Jaakko Stenros

Jaakko Stenros (PhD) is a game and play researcher working at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies (at the Game Research Lab, University of Tampere). He has published seven books and over 50 articles and reports. He is currently working on understanding the form of games, the making of larps, and uncovering the aesthetics of social play, but his research interests include norm-defying play, rules, queer play, role-playing games, pervasive games, and playfulness. Stenros has also collaborated with artists and designers to create ludic experiences and has curated exhibitions at the Finnish Museum of Games.

Contact information:
Jaakko.stenros at tuni.fi

Tanja Sihvonen

Tanja Sihvonen is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Vaasa, Finland. She holds a PhD in media studies from the University of Turku, Finland, and she is specialized in digital media, computer games, and participatory cultures on the internet. She is currently working on gameplay streaming, algorithmic agency, and the political economy of social media.

Contact information:
tanja.sihvonen at uwasa.fi

Like Seeing Yourself in the Mirror? Solitary Role-Play as Performance and Pretend Play

by Jaakko Stenros, Tanja Sihvonen


This article aims at theory-building of the somewhat understudied functions -- performative and pretend -- of solitary play in digital role-playing games. It analyzes the single-player digital role-playing game (SPDRPG) from the perspective of play, or more precisely, of solitary play as an activity. SPDRPG is considered a specific genre of games, and these games are approached as toys that are “pretend-played” with expectations. In these games, the player is able to build and manage a player character (or several), explore the interaction possibilities between characters, and adopt a role-playing attitude. Our article is thus focused on analyzing the activities of a player through three angles: character creation, character interaction, and game mechanics.

Furthermore, the player can engage in internal play, that is, engage in pretend play by themself with the game object. In this kind of play, they can pretend that their player character adopts a role not offered or recognized by the game system while making up a personal history and a rich inner life for their character. Thus, the player carries out interpretative and transgressive work in order to craft the game experience to satisfy their expectations, which can be helped by knowing the game mechanics intimately, and through modding the game artifact. We approach this work of rendering their play personally more meaningful through the concept of queering. This work enables the game to work as a metaphoric mirror onto which the player casts an image of their hopes, fears, and dreams. As the player reaches outside the game system, the reflection is not just of the system, but of the player as well.

Keywords: role-play, role-playing game, single-player, digital game, pretend play, performance, queer play



Role-play is possible in all kinds of contexts and on different gaming devices. In this article, we are interested in finding out on what terms role-play is possible when the player operates a digital game and gaming device alone. We call the games that interest us in this regard single-player digital role-playing games (SPDRPG)[1] and we situate this study in the contexts of role-playing game studies, queer game studies, and performance theory. Even though single-player digital role-playing games and their players have been researched extensively (e.g. Dutton, Consalvo & Harper, 2011; Hassan, 2017; Jørgensen, 2010; Voorhees et al., 2012), analyzing their multifaceted character design and role-playing options from the perspective of solitary play activity has to our knowledge not been systematically done before.[2]

In this article, SPDRPGs will be analyzed from three perspectives: (1) character creation, (2) interaction between the player character and the game’s artificially intelligent non-player characters, and (3) game mechanics. The article’s orientation is theoretical, and our fundamental objective lies in building theory of the understudied functions -- performative and pretend -- of solitary role-playing. We are not interested in the game artifact itself nor in the player and game cultures, but in the solitary act of playing the game. The main reference material in this regard comes from role-playing game studies and play studies. Furthermore, we draw on the nascent field of queer game studies, as queer play offers a multitude on interesting examples where players negotiate with, transgress against, and queer the game object (e.g. Consalvo, 2003; Shaw, 2013; Ruberg, 2019). We also include a nod to performance studies in the construction of our frame of reference. In order to illustrate and advance the theoretical points we wish to make, we refer to examples picked from actual SPDRPGs, although this article is not based on systematic empirical analysis; rather, it provides a (so far) alternative viewpoint to the study of role-play. In particular, we will refer to characters, narratives, and game mechanics in role-playing games belonging to the Dragon Age (DA, 2009-) and the Mass Effect (ME, 2007-) series by the Canadian triple-A game developer BioWare.

The theoretical basis for our approach lies in the observation that role-playing is often a social and collective activity, where a single player performing a role is seen to only make sense in relation to the sociodramatic context of acting “as if” together with other players and possible other participants as well as the game master. Hence, our research questions in this article are: On what terms are role-play and ‘role’ adoption possible, if they are performed only to the player themself and a soulless computer system or, at best, an artificial intelligence constellation? Can solitary role-playing be considered a kind of mirroring, where the player engages in an activity that, for instance, posits the player as their own audience, makes them see themself on the screen in a different light, or pushes them to test out scenarios that would not be possible or feasible in their everyday life and in the offline world?

In this article, we map the possibilities of investigating single-player digital role-playing as part of the role-playing game research tradition, and as an activity that both shows the player their own image (through direct avatar action) and makes them into something unknown, strange, and norm-questioning (or “queer”) to themself (through performing a role). The third context that lurks behind this performative focus is based on a reconfiguration of audience or spectatorship theory form the first-person perspective (e.g. Hoover et al. 2018, p. 217). In the context of single-player games, the performance is created for the experience of the player themself: the player functions as both actor and spectator at the same time. As part of this analytic framework we have derived inspiration particularly from Stepher Greer’s (2013) and Todd Harper’s (2017) work on the possibilities of “playing queer”. In this regard our work complements earlier investigations of single-player computer role-playing games (e.g. Voorhees et al., 2012; Schules et al., 2018; Barton & Stacks, 2019).

