A roleplayer's journey into Star Wars lore leads her into one of the longest living MMOs.
I’ve frolicked about in some of the coolest Star Wars landscapes: Taris, Manaan, Coruscant, Nar Shadda, Korriban, and Mos Espa. I’ve been to a volcanic planet which resembles Mustafar from Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi had their final showdown. I’ve been a Queen, an Empress, a criminal, an assassin, and an Ithorian soothsayer. I led a rebellion against the Galactic Empire and got it all on video.
This is the world of Star Wars roleplay in Second Life, a virtual world more than 12 years old and still home to roughly 900,000 users. If you aren’t acquainted with Linden Lab’s flagship game, it can be difficult to explain what Second Life is and what people like me do on there. It emulates conventional games in that there’s an attachable meter, a dice system, and so on. But for roleplayers like me, Second Life is more of an exercise in writing than anything else.
I created my first Second Life account in 2007, when I was a sophomore in college. At the time I had the burning urge to pour my creative energies into something and pretend I was someone else. My first character, Hyacinth, began her life as a scrappy smuggler who hung out with a ragtag group of misfits and eccentrics, but when a new location, Onderon, opened up, its owner (players in Second Life can own virtual tracts of real estate) asked me to play as its queen -- a major role, maybe comparable to playing Queen Elizabeth at a Renaissance Faire, except online. I fleshed out my character’s backstory to suit this change in occupation, deciding that Hyacinth had in fact come from a long line of monarchs and been displaced as an infant. It’s a cliché concept, but Star Wars leans heavily on these same themes of reinvention and self-discovery, so she fit right in.
In my character’s new role as a head of state, I fell in with a core group of players leading a major story campaign in our community. The Onderon Crusade, as we called it, took roughly a year of planning and build-up, starting as a political rivalry between Hyacinth and the Imperial Empress, a distant cousin of hers (and played by a close friend of mine). The campaign was organized using mainly in-game interactions such as text chat and private messages. Some roleplayers preferred voice chat, either Second Life’s own or a third party program like Ventrilo.
We had a basic idea of how the narrative was going to unfold, but we tried not to adhere to a strict plan. An engrossing roleplaying scene thrives on organic, moment-to-moment character interactions, so when there’s too much planning involved, it can squash the fun of it. There were a number of arranged events, like the time Hyacinth publicly addressed the people of Onderon, where roleplayers could come online and participate. Later there would be written records of the events on the community’s Wiki page or on a fan-made HoloNet website.
As the conflict grew, Onderon split from the Empire, compelling Imperial forces to invade the region. You can get a good sense of the twists and turns to our epic plot from the video, which was produced by a prominent member of the community and brought together dozens of performers (no mean feat for the time), including yours truly.
Everything you see and hear in the video is the product of the Star Wars roleplaying community coming together as a unit: we penned our own script and loaned our real life voices to our characters. The video may seem rough, but it represents the culmination of a year’s worth of collaboration. It was intended to be a preview of where the plot was heading. Many online roleplaying communities have documented their histories in one way or another, but I’d wager we’re one of few to have gone so far as to record it.
Being at the forefront of a fan-made story campaign like this was not without its pressures. Tasked with the direction of a plot that would end up involving hundreds of players and nearly a year of planning, I had to invest hours of my time on Second Life on a regular basis. At one point, I skipped out on social interactions with friends or missed meals completely, just so I could stay at my computer desk and spend more time pruning the plot. Like a trained actor, I had to be on at all times. Hyacinth rarely had a private moment to herself, which meant I rarely had a moment to myself.
Eventually, after the Onderon Crusade had concluded, I fell out of Star Wars roleplaying. But I would end up coming back to it again and again. The thing that amazes me the most is the community’s longevity. Second Life itself has held on far longer than anyone might have expected, and this roleplaying scene within it has been going strong for about a decade. Though the popularity ebbs and flows, as all things tend to do, it remains surprisingly consistent. There’s love and creativity in every pixel, from the ambiance of the bars and casino halls to players’ carefully crafted avatars.
In Second Life’s roleplayer communities, I don’t have to be a warrior and go on scripted quests. I can be a politician or a bar owner. I can live out those small roles which add depth to a sprawling story universe like Star Wars. And just like in that universe, I can watch my character rise from humble origins into a respected leader. The first time I walked Hyacinth into her throne room in Onderon, the sight of her royal guards – all fellow players -- kneeling before her took my breath away.
The Force Awakens, the most recent Star Wars installment, has led to a new surge of activity in the RP community. When I traveled to the latest Coruscant sim a few days after the film came out -- there have been multiple versions of the planet in Second Life throughout the years -- it was populated with so many diverse looking avatars: Mandalorians, Bothan soldiers, Twi’lek’s, and more. I was home again and it felt damn good.
I may not run any community-spanning campaigns anymore, but I’m still active. Currently, I roleplay as a character named Jaina (no relation to the Expanded Universe character), a poor woman from the desert planet Cotellier. Though she’s ignorant and rude, Jaina is fun to roleplay because, unlike me, she’s not afraid of confrontation. And while I occasionally run into an unpleasant player, like the men who attempt to flirt with me out-of-character, the Star Wars roleplaying community has been good to me over all these years. It provides adults like me with a safe, comfortable space to tend to their imaginations as if it were a garden.
I feel it’s important to acknowledge the active communities on Second Life. Critics have been quick to declare the virtual world dead and dated, while others claim it’s a cesspool of deviants and perverts. And while there are certainly unsavory characters in any MMO, the Star Wars roleplaying community on Second Life will always hold a special place in my heart as a source of wonderful friends and the epic stories we’ve spun together.
Ashley Barry writes for several pop culture websites including Not Your Mama's Gamer.