All the World’s A Stage: Multiplicity in Performance of Self in Fandom Role-Playing Games


In 1959, Erving Goffman theorized that rather than operating from a cohesive self-identity, people involved in social encounters instead give performances which are intended to produce a certain impression in the audience. In setting forth his proposition, Goffman crafted a dramatalurgical argument, and used terms borrowed from the theater to define the ways in which we present ourselves to others and the identities we thus craft for ourselves. The self which we present in social interactions, he termed our “front” and the bits of ourselves which we hide from others is our “backstage” (22). We are always seeking, consciously or unconsciously to control the impression others have of us and these impressions we seek to give change based upon the situation in which we find ourselves (Goffman15). Thus the performance we give for our parents versus the performance we give for our friends versus our performance in the workplace can and do often differ. We all take on different roles and we adjust our behavior according to the situation in which we find ourselves (Goffman 19). Shakespeare, according to Goffman’s theory, was right on target when he said that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2. Scene 7).

Based on Goffman’s ideas regarding the presentation of self, this paper interrogates the multiple presentations of self performed by a subset of media fandom: players in fandom based online role-playing games (RPGs). I analyze the various presentations of self which players in these RPGs construct and argue that a person playing in an online, fandom RPG presents and produces herself and her identity on three distinct levels: first, as the character she is portraying which encompasses her interpretation of an already established media character; next, as herself as a player and fan and member of both the role-playing and greater fandom community; and finally, as the online persona she has created to reflect herself as person outside of fandom.

The idea of a “fan” is one that is relatively understood in society, though it does not always signify the same set of behaviors or communal activities. There are sports fans, rock fans, musical fans, opera enthusiasts, Joyce fans, Shakespeare aficionados, and the “Trekkie.” All of these types of fan cultures have their own sorts of norms, their own behavior, and identification of self as a “fan” of something carries with it a set of cultural assumptions in those to whom you present the identification. While much of the analysis in this paper can apply to the presentation of self via other media fandom activities (and, indeed, there is a great deal of overlap in fan practices and discourses), as one of the most collaborative and socially interactive forms of production, RPGs provide a multiplicity of presentation not always as obvious in other fan practices.


Media fandom encompasses fan cultures surrounding multiple texts. It is an “amorphous but still identifiable grouping” of people who are fans of mass media products such as film, television and books (Jenkins 1). Thus, media fandom embraces this multiplicity of texts instead of a single text or even a single genre, and media fans move fluidly between these texts, often producing their own art responding to different texts at the same time. With the lack of a single, consolidating text, media fandom is identified mainly through its style of cultural consumption and creation (Jenkins 1). Fans are incredibly prolific in their creation, and their art takes many forms including, but not limited to, visual art (through drawing or digital photo manipulation), fan fiction (original stories using appropriated media characters) and fan videos (music videos which create new narratives using cut and edited clips of their source material). The fandom based RPGs which I am examining here can be categorized as a subset of fan fiction, though they are also a new mode of storytelling which draws on the tradition of fan fiction while using new media interfaces to alter the way in which the narrative is created and engaged with (Stein).

Before going further, I would like to offer a few caveats for clarity. Many players within these RPGs object to the term “role-playing” and consider their practice to be collaborative or interactive fiction instead. For simplicity of semantics, I refer to this process of storytelling as an RPG, as that is the most widely accepted term, but in practice it should be somewhat differentiated from the ideas of role-playing which are functional in our society—it is a very, very distant animal from dicing and quests in table-top role-play. Further, online fandom RPGs can be hosted over several different new media interfaces. The most popular are LiveJournal (and its clones, InsaneJournal, JournalFen, GreatestJournal and Dreamwidth), Twitter and Tumblr. Because it is the platform with which I am most familiar, I will be referencing game-play on LiveJournal in this analysis. However, no matter the medium used for play, the varying levels of presentation of self remain the same.

Next, much of the analysis of presentation of self and as fictional character also applies to players who role-play original characters (OCs), however, the third level—presentation of self-as-fan—is often missing in these characters, as is the element of proper characterization and presentation as a character who carries with him certain expectations. Therefore, though many games allow, and some even require, the creation of OCs to inhabit the created world of the game, for the sake of cohesiveness, my focus here will be on the playing of appropriated media characters. Finally, throughout this text, I refer to players using the feminine gendered pronoun “she.” Although these games do include some male-identifying players, this is a rare occurrence. Fan participation is highly gendered, and, in general, male fans and female fans inhabit different spheres of fandom—female fans make up the bulk of fans creating art, while male fans tend to be collectors (Jenkins).

