Two people rest in a postcoital glow under the Louisiana sun. She is a tanned, voluptuous, middle-aged beauty. He is a chiseled, bearded god with unfair abs and a cocksure swagger. The pair seems happy, floating in the pool, but their surroundings feel fake — the sun is a little too bright, the water a little too blue. After a moment, the woman pushes herself out of the pool and walks toward the expansive mansion that serves as a backdrop for the scene. The man stays where he is, reflecting on the fact that he has just fucked his boss and cheated on his fiancée. The woman quickly returns, tears streaming down her face:
“I just took a pregnancy test, and it’s positive!”
My fingers pause on the keyboard, my mind trying to comprehend what my role-playing partner has just said. Something deep inside me breaks, and it feels like I’ve been woken from a years-long dream.
I’m done; I’m out. I block the woman and set about deleting my account, getting ready to move on.
In 2009, when I was 13, I made an account on studentsoftheworld.info. It was a website that connected school-age pen pals around the world via email. I wasn’t popular at that age — scrawny, bespectacled and under the impression that I was attending school to learn things. Those factors, combined with the mood swings of undiagnosed bipolar disorder, made me someone people didn’t have much interest in getting to know. So when a fellow social outcast, Mark, suggested we join the site to meet new people, I jumped at the opportunity.
For the first few months, the site was a nonstarter. The people were either dull, unresponsive or overly weird. That was, until I met Mary. It was a long-distance friendship — Mary was an East Coast American, and I lived in the U.K. but we quickly bonded during our first emails. She was tall and lanky like me and enjoyed the nerdier things in life. With her, I felt like I could finally be myself.
Mary was a huge fan of the Beatles. She posted covers of their songs on YouTube, ran a Beatles fan blog on Tumblr, and in turn, got me to love the music of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Within a few weeks, our daily emails led to a Facebook friendship.
About six months into my friendship with Mary, I logged onto Facebook one day after school and was greeted by the little red “1” of a pending friend request. Opening the drop-down menu, I saw that “Pattie Boyd” wanted to be my friend. Not recognizing the name, and being a 14-year-old raised to believe that every internet stranger wanted to hurt me, I hit “decline.” Later that day, Mary logged on and casually asked if I had received her request. It turned out Pattie Boyd was in fact Mary. Pattie Boyd was the first wife of George Harrison; Mary was a role player.
She was part of an online community that made Facebook accounts under the names of famous people and, in a way, lived out an online life as that person. Mary liked and trusted me. This was her hobby — her secret — and she wanted to share it with me.
I was intrigued, and more than a little eager to impress Mary, so I accepted her offer to try role-playing. Making an account was easy enough. I set up a dummy Gmail account and used it to create a new Facebook profile under the name “George Harrison.” A few minutes on Google yielded a profile picture, and I scanned Mary’s friends list to find her Pattie account.
She walked me through the basics of the community — a group of users came together to write scenes, snapshots of their characters’ lives. There were “open role-plays”: a writing prompt in the form of a scene-setting Facebook status was given, and everyone was free to reply. Private groups were designated as communal locations — the Cavern Club, Penny Lane, Abbey Road — and private messages were exchanged.
There were two primary styles people used: action/dialogue and prose. Action/dialogue read like a film script: “(‘Oh …’ — blushes, looks away),” while prose read more like a novel: “(‘Oh …’ she stammered, blushing softly as she looked away).” Fancying myself to be quite the writer, I opted to go with a prose style. OOC (out of character) messages were indicated with double parentheses: “((I have to go shopping, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.))”
Mary taught me the basic rules of role-playing. First, respect any preexisting relationships. This primarily applied to in-character relationships, but it did have bigger ramifications. Some people role-played with their real-life partners, and in many cases, their characters would share a version of their relationship. Respecting people’s in-character relationships was just a good way to avoid drama. Second, don’t go OOC if people aren’t down for that. And most important, don’t be a dick.
Once the skeleton of my account was in place, Mary introduced me to her role-playing friends. There were four main people: Ringo, a dry-witted and roguish veteran role player who spent most of his time trying to hit on Mary; Paul, a very possessive and abrasive player; Janie, Paul’s shy girlfriend whose vocabulary consisted mostly of “— blushes” and “— scurries away,” and a Jarvis Cocker account run by another English friend of Mary’s. Though Cocker, lead singer of Britpop band Pulp, had no direct relationship to the Beatles, the community was very liberal about who could interact with who. For the first time in years, I felt accepted by a group of people.