Role-playing in this context is approached as a foundational form of play available to humans and other animals (Burghardt, 2005) and as an activity and attitude (Heliö, 2004), whereas role-playing games are seen as tools and scaffolding allowing these to take place. To tease out examples of solitary role-play with digital games, we draw on the concept of queering, which is a reference to the processes of consciously (by design choice) creating otherness and transgression in digital games (see Ruberg, 2015; Ruberg, 2019; Sihvonen & Stenros, 2019). Otherness is a relational aspect of the study, whereas queering refers to the performative elements in gameplay. Thus, we are not interested in analyzing only queer text, design, or play in these games, but -- following Adrienne Shaw’s (2015, pp. 65-66) proposition -- we want to study these things queerly. This means that although we are interested in queer as an identity category, we also see it as a performative attitude and a modality (of play) that any player can engage. Furthermore, some games lend themselves to queer play more easily or fruitfully than others, and in the context of this article we are interested in seeing how SPDRPGs fit into this spectrum we have more profoundly discussed elsewhere (Sihvonen & Stenros, 2018; 2019).

The theoretical perspective employed here is necessarily multifaceted, as we think it is not only the queer representations or interactions that are interesting in games, but also the deeply meaningful exploratory, projective, and performative level of gameplay that is typical to the kinds of single-player RPGs we have chosen to study. We wish to craft theory of “the logic through which such representations proceed in making particular identifications available as domains of and for play” (Greer, 2013, p. 5). The kernel of our analysis relies on the undertheorized fact that these games in question are digital single-player role-playing games the core mechanic of which organizes and reorganizes itself very differently from what has so far in game studies been identified as role-playing or RPGs. We hope that our primarily theoretical treatise of single-player role-playing games also adds to the conceptual clarity of RPG and performance theory within game studies.

Role-Playing Game Studies and SPDRPGs

Numerous definitions of role-playing games emerging from both emic discussions in RPG cultures and academia tend to ignore or isolate both single-player digital role-playing game products and the role-playing activity that takes place in them (e.g. Padol, 1996; Morgan, 2002; Mackay, 2001, 4; Hakkarainen & Stenros, 2003; Montola, 2008), although recently this predisposition has been changing (see Hitchens & Drachen, 2009; Schules et al., 2018; Simkins, 2015; Zagal & Deterding, 2018). It is almost as if there have been two separate entities called role-playing games with the same acronym: One ”RPG” stands for the genre of digital games centering around object play with characters that have improving statistics, and another ”RPG” for all other role-play mostly falling under social play. And indeed, role-playing as an activity or attitude (e.g. Heliö, 2004) is at the heart of many accounts of RPGs -- although there are also significant cultures of playing RPGs with very little role-playing.

It is our starting point that role-playing is primarily an activity, a mode of engaging, and thus also the defining characteristic of RPGs is play. As the topic of this article is not to tackle the notion of play in detail, suffice it to say that in this study we regard play to encompass all the player’s game-related activities. The emphasis on play is especially pertinent if we consider the consensus in role-playing research that the key element of RPG is not the game artifact, but the way it is interacted with, together with other players. Such pretend play is, of course, both older than commodified role-playing games and possible with single-player games as well. However, many of the definitions referenced above also underline that role-playing is fundamentally a social process that is qualitatively different when engaged with in solitude.

For us, play is a foundational characteristic in humans and other animals. Animal play researchers tend to divide play into three categories: locomotor play (play with the body), object play (play with things, including conceptual things), and social play (play with others) (Burghardt, 2005, pp. 81-110). Human play is often social, and most games certainly have a strong component of social play. Historically, role-playing games distinctively verge towards social play. It is important to note that as they lack the social component, digital single-player role-playing games are an anomaly in relation to RPGs and the long history of game playing in general, but not in comparison to digital games in general. However, single-player digital games of all kinds are often played socially, and even if they are engaged with alone, there is a social and cultural context involved in play (Stenros et al., 2011). In other words, even if play is solitary, it is hardly disengaged from the social capital and conventions that shape the shared expectations of what games are, how they should be interpreted, and how they should be played (e.g. Kirkpatrick, 2013). Even so, we are particularly interested in the act of playing that is done alone and unobserved.

Single-player digital RPGs emerged in the latter half of the 1970s, directly inspired by the original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) tabletop role-playing game (Peterson, 2012; Schules, 2018, pp. 114-116). It should be noted that even though analog single-player RPGs exist (e.g. the “Choose your adventure” books that became popular in the 1980s), usually the term “single-player RPG” refers to digital games. José Zagal and Sebastian Deterding (2018) have found three challenges that the computer-based RPG was considered to resolve in comparison to the analog tabletop RPG: (1) It would be possible to play alone, (2) the mathematics of combat could be automated, and (3) extensive preparation was no longer needed for each continuous and long session. These reasons still seem relevant, and single-player digital RPGs have retained their popularity and continue to attract new player generations.