To participate in one of these RPGs, a player creates an account on the hosting site for the fictional character she wishes to play. LiveJournal is a blogging site which allows for extensive threaded comments on journal posts. Users can post content to their own journal or to the journal of a community to which they belong. Therefore, on LiveJournal, in creating an account for a fictional character, a player is basically creating a journal, or blog, for that character. This journal can then be “friended” (followed) by other character journals, by the personal journals of other players, or by the journals of people wishing to follow the stories created in the character journal. A more organized, cohesive RPG will usually be contained within a community for coherency and central localization, though certain parts of the narrative may be scattered through individual character journals, as well. Players often engage in role-play outside of organized games, however, and these narratives are usually contained within the personal journals of the characters involved. Often several different, even competing, narratives will be contained in a single character journal—different storylines going on with other characters, sometimes contained in the same bounded universe of play, sometimes occurring in alternate timelines/universes. LiveJournal’s tagging system allows for the tracing of narrative line, usually referred to as a “verse.”

For those uninitiated, this can all seem very complicated, but it really is not. In simple terms: a player creates a character account then uses that character account to interact with other characters and co-create a narrative. These narratives are often ongoing, with no end in sight. The idea is not to create a finished story, but to explore the character interactions through multiple plots and episodes. Structured games usually have an overarching premise—something that brings the characters together, or a creates a world for them to inhabit—and then further narrative creation flows from character interaction. Both private and structured games can go on indefinitely and it is not unusual for a player to remain in a game or storyline for years.

However structured a game or interaction, all function as an unfolding fiction. The result of this is to create “fragmented narratives told in many voices and written by many authors” (Stein). Each player writes from just her character’s perspective, carrying the narrative forward, and the next player writes a reaction to what has happened from her character’s point of view and moves the action further. Think of it as shifting point of view fiction, where the point of view shifts every few paragraphs. Each scene or moment is contained in one thread (a journal entry and the comments that come after it), but the whole narrative is spread across many entries and potentially many journals. A scene may play out in a community or other character journal and then be augmented by a posting from one of the characters in the character journal which is a first-person diary entry about their thoughts after the scene—how the character is internally reacting to what happened.

These online RPGs owe a great deal of what they are to fan fiction—the same concerns, narrative structure and creative processes inform each. Shared writing is not new in fan fiction, and authors often have partners with whom they compose stories or create an alternate universe. Therefore, online RPGs “merge practices of fannish role playing with traditions of fan fiction cowriting, creating a synthesis that is part game, part narrative, with boundary between game and story blurry at best” (Stein). With these explanations in mind, I turn now to an analysis of the presentation of self engaged in by players in these narrative games.

Presentation of Self through Narrative Construction of a Fictional Character

The writing of fan fiction, even without the play of a RPG, is a highly performative art. Though it presents itself through text, ultimately fan fiction is a performance: known characters are appropriated from their source material and reconfigured in a new situation, set forth by the director of the performance (the writer) to carry out a new narrative. The bodies are ones which other fans are familiar with from the source text. Fans already know how the character speaks and acts and looks. The text of the fiction becomes a way to make these known characters “perform” according to new behavioral patterns and cues (Coppa “Writing Bodies in Space”). Readers then can visualize this performance in their minds, since they are reading from the same set of expectations the writer writes from. What happens if we put this character in this situation? What will he do? “Do” is the key word here—the question is not “what will I write” but what the character will do, how he will react—how she will perform.

This applies even further to writing a character in an RPG. Since there is usually no central narrative or plot arc, the player makes the character perform in accordance to the new situations with which she is presented. The player could be seen as the director, but since the player is only responsible for one element of the story—her character—she is far more akin to the actor in a theatrical improvisation performance. An actor embodies a character, then, based upon his or her knowledge of the character, and reacts appropriately to situations removed from the script. Actors do these sorts of exercises to get to know their characters better, to be able to bring greater depth to their performance or be prepared for unexpected deviations from the script when performed. A player in an RPG lives these situations in each thread they participate in. Indeed, the very language of the game itself speaks to its performative nature—players do not speak of “writing” characters in a game unless they are consciously attempting to distance themselves from it to seem less immersed in a constructed world. Instead, like actors, they say they “play” a character in such and such a game.