I role-played in the musty corner of my family’s guest room, on a rickety old computer with a USB modem, using the excuse of fictional school projects to exceed my allotted screen time. I spent a couple of hours per day — usually from the time I got home from school until around dinnertime — on my George account.
For the first few weeks, Mary and I didn’t do much in-character interacting. She sat back and made sure that the others liked me and that I wasn’t going to flame out after a week or so. Looking back, Mary had obviously developed a crush on me (as I had on her), and this was her testing the waters to see what sort of boyfriend I might be. It’s safe to say, I failed that test.
It all fell apart the moment things got remotely sexual:
“Georgie? I’m home!” Pattie called, placing her keys in the bowl and hanging her coat by the door. George appeared in the doorway to the living room.
“Hi, dear. How was the shoot?”
“Oh, it was just fine. The clothes were lovely and the photographer was very professional,” she said with a smile, padding over to him and resting her hands on his shoulders. “How about we celebrate tonight?” she asked, with a suggestive smirk. George responded with a smirk of his own, placing his hands on her hips.
“Dinner and then continue the evening back here?” he asked.
“Though I should warn you — you’ve heard of ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ but I’m gonna make you wetter than the slip-and-slide at the local swimming pool,” he added.
Mary didn’t respond for about an hour, so I gently poked her:
That’s when the reality of my actions sank in:
((Yeah. You just caught me off guard. I didn’t expect that from you.))
((Oh, I’m sorry. Do you want to walk it back and try again?))
“Later” turned into days, but I was happy to give Mary some space. In the meantime, I tried improving my role-playing technique with Janie, Paul and Ringo. But my heart just wasn’t in it. I didn’t like that I had upset Mary. Put it down to being a horny teenager starved of any sort of romantic attention; my knowledge of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity was nonexistent, but I knew I had done something wrong. However, the decision of whether I wanted to keep going was soon taken out of my hands.
My parents kept fairly tight tabs on what I was doing online, and they used my passwords to follow my trail, eventually discovering my George account. They confronted me about it, using the usual arguments about online interactions: I didn’t know who these people really were, a kid my age shouldn’t be using the language I had been using, etc. They stated in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t to role-play anymore. I didn’t put up much of a fight.
For now, my Facebook role-playing days were over.
Mary and I kept talking, but the conversations were strictly platonic and took place on our real Facebook accounts. I settled back into the routine of school, homework, and having nothing to do on evenings and weekends. However, the dark reality of the real world soon led me to get drawn back into the fantasy realm of role-playing.
I reconnected with some kids from my elementary school, and these former friends gave my phone number to a girl named Amy. For whatever reason, Amy decided to catfish the hell out of me. I was a gullible teen who girls didn’t find all that appealing, so I fell hard for the one who was directly telling me that she was interested.
This months-long charade culminated in Amy asking me to meet her in a park on my way home from school. Once there, she stepped aside and revealed one of my elementary school chums. He’d experienced a growth spurt, now standing at over 6 feet and boasting some serious muscle. He pinned me to a chain-link fence that surrounded some tennis courts.
“What are you doing with my girl, huh?” he sneered, pushing me harder against the fence. His friends guffawed, making the whole thing seem like a scene out of an ’80s teen movie. He only backed off when the two boys I was walking home with intervened. They had been keeping a respectful distance, in case Amy actually had wanted to meet me. Evidently, the bully didn’t want witnesses. He let me go, and as my friends hurried me away and asked if I wanted to call the police, he called out to us: “Go right ahead; call and give them my name. They already know where I live!”
That experience pushed me away from interacting with other people. I didn’t meet up with friends on the weekend; I didn’t go to parties or hang out in the park after school. I simply stayed in my room; wrote short stories; played video games and, once I got a personal laptop — just after my 15th birthday — role-played.
I went back to George, albeit on a new account. Despite the incident with Mary, I wasn’t averse to the character. I had originally taken on the character of George because that’s who Mary had wanted me to be, but the cool, quiet persona George Harrison had cultivated for himself during Beatlemania was something I wanted to emulate. Getting reaccepted was not easy. Mary had confided in Ellie, the person behind the Jarvis Cocker account. Ellie had never liked me and had no qualms about informing everyone else of my crass transgressions, so they approached my return with skepticism.
I swallowed my pride and started over, regaining the community’s trust with a quiet, nuanced portrayal of George. When I actually gave a damn, I was capable of creating engaging storylines with genuinely likeable characters. I found people I enjoyed writing with, but I could never find a new Pattie to settle down with.