As we are interested in broadening the scope of RPG theory, we think it is important to consider what the particular expectations of or motivations behind solitary role-play may be. According to Schules et al. (2018, p. 108), the core gameplay experience in these games is based on narrative engagement. Single-player digital role-playing games often invite their players to enjoy the escapist possibilities of another time and place while prompting them to carve out a character from fairly limited available options and guide that character through often ethically charged choices in order to progress in the game’s narrative. During gameplay, players frequently need to speculate about how the mechanics of play may be tied with the inner functions of the character options available. The role, or multiple roles, that a player adopts for their character depends on the affordances of the system, mechanics, and narrative of the game, as well as the player’s internal aspirations and orientations juxtaposed with the possibilities that the game offers.

Furthermore, it seems evident that not everybody wants to engage in the multiplayer options of digital role-playing games, let alone start playing arduous and time-consuming MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games (e.g. Ducheneaut et al., 2006). This is particularly important to remember since in game studies, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) for a long time served as the primary context in which role-play and role-playing games have been researched and on the basis of which “RPG theory” has largely been formulated (see Corneliussen & Rettberg, 2008; Harrigan & Wardrip-Fruin, 2008; Nardi, 2010; Osborne, 2012). Analog role-playing games, especially larps, have received quite a bit of academic attention as well (e.g. Mackay, 2001; Bowman, 2010; Simkins, 2015; most of International Journal of Role-Play), but the divide between digital and non-digital games often prevents the cross-pollination of ideas. However, this situation is improving (e.g. Montola, 2012; Deterding & Zagal, 2018; Sihvonen & Stenros, 2018).

From Adopting a Role to Acting “As If”

Role is a defining feature and an essential concept in all role-playing games. In the field of social psychology, the term has been theorized for decades through, for instance, conceptualizing it as a “self-concept” that emerges and evolves through social interactions that characterize a person’s differing social roles (e.g. Donahue et al, 1993, p. 834). “Role” in this discourse usually refers to a socially and culturally situated subject position with expectations of others relating to one’s behaviour and attitudes. The same person can occupy the roles of, say, a customer, doctor, and mother at different moments, involving different expectations. In role-playing games, the player enacts a character, a fictional self, that can similarly have different roles from moment to moment, such as a warrior and a lover. In some role-playing games the character can almost be reduced to a functional role, such as “damage-dealer” or “healer” (Williams et al. 2018, p. 228). The plurality or multidimensionality of roles can vary from game to game and from role-playing culture to another. In single-player digital role-playing games, the legible roles available for the character in the game are largely determined by the design of the game system. Yet when players engage with a single-player digital RPG, it is possible for them to envision all kinds of roles for the same character, since all roles need not be textually or audiovisually represented.

Role-play (or sociodramatic play, pretend play) is rooted in the idea of acting “as if”. In its rudimentary form, it is limited in the animal kingdom to apes, while rule based play (i.e. game play), especially if the rules are conceived as symbolic or language-based, is a human domain (Burghardt, 2005, pp. 100-105). Thus, while many animals engage in rudimentary pretend play, for example mock fighting, more complex role-play is a human endeavor. Role-play does exist on a continuum and is not a human “invention”, but is nevertheless something that human children tend to pick up as part of their maturity process.

The difference between pretend play and sociodramatic play, when such a distinction is made, is also significant here. Pretend play, in its narrow meaning, refers to acting “as if” with objects (such as using a broomstick as a horse, or pretending that toy soldiers die), while sociodramatic play refers to acting “as if” with others. It is tempting to think of single-player digital RPGs as pretend play, while RPGs with social play would then be sociodramatic play. Furthermore, digital games lack rules in the sense that there would be regulatory constructs that the player needs to keep in mind in order for the activity to emerge, but instead the limits of actions are materially inscribed and embodied in the code (Montola, 2012).

Therefore, it is possible to see (especially single-player) digital RPGs as akin to toys to play pretend with. Although this idea may seem like a value statement (as developmental approaches see pretend play with objects as less developed than social play with symbolic rules), in this context it is not meant as such. In addition to more complex rules, the role-playing games of teens and adults differ from children’s play by their expectations; Andreas Lieberoth (2008, p. 213) argues that “since modern self-conscious consumers of social commodities expect time spent role-playing and preparing for said game to yield some kind of discreet result -- usually a good memory or story to tell. For children, this is not so”. On this basis, we argue that digital single-player RPGs can fruitfully be approached as toys pretend-played with expectations.

Role-playing games are a good example of interactive fiction that offers their players dynamic tools and affordances for the construction of their identities and negotiating affective experiences (Crowe & Watts, 2012; Krzywinska, 2015). As stated, there are three facets in here that are interesting for the purposes of our analysis: first, building or managing a character, second, the interaction possibilities between the player character and the game’s other characters, and finally, how game mechanics support the “as if” play strategy devised by the player. Since playing “as if” with their character is an essential part of playing RPGs, the players are pushed to strategize about how acting in a specific role affects the social structure or relationship tactics of the gameworld in question. This “as if” strategy begins with choosing or creating the player character. Next, we are going to take a look at each of the three aspects in question in the context of SPDRPGs, starting with the creation of player characters as functional tools.

