Brave New Virtual World

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Brave New Virtual World



(edited: Scott 9/15)

Brave New Virtual World

Dispatches from the Cyberrian frontier

By Joel Warner (

Cody May is sure he's about to get majorly ganked.

To be more precise, Cody, 21, is sure his avatar, a bipedal bovine-like creature that goes by "Hercules," is about to get majorly ganked. Cody's just navigated Hercules into the Shimmering Flats, a vast dry lakebed in the Death Valley of Kalimdor known for hard asses just waiting for fools to wander in and present themselves for a whooping. Hercules, a level-43 shaman, is the kind of fresh meat Shimmering Flats' denizens have been waiting for.

Luckily, Cody's buddy Scott Beaver, 18, arrives before Hercules becomes the latest blood stain in Shimmering Flats. Scott appears in the form of "Zelkorr," a mean-faced 57th-level orc warrior armed with a ferocious man-eating panda as a pet and an extreme prejudice against anyone who dares lay a finger on Hercules.

Together, Hercules and Zelkorr wander over to the Mirage Raceway, a flashy operation run on the lakebed by speed-obsessed gnomes. A motley crew of passersby amble about under the harsh desert sun: elves, warriors, paladins. The perfect place for a bloodbath.

"It's go time," says Cody.

Scott counts down: "One, two, three."

The two sworn followers of the savage Horde alliance pounce on the first prey they spot: A diminutive dwarf who should've known better than to frequent these parts alone. With Zelkorr keeping watch, Hercules makes quick work of the unfortunate fellow. Soon all that's left is a bleached white skeleton baking in the heat.

"You ganked him!" exclaims Scott. Cody smiles, already prowling for his next victim.

Cody and Scott are sitting in GameScape, a South Denver gaming center tricked out with 40 PCs and a handful of videogame consoles, designed to meet all your shoot-em-up, slash-and-hack, command-and-conquer needs. Pringles, Reeses and cold soda are kept up front for refueling; a comfy leather coach and a flat-screen TV are on hand for a pit stop.

Cody and Scott, sitting in black leather swivel chairs in front of two PC screens, are actually thousands of miles away, immersed in World of Warcraft, a videogame in which thousands of players simultaneously explore a vast virtual terrain of man-cow shamans, gnome speedways and man-eating pandas. World of Warcraft and other games like it are called massively multiplayer role-playing games, or MMORPGs for short, and represent the fastest-growing sector of the $10-billion entertainment behemoth known as the videogame industry.

These games actually represent much more than just the newest joystick fad: As millions plug into MMORPGs (more than 1.5 million people worldwide have stepped into World of Warcraft since the game was launched last November), the cyber worlds they find themselves in are looking increasingly like the real world, featuring the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between of non-digitally enhanced everyday existence. Avoiding all those "Welcome to the Matrix" clichA(c)s, the line between virtual and reality is growing very thin, indeed. Where does all this leave the cyber pioneers who are creating, playing, studying and living in these cyber worlds, and where does it leave all the poor folks left behind?


Joe's love affair with MMORPGs didn't begin with a glorious online battle or the discovery of a priceless treasure in the depths of a shadowy dungeon. It all started with a pickax, a mountain and a very strange idea.

Joe, a 32-year-old Denver computer programmer who prefers to go by a pseudonym for business reasons, was never into videogames. A computer whiz in high school in Detroit, he preferred C++ to helping Mario stomp on Koopa Troopas.

But something about the videogame Ultima Online seemed different when Joe heard about it six years ago. The game was played over the Internet, meaning that numerous gamers were playing in the same world at the same time. This was something he had to check out.

Joe purchased a copy of the game and booted it up one night. He created a character for himself, or avatar, in the medieval world of Britannia. After familiarizing himself with the controls, Joe procured a pickax and ventured out into the great unknown and soon came upon a mountain. With pickax in hand, Joe figured he might as well try to pick at the mountain. So he pickedaEU"and ended up with a fistful of ore.

It blew his mind.

Something about being able to do such a menial task drove home for Joe that this wasn't a game, but a world. A world populated by playersaEU"players he could see and interact with on his computer screenaEU"who were playing at the same time as he was. And there was no ultimate goal, no final credits. Joe was on a quest that never ended, and he could do whatever he wanted in the meantimeaEU"kill an ogre, sit around ye old tavern swapping yarns, play "capture the flag," attend an online wedding of two avatars.

"It was a completely foreign concept," says Joe, "that there was another world that existed whether you were playing in it or not."

