Breaching the IC / OOC boundary

Time for another RP related post! You who have no interest in roleplay, the psychology behind it and the troublesome boundaries between IC and OOC, I advice you to go and have a cup of tea or a cup of coffee instead, and then come back to tell me how your day has been!


This is all based on my personal observations and experiences in MMO roleplay. I can not speak for how accurate it is for any other type of RP, and I have nothing to support my claims other than my own personal observations. It also contains more or less random pictures to lighten the mood.
man in the stocks4

There are two statements to keep in mind when reading this. Most will agree to at least one of them, but I am inclined to say that despite being seemingly opposite they are both true.

– Breaching the IC / OOC boundary is a risk to the player’s emotional and social well-being.
and, to some extent:
– Breaching the IC / OOC boundary may also have direct positive effects on the player’s emotional and social well-being.

Fundamental IC / OOC separation

Any new roleplayer quickly has to learn that one of the fundamental rules of RP is to separate IC from OOC. A fundamental principle that more or less all styles of roleplayers can agree on.

The basic IC / OOC separation is simple:

The character is not the player. The player is not the character. What the player knows and feels should not affect the character, and the character should not act on OOC knowledge. 

Breaching the IC / OOC boundary

A breach of the boundary can be for example…

– Animosity spilling over from OOC to IC or vice versa.
– Attraction spilling over from IC to OOC or vice versa.
– OOC information influencing IC actions – metagaming
– OOC preferences influencing IC actions

When a character in fact does act on a player’s OOC knowledge it is known as metagaming. Imagine the hero finding the villain’s hiding spot because the happened to OOCly find out about it, while the character still really should be unaware? That would be metagaming. In conflict RP it is shunned mostly because it’s the equivalent of cheating, it gives the character an unfair advantage. For that reason most roleplaying guilds/communities have a firm rule against metagaming. You as a player are not allowed to give your character an unfair advantage by imposing OOC knowledge on it. Flip it around, and think of IC feelings influencing a player’s OOC feelings. This is also generally unadvisable since it leads to unfortunate situations where ill feelings are harboured against players when they in fact have done nothing wrong, just because their character is a bad guy.

seyda with gun

That’s the core. Simple enough. Now for the complications.
Character Identity vs Player Identity
When creating a character it is easy to draw inspiration from real people, or from yourself. Especially new roleplayers tend to make characters that are versions of their real selves. A cooler version perhaps, or more powerful, or more attractive. Or, perhaps more common, a player may draw inspiration from a certain part of herself for a character even if the grand total is very different.

Featured image
Using parts of yourself for inspiration and guidance on how to realistically play a character doesn’t necessary mean you automatically cross the IC / OOC border, but I would claim that the more you have used your own personality as a reference in character creation, the harder it will probably be to keep the two apart.

Positive aspects
Breaching the IC / OOC boundary may have direct positive effects on the player’s emotional and social well-being.


– By OOCly influencing characters and events one can create interesting and worthwhile IC plots. This is basically what we do when DMing anyway!


– Deep emotional attachment to characters may give more intense experiences. Imagine the intense joy of seeing your character finally managing to rescue his loved one, or the reconnecting with an old friend,


– By influencing a character’s decisions a player can steer RP away from topics he or she wants or needs to avoid. Common examples of this are heavy violence and sexual content.


– RP may potentially serve therapeutic purposes, and some may wish to work through difficult RL issues by handling them IC. This sounds terribly pretentious but is probably far more common than one might think. It can be anything from playing a gay character to explore a non-hetero sexuality, to seeking out and RPing through violent scenes to help process RL experiences.
 Archery contest3


Negative aspects
Breaching the IC / OOC boundary is a risk to the player’s emotional and social well-being.


– Being OOC emotionally invested in an IC relationship makes players vulnerable for manipulation. Yes, this really is a thing that happens relatively often, I’d wager. Even if the manipulating part may not even be aware of what he or she is doing. It’s often a matter of controlling the other player by such means as threatening to kill their character, refusing further RP, or making the other party feel guilty or responsible for the his/her OOC wellbeing.


– An inability to separate morals OOC from IC leads to players being misjudged, and can lead to anything from shaming and bullying to actual exclusion and conflict. It’s not too rare an occurrence and most players who have been deeply involved in criminal RP can probably attest to at some point having been judged as “bad” because their character is. This is especially true when it comes to characters that have sexually abused another – it’s not uncommon for the players to be accused of being perverts, to the degree where most who get involved in such RP probably keep quiet about it.