Player Character as Experimental and Performative Tool

Digital role-playing games are largely defined by the power of the player to configure the characters they play with (Bowman & Schrier, 2018; Waggoner, 2009). The management of the characters’ attributes, skills, and equipment eventually directs the focus of gameplay to reflection, exploration, storytelling, and strategy (Burn & Carr, 2006, pp. 17-21). Character creation is an area where the player gets to provide input to the game, as player characters can be interpreted as vehicles for action, or as “sets of available capabilities and capacities” (Newman, 2002). Therefore, these avatars are more than just game characters: they are reflections of their players’ embodied experiences and identities expanded onto and expressed through the constituents of virtual worlds (see Klevjer, 2006).

In popular understanding, RPG characters commonly serve as tools for self-reflection and discovery (e.g. Hamilton, 2014). Many Dragon Age players, for instance, openly state that they aim at creating their avatar to resemble themselves as closely as possible (Gray, 2015; Rougeau, 2015). This observation is also backed up by research (Hassan, 2017; Waggoner, 2009; Waern, 2011). Even so, not everyone is playing an ideal version of themselves. Instead they may be using the avatar to explore options that are unviable, currently beyond their reach in life, otherwise unattainable, or simply interesting and meaningful at that moment. A fascinating visualization of this is offered by Robbie Cooper (2009) who has photographed player characters and their creators: some avatars are virtual copies of their players while others seemingly have no visual association with their creators. Waggoner (2009) notes that a game avatar is a “projected identity” to the player, a character that the player wants to be in the context of the gameworld to experience it in a way that appeals to them personally. In multiplayer games, the game character is also a representation of the player towards other players in addition to being a projected identity and a tool for individual action.

Some aspects of character creation in SPDRPGs resemble what has so far been theorized as dress-up play. Janine Fron and others (2017) have argued that dress-up play feeds off a human need to express the plural aspects of themselves. Playing dress-up is obviously not limited to role-playing games, and when done socially, there is a pleasure in being seen and validated in a new role (see Stenros & MacDonald, 2020). Dress-up play opportunities, be they physical or digital, “offer a means for the expression of imagination that is not always possible in everyday life, and they do so without the scrutiny that today’s social mores tend to impose” (Fron et al., 2007, p. 17). Solitary pretend play is particularly safe. While it lacks the validation of being seen and reflected back by other humans, it is less risky and the mirroring done by the game and the computer can be regarded better than nothing.

Many single-player digital RPGs are built upon very detailed character customization options. Each race and gender selection usually has pre-made character templates that the player can start tweaking according to their will. For instance, in Dragon Age the player’s avatar can be crafted from many options including gender, race, and class. DA is fundamentally a first-person narrative where the player is taking on an origin and a role at a deep level (Muzyka in Smee, 2010, para 8). In Mass Effect, the given player character is more pre-configured but even in this case the player can affect details of categories like psychological profile, personal history, and military specialization (e.g. Monette, n.d.). Even though the player character in ME remains essentially “the same” -- Commander Shepard -- the player is free to alter Shepard’s sociocultural background, character class, personality, and service history which all significantly affect further gameplay (Voorhees, 2012, p. 265; Jr786, 2016).

Tuning the appearance of characters in digital role-playing games is generally considered important, and especially the DA games have gained fame for their detailed character skin customization options. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, the player can choose their character’s eyelash and eyebrow style, bone structure and scarring intensity, skin tone, as well as the shades for both the inner and outer iris (see Grill, 2014). Some customization options even yield humorous instances. Kirk Hamilton (2014) warns novice players about the dangers of “lip shine”: as part of their character creation tips, they ask players to go to the Makeup section and turn down lip shine to zero, because if lips are uncontrollably let to shine, they will apparently turn iridescent in the game’s cutscenes.

Nevertheless, for many, adopting a player character that is composed of pre-selected attributes -- however diverse or detailed those might be -- is not enough motivation to start acting “as if” that character in the gameworld. Making the avatar reflect the expectations of the player requires a different dynamic. Besides their representational qualities, player characters are also a site or domain of action -- of permanent becoming -- and therefore very difficult to pin down to any physical characteristics that would effectively express this change (see Greer, 2015). The interpretation of player characters’ dynamic possibilities is relative to the role-playing attitude of the player. This attitude is not a mechanic implemented in code, but one play possibility available to all humans, and strongly implied by the genre of role-playing games (Sihvonen & Stenros, 2018). Focus on the player’s activities is theoretically based on the foundational aspects of games as “action-based media” (e.g. Galloway, 2006, p. 4).

An example of the player character becoming something to fill the expectations of the player is an avatar conveying a decided sexual orientation through inner feelings or subtle hints. Play with non-normative gender expressions and sexuality is very common in role-playing game cultures (e.g. Devlin & Holohan, 2016). Most digital RPGs have not implemented affordances for non-straight protagonists -- or straight, for that matter -- and therefore such attitudes would hardly result in any representational qualities of characters or audiovisual effects on the level of gameplay. In fact, as Krobová and others (2015) report, the use of gay stereotypes to mark queer play is compendiously frowned upon. Instead, a game character can be thought of as a procedural object that is being used as an experimental and performative tool by the player. In the context of SPDRPGs, the character may exhibit very few to no signs of expressing a particular identity formation on the outside but instead it acts as a vehicle for the player’s internal processes of playing pretend with and testing out the pleasures of role-play.