Back in 1979, this concept was more-or-less the brainchild of undergraduate students Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle at Essex University, England. Raised on role-playing games and text-based computer games, the two found they could merge their passions using a university program that allowed several computer users to access the same database simultaneously. The result was the first MMORPG: MUD, short for Multi-User Dungeon. By today's standards, the game's text-based gameplay was as exciting as its title:

*Averazix the necromancer has given you a nice kiss!

Your level of experience is now witch

The password to witch mode will be revealed when you quit.


Paula the witch saved.

Averazix the necromancer says "save your char and quit!"


Duration of game = 8 mins 48 secs.

It wasn't too sexy, but it was groundbreaking. Now it was possible to create a world in which computer users could interact to each other and their environmentaEU"a persistent virtual reality.

"I just liked creating worlds," writes Richard Bartle in an e-mail from Essex University, where he now teaches about videogames. "It was something I'd done several times as a child: made up my own realities and played with and within them. I was a gamer, and I enjoyed creating games; but I was also a storyteller, and I enjoyed creating my own stories from what happened in the games. Eventually, I made games that were there only so I could create stories as I played themaEU"game worlds, in other words."

The students' concept had legs. MUD-like games started multiplying like rabbits. It wasn't long before graphics were added. In 1997, the floodgates opened with the launch of Ultima Online. Eventually 200,000 subscribers ventured into the strange new world of BritanniaaEU"and then into the more advanced realms of EverQuest, Lineage, Dark Ages of Camelot, World of Warcaft. They never really left.

As the MMORPG industry evolved, so did Joe's gaming skills. Soon he was plugging in all the time, 15 hours during the week after work, 20 hours on the weekends. Now he runs online guildsaEU"groups of gamers who band together under a shared goal or worldviewaEU"one involving 600 players. He coordinates large-scale operations, like taking down a particularly nasty dragon or laying siege to a fortress, that require dozens and dozens of players and months to coordinate.

He still has a full-time job and a loving wife, but when he gets home from work and has nothing else he has to do, he turns on his computer and plugs himself in.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Joe spent all day in one of these virtual worlds. Some might find that strange, even wrong. Joe doesn't think so. He was talking to other players, from around the planet, about what was happening in the other world, the one beyond their computers.

Devil's in the details

How do you make something that takes hundreds of hours fun?

That's the question hounding Scott Brown, president of NetDevil. Scott looks like a young Bill GatesaEU"light-blond hair, square wire-rim glasses. He sits in NetDevil's conference room, a sleek glass-enclosed room overlooking the Louisville Technology CenteraEU"a cluster of nondescript office buildings amid the rolling plains. To Scott's right sits a bullet-riddled barrel of toxic waste. The barrel is a prop, part of the marketing campaign for Auto Assault, the well-hyped MMORPG Scott and NetDevil will be releasing in the fall.

Scott believes MMORPGs like Auto Assault are here to stay. They're the great equalizer, he says: It doesn't matter what sex, race or age you are, all other players care about is what you do and how you act in the game. Plus, says Scott, "There aren't poor people in videogames. Anyone can achieve something in the game, if they work hard enough." Complete enough quests, you'll find fame and fortuneaEU"the online American dream, a digital Horatio Alger novel.

That doesn't mean it's easy creating the next EverQuest. NetDevil has spent three years developing Auto Assault. A normal videogame might have 10, 20 hours of content. An MMORPG has to have at least 500 hours of content, which in Auto Assault's case is spread over a detailed 3-D world comprising 100 square kilometers. And while most game developers call it a day when a videogame is shipped to the masses, an MMORPG launch is just the beginning. To keep players coming back for months and years, developers keep adding new contentaEU"new quests, new booty, new everything.

Plus, says Scott, "You are solving real-world problems that game designers don't know how to solve."

When you have hundreds of thousands of people interacting in a huge, evolving digital world, issues arise no one can predict. As more players enter the game and find more loot, what's to prevent massive in-game inflation? Should videogame companies be held liable if players create content that violates copyright laws? What's to keep aggressive high-level characters from bullying, scamming and killing novices all the time? What happens if a guild becomes so powerful that it essentially takes over an entire world?

It's the stuff of social scientists' dreams, especially since online worlds function like huge Petri dishes where hundreds of thousands of ready-made participants can be observed with minimal interruption. Many serious law professors, economists and other scholars have made MMORPGs their field of choice, posting cerebral theses on Terra Nova, a weblog devoted to the complex social, economic and legal issues arising in virtual worlds.

