Secret World Legends started as The Secret World, launching back in the summer of 2012. The game had its ups and downs: initial launch failed to capture much attention in the market, a long dearth of new content and gameplay bugs that lingered. Eventually, there was an internal push to complete the first major story arc despite economic headwinds. A bit later, Funcom re-branded the game as free-to-play, with reworked mechanics to help make the game seem more accessible and interesting to a wider audience.
I joined The Secret World in December of 2013. I was quickly hooked by the intellectual and emotional horror aspects, as well as the modern world setting. As a social and political progressive, I liked the inclusion of people of color, women, and LGBT characters into the main plot line. The game fired my imagination for possible stories to tell. As a result, I got involved in role-play scenarios with other players to make our own stories in the TSW/SWL sandbox. The experiment with players using RP Twitter accounts (aka ‘Secret Twitter’) was kinda fun and let players express both arcane and mundane points of view and stories.
This essay is about being a person of color in this environment, not the pluses or minuses of SWL. A bit about me: I am a mixed race man from the Midwest of the United States. My father was black, my mother white, and I am old enough that I didn’t have anyone else like me growing up. I remember at four years old sharing my racial heritage at preschool and getting a reaction of “Eww!” I’m a little sensitive to people not understanding the power of seeing yourself in mass media. Heroes come in all colors, genders, and walks of life, and there is no reason to not have a wide diversity of stories out in the world. Yay 2019 — you’ve come a long way, baby!
For Secret Twitter, things aren’t quite as rosy. The vast majority of characters and plot lines are from a Western European point of view. Eastern European vampires, werewolves, witches, and similar tropes also pop up quite a bit. This is fine, of course — good RP comes from a strong understanding of character and background. Writing what you know makes it much easier to have fun and tell good stories.
I still try to push myself a little for new takes: my first character was basically me but the second was a white woman from northeastern United States. To date, I have run male and female characters: white, black, Asian (second generation Chinese). Most have been from the U.S., as I haven’t felt compelled to immerse myself in a foreign culture just yet. I have made a point to do a little research into things I wouldn’t know well to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself or anyone else playing with me for hackneyed plots or bad stereotypes. Yes, it’s a lot more work and a little less fun, BUT I am much prouder of some of those stories because I set a higher bar for myself and was able to pull it off.
I see a LOT of the same types of characters on Secret Twitter: white males that are in-game continuity bees trying to be superheroes, or (occasionally), committing wildly successful crimes to make insane amounts of money. I see white female characters with similar takes, sometimes focusing more on day-to-day life than big, epic plots. I see some niche types for anime or Asian culture fans that can be interesting but rarely venture outside those conventions.
And the Fae... good gravy the Fae. Disproportionate attention to the Fae both from the raw number of accounts or how little attention the Fae actually get from in-game lore. Maybe it’s all the other fantasy MMO oozing in, or maybe I’m just weird that I never got into or exposed to all that much Fae/Fairy growing up. I know that no one should tell anyone else how to RP, and I totally agree with that. That said though, I would encourage people to stretch their wings a bit and try some new stuff. Read a book about Indian mythology, South American folklore, or even more of H.P. Lovecraft’s work to help tap some themes that aren’t overly mined in the game. It’s not some kind of digital blackface to try a character that is of a different ethnic or sexual background than you. You just have to do it honestly and with as little bias as possible.
When I post from my black character, I make a small point to try to use images or gifs that reflect his ethnicity and life experience. Seeing pictures of black people, and seeing gifs of black faces absolutely does have value. It encourages an acceptance and normalcy for everyone. It reinforces the absolute truth that being a human being is an experience with many variations. We’re writing stories and all are looking for some way to make them stand out from each other. Why not use a character’s face/family/childhood friends to help distinguish the story even more from others?
Just as a player gets into the head of the character, there are things that the character would do and things that would never happen. As a role player, it’s goddamn magic when you get in that comfort zone where you just know what your character would do or how they would react to a situation. Imagine that feeling with a character that isn’t you or tied implicitly to your personal frame of reference. Be a player from a large city, from middle or upper middle class, and get it right as a gang-banger from Miami? WOW, nicely done. Rural player that is very straight-laced, diving into the drug culture on an addiction then recovery arc? Whooaaah. These aren’t perfect examples, and I know I’m glossing over potential problems of stereotypes or pandering, but you get the idea, right?
One more thing — I want to mention interactions with characters of color. My characters don’t use a lot of slang or accented language, and none require anything other than knowledge of general game lore. It’s not hard to read their stories or interactions and understand what’s going on. My characters of color have had no trouble interacting with others. My white characters are generally outgoing and not confrontational. My white characters still get a lot more attempts at new interaction than the non-white ones. This doesn’t mean I get no interest from other characters. I’m an outgoing player and look for ways to interact with others or give openings for others to jump in.
I have seen some other players’ characters get mostly ignored because their race or culture were projected up front as a means to define the character. Instead of using those bits of info to see if there was a hook, it was perceived as a barrier or a non-starter. I understand that a gaming RP community generally mirrors all the complicated elements that inform our perceptions of who has greater social value. A bisexual attractive white woman still almost always gets the most attention in any RP game.
I understand that I shouldn’t draw too many conclusions that a gay Asian male character isn’t getting swamped with RP. That gay Asian dude will need some more time for more eyeballs to see him in all the other social noise out there. So.. yeah. I’m NOT saying that anyone who may have ignored a gorgeous African woman is a racist. I’m saying that I don’t understand why it seems easier for so many to look somewhere else rather than try a new angle.
Here it is, a new character that is very different on the surface from everyone, and you don’t want to check that out? Seems like a big opportunity just passed by... Think about it for a second. What is the range of characters that you interact with? WHY do you interact with them? Do you try to reach out to new characters, and when you do, what was the hook that helped make it happen?
Again, nobody should tell someone else how to RP, but everyone should know why they RP the way they do. If the reasons are truly tied to telling a good story, then try to grow. Do new things, try new angles, shift from the center of the story to the periphery and back again. Be aware of gender and race issues in your own storytelling. You might make things a lot better for yourself (and some others) along the way.