In their article “Like Seeing Yourself in the Mirror? Solitary Role-Play as Performance and Pretend Play” Jaakko Stenros and Tanja Sihvonen explore the under-researched single-player digital role-playing games (SPDRPGs), the act of solitary role-playing, and on what terms it is possible using role-playing theory, queer game studies and performative studies as reference points.
The Dragon age (DA) series and Mass Effect (ME) series, two games by the game developer Bioware, illustrate the brought-up points. Through these games, the paper explores the affordances and limitations digital games as a medium impose on role-playing and how players can enhance their experience through personalized character creation, modding, and transgressive gaming enabled by a broad understanding of the game mechanics and extensive internal play.
The article suggests that the first-person audience of solitary performance (the player is the only performer and observer of the pretend play) can be seen as an act of mirroring. The player reflects their “hopes, fears, and dreams” onto the game system, and some of it reflects back, interwoven with the system’s affordances. However, mirroring in solitary role-play could be lacking, as it does not involve any social play usually associated with role-playing games, both digital and analog. Mirroring through a digital artifact is also limited by what the code affords.
SPDRPGs offer particular affordances and restrictions to pretend play, explored in this paper from the perspective of character creation, pretend play with non-playable characters (NPCs), and game mechanics. There are commonalities between dress-up play and character creation; it allows players to explore and perform different identities and roles in a private, safe setting of SPDRPG, thus removing the need to conform to socially accepted forms of acting and representing themselves. Character creation is an important part of many RPGs, but it is not solely enough for the player to put effort into pretend play. The player needs to have an intrinsic, playful role-playing attitude for pretend play to happen, notably in a limiting setting such as a digital game.
Pretend play with non-playable characters is more limited compared to interactions with other players in multiplayer games. The only interaction affordances are the ones implemented in code. In both ME and DA, the dialogue wheel and the options the player chooses from it while completing missions and interacting with NPCs is the most important role-playing tool. The different dialogue options change the narrative, creating tangible change in the game world around the player character and its relationship to NPCs. These consequences of player choices can cause heightened emotional attachment and immersion to the pretend play.
Role-playing in a digital game can be challenging because the NPCs can only act in a few ways pre-scripted in the game. Although modding is a common practice, especially in single player games, and can extend the game product’s role-playing affordances, there are still more limitations than role-playing through the player character. As Stenros and Sihvonen put it: “Play that is not reflected by the mirror, the game artifact, cannot take place within it.”
The game mechanics can both limit and support the pretend play. They are relatively unchangeable, even with modding. The significance of mechanics can still be negotiated. This can be understood through comparing how game mechanics for ethics and the protagonist’s sexual orientation are construed in ME. The former offers visually presented bars for both ends of the moral spectrum (diplomatic Paragon and aggressive Renegade) The game mechanics give player feedback after each action, consequences of choices add to either one or the other of the moral roads thus rendering the alternative interpretations of the meaning of these choices implausible.
However, ME’s protagonist’s sexuality does not have a similar visual representation of a mechanic. Player character making moves towards a same-sex character does not automatically calculate how likely they are to be into other same-sex characters (or characters of a different gender). This ambiguous mechanic offers more opportunities for role-playing.
Internal play is one effective way for “going against the grain,” playing “as if” with the object, not managed by it. The inner play world with meanings does not need to have audiovisual or textual representation in the game. The player character can adopt roles not recognized by the system. The paper argues that this renegotiating and transgression of norms is where queer attitude and role-playing intersect. “Queer resides in the gap between the cues provided by the artifact and the player’s response.”
Stenros, J; Sihvonen T. (2020) Like Seeing Yourself in the Mirror? Solitary Role-Play as Performance and Pretend Play. Game Studies 20(4). Retrieved from http://gamestudies.org/2004/articles/stenros_sihvonen
Header photo: Mass Effect 2 Press Kit