Pretend Play with Non-Player Characters

The second aspect of our research is analyzing the interaction possibilities between the player character and the game’s other characters. In normal use of digital games, only possibilities that have been implemented in the game system are possible to carry out. The main tool of role-play in both Dragon Age and Mass Effect is a dialogue wheel that the player uses to make decisions while engaging in dialogue with NPCs or during missions. It is a menu-based system that features possible responses, questions, and reactions in a given situation. In ME2, the player can during missions also make quick impulse decisions that offer alternative ways to progress. Especially the mission-related decisions lead to the direct progression of the game’s narrative. They also indirectly shape the gameworld, Shepard’s character, and the relationships between Shepard and NPCs. Out of these relationships, the options for romance are the most significant in terms of gameplay and consecutive narrative content. One of the most important NPCs in Mass Effect is Liara T’Soni, who belongs to the blue-skinned Asari or “female-only” alien race, and with whom both male and female Shepard can end up in a sexual relationship (Reiss, 2014, pp. 3-4).

In ME, relationships with other game characters are essential in managing the chosen role and characterization of Shepard. The weight of the decision on relationships is accentuated as the player can only be romantically involved with one NPC in each of the series’ instalments (in a single play-through). Furthermore, the interactive options are structurally different as they feature varying life cycles, and some are more tightly woven into the narrative than others. It is likely that this kind of narrative decision-making as an RPG strategy makes the player emotionally engaged in the game and in its characters’ destinies, since it creates a sense of the player being responsible for their avatar’s gameworld and social context. This increased emotional engagement can be achieved by featuring in-game decisions that have obvious and lasting consequences in a game or throughout the whole series. (Waern, 2011.)

In both DA and ME, the choice to leave the interpretation of the sexuality of the character to the player with no visible representation seems to be an inclusive one: it not only allows for varied interpretations based on the cybertext, including queer readings, but it also made it possible to retroactively expand on the sexualities expressed in later parts. Furthermore, sex with aliens, animals, and monsters is common within the fantasy and sci-fi genres (Zekany, 2016), and the players’ modding practices accentuate these transgressive tendencies. It could be argued, however, that non-normative sexualities are less visible in cases which are realistic or part of our everyday life, and so in the space where exploration of queer topics would be safest, there is not necessarily much proprietary content available. However, the culture around single-player games specifically encourages the introduction of user-created modifications or mods, giving further emphasis to deviant situations and norm-breaking characters that are actively discussed on fan forums. The large amount of modifications online supports our theory of the self-expressive, performative, and pretend functions of single-player digital role-playing games.

Modding as an activity can be defined in many ways, but for the purposes of this article it suffices to say that by it we refer to voluntary activities of tweaking, adding, altering, and deleting existing game code from officially released digital games, usually by utilizing specific software tools. Games, especially single-player games, can also be modded by editing save games, adding custom-made content, or taking advantage of bugs and glitches (Sihvonen 2011; 2020). Very simple modification of the code can have profound repercussions for the player, especially in the context of the intrinsically motivated pretend play in which we are interested in this article.

The game product is thus a starting point for play, not its limits, and this is why approaching SPDRPGs from the perspective of pretend play is particularly fertile. The game product, along with the avatar, the gameworld, and non-player characters are material for solitary play, and the player need not explain their play to anyone, not ever to themself. SPDRPGs are toys played with expectations, and seeing the internal pretend play reflected in and supported by the artifact can be quite meaningful for the player (see Bowman 2010, pp. 134-146). While full-blown daydreaming requires no modding of code, expectation-laden pretend play with an object does benefit from it. The ability to control the appearance of the main character is usually very important in role-playing games, and play-acting with other character constructs is the subsequent step.

BioWare originally intended the main player character in ME to be a constrained, defined avatar with pre-configured approaches and worldviews (Muzyka in Smee, 2010, para 9), but on the basis of player-created mods and forum discussions the reality has been quite different. For instance, in addition to changing the character’s face or hair, also their gender and subsequent sexual orientation could be altered through modding (see Eisenbeis 2013, para 9). By using player-created software like Gibbed Save Editor, for example, Shepard’s gender could be edited without changing any other attributes in the save game mode, thus making it possible for the character to initiate a romance with another crew member positioned outside of their available options. Save game editing has apparently been quite popular with players wanting to experience intense relationships normally prohibited from their player character’s gender (see Okogawa 2011, sections [10-11]). This type of modding essentially circumvents key elements in the narrative structure of the game and tampers with game mechanics in order to help the player experience the gameworld in the way they -- or their player character -- wants.

