On "RPG sites" and their slow deathSunday, 16 Jul 2023
From the age of about 10, I want to say, I was obsessed with RPG sites, forums, whatever you'd call them. They go by several unofficial names. My first and most significant experience of the word "RPG" wasn't D&D or Monster Hunter, or rocket powered grenades in Call of Duty. It was a website like this one.
You get the idea.
It's honestly one of the most convoluted things to explain to someone, which is partly why communities like these tend to be so insular and closed-off. Not because they necessarily want to be, but because they're exist to play an incredibly niche role. It's very lore-heavy, so it appeals to the detail-oriented. At the same time, it requires a consistent flow of creativity, productivity, and interacting with strangers, so it's hardly a monastic or anti-social activity.
The premise of the majority of RP sites goes along these lines: you roleplay as an animal, most commonly a wolf (notably, there have been lions and horses. Some websites focus on human roleplaying, but in general it's a free for all, with werewolves, actual anime characters, and yes, real people). The setting is some arbitrary land with a few (or a lot of) intrinsic rules. There may be magic, or it may be centred around realism. Often, there are some kind of cohort, like packs, prides, or species. In-character interactions are centred around inter-cohort conflict and politics, ranging from coups, to powerful family dynasties, entire religions, and more. The fact that you're an animal is probably the least important factor in all of this.
I know a few people who did roleplay formerly, but they got their start in ones that were chatroom-based, which I never got accustomed to. One of, if not the first roleplay forums I registered on was moonisland.rpg, which has long since been defunct. It must've been back in about 2014 or earlier, when Discord didn't exist and everyone had to use Chatango, or Skype. When I logged back onto Chantango after at least 5 years of forgetting its existence, I could see my friends' accounts and their bios, which often had short descriptions of their characters. None had been online for several years. When the link to Moon Island RPG finally broke, it was like a chunk of my adolescence had split off as a calving iceberg plunging into the ocean.
I was never really self-conscious about it. Part of me knew it was weird, or at least out of the ordinary. But this was even before I knew about the in-joke of furries, otherkin, off-color remarks about bestiality, etc. To me at the time, it was very much in the same vein as real works of fiction such as the Warriors series and it didn't strike me as being a little perverse until much, much later. And certainly it wasn't anything to be embarrassed about— in fact, the only thing that kept me from talking about it with others was the fact that there would be so much exposition and backstory involved. Perhaps fortunately, these sites tended to have in-depth rulesets and mechanics that would be difficult to explain in one sitting to someone totally unfamiliar with the medium. On the other hand, once one got accustomed to the framework, virtually every other roleplay site would follow the same basic rules, which included restrictions on chronology (there was something called "liquid-time"), on "power-play", and more granular things like word count limit or style guidelines.
I vaguely remember the moment in which I realized that this whole thing was aberrant, and it was when someone around my age, a member of a site, said that she would never have opened this site on her laptop, that she only ever posted and browsed on her phone, and that she would die if a classmate found out what exactly she was doing. And it made me think, huh, maybe this whole charade is weird and perhaps even insane. A whole world built around the premise of you pretending to be an animal, where these animals have the mind and intelligence and personality of humans, and therefore live lives as intense as any one of us.
So why am I confessing all of this to you now?
I'm not exactly embarrassed. Well, maybe a little bit. But I'm glad that, for the majority of the time I've spent on these sites, I did so without the shadow of shame hanging over my head. I enjoyed it sincerely. And I'm certainly not placing any blame on that one girl, whose intention was by no means to shame me, or anybody else in that chat. I'm a little surprised that no one responded with righteous indignance, though. It was a real naked emperor moment, at least to me.
Shadowing the decline of the 'old internet'
Anyways, to get back to the reason why I wrote this: these sites are going through a long, protracted death.
It was particularly damning when I was trying to find example websites to put at the beginning of this post, and half of them were completely dead, a quarter were inactive, and the rest were simply just hanging in there. None of the websites I was on when I began roleplaying exist anymore, at least not in their current iteration.
Maybe it's me being pessimistic, but by now I can say that I've had enough experience with them to see the overlying trend— that is, their undeniable decline. And I think that's a shame, and I think that it is a symptom of what people on Neocities love to talk about: the increasing inactivity on forums as more and more people flock around centralized social media, the general lack of incentive for creativity, whatever. Just saying the words "Bulletin Board Forum" feels like it dates me! It's what everyone has on their manifestos. A part of me understands that these RPG forums and communities pose somewhat of an anomaly. They should've died out a long time ago, or at least be much less robust than they are right now (although today they are still a shadow of their former selves, in my opinion, which saddens me to no end. There is simply no way to turn back the clock, other than to look at them through what pages the Wayback Machine has managed to crawl through and save).
