Tobold brought up a question from his last Sunday open thread session. Namely, to quote from his post, “Can nice people role play villains in a hardcore game like EVE or Darkfall where villains really do upset their victims or do you need to be a b*stard in real life to be a b*stard in game?”. Tobold brought up an ancient post by Edward Castronova on Terra Nova where he made the assertion that playing a nominally evil character – a WoW Horde character for example – was not a nice thing to do. I think that Castranova’s argument has a point, IF the player is not roleplaying. Tobold does not strike me as a role player, but he does clearly make the distinction between a player griefing another player and a character.
This is a subject that often comes up for discussion on the forums of roleplaying worlds. There is currently a discussion on Amia’s forums on precisely this subject and it is a common theme here and there and everywhere else.
But it takes a certain set of design decisions and a certain player culture to cultivate a separation of OOC and IC evil.
In the context of in-character roleplay, not only is it possible to play an evil character without being evil yourself, but it is a rite of passage for a roleplayer; separating the men from the boys so to speak. When you take up the mantle of playing a villain you are – if playing the role well- increasing the enjoyment of other players by creating IC conflict and allowing the heroes to be heroes. In fact, villains are critical for the functioning of a roleplay environment because they provide the narrative conflict that would otherwise be absent or largely absent.
Well played villains are harder to play than heroes. I mean really hard. On the scale of difficulty things start at the easy end with the anti-hero, getting progressively harder with the straight laced hero and ending at the villain. The trick is to ruffle the feathers of a character while not ruffling the feathers of the player of that character. It has to be clear, usually through backchannels such as OOC text chat channels (the backchannel could also be voice, but most RP’ers find the man playing the female elf immersion breaking and text only keeps that out of the picture), that the characters actions are separate from the player. It is especially important for the player of a villain to keep things light and friendly in OOC chat, even while his character is kicking the dog. If this backchannel is not in place, some players – especially less experienced roleplayers and players who don’t know you yet – may come to the conclusion that the character is being a vector for the player.
The lack of OOC backchannels is also the Achilles heel of RPI MUDs; at least as RPI is defined by the purists. MUDs such as Harshlands and Armageddon, which fit the strict definition, lack an OOC backchannel of any kind and don’t have a safety valve to prevent IC villainy from being taken in an OOC context. Less restrictive definitions of RPI allow for an OOC backchannel, as long as it is physically separate from the IC channel (such as keeping it in a different wondow).
Also important – even if the character is a complete monster – is to refrain from inflicting real loss on the player of the victim if the game is not a competitive one and to use the backchannel for reaffirmation of it is a competitive one (thereby decreasing the competitive nature of the game of course). And now we’ve crossed the divide. A highly competitive player culture and roleplyed villains don’t mix; at least if you want to keep your player base. Keep Dance’s article on testosterone in (male) players of competitive games; especially when it is strangers in contact. In a highly competitive environment like Darkfall, the backchannel is not used as it would between friends, or to neutralize any OOC feelings that might arise from an IC interaction. It becomes a vehicle for douchbaggery in its own right. Playing an “evil” character in such an environment is probably as Dr. Castronova speculated.