One key element of RPGs is that they allow for an extensive exploration of character depth (Stein). Fan fiction is created in relation to the canon of the source text which inspired it as well as the fantextual understandings which have grown up around it. Fans are highly discursive and their discourse regarding particular texts, characters or pairings (romantic relationships between characters) is often highly analytical—fans are close readers extraordinaire. From discourse regarding these close readings come general acceptances relating to the texts, characters and pairings, and a writer of fan fiction is expected to show awareness of these, even if she clearly breaks with them in her narrative. This imposition of fantextual expectations skews the “pure” relationship between fan fiction and source text, and these are nowhere seen more vividly than in characterizations in fan fiction (Stein). Characterization, above all else, is the element the fandom role-player seeks to “get right” in her presentation of her interpretation of the character she is playing, because it is that on which her ability as writer, player and fan will be judged.

While close reading of the source text is an activity intrinsic to fandom creation, fandom as a whole is as aware of the idea that alternative and competing readings can and must coexist in a text (Busse and Hellekson “Introduction: Work In Progress”). In a RPG, a player takes on the identity of an appropriated media character for purposes of the game. Necessarily, the players presentation of this character is a textual portrayal of the player’s personal interpretation of the character (Kaplan “Construction of Fan Fiction Character Through Narrative”). This may, and often does, differ with other people’s ideas of how the character should be played. Across the scope of the hosting interface, many players might play the same character (Stein). In structured games, there is generally only one incarnation of the character, but in more loosely structured communities or via independent journals, characters can interact with other players’ interpretations of the same character. Therefore, one Draco Malfoy could post a comment or the beginning of a thread to an open community and be answered by another Draco Malfoy. Indeed, some communities exist solely for this sort of play with text and character, with different versions of a character commenting on the actions and choices of another version of the same character.

Of course, behind this is a commentary of one player on another player’s interpretation of the character. It can be laudatory or highly critical. Rants are often posted either on individual journals or in rant communities such as Bad Role-Players Suck, about the seeming mischaracterization of a character as presented. Thus, while fandom is highly open to multiple readings of the source text, a player is expected to present a characterization which has some basis in the text and can be justified either from it or from positing an alternate narrative which accounts for the difference in characterization. The risk of censure ties in to a player’s presentation of themselves as the character who they are portraying. Ultimately, the fictional character is just that—a fictional construct. The player is the one responsible for the character’s actions, thoughts and words. And the player is the one who receives the criticism for a faulty performance.

In crafting their performance of a character, a player goes through a very similar process to that involved in performing herself. The main difference is that in order to be considered a successful performance, the embodiment of the character must be in constant dialogue with the source text (Kaplan “Construction of Fan Fiction Character Through Narrative”). A player is involved in character focalization when role-playing. She has the chance to explain underlying reasons for a character’s behavior that do not appear in the source material, but must always relate back to it (Kaplan “Construction of Fan Fiction Character Through Narrative”). In role-playing, even more than in reading and writing in solitude, a player must find a way to identify with her character, and to make others connect to him so that she will have others to play the game with. In order to create this identification and empathy, the player must choose which portions of of a character to highlight and which to tone down, or explain away, much as she must do with her own personality in her performance of herself (Kaplan “Construction of Fan Fiction Character Through Narrative”). Since these judgments in where to focus on a character are highly subjective, the player’s own sense of self—the point at which she identifies with her character in order to be able to play him truthfully—is implicated in her choices.

Thus playing a character well requires more than just textual knowledge of the character and his canon. It requires getting into the character’s head, and realizing something that fan fiction as a genre articulates: “characters are neither constructed or owned, but have…a life of their own not dependent on any original ‘truth’ or ‘source’” (Coppa “Writing Bodies in Space”). While this opens up a multiplicity of characterization options, it also has implications for players beyond those of fan fiction writers. A fan fiction writer must know her character well enough to figure out how she would act in a given, plotted situation. A role-player must be prepared for every eventuality in play: characters from other canons, different versions of the character, the Borg invading the peaceful inter-dimensional village in which the character has found himself. To do this well, like an actor, the player must embody the character they are playing.