Most of the really juicy discussions on Terra Nova involve the economics of MMORPGs. While the swords, armor and other goodies to be found in these online worlds aren't real, they have a real-world currencyaEU"the time it takes to procure them. Some players have decided it's better to purchase these hard-to-find objects from other players than spend hours searching for them. For these players, time doesn't come cheap: The international trade of virtual products on exchanges like ebay is estimated at more than $100 million a year.

Edward Castronova, an Indiana University professor who's sort of like the John Maynard Keynes of MMORPGs, studied the going-value of virtual goods in these exchanges and determined that these virtual worlds have an average gross domestic product per capita of about $2,000. Considering there's between one and three million MMORPG denizens, Castronova figures these virtual worlds have a gross economic impact roughly equivalent to that of Namibia.

Most MMORPG developers discourage players from selling virtual goods from their games, since it's a legal Pandora's box they'd rather keep closed.

"Even if we created an economy that could handle the pressures brought to it by real-world trading, who owns the items traded?" says Derek Licciardi, president of MMORPG developer Elysian Productions, Inc. "There are no real defined laws in the United States with respect to intellectual property rights over virtual items."

But so far MMORPG developers haven't been able to stop the power of supply and demand. And where there's real money changing hands, real crime is sure to follow. In South Korea, hackers were arrested for breaking into a virtual bank and stealing $500,000 worth of virtual currency. Some say there are videogame sweatshops, where people are paid to spend numerous hours playing MMORPGs to create high-level characters auctioned off to the highest bidder. There's even virtual freedom-of-speech issuesaEU"one online muckrakers claims he was banned from an MMORPG because he was exposing the seedy side of the digital worldaEU"prostitutes, shadow governments and more.

So far, however, no one has figured out exactly how to police these online worlds, says Greg Lastowka, assistant law professor at Rutgers and frequent Terra Nova contributor. On one hand, they seem to be governed by private corporationsaEU"the videogame companies. On the other hand, they are populated by peopleaEU"or at least the avatars of peopleaEU"with legal rights and shared customs and interests. Some have suggested MMORPGs should be treated by the courts as separated jurisdictions, similar to how the United States treats sovereign American Indian nations.

It's enough to make one wonder why anyone would be crazy enough to get into the MMORPG industry. Luckily for people like Scott at NetDevil, it pays to dabble in virtual worlds, no matter the thorny questions involved.

"Online gaming is going from a niche market very much to a mass market," says Scott, and he means it. Subscribers pay between $10 and $15 a month to immerse themselves in these online gamesaEU"and when you have millions of people playing these games for months, if not years, it's easy to see why NCsoft reported 2004 earnings near the quarter-billion mark.

The computer ate my baby
Megan sits at her dining room table, hands clasped. She keeps her voice lowaEU"her boyfriend is in the bedroom, asleep. It's one of the rare times he's either not at his job or sitting transfixed in front of his computer monitor.

The problems started around Christmas, says Megan, 43. She blames herself for encouraging her videogame-obsessed boyfriend to buy World of Warcraft. She thought a $13-a-month MMORPG would be better than buying a new $50 game every month. She was wrong.

Her boyfriend first signed on to World of Warcraft in their Colorado Springs apartment on Dec. 27, 2004. Since then, he's spent 17 days, 20 hours and 32 minutes in the game.

"He's lost in it," says Megan. "Nothing gets done."

Megan's boyfriend has dropped 14 pounds. He works nights, but instead of sleeping during the day, he sits in front of the computer, working on his warlock. His fingers are stained yellow from chain-smoking cigarettes. He's played for 18 hours straight at times.

Most people don't believe Megan when she tells them her boyfriend's addicted to a videogame. Her therapist doesn't know how to help her.

"I have no doubt that he loves me. But he is willing to do this thing that could split us up," says Megan. "I really believe he's not going to be able to stop, that this is going to split us up."

Megan's tale is the type of story MMORPG fans and developers hate and newspapers eat up, the headline-grabbing saga of the killer videogame. Granted, MMORPG companies often do little to challenge the image that they encourage people to spend as much of their lives as possible in the games. EverQuest II advertises a feature that allows players to order pizza delivery from within the game: "Hunger pains interrupting your game? Order pizza while playing!"

But now the MMORPG industry is starting to have a public-image problem on its hands, thanks in large part to people like Wisconsin resident Liz Woolley.

"This is an underground epidemic, and no one is saying anything about it," says Liz, who has the dubious honor of being involved in one of the virtual universe's most ghastly horror stories. On Thanksgiving Day, 2001, Liz found her 21-year-old son sitting in front of his computer, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. On his screen was EverQuest.