What forums remain are often maintained faithfully by the memberbase that was once a part of the newer generation. The original members, way back in the early 2000s, are mostly all living their adult lives now, probably well into their 30s and perhaps even in their 40s. When I joined at the age of 10 (which broke basically every site's rule that a member had to be over the age of 13, 16, and in some cases 18) there were many people who were teenagers or in their twenties. I expected a steady stream of tweens and/or younger teens to continue to nourish the memberbase, but from where I'm standing now, that has mostly dried up. Many more people seem to be leaving rather than joining. I don't mean for this to come across as narcissistic, but it feels as if I was part of the youngest group to join, the final wave of newcomers now left to commandeer and inhabit these unmoored ships. Now, the average demographic of these sites seems to be composed of people no younger than college students. In fact, it's more likely that you'll see a mother with kids than a 13 year old posting about her sparkledog character.
I don't want to use the word stagnate, because of its unequivocably negative connotation. But make no mistake, I'm glad that these communities have a core that looks to the long-term. I see the same people who have written on these sites (sometimes on the one particular site in question!) for close to a decade, in some cases for over a decade (very few sites can claim to have lasted that long without fading off into oblivion, inactivity, and expired domain names, but they do exist).
For a time, posting on these forums made up a vast majority of my time spent online. I was 13 when I got to be a moderator, because I'd lied and said I was 16. Maybe this says something about my own age, because this was still around the time where it was normal and even encouraged to lie about your personal information online (and I think getting my start on online socialization in these websites ingrained into me this old-school habit). It was fun, and stressful, and I had to step down prematurely before leaving RP sites altogether and going on a long hiatus, and I often wonder what these people are doing now. Many of them were either adults, college students, or about-to-be-college-students. They were all on the cusp of something significant in their lives. On the personal OOC (out-of-character) boards, there were posts about marriages, graduations, and the mundane everyday. There was also a lot of venting and tragedy, as expected.
I think COVID quarantines injected new life into the ailing scene, but now it's winding down again. Every year has its ups and downs, with holiday seasons, with school breaks, etc. But again, I tell you, it used to be so much more. And there's really no way to bring what used to be back. Believe me, I've tried. Maybe it was the rose-colored glasses that 13 year old me had on, that made me feel as if the possibilities were limitless and that this virtual world was bursting at the seams with activity and ideas. Filled with HTML and CSS that broke just about every W3C guideline. Filled with photomanipulations and art both egregiously bad and breathtakingly beautiful. Filled with disgusting purple prose, laconic phone-posts riddled through with disastrous typos, sometimes with genuinely fantastic, touching writing that I still think about to this day.
This was really how I learned to code (badly) w/r/t web design, how I taught myself digital art and photomanipulations, and how I learned to write. I wrote a lot. If I wasn't involved in RP sites, there's no telling when or even if I'd get around to learning web design and Photoshop, even starting with digital art, skills that serve me well to this day. Like it or not, these sites made me who I am today, which is why I can't help but be a little upset that they're so... diminished.
What I have taken away
Here's a list of things (not exhaustive) that I learned through posting on RP forums and interacting with members:
- Swans, the band
- Gillian Welch, the musician
- Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- T. S. Eliot
- The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
- Cormac McCarthy
- The Imitation Game (and therefore Alan Turing lol)
- A bunch of zoos in Germany that have wolves
- The Creative Commons license
I understand that people move on with their lives. You can't really roleplay as glittery horses on the internet forever. But where are the kids? Is the death of forum roleplay really inevitable? I find that part hard to accept. A lot of the webpages aren't even archived, so hours and hours, weeks and months of man-effort are, what? Lost to time, just like that? I click on a website and the last post was made two years ago. Actually, the most recent post is spam left behind by a bot advertising a suspicious brand of Russian viagra, the title in tangled Cyrillic and the username an obfuscated sequence of meaningless letters and numbers. Or, the admin of the website has shut it down and rendered thousands of words and histories inaccessible to the public. What a total ghost town. Where did all these people go? When exactly is it decided, when the very last post is made?
And the writers— are they okay, now, living out real life? I remember being 14 or so, and trying to console a 30 year old woman who was having a depressive episode, insisting to me that she was ugly, fat, and unlovable. I remember reading the posts of someone who had gone through a horrific accident, had been burned severely on her arms and upper body. She had, for some reason, posted photos of her (healed) wounds in explaining why she had been absent for so long.
A few months ago I got the news that one of the members I knew, that I roleplayed with, who was rather well-known and had been with the site for a long time, had died of cancer.
I didn't know her that well, but all the same I grieved. I had written with her before. But she was gone forever, and I'd never see her writing ever again.
When I said "long, protracted death", maybe it was too pessimistic. Maybe the decrease in memberbase is asymptotic— maybe there will always be a nucleus of people, no matter how small, who are willing to put in the work to keep a forum alive. Maybe extinction was never a possibility. But the "golden era" has definitely passed, and I don't see much reason for a resurgence. Hell, call me a hypocrite; I haven't posted regularly on these for years.
This post is my little elegy for these communities. May they continue to be unacceptably socially weird. May they continue to house the work of young artists and writers all over the world, and act as a hub for their inspiration. Most of all, may they continue to thrive, create, teach, and welcome, proving that real connection is still possible in an internet swamped by the detritus of the powers-that-be.