This is where the line between “writing” a character and “playing” one gets further blurred. If fan fiction is a performance, role-playing is even more so. In theater, the body is the storytelling medium (Coppa “Writing Bodies in Space”). In one way or another, during role-play, the player’s body becomes the vehicle through which experiences are processed before the writing can take place. Many players are familiar with a phenomenon known as “musebleed.” Musebleed occurs when the line between player and character blurs enough that emotional transference seeps into the writing situation. For instance, a character is going through an emotional situation and the player finds himself crying or with some other physical symptom of the emotion. Someone angers a character, and the player needs to go for a run to work the emotion out. A highly erotic scene is finished, and a player needs a metaphorical cigarette. This happens with good acting, as well—an actor loses himself in the scene, operating from a base emotional truth, and the emotional roller coaster carries the audience along with him to a final catharsis.

However, musebleed is not necessarily seen as a good thing among some players. It shows a lack of distance, and some players will claim that getting that emotionally involved in a scene shows a lack of boundaries. These are often the players who insist they only “write” the character, and they are not role-playing. They also tend to be the ones who highlight, repeatedly, that they are not their character—as if most players are delusional and think otherwise. In many ways, they are thus resisting their identification as a role-player instead of embracing it, as discussed later. But whether they admit it or not, nearly every player experiences musebleed at some point—it is, after all, an element of one of the pleasures and purposes of the game: to get involved, to form relationships, to create a performance that resonates with emotional honesty. There is a huge difference between being emotionally engaged and being unable to separate reality from fantasy, and an acknowledgment of this is a necessary step in honestly assessing the engagement between player and character and the way in which playing another character is a presentation of self.

How a player writes a character, the parts of the characterization she chooses to emphasize, the relationships the character engages in, the players who choose to play together: all of these are as much a presentation of self by the player as they are pure characterization. Oftentimes players who play multiple characters can find links between them—that they play a certain “type” of character more often than not. This selection of characters through which to present themselves in a game can relate directly to subsets of the player’s persona or personal fantasies. People who play villainous characters, for example, rarely want to rule the world or embark on a serial killing spree. But perhaps they enjoy the freedom from normal societal constrictions that can come from playing a character who does not care what the world thinks of him. Perhaps there is a catharsis in playing a character who says whatever he is feeling or does whatever she pleases. Role-playing fictional characters allows players the chance to bring out parts of themselves they suppress in real life and can allow for deeper insights into themselves (Turkle 80). Oftentimes, this recognition of a type tends to cause a layer of anxiety in the player of “what does this say about me?” The fictional discourse raises questions about “reality” and leads to an introspective questioning about why the player has chosen this manner of presentation in the game.

A final layer of performance of self that ties into choice of characters centers on the choice of gender, races and sexuality of characters to play. As mentioned before, media fandom consists mainly of women. Although early theories of media fans as also being white, middle class and heterosexual (Jenkins 2) have been called into question in recent scholarship, the general consensus is that media fandom is made up mostly of educated women with enough cultural and material capital to have access to the source texts and the Internet—which implicates, at least, members of the middle-class. White women still dominate fandom, but more and more voices of minorities are emerging and identifying themselves. And the heterosexual categorization has been thoroughly disabused—fandom, in fact, is often seen as a queer space, and fans of all sexual orientations are prevalent in fandom (Lothian, Busse and Reid 104).

However, the characters played in these games are not nearly so heterogeneous. Given media fandom’s focus on science fiction, fantasy, mystery and cop dramas as its source texts, male characters tend to outweigh female ones. While some players do stick strictly to playing characters of their own gender, many others play those of a gender not their own. This is nothing new to fan fiction—much has been said about women writing men in fan fiction, and the ways in which these stories call into question gender norms, as male characters often find themselves with far richer emotional lives and more egalitarian attitudes in fan fiction than those portrayed on the screen (Jenkins 198-200). In addition, many of these male characters are portrayed in relationships with other men (a genre known as “slash” fan fiction), calling their canonical sexuality into question. While this has been the subject of a lot of study, in the context of role-play and presentation of self, it raises different questions than women’s engagement with homoerotic potential of texts in fiction.