Using the player character in SPDRPG as a basis for role-playing that includes elements not found in the game artifact is relatively easy, as it is the individual player doing the pretending, performing, and interpretation. However, there is significantly less room for pretend play and interpretation when the player interacts with non-player characters that have been tightly pre-scripted. Modding is possible, but it usually requires some aspects of the kind of play the player is interested in to be already supplied by the game artifact. Play that is not reflected by the mirror, the game artifact, cannot take place with it. In such cases players turn to other fan practices and play with elements of the game outside the perimeter of the game. Fan practices from modding to slash fiction can and do have an impact on later instalments in a game series, and thus can affect what is mirrored by game artifacts in the future.

Game Mechanics of SPDRPGs

This section is directed at investigating how game mechanics support the “as if” play strategy devised by the player. The game mechanics of a single-player digital role-playing game set the limits of observable actions that can take place within the artifact. While the player is able to construe game mechanics and their effects, and can extend and shift their interpretation through internal play, they are still the structure that affords all these activities. Role-playing against the grain of game mechanics is easier if the player intimately knows the mechanics. The logics and narrative structure of the game are not always visible on the surface, but through expert play or by engaging with theorycrafting (e.g. Wenz, 2013) the player can discern their limits and subsequently the boundaries of transgressive role-play with the artifact (see also Sihvonen & Stenros, 2019). As we have argued above, this possibility space can be considerably expanded through modding the game.

Game mechanics are hard to change, even through modding, but the significance of the mechanics and their outcomes is available as material for pretend play. SPDRPGs vary in how much they allow this aspect to take effect. The Mass Effect series features a system of morals similar to BioWare’s earlier RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) where the player’s decisions took their character towards either the “good” or the “bad” side. In Mass Effect, these moral extremes are called altruistic paragon and aggressive renegade (Bogost, 2007, 284) which are colour-coded as blue and red respectively and presented to the player in the form of a scale. Morale is tied to the role-play context of the game in the sense that the player can decidedly play as a “paragon” or a “renegade” Shepard, which determines the decision-making and the social position that the player character gradually assumes. The player-character’s progress also has in-game consequences, since investing in either the paragon or renegade path results in subsequent options for dialogue. Furthermore, the moral choices affect Shepard’s looks in Mass Effect 2.

Miguel Sicart (2009, pp. 207-212) has analyzed the ethics of Knights of the Old Republic. He argues that the game fails at providing ethically interesting gameplay, since the player’s choices are rewarded with “good” or “bad” points (Jedi or Sith). Sicart criticizes this; when the relatively shallow moral choices (such as should one extract information using torture or through less disastrous methods) available to the player are obvious, they are reduced to choices between story paths. “The choice is not ethical, but merely statistical. The player is not facing a moral choice, but a mere bifurcation of paths leading to different gameplay possibilities” (Sicart, 2009, pp. 209-210). This analysis can be extended to the mechanics of Mass Effect, since the ethical system is quite similar: when the assessment of ethics is outsourced to the game, moral choice becomes nothing but strategy. The meaning of mechanics that assigns value to these choices is not debatable but explicit, and there is less space for the player’s interpretation and pretend play.

However, it is interesting to compare how ethics are handled in comparison to the sexuality of Shepard in Mass Effect. Shepard’s sexuality is not portrayed as a Kinsey-style continuum from homosexuality to bisexuality to heterosexuality, with different flirtations and other amorous interactions moving the commander’s position. While the game system no doubt tracks the performance of Shepard, this is not made explicit. The player can reject a possible romantic partner without the game automatically lowering the calculated and showcased index of their interest in the sex the possible suitor represents. The identity and sexual orientation of a character can stay in the head of the player when actions are not automatically interpreted in a reductionist fashion by a simple slider. In this way, foregrounding neither identity nor statistics but action, Mass Effect is not just gay, but queer. The player need not go against the rules of sexual orientation when that orientation is not made explicit. In this case leaving the interpretation open supports pretend play with the procedural object.

Game mechanics are harder to alter, and their functionalities are more set than character appearance or avatar interactions with non-player characters. However, there is some room for play, if the significance of mechanics allows for interpretation. Other mechanics that support solitary pretend play are, for example, quests that can be performed in a variety of sequences and open worlds that support, and even invite, player-set goals and activities for the character. Even so, when toying with a game artifact, the artifact mirrors according to its rules. These rules cannot be ignored even if they can be reinterpreted and transgressed.

Discussion: Internal Play as Going against the Grain

Many concepts developed for the study of role-playing games are generally useful when attempting to understand digital single-player RPGs. The pretend play they afford does not happen in isolation, but with a procedural object, a site of permanent becoming, that carries traces of its collective significations and origins within. One way of conceptualizing the act of playing SPDRPGs is by considering the principles of cybernetic theory and regarding mastering the game also to entail the game getting to grips with the player. While playing, the player gradually learns to produce the correct feedback for the game to progress and becomes a part of the “to-and-fro” of play (see Gadamer, 1989, p. 110-111; Aarseth, 2007, p. 130). Resisting this “cybernetic loop” and transcending the game system requires effort but is possible, for example, through the transgressive act of expert play (Aarseth, 2003; Myers, 2010) or through consciously breaking the (implied) rules, for example via practices like grinding and farming (Schules et al., 2018, p. 109) or setting up a challenge of playing without killing any adversaries (see Dougherty, 2012).