– Inability to keep OOC feelings out of IC conflicts often leads to OOC conflicts. This is rather self explanatory. The aggression spills over far too easily when players identify too closely with the characters, and the characters get insulted or attacked.


– MMO RP is an uncontrolled and dangerous environment IC, and while more intense experiences may be awesome for exciting and good events, it may be equally detrimental if the experience is in fact traumatic and sad. Is it really healthy to be toying with such intense emotions such as fear and grief? The roleplay world will see more deaths, more violence, more dangers, than in Real Life, and if you feel the result of such events, taking it personally, the stakes may just be too high.


– Sudden and unexpected OOC changes are unavoidable and the players need to be able to handle anything from character loss to loss of RP without suffering emotionally from it. People leave the game, and thus their characters disappear. The game itself may change. A player may find herself without time to log on. If being too emotionally invested in characters and IC relationships, such changes could be potentially crippling.


– Using open world RP in a self therapeutic purpose is inherently risky because it is an unstable and uncontrolled environment that just as well may worsen the issue. The person playing a gay character in order to safely explore his or her sexuality may come out of it feeling even worse if encountering IC hate crimes. The person working through traumatic experiences by reliving it IC may end up exposing those around too intensely, by constantly bringing the same violent theme into play, or may just find it all getting worse when RP doesn’t go the expected way. Or for that matter, when does it stop being therapeutic and start being self destructive? There is no therapist keeping an eye on things here, after all.


Positive vs Negative
In MMO RP, if you play in the open world especially, you can’t choose to only get the positive aspects, you always run a risk of getting the negative aspects as well.  So it comes down to risk vs reward; are the
potential positive effects valuable enough to risk the negative effects?


One might argue that if you have no breach of the IC / OOC boundary one should theoretically be able to take part in any RP, regardless of theme. This is only partially true. Yes, to a certain degree it is correct, as emotional attachment to characters will make the experience more intense, and if that experience is a bad one it will naturally become worse. But what that doesn’t take into account is the fact that most people have issues with certain topics regardless of our own involvement in it or not. One player may feel physically nauseous at the thought of blood, and thus will want to avoid violent scenes. Another may have traumatic experiences and will want to avoid triggers. That doesn’t have to be an indication of too deep a connection with characters, it can just be how we function as human beings, which is why wishes to avoid certain topics can’t be rejected with the argument that “it’s just IC so you shouldn’t care OOC”.


Steering RP away from certain themes that one might wish to avoid should be simple enough. Sometimes a player needs to be able to do this to avoid topics (and sometimes people) that make us feel OOCly bad. No one should be forced to, for example, witness a torture scene against their wishes, one must always be able to opt out.


When it comes to using RP as a form of self therapy I would say that it is not worth the risk, however. While it certainly may be rewarding, the sensitive nature of the therapeutic process the risk of it going wrong is too big. The option here would be to utilize a closed setting, a safe and controlled zone where players can explore certain themes without running a risk of unexpected developments and disasters.


There is far more to say but I can keep on rambling forever, and that will do no one any good. So let me fast forward to some sort of summary:


There are both positive and negative effects of breaching the IC and OOC boundary. When it comes to steering and controlling RP it may even in some situations be necessary and advisable (such as with DMing and avoiding certain themes), but when it comes to emotionally breaching the boundary by connecting too heavily too the characters the negative effects outweigh the positive and the risk is too great for it to be advisable.


So, be damn careful about breaching the boundary. It may be useful specifically for DMing and steering RP away from certain themes or people that you desperately want to avoid, but for everyone’s sake, be careful about breaching the boundary on a more personal level. It’s just not worth the risk.

6 thoughts on “Breaching the IC / OOC boundary

  1. Fascinating, thanks. I can see how it might be quite hard to keep those two things fully separate. In fact, I would find it difficult not to be affected IRL if someone’s character maimed, raped or tortured my character, or even another character. I would find the person who chose to play a character who would do those things suspicious, because I myself would not want to play such a character and it would make me wonder what they were really like. I would find it hard to trust them, I think. That’s just my emotional reaction, it’s possible that it would be entirely healthy for a person to explore their dark side in a safe forum.