A player who chooses to play characters not her identified gender, or not her identified sexuality, must engage in another layer of self performance. Questions of gender norms arise, and players become concerned with how to write from the mental constructions of a foreign gender. Are their men manly enough? Are they nuanced enough? If they write them in conjunction with societal norms of gender representation (a “manly” man, for instance), are they being compliant with gender norms they should be subverting? Inevitably, most players choose subversiveness, and a balance is struck where male characters read more androgynous than in their source texts (Jenkins 200). But, then, how does the player “play” a character not her own gender? How does she write a sex scene with equipment not her own? Players often find themselves traversing gender boundaries, calling their own presuppositions about gendered behavior into question as they work to discover how the other gender thinks, feels and acts, to be realistic in their performance, even as some subversiveness sinks in. Like early online role-players who played characters of their own creation and chose opposite genders, this play can allow players to step into the shoes of the Other—sometimes the more privileged position, to be sure—and gain insights into their own gender fluidity, to see how it truly is a social construction more than any inherent trait (Turkle 79).

Likewise, play with sexualities and race not the player’s own can raise issues of presentation and performance. Major debates have gone on in fandom and role-playing communities about the proper way to play a race other than your own. Some writers have declared that writers just should not write other races, because they always get it wrong, while others encourage the exploration as it, like with gender, gives a writer or player a chance to walk in a different set of shoes (Race Fail ’09 is a notable example of one discussion of this across fandom and writing as a whole). Interestingly, players of color are often forced to write white characters by the sheer dearth of well drawn minority characters, and less attention is paid to their performance as a white character than when the supposition is made that the person playing a character of color is actually white (and it is always a supposition until players have met offline and can be certain each is who they say they are). Inevitably those suspicions give rise to a picking apart of the player’s characterization, with very rarely any approbation occurring for the player. Instead, the general censure has led to a situation where minority characters just do not get played often, increasing the seeming racial homogeneity of games and fandom in general.

Character choice, characterization choices, relationship engagement, plot involvement: all of these combine to create a picture of the player behind the character, without any out-of character presentation of self. We draw conclusions (maybe right or wrong) based on how people write the characters they play, the same way we feel we know our favorite author merely by reading his or her novels. Thus, a player presents a version of themselves through the fictional narratives she constructs in the game. However, this is just the first level of presentation in a game. At the second level is the presentation of self as a player and as a fan.

Presentation of Self as Player and Fan

“Fandom is a way of life” is a saying among science fiction fans. Fandom is not just a celebration and fetishization of certain texts. It is a series of practices, and these practices have conventions and acceptable behaviors built into them (Coppa “Writing Bodies in Space”). So, too, do RPGs. Structured games have varying levels of rules prescribing player behavior. These can range from rules as to how the game functions in general to rules about how to handle disputes between players. Players who break these rules risk expulsion from the game for repeated violations. There are also general codes of behavior among players in general, across all games. The communities on LiveJournal “Bad RPers Suck” and “Good RPers Rock” are specifically used respectively to censure or applaud players for breaking or abiding by these, sometimes unwritten, rules.

Most players aim to present themselves as “good” RPers. No matter how transgressive ones character may be, most players want to be seen as abiding by the conventions of the art-form. Beyond not being ranted about and humiliated on Bad RPers Suck, presentation and follow through as a good player has its own rewards in connection and popularity. The better a player you are, the more people want to play with you. The more people want to play with you, the greater your chances for social interaction and the more opportunities you get to create. Given that this is the main reason people choose to play games rather than write their own fan fiction, the social reward system tends to work (Cole 576). Bad players likewise experience the social consequences of their actions. If you get a reputation for being a bad player, on any one of many levels, people shy away from playing with you. You can be subject to the humiliation of public censure, removed from a game, or simply find yourself posting threads to which no one responds.

The conventions of good role-play are pretty simple, and many of them mimic those of proper netiquette in general. Of course, writing well and having a solid characterization is preferred, but fandom is pretty forgiving of new and non-native writers and many players will work to help such a writer improve without censure. The main conventions rely on community standards of behavior: don’t godmod (write the reactions of a character not your own, without permission), ask before assuming a character relationship, don’t drop (cease playing) threads without explanation, don’t post so often that you become a nuisance, don’t play only smut threads, don’t assume player relationships just because characters have one, don’t take in-character actions personally out-of-character, understand people have different amounts of time to devote to playing, communicate, communicate, communicate. Mostly being a good roleplayer boils down to being considerate of your fellow players. On a playing basis, people also prefer players who respond to the text given logically, who do not try to force a plot that is not flowing naturally, and who do not behave like stalkers in character or out.

