The depth of role-playing

I’ve been secondliving for a few months now, so, in terms of Second Life, I guess I can be considered as an adult. I have explored exotic places and met intriguing people. And, precisely, people’s approach to secondliving is what I find most fascinating of Second Life.

When you meet somebody in Second Life, you can see him/her, observe his/her behaviour, and talk to him/her by typing text and reading what they type back. This form of interaction is not as rich as meeting somebody in real life, of course, but is rich enough as to allow for behavioural styles that deserve reflection.

In order to discuss this, we need to clarify some terminology first. A Second Life resident is somebody who secondlives, that is, who lives in Second Life. You perceive residents through their avatars, that is, the 3D, more-or-less-person-shaped little figurines that you see on screen through the Second Life client application running on your computer. Every resident (it is commonly assumed) is “backed up” by a real person, by somebody out there in real life that uses the computer to “direct” his/her avatar to do and say things. This real person is called a user.

Having established the difference between residents and users, we can go ahead with the discussion.

Very soon after starting my second life I realised that there are two basic kinds of residents. Some let you “see through” and perceive the user behind them; and some do not. Let’s call the former transparent residents, and the latter opaque residents. Transparent residents have no problem in letting you know their real-life names, the place where they live in real life, what they do, what they like, etc. Opaque residents, on the other hand, act as if there were no actual user behind them, pretending to be oblivious to the fact that they are, in fact, role-playing.

The difference is not black or white; in fact, many degrees of transparency can be found. The most transparent residents I met use Second Life as a rich chat room: they come to type and read, to meet others and communicate with them. They do have an avatar appearance because that’s how Second Life works, but they are not too worried about “building their avatar” or developing a character. They are more concerned about the message than the medium. They may reveal their real-life details or not, probably depending on trust issues, but following the same patterns that they would follow if they were interacting with others in real life. This could be a conversation between fully transparent residents:

Pete: Hi, Sarah, how are you today?
Sarah: Not too bad. Yourself?
Pete: I’m sick. I’m in bed, actually. I must have had some nasty stuff for dinner last night that is giving me a hard time.
Sarah: Poor thing, that sucks. I hope you get well soon. Weren’t you planning to go away for the weekend?
Pete: Yeah, but I’m starting to doubt that it will be possible…

As you can see, Pete and Sarah talk about their real lives.

Completely opaque residents, on the contrary, would never mention real life or admit that there exists one. It is not that they are in insane people or anything like that, but that referring to real life actually wreaks havoc with the immersive process that allows us to live in Second Life. In other words, if a resident mentions the real life, he/she is acknowledging that Second Life is fictitious, and that destroys the magic. Like at the movies, opaque residents want to pass through the fourth wall and “live the action”. Any distraction that pulls them away from the simulation destroys the moment. This could be a conversation between two opaque residents:

Julie: Hi, Jack.
Jack: Hey! Long time no see.
Julie: Yeah, I know… I’ve been so busy.
Jack: Busy? What have you been up to?
Julie: Well, I just got myself a new house, and I’m decorating it.
Jack: Nice! I hope you throw a wild house-warming party.
Julie: Absolutely. I will let you know when the house is ready.
Jack: Cool. And where about is the house?
Julie: In Cichlid, on the beach.
Jack: Oh, how nice. Must have cost you a fortune.
Julie: Well, yes. I had to borrow some money, actually. I hope it’s worth it!

You need to be a bit “into the game” to understand the conversation properly. The house that Julie has bought is a Second Life house, of course, and Cichlid is a place in Second Life, not a real-life place. Similarly, the money that Julie has borrowed to buy the house is Second Life money (Linden dollars), and the party that she will throw to inaugurate the house will be a party in Second Life.

