This just in: roleplaying doesn’t exist!
Courtesy of Terra Nova. Interesting stuff. My take on it is slightly different.
Most people won’t radically roleplay. For example, I won’t play female avatars. Just won’t do it. I’m not female, I know myself well enough to know I can’t simulate being a female, and most importantly, guys hitting on me makes me feel icky. So while I may roleplay being a battle-hardened mercenary who happens to be a small pale thingy that squeaks when hit, I won’t actually roleplay being a woman. This should tell you something about me. At any rate, people don’t mind taking a role, but not one that is radically different from what they are familiar with, either in reality or their own already pre-existing fantasies.
Most people don’t want to free-associate a script. By this, I mean, that IN MY HUMBLE OPINION most people do not want to work very hard at writing a plot. They want to be entertained. They want things to happen to them. They don’t want to work at it. This is a reasonable expectation. Most people work all day, all week. This is supposed to be NotWork.
Most people will act “in character” if everyone else is. It’s a critical mass that is difficult to establish. But once it is, people desire to fit in. Even if it’s in a monosyllabic fashion, they won’t actively strive to break the milieu if it’s in place. (And I’m not including “griefers” in this category – which have an impact far greater than their numbers, and would take great joy in breaking the milieu spectacularly. I’m speaking here of Joe Average, who thankfully does not seek to wreck the fun of others.)
So while most people aren’t professional actors, and don’t see internet assisted improv as their idea of a good time, they don’t mind in casual participation. Think of it as attending a really good renaissance faire. If the journeyman players circulating around the crowd are really enjoying themselves and into their act, you’re not going to ask them about that weekend’s Redskins game. You’re going to participate, even on the most casual of levels.
The challenge of MMOs, then, is to attract those early adopters, the community builders who WILL create an interesting story within the framework you provide, and discourage the 5% who will seek to destroy their work. If you can do both of those, you’ve made a good start at creating a “roleplay friendly” environment. And truthfully, that’s all you want to do. Because many of your players have no interest in roleplaying, and log in to have a virtual beer. Without pantomiming the drinking bit.
But, and I may be a bit heretical here, even the conservative “rollplayah hostile” player will still enjoy a rich environmental backdrop, and the most cost effective way to provide this has always been to enable your players to do it for you.