The first-ever edit to Wikipedia took place on January 15, 2001. Today, the online encyclopedia officially turns 20 years old, on the date known as Wikipedia Day. One of WIRED’s earliest stories about Wikipedia once compared it to the ancient library of Alexandria. For the site’s volunteer editors, however, there’s another metaphor that has long been popular: Wikipedia is a role-playing game.
At first blush, there do not appear to be many similarities between editing the internet encyclopedia and playing Dungeons & Dragons. Yet proponents of the RPG metaphor see numerous resemblances to both table-top RPGs and their online counterparts. According to this humorous and continuously evolving essay composed by Wikipedians, the Wikipedia “game world” consists of 6.2 million “unique locations” (read: English Wikipedia articles), 40.6 million “players” (Wikipedia editors), and the common villains are the trolls who disrupt articles in “boss fights” (the edit 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 was reportedly a big fan of MMORPGs of the 1980s, like Island of Kesmai and Scepter of Goth. More recently, Wales sent across 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, as it helps people understand why Wikipedians are so reluctant to recognize external expertise,” Dariusz Jemielniak, a professor at Kozminski University and author of Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia and coauthor of Collaborative Society, wrote in an email.
Consider this example: A new user logs onto Wikipedia, changes the content of an article, and writes, “I’m entitled to make this change because I have a graduate degree in this subject!” Not only would this person likely be perceived as a prig, but their reasoning is unlikely to succeed on Wikipedia. That’s because Wikipedians generally believe that arguments must stand or fall based on their merit and alignment with Wikipedia policies, such as whether the statement is verified with citations to reliable third-party sources.
Editors build their online street credentials—or, in gaming terms, experience points—by developing articles and increasing their edit counts. As Jemielniak explained, it feels very bizarre when somebody from the “brick-and-mortar world” swoops in and claims that they should have the same credibility in the Wikipedia RPG because of their credentials. That would be like a character in a D&D adventure suddenly proclaiming that they were in charge of the Medieval Literature dungeon because they happened to have a doctorate in the subject. Basically, it’s cheating by not recognizing the rules of the game itself.
The ability to create an in-game persona or character is another similarity between RPGs and Wikipedia. The most prolific contributor to the English language version of Wikipedia is Steven Pruitt, a 36-year-old resident of the Washington, DC, area who has made over 3.8 million edits since 2006. But within the Wikipedia community, he is more often referred to by his username, Ser Amantio di Nicolao, the handle he took from a minor character in a Puccini opera.
Users may gravitate toward a particular type of role that they want to play, with the roles outlined in the WikiFauna, a taxonomy that’s heavily based on nerd culture and fantasy RPGs. Some editors, for example, identify as WikiEagles, using their keen vision to detect and fix small errors like misplaced commas, or WikiFairies that beautify Wikipedia by organizing messy articles or making stylistic improvements. For his part, Pruitt declares on his user page that he’s a WikiGnome, the kind of user who tends to make small, incremental edits such as adding categories to articles (e.g. the blue links that appear on the bottom of a Wikipedia page).