Liz founded On-line Gamers Anonymous, a 12-step program for those trapped in the games she says took her son's life. Step one, reads the program's website at, is to admit, "We were powerless over online gaming, and our lives have become unmanageable."

Liz doesn't blame the game designers for her son's death. But as for the game companies that bankroll and profit from the gamesaEU"that's a different story.

"Games are not just designed for fun anymore. They are designed to make money for the developer. And they don't care what they do to get it," she says. "In my opinion, they are nothing more than drug pushers. They don't care. All they care about are stocks and stockholders."

MMORPG supporters take exception to these attacks.

"We are not making a game to be addictive. We are making a game to be fun," says Scott at NetDevil. "I think it's more someone's personality, rather than the game."

The debate will likely continue, in part because there's been little scholarly analysis of the nature of MMORPG addiction. One of the few exceptions is the work of Nick Yee, a communications graduate student at Stanford University. Nick, through what he calls the Daedalus Project, has surveyed at least 35,000 MMORPG players over the past five years, studying the psychology of their playing.

Nick has found the average MMORPG player is between 26 and 28 years old and spends a little more than 20 hours a week in an online worldaEU"about seven hours less than the amount of time the average American spends in front of the television.

Nick's found that between 0.5 and 2 percent of online gamers report "problematic usage"aEU"addictive playing that negatively impacts players' jobs, relationships and lives. What's interesting is that some people seem more prone to problematic usageaEU"namely those who say they play the game to get away from reality, and those who play because they like the idea of advancement in the game.

It's hard to blame the videogame developers for the former category of potential game addictaEU"these people are looking for an escape, whether that be a videogame or a bottle. The latter category of potential addictaEU"those who seek achievementaEU"is more complicated.

Many MMORPGs have built-in reward cycles: kill enough baddies or beat enough quests, reach a new experience level. At first, it's really easy to reach new levels, reinforcing players' desire to continue the process. It's like conditioning a lab rat to repeatedly press a lever and get a treat. As the game progresses, however, it becomes harder and harder to reach high levelsaEU"leading players to eventually spend hours completing insanely menial, repetitive tasks for the questionable reward of a level up.

"Whatever is happening can't be inherent to [MMORPGs], it's got to be something that's more holistic," says Nick. "By and large most people who play MMORPGs have normal lives. And I think what the emerging data is showing is that it's really something about the people, as well as something about the game, that is driving the problematic usage."

In Colorado Springs, it's just hard for Megan to even comprehend she's lost her love to a videogame.

"This is just so far beyond ridiculous, it's hard to take it seriously," says Megan.

Last night, she snuck a peek at her boyfriend's avatar online and discovered a particularly outrageous virtual acquisition in his inventory, one of the many in-game achievements that seem so much more important to him than spending time with her: "A stylish red shirt."

"A stylish red shirt!" Megan shouts. She laughs loudly, putting her hands to her face. Her shoulders shake.

"A stylish red shirt!" The laughter continues. "A stylish red shirt!"

To play is to live

DrD Koolhaas likes the look of Moctezuma Matador's stylish pipe.

DrD Koolhaas has had quite the afternoon. First the bright-red, barrel-chested fellow (it's possible he's a painfully sunburned genie in green and black pants) found a swank bachelor pad hidden under a bed of lava in an ominous-looking volcano. Then he wandered through a modern suburban community that resembled Palo AltoaEU"except for the giant yellow bird sitting on the sidewalk that exclaimed "Wah!" whenever you tried to cuddle it. DrD Koolhaas' ramblings then took him to "Sinatra's Spook House" in the middle of a green field, at which for a nominal fee DrD Koolhass enjoyed a ghostly ride through the carnival attraction and received a T-shirt reading, "I survived Sinatra's Spook House."

Now he's encountered Moctezuma Matador, a long-haired rakish fellow in a top hat and tux smoking a pipe. DrD Koolhaas has his eyes on that pipe.

"Hey, where might I get a pipe?" DrD Koolhaas asks Moctezuma Matador.

"Hmm. Let me see," Moctezuma Matador replies. He doesn't seem to know how to help DrD Koolhass.

"At the very least, it is a nice pipe. I must compliment you," offers DrD Koolhaas.

Moctezuma Matador appears to appreciate the compliment. He repays the kindness by presenting DrD Koolhaas with a red bicycle and a red BMW motorcycle. DrD Koolhaas inspects his new wheels, but before he has time to thank his new tobacco-addicted friend, an unwelcome addition joins the rendezvous: a witch wearing rocket shoes that resemble metallic peacocks. Whipping out two six-shooters, the witch starts taking pot shots at DrD Koolhaas, as Moctezuma Matador, incensed at the faux pas, pulls out a lightsaber.

