The very first edition to Wikipedia took place on January 15, 2001. Today, the online encyclopedia officially turns 20, on the date known as Wikipedia day. One of WIRED’s early stories on Wikipedia when compared to the ancient library of Alexandria. For the site’s volunteer editors, however, there is another metaphor that has long been popular: Wikipedia is role-playing.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarities between editing the internet encyclopedia and reading Dungeons & Dragons. Still, supporters of the RPG metaphor see many similarities to tabletop RPGs and their online counterparts. According to this humorous and constantly evolving essay made up of Wikipedia, Wikipedia’s “game world” consists of 6.2 million “unique places” (read: Wikipedia articles), 40.6 million “players” (Wikipedia editors), and Common villains are the trolls who disrupt “boss fighting” items (the modify wars that sometimes take place regarding the content published on an article). The “game designer” is Jimmy Wales, who started the site 20 years ago and is said to have been a big fan 1980s MMORPGs like Island of Kesmai and Scepter of Goth. More recently, Wales sent a box of D&D beyond books and swag for his Christmas 2020 Reddit Secret Santa Gift.
“Comparing Wikipedia to a role-playing game is useful because it helps people understand why Wikipedians are so reluctant to recognize external expertise,” Dariusz Jemielniak, professor at Kozminski University and author of Common knowledge? An ethnography from Wikipedia and co-author of Collaborative society, wrote in an email.
Take this example: a new user logs into Wikipedia, changes the content of an article and writes: “I have the right to make this change because I have a graduate degree in this field!” Not only would this person likely be seen as a jerk, their reasoning is unlikely to succeed on Wikipedia. This is because Wikipedians generally believe that arguments should stand or fall based on their merit and alignment with Wikipedia policies, for example whether the statement is checked with quotes to reliable third-party sources.
Editors create their online street credentials – or, in game terms, experience points – by developing posts and increasing their number of edits. As Jemielniak explained, it seems very weird when someone from the “brick and mortar world” rushes in and claims they should have the same credibility in the Wikipedia RPG because of their credentials. It would be like a character on a D&D adventure suddenly proclaiming that he was in charge of the dungeon of medieval literature because he happened to have a doctorate on the subject. Basically, it’s cheating by not recognizing the rules of the game itself.
The ability to create a character or character in the game is another similarity between RPGs and Wikipedia. The most prolific contributor to the English version of Wikipedia is Steven Pruitt, a 36-year-old Washington, DC area resident who has made more than 3.8 million edits since 2006. But within the community Wikipedia, he is most often referred to by his username, Ser Amantio di Nicolao, the handle he took from a minor character in a Puccini opera.
Users may be drawn to a particular type of role they wish to play, with the roles described in the WikiFauna, a taxonomy heavily based on nerd culture and fantasy RPGs. Some publishers, for example, identify themselves as WikiEagles, using their fine vision to detect and correct small errors like misplaced commas, or WikiFairies that embellish Wikipedia by organizing messy articles or making stylistic improvements. For his part, Pruitt declares on his user page that he is a WikiGnome, the type of user who tends to make small incremental edits such as adding categories to articles (for example, the blue links that appear at the bottom of a Wikipedia page).