However, reliance on cybernetic theory ignores the internal play (Montola, 2012, pp. 89-94) of the player. Looking at these actions from the point of view of role-play, the player’s pretend play has a performative aspect that is produced for the audience of one, the player themself. In the context of non-digital role-play this is called the first-person audience (Mackay, 2001; Sandberg, 2004; Stenros & Montola, 2010). The participant is playing a game, but they are also a player on a stage, performing. Daniel Mackay (2001, p. 118) has noted that “[t]he participant playing a character is the performer, while the player after the fact, or even during the event within a down-keyed frame, is his spectator”. The internal play of a participant is an important part of this experience: plans, hopes, fear, strategy, all may never be visible for anyone but the player themself, not even to a co-located friend or online Twitch viewer watching play unfold in real time. Similarly, in his treatise of actively pursued homosexual play in BioWare’s games, Johansen Østby (2016) makes an analytical distinction between “public” and “private” spheres, where the former consists of the overall gameworld through which the player traverses, i.e. content that is obligatorily part of the game, and the latter comprises of optional content, for instance, individual and inner components of play that are not necessarily disclosed at any point during play.

If the player of a digital game is engrossed in the action or the diegetic world, they may focus more on the optional content they are involved in creating rather than the game system’s affordances. Thus, the participant’s experience can transcend the cybernetic loop, by including elements neither prompted by nor reducible to the system. In fact, without this creative play the game cannot function as a metaphoric mirror. If the player does not reach outside of the system, the reflection is not of the player, only that of the system. This is pretend play with the game object (”as if the protagonist was a lesbian”), not play managed by the object. The player can adopt, as stated before, roles that are not offered or recognized by the game system. Roles need not be visible; mother, lesbian, teacher, assassin, and lover can all look the same. Here we see how pretend play and queer attitudes are connected: if queer is understood as questioning of social and cultural norms and transgression as a result, and pretend play reaches outside of the play managed by the game object, we can assume that pretend play eagerly succumbs to queerly aspirations (see also Greer, 2013, p. 8).

Todd Harper’s (2017) discussion of ClosetShep is a good example of the player’s internal pretend play with the game system. Harper writes about their own experience with playing a gay male Shepard who has a relationship with the male non-player character Kaidan Alenko in ME3. Interestingly enough, Alenko had appeared in both previous ME games without the possibility of a gay male romance between him and MShep, the male Commander Shepard. Thus, Harper notes, Alenko’s unexpected “coming out” as a romantic option in ME3 led the player to retroactively position him as being “in the closet” in ME1 and ME2. In this way, Alenko’s personal narrative path in the game universe had been made coherent and understandable for the player. Through this example it is easy to see how reconfigurations and redirections of game characters are never solely based on representation or the player’s interpretive work, but also on their performance in the gameworld.

Many digital games are tightly constrained spaces where a fairly narrow spectrum of identity-formations are allowed and supported. On the other hand, especially the sci-fi genre -- and game franchises such as Mass Effect -- enable transgressive and queer identifications, modalities, and social interactions outside of the commonly shared cultural boundaries and norms. Since ME is formally a sci-fi action game and a shooter, and has been considered a quintessentially masculine game, it was quite a surprise to many of its players that the female version of Shepard worked so well (JKOTV, 2013). The importance of FemShep can be seen for instance in a lively fan forum (femshep.com), with numerous threads of Mass Effect inspired fan fiction. While the male Shepard remains the public face of ME, the series did succeed in incorporating numerous possibilities for the heroic lead character. The cues offered by the game series have been received enthusiastically, and the players continue to extrapolate on and reinterpret its canonical events and interactions in their internal pretend play (Sihvonen, 2020).

As we have argued in this article, in playing single-player digital role-playing games the player can be thought of as engaging in pretend play with an object. Just as it is possible to pretend that a stick is a horse, the player can pretend that their character has a much deeper inner life and personality that is visible or audible on the surface of the game screen. Since the player is the first-person audience of this internal performance, this play is real enough for them. There may also be an expectation that when one engages with these toys the experience yields some kind of a result. This may be interpreting one’s (internal) play as being reflected in the artifact, or it can be a collection of personally meaningful play sessions shared online in a form or another. The expectation of the character’s inner life being reflected in its appearance or actions is one motivation for modding the game to better align with the internal play expectations of the player (Sihvonen, 2020). Another way of using the player character as a tool for expression is to rethink the social connections between the avatar and non-player characters of the game.


We began this article by asking, on what terms role-play and role adoption are possible, if they are performed only to the player themself and a computer system, and can solitary role-playing be considered a kind of mirroring in this regard. We feel that the study of single-player digital role-playing games benefits from being studied from the point of view of play studies and role-playing activity, in particular; it enriches the hegemonic analyses of them as digital games. On the basis of our theoretization, we argue that in single-player digital role-playing games, the player is playing pretend with the game object, adopting different approaches, positions, functions, and roles as they play.

The game in this regard is seen as a complex toy with numerous affordances that the player is tapping into with particular expectations. What these expectations are, varies from player to player: an interesting storyline for the player character may be one expectation, a fun norm-breaking romance another. Even so, the player expects the toy to reflect back at least some of what the player is performing, yet the game can only reflect on the basis of what has been pre-scripted in it. As a mirror, it is thus lacking, especially as there is no social play -- in other words, the reflection work done by other players, foundational in other types of role-playing games is not a possibility. Modding is an important addition to this, but it also has its limits.