Abiding by these community norms can include the tone of interactions with other players and any out of character public communication. Players strive to seem agreeable, to maintain an upbeat tone. Interestingly, most rants posted on Bad RPers Suck are done under sock-puppet journals (anonymous journals divorced from any identifying characteristics). Players like having a place to rant, but most do not want their names tied to their rants, because then their own presentation as an easy-going, pleasant player might be called into question—especially if the community does not agree that the behavior being ranted about was all that egregious. On the other side of the coin, most posts giving praise at Good RPers Rock are done via identifiable journals to increase the image of the player as a productive, complimentary member of the community.

Given the high percentage of players who are women, these desires to be seen as cooperative, pleasant, good communicators and good negotiators play into socialized gender norms of feminine behavior. The presentation of self as a good girl is lauded (in the sense of “good” as cooperative and easy to get along with; “bad” girl behavior with response to social norms of sexuality is highly lauded, as well, by many). The presentation of self that might be seen as playing into more negative stereotypes of women as bitchy, catty or backstabbing, like many of the posts at Bad RPers Suck, are done under the veil of further anonymity, so such behavior cannot be tied to even an online persona, let alone an offline performance of self.

Beyond presentation of self as a good roleplayer, a player in a RPG also strives to perform herself well in the greater discourse of fandom. Many studies of fandom have focused on fan culture and the construction of a fan identity. Fandom tends to divide the world into Us and Them based on differences in social investments—the group itself is hardly homogenous, but those lines of social difference cut across the varying differences in the group. Just as people identify as a race, class, gender, education, so too can identifying oneself as a fan make up a part of a player’s identity. This can be a crucial component of identity and one where the player draws the majority of her socialization or pleasure, or something which just colors other parts of herself (Grossberg 60).

For fans, it is the text which provides the focal point through which the fan can identify a community to which they belong. The ideologies, beliefs and values in a text may become ones which the fan adopts. Star Trek fans, for instance, often work to incorporate the concept of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” into their daily lives by promoting tolerance across all lines—sexuality, race, gender, nationality, religion (MacDonald 136). In fact, this ideology while it is best enunciated in Star Trek has wound itself throughout media fandom as a whole, perhaps due to Star Trek being one of the seminal media texts around which fandom developed in the 1960s (Coppa “A Brief History of Media Fandom”).

However, to identify as a media fan in the wider culture carries with it certain expectations or even stigmas. Fan status is often devalued, or seen as inappropriate methods of reception. Fans are accused of being uncritical of media (when, in fact, given their close readings and multiplicity of interpretations, quite the opposite is true), mindless and given to trivialized pursuits. Claiming to be part of fandom, then, “is never a neutral ‘expression’ or a singular ‘referent’; its status and its performance can shift across cultural sites. What different ‘performances’ of fandom share, however, is a sense of contesting cultural norms” (Hills “Preface”). However, in identifying as a fan, a player ties herself into the group of “us,” who sees themselves in a certain light and who provide understanding and approbation of her fannish pursuits.

Beyond just identifying as a fan, and thus part of the social community of fandom, players must also find and establish their place in the fandom hierarchy through their performance as fans. While some fan scholars have debated the existence of a fandom hierarchy, even the most egalitarian social communities have them, and fandom is no exception (MacDonald 136). What fandom lacks is a cohesive single hierarchy. Fans can perform in different areas to increase positioning within the community. The two most important hierarchies in which players perform are the Hierarchy of Knowledge, wherein a player’s position in the community is determined by the amount of knowledge the player can draw upon about the universe, and the Hierarchy of Fandom Level or Quality, which separates fans by the amount of their participation: do they go to conventions; do they write stand-alone fan fiction as well as roleplay; do they make music videos and fan art, too? (MacDonald 137)

Because a fan identity is an improper identity in the greater social context, and because knowledge and creation level is key to fandom hierarchies, such an identity carries with it a need to justify behavior, even in the presence of other fans. This need to justify choices in characterization or relationship preferences is at the heart of a great deal of fannish discourse. Common sense reception theory says that a person makes sense of a media message received in the privacy of her own home, in her own mind (Allington 45). Fans, however, behave more like academics in their textual interpretations and explanations of those interpretations. They do not want to be accused of pulling an interpretation from themselves—it must be based within the text. If the source for the creation of meaning is the text itself, then the meaning must be a true—even if nonobvious—one, that anyone can see it if they only know how to read it right and pick up on the proper codes (Allington 46-47). Beyond the practicing of this analytical skill, a fan must know how to share it. Justificatory discourse provides the fan with a sense of group cohesiveness—when someone else agrees with a fan’s interpretation, their identity as a “good” fan is confirmed. They are not outcasts; they belong (Allington 50).

