World Theory


theory: dimensions of role-acting

The term role-acting is a subsitute for the term role-playing, as the latter is more confusing than useful. Different people have different ideas of what it means. This is not surprising as the few players who consider the role-play aspect to be their main activity have to invest a lot of time and effort into bringing the psychological dimensions of their character to life. This is not for everyone.... At least not without some guidance and inspiration. The majority of players of online role-playing games are not actually role-playing, thus the confusion with what the term denotes.

A new term is therefore needed to pin-point pure roleplay as a serious playstyle. In 1997 I suggested the term role-acting on the mud-dev mailing-list. Apparently the distinction was useful as it stuck with a few writers, for a while.

Role-acting is a form of improvised theatre where you try to bring your character's personality to life through interacting with other players and the environment. The three main dimensions at work are: character-personality construction, plotting and immersion.

Personality play

Role-acting is centered on your set of characters, usually one at a time. By acting and speaking through your character's avatar you bring your character to life and set the personality with which you want to be consistent. You may state with a blank slate and let the character's personality be formed by the various encounters you experience, or you may predefine a particular personality and predisposition, or both.

The delight that may be derived from role-acting is the possibility of experiencing a different personality and setting compared to the one you are framed by in everyday life. You might gain insight into how you feel when being framed as the opposite gender, as a moron or an evil-doer. If you play anonymously and claim the character's identity to coincide with your own as a player, then you might gain insight into how people respond to the opposite gender, to stupidity, to evildoers...

Many players choose to adopt a personality for their character which is close to their own personality. This may be helpful for players who find role-acting difficult, but it might also make the player's real self-identity vulnerable if the player's character is abused.


Role-acting where there is no direction and no overarching theme or goal to play up to can be confusing and has lower potential for dramatic tension. Such tension, the struggle between characters, their personalities and which direction they go can be quite exciting and also promote immersion.

Plotting can come in many forms, in the pure improvised style you have vague ideas of what interesting dramatic directions the current situation affords, thus you select between possible future plots when you select between competing actions that your character might undertake.

Sometimes a predetermined plot set the stage, this makes role-acting easier as the partitioning of available actions become clearer, but it also reduce the tension between participating characters. This is commonly found in events held by players, where one or more of the participants have either predetermined a task, a storyline or an overall goal to be accomplished. Not all the participants might now these plot components, but they usually know who are responsible for the main plot.


Immersion takes place when the physical surroundings go to the background and the user's character and what happens in the world takes foreground, both on the cognitive and emotional level. Moreover, when immersed the user is less concerned with his physical body and more concerned with the the character's presence in the surroundings.

When you are fully immersed you adopt the emotional repertoire of your characters personality, acting on these emotions rather than reasoning about what you character should have felt. Achieving this level of immersion takes time and persistence.

Most likely players will have to utilize their own personality and experiences in order to achieve deep immersion, down-playing certain aspects of the real self and opening themselves up to aspects they usually suppress. These deep levels of immersive role-acting can thus be viewed as psycho-analytical self-exploration.


While role-acting usually takes place between equal participants one shouldn't forget that they also constitute an audience for each-other. I can identify at least these audience groups:

  1. Self-audience: role-actors who interact are their own audience.

  2. Participant audience: role-actors may engage a mixed crowd of users to participate in an event, such as a demonstration.

  3. Passive audience: role-actors performing an event, such as singing christmas carols in a town.

  4. Victimized audience: role-actors engaging other users in confusing ways in order to get responses which they can build on. Often characterized by deceit and internal humour.

  5. Reader audience: this group is more undefined, and less visible to the role-actor, it is the audience you get when creating web-sites and forum-posts.

The feed-back loop

Role-actors may validate their character's personality through the feedback they get from the environment. This can be viewed as a feedbackloop going through a series of phases, although in reality they aren't distinct:

  1. Plotting: during the plotting stage the role-actor evalutes how the environment can be used to provide interesting dramatic directions, moods and actions for his character. These opportunties are seen in light of the constraints formed by the character's personality.

  2. Taking action: the role-actor selects and undertakes action, often improvised in the setting, guided by directions from the previous phase.

  3. Evaluating the response: the role-actor evaluates the response he gets from others, and also his own immersion experience.

  4. Personality-validation: If the preceding evaluation leads to a confirmation of the character's direction and mood then the currently assumed personality configuration is validated and strengthened. If the response was lacking the role-actor get a chance to re-plot, assume new directions for his character such as taking on a new mood, or even twist or change his character's personality.

Personality adoption

This section is temporary.

There is a great variety of role-acting styles. I will here only distinguish between some differentiating character-building strategies.

  • Passive blank slate: the character enters the world using a diffuse personality with no preconceived history. Major events in the character's in-world life shape it's personality.

  • Active blank slate: the character enters the world using a diffuse personality with no preconceived history. Major situations are exploited by the role-actor to maximize dramatic potential. Not yet determined characteristcs of the character's personality is filled in, in an opportunistic fahsion.

  • Pure personality: the role-actor selects a set of key personality traits, moods and attitudes and switch to whatever set suits the situation at hand.

  • Full history: the character's history up to it's current fictional age is detailed and the role-actor use this to form a personality which he sticks to.

  • Cross world personality: some role-actors replay the same personality in a wide selection of online worlds, just shaping their history and preferences to suit each world.

  • Hybrid role-acting: the user's personality and moods are flowing in and out of the character's personality and moods.

In reality most role-actors will probably be rather flexible, these character creation strategies are highlighting extremes. I suspect hybrid role-acting to be the most common approach.


This article is primarily based on my own experience, research and to some extent based on discussions on mud-dev in which I have participated.

Other terms such as roll-play and munchkin have been used in the table-top roleplaying community to create distance between the theatrical and more technical play styles.

(There is a lot more to be added to this article, but I have to go through my notes and other writings first. Might not happen anytime soon.)