So I asked Mary for a second chance, showing her the progress I’d made and genuinely apologizing for my behavior. She gave me that chance and was blown away as we wrote a sweet, nuanced meet-cute scene between our two characters. Over the following weeks, we carefully detailed the start of our version of George and Pattie’s relationship, from their first date on the banks of the River Mersey to their first kiss on the front steps of Pattie’s townhouse.
The role-play was everything I had been hoping for, and everything I wished my real life contained. After seeing for herself that I had changed, Mary helped me regain some credibility within the community. As a test, Ellie made a burner account and attempted to seduce me. However, no matter what she did, I wasn’t going to throw away my second chance. Slowly but surely, I was welcomed back by most of the community.
Things seemed to calm down — I maintained a sweet, innocent portrayal of George. It felt good to slowly build up this character and explore mundane storylines with other writers. That was, until I got a message from another George Harrison account accusing me of having sex with his wife. Eventually, we worked out that the culprit he was looking for was someone with the same profile picture as mine. But the incident was indicative of the community’s flaws. This was going to keep happening in one form or another. It confirmed what I had been feeling for some time; maybe I would be better off making a new character in a different fandom.
I ended up making an OC (original character) called “Drey” and placing him in a community of role players for the supernatural TV drama True Blood. Drey was a guitarist from Georgia, and a lot like George — soft-spoken and soulful. That archetype was becoming my signature style; but the world he inhabited was very different than the chaotic one of Beatles fandom. The True Blood community was overseen by a team of moderators, who acted in a similar capacity to that of a showrunner. They were the ones who decided if you could join the community, and once you were in, they kept track of everyone’s comings and goings, every relationship, interaction and plot point.
It was much more rewarding to be in a community where plot actually mattered. However, it was tiring. True Blood is a violent show, with a cast of characters including no-nonsense old vampires, volatile new vampires, zealous members of anti-vampire organizations, and hard-boiled civilians caught in the crossfire. People tended to play their characters to the extreme, meaning that you had to keep your wits about you in order to stay alive. Beyond the near-constant danger, the True Blood community was far less receptive to new people. You couldn’t simply join; you had to undergo an extensive application process with the moderators before proving yourself to the other players through hours of role-playing.
While obviously it was a lot of work, being accepted meant you had value. That exclusivity gave me the recognition I had been desperately searching for in my real life. After the slow start, things began to pick up for Drey. He got himself a job working at the BB&G, a bar from the show that existed in our world by way of a private Facebook group. It was at the BB&G that I first met Colleen, or as I initially knew her, Jessica. On the show, Jessica is a newly sired vampire who enjoys the freedom that being a vampire gives her after having grown up in a strict and repressive Christian household. The character clearly spoke to Colleen, an English housewife trapped in an unhappy marriage. The problem was, she wasn’t very good at staying in character.
Staying in character is one of the core tenets of role-playing. People usually take up the hobby as a form of escapism, so the last thing most role players want to do is talk about their real life. However, it quickly became clear that Colleen was more interested in getting to know the people she was role-playing with. I held out as long as I could against her behavior. I started by simply telling her that I wasn’t interested in talking OOC, which progressed to ignoring her messages and pretending I wasn’t online.
She often spoke OOC about how unhappy she was in her marriage, and as she persisted I realized that she wanted to role-play a fantasy life between the two of us, rather than between our characters. So I cut her loose.
Aside from “the OOCers,” the biggest danger to the community was the occasional purges, when Facebook tried to clear out fake accounts. Some were deleted, while others were “soft-locked,” with Facebook employing an archaic-seeming system that required you to match your friends’ profile pictures to their names. When word of a purge came, everyone would log off, believing that Facebook couldn’t delete you if you weren’t online. You’d hold your breath, wait a couple of hours, then check to see if your login details still worked. If they did, you’d poke through the digital rubble to see what was left of the community. Even if you were lucky, you could expect to lose at least a few people. Fictional characters were especially easy targets for Facebook, as the profile pictures were easily identifiable.
As Drey, I survived two purges before being locked out. I recreated Drey and spent a weekend trying to find people I recognized. But with True Blood being one of the more popular role-playing communities, there were hundreds of profiles, and they all used the same five or so pictures. I had been accepted by this community and felt duty-bound to find them again. Plus, there were unresolved storylines — it was like a TV show going off the air in the middle of a season. I wanted to know how it ended.
