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.


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

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aramis erak

Individual Identity is far more a social focus overall in Western societies than it was 30 years ago.
Diversity is, too.
This runs at odds to the traditions of most societies worldwide which were focused upon faith and patriotism, and shared identification with the majority... and in many places, still are.

The Internet has long been a place of pseudonyms & cryptonyms (codenames). Cryptonyms often not by choice, but becoming rarer, and back in the 90's, often formulaic. My university issued username was a formatted cryptonym - first letter was which campus, second was type of user, rest was initials, and if needed, a numbert suffix. The campus codes were A = Anchorage, M = Mat-Su college, F = Fairbanks, J=Juneau, P = Prince William Sound Community College...
The status codes S = student, N= staff, F= faculty, X = Helpdesk and IT, A = Alumni. I don't remember what T was for, but I saw a few of those, too.


I've had my online handle for a long time and in many discords in voice that's how I'm referred because we don't dox people with their real names unless everyone in the group agrees.
When our discord server had a physical meet up people would still refer to me by my online handle because that's how they know me.

Just as sometimes I go by my full name and sometimes by a shorter version of my given name.

Then we get into discussions of people transitioning but haven't fully switched to their new name and some people don't know the new name. Names are fluid and online names even more so.

Golden Bee

Many are my names in many countries. Mithrandir among the elves, Tharkûn to the dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf, to the East I go not.

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