platforms.

Consistency pays dividends over time, but that's changed too -- I was early on the Internet and claimed "Mike Tresca" before many of my relatives could. There are now several other distant relatives with the same name who are probably unhappy with me.

That said, my day job by necessity has put me front in center representing a Fortune 5 company in front of thousands of people. I have nearly 20,000 connections on LinkedIn for a reason -- and have had to deal with death threats as a result. (P.S. I'm not a recruiter but work in recruitment brand, so if you need help finding a job feel free to connect with me!)

The Pseudo-Reals​

Then there's the folks who appear in one media or another as their characters. That is, they are using a persona. This can be as simple as a nickname or pseudonym that's not their real name. But it can go as extreme as virtual YouTubers (vtubers) who are digital overlays that modify their appearance and/or voice on behalf of a real person. They are essentially digital puppets, persistent visual/audio manifestations of someone's character online. This doesn't lessen their impact, and some have very strong fandoms -- Kizuna AI being one example. There are over 50,000 active Vtubers today.

Facebook and Instagram's parent, Meta, recently rolled out AI chats across Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Each of them has a very specific area of expertise. Relevant to fandom is Naomi Osaka as Tamika (anime-obsessed Sailor Senshi in training), Snoop Dogg as a Dungeon Master, and a role-playing fairy known as Thalia. Weirdly, Meta seems to be trying to use their social media icon's fame to lure people in, but then want the AI personality to be its own entity. The AIs have animated pictures that react to your questions, but if you ask them about the personality they're modeled after they deny it -- Dungeon Master absolutely refuses to admit he's Snoop Dogg, for example. It's hard to separate out the person from the AI as a result: Are you talking to Paris Hilton, or are you taking to Amber the Detective?

The challenge with these characters is their fluidity; since they're tethered to real people (either by their face, like the Meta's AIs, or by voice, for many vtubers), they do have some anchor to what happens in real life. With Kzuna AI, drama erupted when she split into three additional clones of herself, potentially due to Kizuna AI's voice actor (Nozomi Kasuga) being replaced. That's when things got complicated, where outrage over the treatment of the "original" Kizuna AI roiled the industry so much that it sank the parent company, Active8.

The Not-Reals​

Thanks to the rise of Large Language Models, fully-realized characters with no human at the helm are now possible. ChatGPT and its variants can now create a variety of NPCs, and Character.AI can make fully realized personalities that function on their own with only a brief description. It's was just a matter of time before a LLM was connected to a vtuber rig of a character, and sure enough an AI named Neuro-sama debuted in 2022.

Because LLMs are only as good as their datasets and filter their responses by interactions with humans, they can be manipulated into saying some awful things -- and many of the LLMs have been banned from social media platforms or taken offline for precisely that reason. LLM AIs are still in their early stages so this will likely get better over time as guardrails are instituted for how they operate.

Where This Gets Weird​

It's worth noting that vtubers often record themselves playing computer role-playing games. In essence, they are a character playing a character. Similarly, vtubers have appeared in a variety of media beyond the Internet, and interacted with living humans on more than one occasion. Because vtubers are managed by talent agencies, their purpose is to make money through brand partnerships, and thus vtubers appear on products, in video games, and other media.

Being virtual means freedom from constraints, an important form of representation for marginalized groups who are not normally given a voice. But taken to an extreme, vtubers and LLM AIs become less people and more concepts, capable of changing genders, forms, and voices. If the controversy over Kizuna's "cloning" is any indication, even human fans have their limits on what they will tolerate.

Which brings us back to role-playing at the table. As an administrator for RetroMUD, I have seen players who prefer to be referred to in real-life meets as their character names. I've also seen repeat players at tabletop gaming conventions refer to themselves as their character, because they play the same character every game.

Identity is fluid and increasingly, we can't (and shouldn't!) rely on looks alone to determine what defines a person. It's really about how an individual wants to be defined. The awkwardness comes into play when we're not all equally anonymous or using pseudonyms, which happens frequently on the Internet, or in spaces that are traditionally meat space. It's always an interesting experience to be the only one using their real name. But maybe that's on me.

