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The Guild Counsel: SWTOR is stealing my (character) identity!

Karen Bryan

Guild leading is often as much about managing personalities as it is about managing the nuts and bolts of the game. In previous columns, we've looked at all sorts of issues that guild leaders have to solve, and at the root of almost all of them is some sort of personality clash. Show me a nice blend of personalities, and I'll show you a happy guild that will stick together for years.

What makes guild leading so difficult, though, is that unlike real-life leaders, guild leaders need to manage two identities for every member. There's the real-life identity of the player, and then there's the identity of the in-game character, and they aren't always the same. If you talk to a guild that's met at a guild gathering or convention, one of the things you'll always hear is how a particular member is so different from his in-game character. In game, for example, he might be a rough-around-the-edges general, but in real life he's a quiet teddy bear.

MMOs give us the opportunity to be someone completely different from who we are out of game, and even non-roleplayers will sometimes behave differently when they're playing. But Star Wars: The Old Republic has taken away some of our power to construct our own identities in game. In this edition of The Guild Counsel, Let's look at how that's happened and whether it will affect the way we game.

Much to learn, you still have

Character identity is something that's important, and there are several ways we can show who we are in-game. Some players, for example, will linger over the character creator until they have every eyelash and nose wrinkle just the way they want it. Others will go out of their way to jump in game at launch in order to reserve a favorite character name they've carried with them through all of the games they've played. There's an important connection between players and their avatars, and while it starts with the look, it goes well beyond that.

In his book Designing Virtual Worlds, Dr. Richard Bartle talked about how we learn about ourselves as we play our characters and how MMOs offer the freedom for us to be someone we're not. A shy woman can be an outspoken raid leader. A guy with a relatively ordinary life can be known around the world for his in-game achievements or amazing machinima. And yes, there are some people who use their freedom to experiment with antisocial behavior like griefing. When we log in a character, we're able to paint any identity we want to on that blank slate. I'm in control of every emote, I can make my character say anything I want, and hopefully, I'm able to learn more about myself in the process.

SWTOR council
Farming identity

But over time, that's freedom has subtly changed, and there are more limitations on how we're able to portray ourselves. SWTOR has taken it an extra step with its dialogue scenes. By attaching light and dark points to conversations, the game has basically turned character development into a minigame. Participating in dialogue comes with a reward, and that means players might have to choose between what they feel fits their avatar and what will provide the best point value. There are players who actually seek groups in order to "farm" points. They'll pick the flashpoints with the most opportunities for dialogue in order to maximize their points for each session. In other words, they're now min/maxing character identity. Even those who are staying "grey" will always have that as the driving force lurking behind their choices.

On top of that, the three choice options basically mean that the game, and not the player, is in control of the character's replies. Obviously it would be impossible for BioWare to construct a scene that would cover every single type of reply to a dialogue, but because of these cutscenes and limited choices, players are more constricted in how they develop their identities. We often talk about MMOs being "on rails," but with SWTOR, our character identity is now also on rails. I used to play with a Rogue in EverQuest who hardly said a thing. He was a highly skilled player, and we used to chat all the time out of game, but when he was logged in, he played the silent Rogue perfectly. In SWTOR, if we were grouped, he wouldn't be able to quietly lurk in the shadows; he'd be standing in line with the rest of the group, and if he was the one to win the dialogue roll, his character would perform whatever reply he chose (since there's no option to remain silent). He wasn't necessarily a strict roleplayer, but he chose a certain identity for his character, and it fit him well. In SWTOR, he'd have a harder time being able to do that, so for those who are roleplayers, this would probably make things difficult.

SWTOR dancing in the desert
Not bad, just different

Now, I'm not saying it's a bad thing, and I'm really enjoying the game and the dialogue. But it's a different kind of fun than what we have in other MMOs. Yes, we're still developing a character identity, but it's a more passive experience. Raph Koster recently mourned the loss of immersion in games and wrapped up in all of that is the fact that a game like SWTOR doesn't allow us to go on our own journey. Instead, we're put on a track with a carefully planned set of choices. I enjoy watching my character in the dialogue, and it's entertaining to see her perform the choices I select. But it's also harder to immerse myself and connect with my character's identity because there's an overarching disconnect. I'm watching my avatar speak and act, but I'm not the one who's actually pulling the puppet strings. There's still a slate for us to paint on, but it's got part of the picture already filled in.

Perhaps, though, there's an upside. It's possible that guilds will see less drama because character identity has a different purpose in SWTOR. I've been in guild groups that ended up trying to pick the silliest choices, just to see what our characters would say. That's brought lots of laughs, but it also de-emphasizes our character personalities, leaving more room for our real-life identities to appear. We've been playing so long together and we know each other well enough already out of game, so for us it's not as much of a factor. But for guilds that don't, it might help reduce the chance of player conflicts and help create stronger bonds among members.

Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.

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