"It's an Online Game Thing!" is a 5-part online series that explores the nooks and crannies of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) and the rest of the Internet gaming world. This is Part 1.
A rumpled, stubble-faced man steps out of the shadows of a dark alley and motions to you.
"Psst. Yo, fella, over here. I got sometin' for ya."
You think twice about approaching, but, hey, it's been a boring day, so you sidle halfway across the street, asking what's up. He shushes you and quickly glances around.
"Keep it down. You want everybody ta hear? Dis is special."
He flips his coat open and pulls out ... a laptop. Curious now, you move close enough to see what's on the screen he's shoving in your direction.
"A thousand bucks and it's all yours, buddy."
No, it's not the computer he's selling, it's the little figure on the screen. A World of Warcraft Level 63 Night Elf with top-notch armor, an epic hunter quest bow, epic land mount and a money purse stuffed with 5,100 virtual pieces of gold. Your fingers start to twitch. You look into the cyber trafficker's red, watery eyes and ask, "You take plastic?"
As ridiculous as that may sound, it's not far off the mark. Massively Multiplayer Online Games such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest are tootling their pennywhistle pied piper's tunes and attracting millions of wannabe crusaders. So selling off high-level gaming accounts and virtual tools of war (things that can take hundreds of hours to earn) is now a red-hot business that rakes in anywhere from $250 million to $900 million a year.
If you're thinking, "Those crazy kids," then it's time for a reboot. The average gamer is 33 years old and has been playing for 12 years. Not only that, women account for more than a third of that gaming gaggle.
Something New Under the Sun?
Surprised? Don't be. And don't think that MMOGs are the only game in town, either. Social interaction games constitute another online offering that's gaining popularity by leaps and bounds. Second Life offers players a chance to create an alter ego (called an avatar) and live in an alternate online universe. There's no real "game" in this case, but players are given free will and the ability to create the world around them as they see fit. If they want to build a house, set up virtual rock concerts, buy or design the latest fashions, even leap up in the air and fly, all they need do is try. You can do anything. And I do mean anything. (More on this later in the series.)
But let's face facts, as the world's wisest man told us in Ecclesiastes, none of this is really new. Online games may be a modern twist, but the need to escape from our day-to-day grind has probably been around since God handed Adam his first rake and told him to go work for a living. Solomon put it like this:
"Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest."
Now, Solomon goes on to say that we're not going to find real enjoyment in life apart from God, but that's never stopped us from trying to distract ourselves with everything from sitcoms and summer blockbusters to iPod singles and fantasy football leagues. And amidst that weighty list of amusements, online gaming has a special appeal.
Sliding Behind the Keyboard
Video games do more than just fill time between snacks. They can give players some of the things that are difficult or, sometimes, impossible to obtain in real life. You can be a pro athlete, an action hero or a cunning businessman. You can save the planet from global warming or wipe out an invading force of slavering zombies. You can be a handsome, brilliant thinker or a battle-scarred, bloody fighter.
And games offer instant or at least timely gratification. No worrying about the bills or vagaries of tomorrow. You're a hero who understands his goals and purposefully strategizes to reach them. (Even Internet games with never-ending play have obtainable short-term wins.)
Picking up a controller or sliding behind that keyboard can also be a refreshing, anonymous, new beginning for somebody who's tired of being pigeonholed into a personality type or predictable routine. Suddenly having influence upon an entire realm can be a startling breakthrough for an average Joe who feels he has little impact on his world. And even though gamers are commonly thought of as loners hiding away from life in darkened rooms, today's keyboard marathoners, with their high-speed Internet hookups, actually link into communities of like-minded people from all over the world. Side-by-digital-side they can accomplish virtually anything. Altogether, it's pretty cool, really, and so appealing that you sometimes don't want to leave.
Uh-oh. We've just hit our first snag.
Taking Your Lumps in Two Worlds at a Time
Some gamers become so consumed by their fantasy that the virtual world simply becomes a more appealing place to be than the actual one. Meaningful relationships with non-virtual people suffer, sleep becomes optional, and plans for routing that cave full of spider demons and finding the sacred key start to take precedence over deadlines at work. Of course, if things do get to this stage, friends and family usually start complaining that the game is getting in the way of life. But, ironically, that's really not the problem. More truthfully—at least for the gamer—life gets in the way of the game.
In 2001, Time featured an article about gaming in Korea "where there are PC cafés on virtually every street, outfitted with the high-speed Internet connections that make interactive games crackle." The reporter recounts a story of one particular group of impassioned gamers:
"Five rough-looking men stepped out of a black sedan and burst into the Seoul PC café where Paek Jung Yul hangs out with Strong People Blood Pledge, his clan of online gamers. 'Is the wizard here?' demanded one of the toughs, asking for the player who killed his character in an online game called Lineage. The 'wizard' was there, alright, and he was feeling bold. He boasted that he had offed the gangman's virtual character just for the fun of it. Bad idea. The roughnecks dragged the 21-year-old into the urinal and pummeled him until he was covered with real-world bruises."
Join Us, Frodo
Now that I've either frightened, confused or angered you—depending on your current relationship with the gaming world—I'll tell you where I'm heading. I'd like to invite you to join me as we open up the box and peer inside the world of online gaming.
Let me say right up front that I'm a gamer myself, and I actually like video games (gasp!) and have no desire to simply decry their evil. But I'm not blind, either. There is a potential (and in some cases, raging) problem in online gaming that I'm going to be holding a magnifying glass to—for you and for myself.
So, if you've been interested in this new phenomenon (or your kids are, or your parents are, or your best bud at school is, or you're just wondering what in the world I'm talking about), be here next week when we pick up our battle-axes and stomp into the World of Warcraft.
In Part 2, Bob Hoose reinvents himself as an orc or some such creature in what may be the biggest game ever invented, World of Warcraft. WoW!
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Opining on Online Gaming