Not every player in an online prison SIM needs to wear a uniform. Quite the opposite. Creating a viable and realistic background for a SL prison can be assisted by including a range of roles within the prison which complement, but don’t detract from, the inmate and guard roles.
These additional roles help the development of the “feel” of the online prison. In their own way they are as important as the physical fabric of the prison. We’re talking here about medical services, police, investigators, psychologists, chaplains and court officials, as well as a host of other roles from the “outside world”.
Of course, an online prison is unlikely to have all of these additional roles filled at any one time. But developing an environment in which players can pick up one of these additional or supporting roles from time to time is a useful way of allowing a new player into the SIM to catch a glimpse of what’s going on.
Its also a great way of allowing a longer-term player “time out” with a different character through using an Alt. Using alts in SL roleplaying is a topic in its own right. Without getting into the pros and cons of using Alts, I think it’s fair to say that, handled sensibly, enabling a player to use an Alt to undertake a supporting or ancillary role in a prison can be a good way of allowing players to refresh their play, take a break from a main character, or focus on a different dynamic in role-play. One of the interesting options for using a supporting role (for example a chaplain, or psychologist) is that this allows a focus on relationships with other players which is, at least ostensibly, outside the power asymmetry of inmate-guard relationships. For players wanting something outside the mechanically focused role-play of the prison block, this can be a useful release.
Supporting roles also can give a chance for roleplay to be focused on a different technical or mechanical theme. One of the first times I saw this was at Terminal Island when I was playing a guard and came across a player roleplaying a State Investigator. Rather than seeing the investigator as just being a surrogate guard, the player had evolved the investigator’s role through looking at forensic science and saw the role of the investigator in the prison as being essentially a neutral agent. The investigator was neither on the inmate’s side nor was she a guard in plain clothes. This sort of balanced play really helped her character become important to players from all sides, and was a great example of how a supporting role can become important in the story arc of the prison, as well as giving other players a lot of openings for role-play.
It also fair to say that supporting roles don’t need to stop at the prison gates. In the real world, prisons have never existed in a vacuum. They mirror the world outside the walls. Connections between the prison world and the outside world are a key element in movies and books – and the same should be true of roleplaying. Whether the role is a Federal Prosecutor from the DA’s office, a newspaper reporter, or just an in-character friend on the other end of a prison pay-phone call, having the outside world interact with the online prison world is always a good way of creating and developing theme and context in prison roleplaying.
In practical terms, this also gives lots of opportunities to players from other SL SIMs to get involved. Many of these roles don’t require much, if any preparation. Perhaps my favorite prison scene is the prison visit by a friend or relative, not least because this always seems to feature in any prison-related movie or TV show. Over the years, quite a few friends have visited my character in prison. Some of the visits have been traumatic, some of them have been intimidating, some of them have been heart-breaking but all of them have been memorable. Occasionally, friends have orchestrated visits long in advance, building up the role-play through IMs and Notecards. More often, though, the visits have been arranged just a short time in advance, with the friend just simply turning up. The visitor’s role is a good example of a very short term role which complements the more involved, immersive role-play in the prison, while retaining its own distinct character.
These types of interactions between the online prison world and the online world outside the prison walls help the creation of the atmosphere within the roleplaying SIM. Just as there’s no darkness without light and no substance without shadow, the constant reminder in a prison of the world just out of touch can be used and abused by all players within the SIM. Supporting roles really help achieve this connection and interaction.
Give one of them a try – and who knows, in time you may find you even prefer that role to one in a uniform!