A player in a particular fandom engages in this behavior as much as a fan fiction author. She must base her characterization in the text, and if asked why her character did something, she must be able to explain it in a way that reflects back to the source text. In this way, she is able to demonstrate her cohesive identity with fandom. Players also perform their “good fan” status by the stories they write on their character journals—often these relate game activity back to canon activity, or will fill in background moments based on canon activity. Journal profiles—the “about me” page of a journal—often contain extensive canonical background information, situating not only the character within the universe of their source, but demonstrating the command over the material that the player has. Not knowing your character’s canon, or getting details of character history wrong without sufficient explanation can be seen as not only bad role-play, but also bad fan performance.

The communities which evolve around games are subsets of the larger fan community in which many players engage via fan fiction, other art or discursive engagement. In a game, characters often interact with other characters from their source text, and a negotiation must take place by the players on how canon should be interpreted so that the characters can relate. Oftentimes characters do things unexpected (harkening back to the idea of characters having a life of their own), and the player is pulled into discussion with her co-players as to the reasons for the character actions and this becomes justificatory dialogue, as well. The player who can draw on canon knowledge with great facility to justify the choices she makes with her character is performing as a good fan and a good player, and her credibility rises within the community, as she is safe from external criticism of her choices or attachments (Hills 66). Since membership and credibility in both game and fandom community provides a sense of belonging, they are things for which most fans strive. It is not just the individual identity being questioned, but the group one, and the good fan is a fan who can solidify the group identity and reinforce group norms (Jenkins 265).

Thus, through demonstration of knowledge of the rules of the playing community and an ability to engage in fan discourse, a player presents herself both as good player and good fan. Where presentation of self through fictional narrative allowed her to express and consolidate her creative identity, these knowledge demonstrations allow her to consolidate her identity as a group member. Both have great social rewards within the world of fandom and the game. However, these are still just facets of a persona, a performance of self as fan, self as player, self as character. Underneath all of that is still the person who is making these performative calls and receives the benefits of community and creative control: the player as a person who exists offline and is interacting online through these modes of performance and presentation.

Presentation of Online Persona of Self

The final layer of presentation of self in RPGs is the presentation of what some would see as the “true” self, though the debate as to whether we posses a true, core self, stripped of roles or not is an open one. Rather than attempt to engage in that debate, which is beyond the scope of this analysis, I define the “true” self in this context as the person behind the player—the identity beyond that of “fan,” which is the sense of self many refer to when they claim to be able to be “more themselves” in a virtual environment (Turkle 80). In game play, questions often arise about who is the person behind the character, behind the fan. When you write deeply with someone, a connection forms, and players often develop strong attachments to others in their games and want to know more about them as people, not just characters or players (Cole and Griffiths 577-578).

Goffman’s analysis of the performance of self presupposes face to face interactions (15). While the Internet did not exist in any social form when he was writing, he did allow that telephone and mail communication would provide a reduced version of this sort of performative social identity (2). Virtual environments, then, can likewise be seen as a reduced version of social interaction and “contain specific characteristics that affect the front that people adopt” (Vaast 336). Because facial and body expressions and cues cannot be observed, a front, or persona, adopted online must always be more limited than what is seen in a non-mediated situation (Vaast 336).

Players may choose to share as little or as much about themselves as they want with the other players they interact with. While some prefer to always maintain a certain level of anonymity—only posting to discussions under a pseudonym, creating an email solely for game purposes, never sharing their location or occupation—other players become more and more open with information as time goes by. Following someone’s character journal can lead to following their personal journal. Eventually, people follow each other on Twitter. Next, they might become Facebook friends, privy to even more information about each others’ lives, though still mediated by an online persona, however much closer to “real” life. Finally, they might choose to meet offline, to bring their friendship from one based around online interactions to a blurring of the lines between “online” and “offline” friends (Cole and Griffiths 577).