As peaceful traveler by nature, DrD Koolhaas decides it's time to hit the road. He hops on his new motorbike and gets away unscathedaEU"until he overlooks a nasty bump in the road that sends his motorcycle airborn and leaves it wedged in the tail of an spaceship that's just landed among the trees.

David Thomas takes a break from navigating his avatar DrD Koolhaas through the MMORPG Second Life. He's sitting in the darkened office in the back of his house, the computer screen illuminating his metal glasses and mane of brown and gray curls. He looks like a cross between a mad scientist and an overgrown kid, which in many ways he is.

PC games and computer books litter the desk and the bookshelves in the office. In the other room, larger piles of XBox, Playstation 2 and other videogames surround a TV screen, on which David's 3-year-old son Linc is trying his best to figure out a mud-wrestling videogame. This is all part of David's jobaEU"he thinks and writes about videogames for a living, covering the industry for the Denver Post and teaching classes on the subject at the University of Colorado at Denver. He's also the co-founder of the International Game Journalists Association, the press club for all those who report on the videogame revolution sweeping the world.

David's been exploring the phantasmagoric world of Second Life to prove a point. These days there's all sort of MMORPGs on the marketaEU"puzzle games, children-oriented games, completely nonviolent gamesaEU"but David believes Second Life, launched by Linden Lab in 2003, represents an important step in the genre, and a window into these virtual worlds' soul.

Everything in Second LifeaEU"the avatars, the buildings, the accoutrementsaEU"is created by the players inside the game. There are no missions, no experience levelsaEU"the only goal is to create and explore an online world. The results have been wonderfully surreal: A game made by a player in Second Life that's now been licensed to become a real videogame. A currency exchange where players trade the virtual coin they earn from other players, "Lindens," for real greenbacks. An island designed for players with Asperger Syndrome to learn how to socialize. An in-world revolution where avatars wearing T-shirts reading "Born Free, Taxed to Death" revolted against the game developersaEU""Mad King George Linden"aEU"for their game fees.

It's like a dream that everyone's sharing, or, as David says, "the world's biggest, weirdest cocktail party." But the game works, because it retains the central idea behind MMORPGsaEU"more than anything else, people want to have second lives.

"Videogames are the popular culture face of digital revolution," says David, just like cinema has always been the popular faASSade of the technological revolution. The biggest developments in the computer worldaEU"faster processors, the advent of computer graphics, the InternetaEU"have all been represented byaEU"and often led byaEU"videogames. David believes MMORPGs are just the most fun example that, thanks to the Internet, we all have second lives.

"We've got these electronic identities now," says David. Most of us already have e-mail handles, a web address and acquaintances we've never met in person but interact with solely through the Internet. Is it that unusual to think that one day soon all these online interactions will be represented by virtual avatars communicating in a virtual world?

David isn't the only one who believes online videogames could signal an important breakthrough for our society. Dmitri Williams, assistant professor in speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has found that MMORPGs actually appear to influence player's perceptions of reality. Some might see this as the sign that civilization is coming to an end, but Dmitri isn't so sure.

"This is the virtual equivalent of poker night," says Dmitri. "These are substitutes for people who can't or won't or don't want to find social outlets. In many parts of this country, we don't have common places, where you meet people. We have a very commuter-oriented culture, and it's more so all the time. These games have come in to fill the void."

Richard Bartle, a founding father of MMORPGs, agrees.

"For most of their playing career, it's crucial that [gamers] do regard the virtual world as different from the real world, because that gives them the freedom to become themselves," he says. "They have to make a journey to an unreal place to find their real self; it's a classic Joseph Campbell-style hero's journey. Once they have found and become their true self, the virtual world becomes just another place in the real world."

David thinks it's ironic that the Baby Boomers are the ones who seem so threatened by videogames, since their own generation was shaped by a similar technological innovation: television. Maybe it all has to do with our society's strange fear of leisure: "The devil makes use of idle hands," "If it is not productive, it is wrong."

"What videogames are waiting for is their 'Citizen Kane' moment," says David. The moment when society realizes videogames aren't just kid's stuff, but a meaningfulaEU"and vitalaEU"form of cultural expression. With Second Life and other MMORPGs pushing the envelope between what's real and what's not, David believes this moment is happening right now.

As David paces the room, running these ideas around in his head, Linc wanders into the room. David picks him up.

"What do you think, Lincy?" he says.

Linc buries his face in Thomas' neck and mumbles something.

He wants his dad to help him play the mud-wresting game.

Liz Woolley