Why did I have so much time to do this? Because I didn’t feel like my real life was worth investing in. School didn’t interest me like it did when I was 13, and my only real friend was Mark, the social pariah who was possibly the only person less popular than myself. The only thing that really inspired me was role-playing. Eventually, I found Molly-Anne, Drey’s fiancée prior to the purge, and she invited me back to the BB&G. The owner, the stern and no-nonsense Victoria, was gone, possibly purged. The new bar owner, Carmen Nightshade, marked the beginning of the end for my time as a Facebook role player. She was a new OC created by a longtime member of the community who was close to one of the mods, which allowed her to flout the rules and do whatever she pleased.
She began her tenure in charge of the BB&G by firing my character’s fiancée. Molly-Anne was a sweetheart, but that clashed with Carmen’s cold and haughty demeanor. Molly-Anne had also been close with Victoria, and Carmen was vocal about making the BB&G her bar. The community’s complaints fell on deaf ears, and any storylines that tried to get back at Carmen were suppressed by the mods.
For whatever reason, Carmen allowed Drey to keep working at the BB&B, despite my relationship with Molly-Anne and my continued policy of rejecting Carmen’s romantic advances.
But then I buckled.
In real life, I had acted on a crush by sending the girl a love letter. She had responded by telling everyone. Within a day, everyone knew about my letter, and the mockery was merciless. The general consensus was that I was a weirdo, a freak. I was crushed by the rejection and humiliated by the aftermath. These emotions bled into my role-playing. With Molly-Anne more and more inactive, and my self-esteem at rock bottom, I gave in and allowed Carmen to seduce Drey.
As usual, Carmen had the mods overlook the relationship. She was very sexually active, but her encounters were never included on the weekly roundups, meaning she was free to do whatever she wanted without fear of consequences. I knew that what I was doing was wrong. However, I didn’t care, nor did I care that she was a subpar writer. In that moment, I just wanted to forget about how I couldn’t achieve any of this in real life.
Then came the pool incident. We absconded to her palatial villa, where her character was able to live thanks to her good relationship with the mods (in the interest of “realism,” the moderators often came down hard on characters for being excessively wealthy without good reason, but with Carmen they let it slide). We made awkward, poorly written love in the outdoor swimming pool. Then:
“I love you, Drey,” Carmen said, tears welling in her eyes.
“Yeah … I love you too,” Drey replied, holding his lover close as they floated in the swimming pool.
Carmen’s hand fell to her stomach, and she leaned against Drey. “I feel funny … I will be right back.”
I gave a noncommittal reply, and she took her character out of the scene. I was left to mull things over, the realization of what I’d done slowly dawning on me. I had thrown away months of work and character development for a cheap fling. Even though Carmen would ensure that the other players didn’t find out about it, I wasn’t in the clear. If she wanted to, she could use her relationship with the moderators to disseminate the details of our trysts in a way that would vilify me, while keeping her own record relatively clean. A few weeks earlier, Carmen had used information she learned in an off-the-record scene to publicly humiliate a character who had tried to stand up to her.
Carmen returned and uttered the words that would take me out of Facebook role-playing forever:
“Drey … I’m pregnant!” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks.
To her, it didn’t matter that our characters were literally minutes removed from having sex — all she cared about was creating drama for drama’s sake. When you role-play, you have to suspend your disbelief and accept that it’s fiction. But just like when you’re watching a TV show, you don’t want to be faced with events that are so unbelievable that they break your immersion. This instantaneous pregnancy served no purpose in the plot.
I never responded to Carmen. The spell was broken. I was no longer a 20-something guitarist in a swimming pool in Louisiana; I was a sad and lonely 16-year-old sitting at a desk covered in scratches and doodles — in England. It was raining, and a classmate had just texted asking if there was any homework for the following day. Molly-Anne was offline, so the best I could do was leave her a message:
“I’m deleting my account. I just don’t want to do this anymore. I know you’re not super active right now, but thanks for everything.”
I deactivated my account and started getting my real life in order. I made an effort to make friends at school. I was only two years away from college, but those were two years that I still needed to see through. I took out books on writing from the library and pushed myself to become a better writer.
But I was done with Facebook role-playing. I was out.
That was seven years ago. I’m 23 now and write for a living. I’m not exactly proud of my time as a Facebook role-player — first I took on the likeness of a famous dead musician, then I wrote bad sex scenes about vampires. I retreated into a fantasy world instead of actually dealing with my issues in real life. But the years I spent role-playing taught me some valuable lessons. I learned how to spot dangerous behaviors in others, and it provided a creative outlet at a time when my peers thought my writing was a weird, nerdy endeavor. I still role-play, but now it’s largely in more traditional settings such as Dungeons & Dragons. And more important, I now do it because I want to, not because I am trying to fill a void. I’m a better person now, and going through the digital hell of Facebook role-playing helped me get there.