Therefore, only some aspects of the player’s pretend play are reflected back by the procedural object serving as a mirror, and only parts of this performance are intelligible to the cybernetic system the player is looped into. The pretend play happens with the game object, but is not determined by it as transgressive expert play, modding, and internal play can help the player reach beyond the object. Although we have been interested in toying with SPDRPGs as a solitary pursuit here -- and a meaningful one at that -- transgressive play with SPDRPGs can also be a social endeavor, where the experience is shared with others either simultaneously through streaming or after the actual play has ended. However, the potential for playing pretend alone with a digital artifact, is, we argue, an important aspect in making sense of these play experiences. The gameplay may also act as a mirror to the player, reflecting an image that is of the player themself through direct avatar action as well as of something unknown to the player as they are performing a role.

In single-player digital games, the interaction takes place with predetermined and automated non-player characters and a set fictional world which are structured by scripts and artificial intelligence. Furthermore, the interaction patterns available for the player are necessarily limited to the ones implemented in the digital game artifact. With regards to the gap between game product and play, this has two important implications: First, there is no automatic audience of co-players, which means that the player is free to transgress against any and all cultural norms without fear of social sanctions (unless they are playing single-player games socially). Second, since building a responsive fictional world is painstaking and costly, the possible actions available for the player character are severely limited -- and usually the available actions do not provide many possibilities for transgression or unruly behavior. Considering subversion as an important element in gameplay (Juul, 2016), it must be noted which kind of design intentions and technical limitations there are at play. To conclude this article, we address these two implications.

Firstly, the lack of audience can be liberating. The private pretend play with a procedural object is a relatively safe environment to explore various identity formations, unruly play, and the combination of the two. While the sociodramatic play conducted with others offers possibilities to be seen, and can provide affirmation in the form of other players recognizing and treating the queer performances as normal (e.g. Paisley, 2016), the solitary experience of single-player digital RPGs need not be socially acceptable even to the closest allies. David Myers has argued, specifically in relation to digital games, that since they rely on interfaces, they filter the play experience through object play: “[T]he experience of computer game play does not seem to necessarily emerge from social action, but rather become located within social action through purposeful game design” (Myers, 2010, p. 119). While single-player games are always embedded in the wider social and cultural tapestries of their players, instances of play can be conducted in solitude. The roles a player adopts in a role-playing game are social roles, yet in the absence of the social interaction provided by other players, these social roles become modes of engagement (and expressions of internal play) the player can use and toy with. This is precisely why they can be liberating.

For a player interested in the solitary pretend play, the single-player RPGs character creation provided by the game artifact is deeper and more fine-tuned than in multiplayer games. Also, one need not take other players and their interpretations into account while playing. In relation to queer play, the differences between single-player and multiplayer gameworlds can be crucial, as Adrienne Shaw (2015, pp. 72-73) has demonstrated. On the other hand, characters in single-player games are also often more naturalistic than those in multiplayer digital RPGs where they can easily sport outlandish and fantastical features. It is our hypothesis that this trend is connected to the characters’ uses and functions in these game contexts -- in multiplayer games, and especially MMORPGs, it pays off to have striking characters that garner attention and work well in non-verbal communication among crowds whereas in single-player games characters act like personal tools and projected identities for their players (see Waggoner, 2009).

Secondly, the procedural game artifact is limiting by its very nature. The worlds of Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and similar single-player role-playing games are places where the player can, within strict but expandable boundaries, “do” gender and sexuality in the sense Judith Butler (1990) has talked about performance. For instance, the player characters in ME or DA are not in themselves homosexual or heterosexual, but are able to make straight, gay, bisexual, or other choices: “In the simulated world of the game, the politics of identity ends and the politics of performance in Butlerian sense begins” (Krobová et al., 2015, p. 4). Yet, it is obvious that there is not much queer content available to play with. Queer resides in the gap between the cues provided by the artifact and the player’s response (Sihvonen & Stenros, 2018). It is in the invitations to play, to extrapolate, and in the transgressive readings.

In single-player digital role-playing games, creating your own story with expert play, modding, and internal play are forms of this “doing,” except that it is not gender that is being performed, but an avatar and its journey in the fictional world. The performance is not primarily for others, but for the player themself. The game artifact does not fully work as a mirror unless it at least sometimes reflects back what the player is doing in the gameworld and what the ludic performance looks like. Furthermore, internal play is not visible in the mirror -- except for the player. While a queer reading certainly can be constructed with very little support in the text, having such support can be extremely meaningful. It is the implicit and explicit affordances of these single-player digital RPGs that allow for all kinds of queer deeds and performances to emerge on the screen or in various online contexts.



[1] To our knowledge, the acronym SPDRPG has not widely been used before. Single-player RPGs are by no means a new or unexplored area of study, but they have generally been referred to as computer role-playing games, or CRPGs. As our focus in this research is on the single-player activities in these digital games, we need to foremost demarcate between single-player and multiplayer games; not based on the gaming device.

[2] In our references to literature and analysis of the player’s activities we use gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, themself) and non-gendered generic referents (player, performer, character).



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