I imagine that one chooses to be transparent or opaque (or anything in between) depending on their personality and tastes. It is hard, though, to change your degree of transparency once you’ve settled down for a particular one, especially if you develop a network of friends that get used to your resident’s personality. In addition, being opaque is hard: since real life has an unquestionable impact on your second life, you need to be able to integrate every single effect of the former over the latter seamlessly. For example, imagine that Julie is an opaque resident who decides to go on real-life holiday with her real-life partner for three weeks, during which she won’t be logging on to Second Life at all. Just before she leaves, she logs on to Second Life and talks to her friends:

Julie: Hi y’all.
Jack: Hi Julie.
Julie: Sorry to interrupt. Just wanted to say that I am going away for a few weeks. I am trying to find some exotic furniture for my new house and I am travelling to Pyrion to shop till I drop.
Jack: Sounds exciting. Well, have a nice trip.

As you can see, Julie makes something up in her second life to accommodate the effect that her real life has over it. This is more or less easily done in advance, but sometimes it can turn really difficult to manage if things come up unexpectedly. For example, I’ve heard residents say things like “sorry, a gravitational wave just took me away for a second” to excuse the fact that their Internet connection had dropped momentarily. Or the phone rings, or your daughter comes to your desk, where you are immersed into Second Life, to ask you to help her with her homework. If you are a true opaque, you will integrate any of these effects nicely and seamlessly.

In my experience, no resident is fully opaque. Sooner or later you need to recur to real life to explain something. I imagine you could find a way to never mention real life, but it would be too costly and intricate. It is a matter of balancing whether a small fourth wall breach is more or less expensive, in terms of immersive cost, than having to manufacture an almost unbelievable story.

There is another aspect to opaqueness that I find particularly interesting, and that is having a past. Very frequently we need to refer to our past, and Second Life residents are no exception. Since, as an opaque resident you cannot use your real-life past, you need to come up with an alternative one that matches your resident’s personality and present characteristic. For example, the previous conversation between Jack and Julie about Julie’s new house could have been slightly different:

Jack: And where about is the house?
Julie: In Cichlid, on the beach.
Jack: Oh, how nice. Must have cost you a fortune.
Julie: Well, yes. Fortunately, I just inherited some money from an old auntie.

Julie’s reference to her background shapes her past. Now, Jack knows that she had an aunt who died and who was probably quite wealthy. Julie needs to be aware that this bit of information can be remembered by Jack, and, if she wants to keep the fourth wall intact, she must be consistent with it all the time. In order to achieve this, some highly opaque residents manufacture a complete past (and even a present) that provides them with a comprehensive context in which they feel comfortable. This is akin to creating a character in a novel, for example.

Conflicts can appear. Some transparent residents think that being opaque is lying, because you are making up a fictitious character. To this claim, opaques respond that they are lying no more than a writer lies when she creates fictional characters and situations, and that, after all, Second Life is about that, a second life, not an extension of your real one. Some opaques believe that transparents pervert the spirit of Second Life by letting the real world seep into the virtual one on purpose. Most residents, however, usually tolerate different attitudes and can adjust themselves to different kinds of scenarios. Despite good will, some weird situations appear sometimes:

Beth: Wow, look! It’s snowing!
Iris: Yeah, and freezing too! Hang on, I’m grabbing a coat.
Beth: Oh, don’t be silly. This is only a game.

In this conversation, Iris is an opaque who, naturally, reacts to the sight of snow through the window by grabbing a coat. Beth is not that opaque and reminds her that the snow is not real snow and that it won’t make her feel any real cold. To the user behind Iris, this may have catastrophic effects on her immersive state, breaking the magic of her role-playing. Of course, a good opaque would reply cunningly:

Iris: Game? I can’t see any game. I only see snow outside and I want my coat! And you’re gonna freeze if you go out in that skimpy dress!

This can mitigate the fourth wall breach initiated by Beth if Beth takes the hint and role-plays along.

All these behaviours can show different nuances and sub-styles, and, in fact, each resident has its own personal approach to Second Life.