    1. It really can be very difficult, yes. And I’d say it’s probably impossible to keep them 100% separate even when trying to! That emotional reaction can be hard to avoid, especially if not actually having encountered anything like it before. That thing you said there at the end though – “for a person to explore their dark side” – that makes me go NUH UH! Just because there you are assuming that the player is actually exploring his/her dark side, that the character represents a part of the player. If keeping IC and OOC apart that just isn’t the case, and the person playing a sadistic character may not at all have sadistic tendencies OOC. That’s the whole point of separating IC and OOC, the character’s personality doesn’t necessarily have anything in common with the player’s!


      1. That’s what I can’t understand though, I would not want to play a sadistic character. It would upset me to do things like that even in an unreal forum. Maybe I’m too “nice”?

        I get that you need to have sides, like in a war, and someone has to play the “villain”, but most wars it’s just ordinary people who just happen to be on different sides, surely? Sadists like some of the Nazis are a minority and not all scenarios need an evil character, just an enemy.

        I’m not being critical I’m sure you realise (I feel the need to say this because of how things can so easily be misconstrued on the internet!), just trying to understand something which doesn’t seem obvious to me.


      2. No worries, I do get what you mean! And it’s where people are just different, some are able to set aside their real personality completely while others can’t quite go against it. As for me personally I’ve played everything from the most kind hearted self sacrificing innocent, to the slightly sadistic psychopath. The interesting part of getting into the mind of someone that twisted is that if you play it seriously and not just go “Imma make a stereotypical villain” the interesting part often lies in trying to figure out how such a person works. What’s the motivation, why would anyone want to do such things? How can a really nasty character still pull off such things as getting friends? How does it come together with a personal life, where the person might be amazing and loving towards his own family yet a complete monster to outsiders? It’s interesting! And, of course, it’s always fun to give classic “heroes” some decent opposition too. ^^ But when doing villain RP it really is more important than ever to tread carefully and keep an eye on how the other players are feeling OOC too.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A very good and interesting topic, and I think you laid it out well. In a very clear way.

    I also think you are right, when you stress to be careful and how it isn’t worth the risk, especially when it comes to using RP in a therapeutic fashion.

    Because I suspect roleplay may actually be keeping some people from getting on with, and getting better, in their real lives.

    In the last months, I’ve come to realise that a relative high percentage (compared to RL interaction) of the people I have roleplayed with online over the years, have or have had psychological… lets call them issues. It varies in scope from a mild case of social anxiety and trouble making close connections in RL (which I have) to severe and RL-crippling problems. Most of them are ‘simple’ things like insecurity.

    What worry me a bit, is how it seems these people (myself included) have used Roleplay as a way out. They cross that IC/OOC devide, and use the IC to feel better OOC. And that can be a negative, if done in excess.

    For me, it is mostly positive, in that I get to make long distance friends with the people I RP with, and that keep me socially active. It kept me from being alone. For me, my skype list is my friendlist, while I have one friend in RL (not counting wife and my kids or family). This being said, Roleplay also keeps me from putting myself out there, and I don’t challenge myself to invest in RL-friendships.

    For others, it’s less healthy. Using Roleplay as an escape can be a good way to get out of your head if you suffer from a insecurities or something worse, and this break is positive. However, it is also such an easy exit, so it can be a great lure. It can easily keep you from working towards actually getting better.

    This doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. Far from every Roleplayer is a ‘nut-job’.
    But, it is something to be mindful off. Roleplay offer a break from RL, but to use it as a substitute is not going to be healthy in the long run.

    I would even dare suggest that roleplayers should strive towards only roleplaying when they are ‘feeling good’. As said, Roleplay is too chaotic a thing to control, and if you are already down, the end result can make it even worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes I wonder though… It certainly seems like an unusually large part of the RP Community suffers from some sort of “issues”, be it depressions or social anxiety or whatnot. But I’m also pretty sure that within the RP Community these issues pop up and become more visible than outside in the real world. We tend to poke at the sore spots and see things float up to the surface that probably to a larger extent is kept hidden otherwise. I have no proof for that whatsoever but I’d be ready to bet money on it being so! Though we probably DO get a larger part introverts, just from the fact that online RP is a hobby where you don’t have to venture out of your own home to meet people.

      But just think of it. The kind of very personal and serious topics we tend to touch in RP, or among RP friends. How often do we go into such depths with those around us IRL? I’m sure that puts a spotlight on issues that otherwise might go undetected too.


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