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All the World's a Stage: Center of the universe

David Bowers

All the World's a Stage returns today after a week off due to reasons beyond the comprehension of mortal man. Mysteries abound in World of Warcraft, and roleplayers are there to enjoy them.

In roleplaying, one's own character is never the center of the story -- this is true. But from another perspective, your character is always the center of the story -- and this is also true. It seems like a paradox, but it's actually a way of understanding your own relationship to the world.

In most stories, the main characters are usually the ones who have the most impact on the world around them: they are the heroes who save the day, fall in love, and make the choices that determine the ultimate outcome of the plot. In a way, the whole story circles around them, like planets around the sun. The structure of Warcraft lore is built with the stories of characters like this, whose choices made the World of Warcraft what it is today: Arthas, Thrall, Jaina Proudmoore and the like.

But the roleplaying community of imaginative characters is not such a centralized system. When immature roleplayers fail to understand this, they end up with a chaotic mess where everyone wants to steal the spotlight. But mature roleplaying environments are quite the opposite: they are cooperative rather than competitive, and quite unlike traditional storytelling patterns. Where traditional stories are like a solar system, with main characters around which all the other characters revolve, roleplaying in WoW it is like the expanding universe itself: a web of interconnected stories and characters in which the center appears to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

Center of the universe? Yup, that's me!

Consider for a moment this celestial metaphor: In the same way that, from our individual points of view, each one of us seems to be at the center of our own lives, to the astronomical observer, the earth itself appears as if it is at the center of the universe. If you look out at the stars and galaxies with sophisticated instruments, you will see that all of them are moving away from from our position in the cosmos. This empirical evidence leads us to one of two conclusions: (a) The general vicinity of the earth itself is the Birthplace of Existence, the actual location of the Big Bang... or (b) every spot in the universe is moving away from every other spot as the entire universal system continually expands, just like the points of a net stretching out further and further apart, such that anywhere you stand in the universe, everything else will be moving away from you, and you will appear to be at its center.

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and that guy whose name begins with H.

Our own John Patricelli touched on this sort of idea in a different way the other day on his own blog, when he discussed the relationship of roleplaying to Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet, of course, is the center of the story that is named for him. Indeed, one could argue that the whole story is about how this young prince, having been sidelined by his uncle before the story begins, rose up "against a sea of troubles" and took the situation into his own hands, thus becoming the true center of everyone else's lives. At the end, everyone dies, the curtain falls, the audience goes home, and the actors remove their makeup.

That may be the "end," but that's not all there is to the story. There's another play, called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which these two minor characters from the Hamlet story come to the foreground, and we see the story of Hamlet again from their point of view. Here, the choices of Hamlet and his uncle still determine everyone's fate, but the true meaning of these choices is mostly lost on our two new main characters. Instead, they have their own comical troubles to contend with, such as remembering which one of them is which, playing games of questions and roleplay, and trying to figure out why Hamlet is such a nutcase (or indeed, why Hamlet says he could be "bounded in a nutshell" and still consider himself "a king of infinite space").

In a way, John says, each one of our characters in WoW is like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in relationship to Hamlet -- we are not the apparent centers of World of Warcraft like Thrall and the others are, but we have our own little adventures taking place within the broader outline of the Warcraft story. Our characters are not so epic in their influence upon the world, but from their individual points of view, they still see the everything in relation to themselves.

Would you like to swing on a star?

Now, of course there are some situations in which player characters can seem to take the center stage in WoW, such as the opening of the gates of Ahn'Qiraj, when one player rang the gong that actually unleashed the Qiraji hordes, or even now, when such a small number of players are able to reach and defeat Kil'Jaeden. These are indeed great achievements that players can undertake, but they are originally given to us by Blizzard, not by the players' choices themselves. The story doesn't belong to our characters -- we just step up and fill the role that Blizzard sets out before us. The narrative of our characters' tales (including ringing the Ahn'Qiraj gong, or witnessing the renewal of the Sunwell, as well as chatting in a tavern) is still limited to our own subjective experience, and the stories we create live within the ever-expanding web of imagination we share with our friends.

When one sees oneself and everyone else in this interconnected and center-less way, one feels no need to grab attention for oneself at others' expense, or to somehow influence the overall Warcraft storyline. You bring joy to others and they bring joy to you in a non-linear and reciprocal way. Each person is one link in a chain, one creature in the ecosystem, one star in the vastness of the sky.

All the World's a Stage, and all the orcs and humans merely players... Have you ever wondered how in the world players can raid and RP at the same time? Or how roleplayers turn the inconsistencies of the gaming environment to their advantage? What kind of stories do you like to roleplay, other than "hero who saves the world?"

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