The last aspect I want to mention is that of meta-role-playing. I have known opaque residents who frequently interact with transparents; in situations like this, opaques are often pressured, even unintentionally, to “drop the nonsense” and openly acknowledge that “this is a game”. Sometimes this ends up in the opaque abandoning his/her stance and becoming more transparent; some other times the opaque just walks away. And some other times, meta-role-playing comes into action. Meta-role-playing means that the opaque, who probably has developed a virtual past as part of his/her resident’s background, creates an additional fictitious character (called the meta-character) to represent the supposed real-life user behind the avatar, and discloses this meta-character, rather than his/her real self, to his/her transparent acquaintances. For example, imagine that John is a real-life person that owns a highly opaque Second Life resident called Melvin. Since John plays opaque through Melvin, he won’t accept real life seeping into Second Life, and therefore he develops Mike, a fictional character that he uses as if he were the user behind Melvin. Imagine that John lives in real-life Boston, and decides that Mike lives in real-life London. A conversation between Melvin and his transparent just-known friends could occur like this:

Melvin: Nice to meet you.
Suggy: You too, Melvin. I am based in Singapore. Where are you?
Melvin: I live in London.
Suggy: Oh, that’s nice. Must be late at night there, right?
Melvin: Yes. It’s 4 am, in fact. I should be sleeping!

Suggy is openly transparent, and has no problem in asking directly about Melvin’s real-life details, which, by the way, is poor etiquette, since it assumes that Melvin would be willing to be transparent. Since Melvin is opaque, he will never mention his real life, and therefore plays the meta-role of being a real-life person called John living in London. From Suggy’s perspective, Melvin is quite transparent, since he talks openly about his real-life details. As long as Suggy does not realise that this is a meta-role, the illusion is maintained. And it works for John too, since he is never introducing real-life information into the virtual world because Mike is as fictitious as Melvin, with the only difference that Mike is supposed to live in the real world whereas Melvin inhabits the virtual world.

If transparents may criticise opaques for making up fake virtual pasts, they may criticise meta-role-players even harder, because they are making up fake real-world characters. To some transparents, this is plain lying and therefore not tolerated. To some opaques, it is the only way to survive in a world so fragile that all your emotions can crumble down at a simple question such as “Where are you?”.

What do you think? If you have a second life, are you opaque or transparent?


3 Responses to “The depth of role-playing”

  1. 1 Nick 16 December 2006 at 10:56

    In second life a transparent character establishes an extension of their real life. An opaque character seeks invention. It may be possible that those who have spent a long time living in secondlife have accrued a rich history of experience in this world. This allows them to refer to these extensive experiences in their conversations when interacting. They would have common experiences within their secondlife network, which they can refer to as their past. It makes it easier to immerse oneself entirely and adopt the posture of an individual in the real world. Recent arrivals do not have access to this rich online tapestry and need to define themselves more against their real world identity and circumstances. Developing an alteranative past history is a time consuming process and I would be confident in believing that not many users come with an invented history completely documenting their fictitious past of two decades or more. Interaction will necessitate the consideration of issues not previously considered and with time the users invented history becomes more complex and real.

  2. 2 cesargon 18 December 2006 at 17:25

    I fully agree with you. What puzzles me is that, according to your hypothesis (which I share), newcomers would tend to start up as transparents, because, as you say, they have no access to experiences and referents within Second Life. Only after living there for a while you accumulate the necessary experiences as to become an opaque. However, it is very hard to change from being a transparent to being an opaque, because you have already disclosed your real-life identity. This transition may happen some times, but I am inclined to think that a significant number of opaques work as opaques from the very beginning. Perhaps they just absorb information and experiences, speaking and acting little, to only manifest themselves when their knowledge of the world grows to comfortable levels.
    I have also read somewhere that many of the female residents in Second Life correspond to male users, and that a few (but not many) male residents are backed up by female users. Either way, these cross-gender residents must be opaque, because otherwise their appearance would make no sense. And these opaques must work as opaques from the very beginning. Or maybe not, since in Second Life you can change your appearance, including your resident’s gender, at any time.
    What a complex world!

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