Final Fantasy XIV has made out of housing. You don't need to hear about it again, though. What's far more relevant is addressing a question that at once seems screamingly straightforward and yet barely gets answered: Why does housing matter so much for roleplaying?
Pretty much no one argues with the basic premise that housing is a boon for roleplaying, but that discussion usually stops there. It's assumed that the reasons it's helpful is self-evident in much the same way that having a game that does not set fire to your face is desirable. But it's useful to examine why at least affordable entry-level housing in a game is important for roleplaying and how it can lead to benefits for the community as a whole.
Creating a designated space for roleplaying
Some people don't like to be around roleplaying. I get that, insofar as I understand that they'd rather not be exposed to it. But there's only so much space in the game world, and the people who do like to roleplay have to congregate somewhere.
There are almost always lots of wonderful roleplaying environments out in the world, but not every environment you can think of. And there's always space for more things, more features you want to see or vistas to suit specific ventures. Maybe you want to be able to build a bookstore or a casino or a tavern where people can congregate and enjoy themselves free of the demands of the game at large.
Even if the game doesn't allow you to actually run a bookstore (which is fine; no one said that you can only roleplay a business tycoon if you can actually be a business tycoon -- that's the point of roleplaying anyway), having a shop set up allows for a certain sort of character interaction. It leads to more interesting places. It improves the game environment as a whole, and that's something worth pursuing.
Having spaces that roleplayers can use for their own purposes creates a better environment all around. It allows roleplayers to separate themselves from people whose primary goal seems to be acting as boorish as possible in the middle of other people having fun. It avoids the problem of everyone clustering around a single city or building to interact. And it allows for the creation of spaces that otherwise don't exist in the core game.
Fleshing out the image of a character
So maybe what you want for your character's house is really just a house. You're just going to craft a living space for your character, one meant solely for interacting with close friends and the like. It won't offer a lot of the benefits that I just listed, but it still offers some of the big ones because there are more important things than just creating a shared space. Housing allows you to customize your character further.
No, it won't give you access to new hairstyles or wardrobe options (usually), but it will give you access to the ever-important options of what you choose to put in and around your house. And you can find out a lot about people by walking into their houses. (If you decide to make this an experiment, please do so only with friends, as the only information to be gleaned by randomly walking into the houses of others is how quickly they will call the police.)
Leaving aside the economic benefits of having players producing furniture for consumption, I think it says a lot when you walk into a player's house and find rows of bookshelves near a small bed and table. Or if you see a small house lavishly decorated with elegant, sumptuous furnishings. Or a ramshackle dwelling that uses wooden planks to create an impromptu second floor, or even just a bedroom that has several smaller beds near it.
Visitors to my own house walk into a place filled with books, electronics, and cat toys. You don't get a complete picture of me that way, but it certainly gives a good summary. Player housing allows for just that in a way far more effective than all of the multi-paragraph biographies you can write for your character.
Offers a steadier investment
I think everyone who reads this is familiar with churn and the effect it can have upon roleplaying. In the past I've advocated planning for it when plotting out roleplaying for the future, but I don't think it's possible to completely avoid running into it. You consistently roleplay with someone else without any thought to what will happen in three months, and it turns out that your roleplaying partner is gone three months and a day later.
Housing does not stop churn. Nothing can, really, short of everyone having an ironclad commitment to a game, and that's harmful in its own way. Churn is going to happen. What housing can do, however, is offer more incentive to slow the churn.
Sure, you're a little more bored with the game now, but you've almost gotten your house fully decorated. Or it's a guild house and you want to make sure that everyone has full access to decorate it. And in a couple months you want to come back and see what's going on, and the next thing you know you've stuck around for a little longer, even if you've taken some time off here and there for single-player titles.
In other words, having a house puts your roots down. Not so surprising after all.
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I want to talk about when it's time to move yourself into a new roleplaying environment, and the week after that I think it's best to go into more depth about playing what you aren't.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.