As AIs proliferate, 3D rigs become more advanced, and deepfake technology becomes more prevalent, we're fast approaching an era where video is no longer more "real" than any other media, and no one will be able to tell if anyone else is real by online visuals -- in just under a decade. Once that happens, we'll no longer be able to distinguish NPCs from PCs on the Internet.

Your Turn: In what social spaces do you identify as your character?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
I was invited to play at Gen Con a play test version of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons as a member of the press. We were playing with an official Wizards of the Coast staff member as our dungeon master. This was early days of D&D during the playtests, and other invited guests were there as well. When we introduced ourselves, one person introduced themselves by a pseudonym, because it was what he used for his podcast.

This seems like a case of "you wouldn't actually know who they were unless they went by that name, as they have no face otherwise." Which would be an important thing in a press setting.

For example, if I ever went to a Convention, you couldn't possibly know who I was if I used my given name. In that context, my given name would effectively be a pseudonym because there would be a non-zero amount of people who could recognize this account. Not a lot, mind you, but it's a significantly greater number than the amount of people who would recognize me from anything I do locally. (And no, I'm not going to tell people my account name IRL unless it's significant)

Or for an even better example, because it parallels the media aspect: If Snoop Dogg goes to a Convention, he isn't going to walk around saying he is Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr.
 

Richards

Legend
I don't engage in any social media other than EN World, and it never occurred to me to come up with a pseudonym. I just went with my last name as my screen name and sign my posts with my first name. None of this "internet anonymity" for me.

Johnathan
 


It's just the evolution of something that's been happening for years.
Back in the day, I was publishing during the d20 3e days. Did it for two years. Then made more in a month than in Second Life creating custom simulators for clients in a month than those two years combined.

Part of that was marketing. I made an avatar, named him Foolish Frost, and played the part of every ones favorite uncle as I made enough of a name for myself to stay in the limelight for a few years. From there, went into the computer game industry.

Point is, a good persona will sell the person MAKING the product, and thereby the product.
 


Yora

Legend
The concept of people going by different names in different contexts really does not seem either strange or new to me. People have different identities for different situations all the time, and are known in them by different names. None of those names are more real than any other.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Identity is fluid and increasingly, we can't (and shouldn't!) rely on looks alone to determine what defines a person. It's really about how an individual wants to be defined. The awkwardness comes into play when we're not all equally anonymous or using pseudonyms, which happens frequently on the Internet, or in spaces that are traditionally meat space.
Something about this is rubbing me the wrong way. A criminal (okay, habitual pickpocket?) may want to be defined as a saint, but that doesn't mean that people should treat it as such. I can define myself as rich, but loaning me millions of dollars to build gold-themed hotels would be a big mistake.

Where do I identify as my character? In places where that's the norm. So, virtual worlds, I guess. Not real ones. Except Starbucks, because, well, it's funny when "Barack" might walk up to grab his old-fashioned doughnut.
 

talien

Community Supporter
The name and context matters too. It's not uncommon to be called a nickname, so if someone calls me Mike instead of Michael that's unlikely to raise any eyebrows. Talien is uncommon in America, but it's a real word that's used more commonly in other countries. There are however certain names that "sound like fantasy" in English -- calling oneself Greensward or Bilba Thimblethumb seem more like fantasy names. This is not to say those would be out of place either in the right contexts.

Where it gets awkward is "non-role-play environments" that are sometimes ancillary to the RP environments. When you go to a diner after a game at a convention, do you stay in character? The aforementioned Starbucks? When talking to the parking attendant or hotel staff?

In short, as much as RP-ing is "you" it's also interpreted through the people you interact with. When you encounter people who aren't on the same page of your role-playing persona, that's when there's a bit of cognitive dissonance (at least for me).
 


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