Role-playing Toward a Virtual Musical Democracy in The Lord of the Rings Online
Ethnomusicology 56:1 (2012), 31–62
This article examines the ways in which inhabitants of LOTRO simulate musical behaviors and negotiate ideologies of virtual musical performance in light of the perceived freedoms that accompany practices of online role-play. Abiding by familiar conceptions of cyberspace as a site of disinhibition where identity pluralism prevails and anything goes, many players of LOTRO appeal to the egalitarian principles of role-play to defend their sense of performative entitlement. As one player colorfully puts it: “Players who want to play music in the gameworld ought to be able to regardless of whether they can in reality. I don’t know many folks who can take an enemy out of commission entirely for thirty seconds with a flash of light, or by telling a riddle. Yet we do these things in-game, and I don’t view the music system any differently” (interview, Dalman, 23 December 2008). But whereas some players perform music as a means of propagating such democratic ideals and fostering a peaceful community of immersive role-play, others choose instead to deploy music as a tool of harassment and territorialization. Those who sonically provoke others or deliberately play over one another’s performances transform LOTRO’s soundscapes into veritable arenas that expose the creative yet potentially offensive consequences of music-making. At the heart of this study is the twin assertion that the emergent musical practices in LOTRO can broadly illuminate 1) the impact of technology on cultural definitions of music and musical agency and 2) the social dynamics and motivations that inform uses and abuses of sound in formations of musical communities.