All of this is dependent, though, on the online persona created by the player. What parts of their life do they share, what do they hold back? Online, even when being honest about oneself, one has much greater control over what to reveal and what to hide. Players may keep others at a greater distance—allowing for a greater mystification, in Goffman’s terms. Players can hide aspects of their offline persona they do not want people to know, while emphasizing what they do want to share (Vaast 336). While this may seem to be dishonest in some ways, in others it frees people for a much greater level of social intimacy. Without the constraints of offline consequences, players often feel more comfortable discussing serious matters they would be embarrassed to talk about face-to-face (Cole and Griffiths 582). Without the certain parameters of social expectations that come with appearance, age, race or gender, players often feel more free to discard what they see as their masks and be more themselves (Turkle 80; Cole and Griffiths 582). Of course, what this often means is that players feel more free to be their ideal selves—the selves they want to see themselves as, rather than “who they are” (Turkle 79). If that is so, then the ideal self is just as much a constructed identity as the self a person feels they must portray for their parents, for instance, rather than their friends. However, despite these plays with interaction and performance, in creating online personas most players do not transcend the fundamental aspects of themselves (Robinson 94).

If the self is the product of interaction rather than something immutable, then the online self is a product of online interaction (Robinson 94). Our sense of ourselves if basically a perception of how others see us, which is formed through those interactions. Much of online interaction is a far more self-conscious production, since we do not give off the non verbal cues which inform offline social interaction, but we still give our performance based on anticipated audience response. We just often have more time to consider and condition our response online (Robinson 96). Thus, technology allows players to present the selves they wish to perform, but the deeper the out of character interaction, the more difficult a fully deceptive performance is to keep up, so the production of online self tends to not veer as far from offline self as some have theorized (Robinson 98).

However, players are free to experiment more with their online personas, perhaps, than they feel free to do offline. Fandom and game space, especially do offer a place for an exploration of identity. Fandom is known for its non-judgmental, open nature when it comes to people of different diversities. This especially applies in areas of queer identity formation. Many forms of role-play writing revolve around erotic narratives. Whatever the gender of a player’s character, the likelihood exists that the player is playing out, textually, an erotic scene with a member of her same sex. When these scenes are already homoerotic, women are mapping themselves onto the bodies of men to engage in same-sex relations, and all of this raises an awareness and sometimes questioning of queer identity (Lothian, Busse and Reid 107).

Beyond character performance, performance of an online persona involves interaction with others’ online personas. Oftentimes, the vernacular of fandom interaction includes eroticized language, and female fans are always sending each other messages like “*snogs*” or “*smooches*” or “*loves all over you*” (the text within ** is an online convention signaling a performative action) (Busse “My Life Is a WIP on my LJ”). While for some women, this is nothing more than a chance to play at queerness, to perform online queerness, for others it becomes the first step in coming out in their offline worlds (Busse “My Life Is a WIP on my LJ”). Many times, relationships develop online in this textual erotic space that become offline romances, as well. Admittedly, at that point a greater negotiation of persona must be enacted, as players often develop feelings for the online persona and may find themselves disappointed in the offline person behind it who has only highlighted their best qualities in online interactions.

When player relationships move from online to offline, whether romantic or platonic, new layers of performance, more directly related to Goffman’s social interaction performances, take place. The player then must negotiate her identity not just as online persona, but decide how that persona fits in to her daily offline world. Like romantic relationships, friendships can deepen through this process, or some level of intimacy can be lost. But either way, the creation of offline relationships requires the renegotiation of online personas, as well. When another player can testify to having met a player offline and what she is “really” like, patterns shift and subsequent online interactions are performed in a different manner. These offline relationships can become privileged—a symbol of how close/how intimate people are—or they can become destructive to a dynamic in a game (Busse “My Life Is a WIP on my LJ”). Either way, the online persona, however “true,” is altered by the insertion of the offline self into the online dynamic.


Media fandom offers its members several ways to negotiate their identities within the world of fandom. Artists, writers and vidders share their work with a larger community, and feedback and commentary inform the creation and performance of a text. Online personas help fans mediate the waters of online fandom, to create selves that privilege parts of themselves while hiding others. For all the varying layers of online personas, the play engaged in by fandom role-players reads as one of the most diverse. On top of the player’s online persona and fan-identity, the player must also negotiate the presentation of self through narrative character, with all the implications her creative choices entail. Playing multiple characters increases this effect, but even if a player limits herself to one character, she is still engaged in a multiplicitous construction of self, adding layers to her identity on top of the already complex social waters she negotiates. While these mediations of self can be tricky, they can also be rewarding, as players often feel free to reveal more of themselves than they feel comfortable doing offline, resulting in a greater intimacy with other players and an enhanced sense of community identity and belonging.

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