A war has been raging since October. Recently, it saw its greatest battle – a conflict that broke records for size, scope and amount of damage. On Monday, more than 100 massive war vessels were obliterated at a real-world cost of $3,000. But that only scratches the surface. The record-setting battle encompassed thousands of players and may have done a total of half a million dollars in damage. Those are real U.S. dollars, too, converted to in-game currency in EVE Online, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) that boasts 500,000 players across a virtual universe of more than 7,000 stars. To the combatants, this war – its politics, its causes, its real-world losses in time and currency – is all too real. But in terms of the flesh-and-blood world, none of it exists … and therein lies the problem.

The MMORPG has been with us for more than two decades. To the player looking for an escape, to the individual seeking adventure or fantasy in an environment far removed from the “meatspace” of day-to-day existence, these are as addictive as they are plentiful. The tabletop role-playing game (as epitomized by Dungeons and Dragons) once spawned fears that children would withdraw into fantasy worlds of their own creation, avoiding reality in favor of endless pretend scenarios. Role-playing computer games furthered these fears. For most players, such concerns are absurd. We enjoy games, but we understand that they are not real life. Yet for a small percentage of players, the game becomes everything. To the detriment of all else in their lives, these dedicated gamers lose themselves in the virtual, neglecting everything from work to home to family and even hygiene. We have seen the news reports: Children neglected while their parents played online games, a story that is no way unique.

Before the advent of today’s lavish and immersive virtual worlds, such as World of Warcraft, Second Life, Rift and countless others, there were text-based games that were no less addictive. As a college student in the early 1990s, I witnessed the addictive properties of these crude games firsthand. Before the average person could access the Internet using dial-up programs like America Online, my university’s computer network permitted access to a text-based MMORPG located in another country. Players could engage in a variety of virtual dragon-slaying, magic-missile-launching and simulated-pub-carousing. They could duel each other, steal from one another and adventure together. They could fall in love and conduct long-term relationships. They could even, at high levels of experience, help “program” more of the virtual world, creating text-based environments and options of their own design.

This was a new phenomenon in 1991; as a young man away from home and dialing into the college’s VAX system with a 2400-baud modem, I had no frame of reference for online games or the vast interactions they make possible. I watched as several of my friends failed out of school thanks to the games. One young lady would spend her days in the computer lab, using two different terminals to operate two separate characters simultaneously. At the height of her addiction, she stopped attending classes entirely. The lure of a game that existed almost entirely in the player’s mind was enough to uproot her from reality. Small wonder it is, then, that the interactive and graphically intense games of today can do the same.

EVE Online has existed for a decade. The technology for advanced MMORPGs has been with us for long enough that many of these games have lengthy and involved histories. They have their own complex political factions and foibles, their own peculiar sociological landscapes and their own distinct cultures. I experienced this myself for perhaps a year while playing an online game. It was this experience that would eventually provide me with the most sobering of reality checks.

In a science fiction environment tailored after a popular movie franchise, I styled my character as the captain of his own ship. Soon, my avatar had amassed a group of other players who formed his crew. This is easy enough to do if you have the role-play chops to attract others to your banner … and even easier if you are willing to spend real money to bribe and “employ” other players. Most MMORPGs have some form of in-game economy, allowing players to shovel their own real-life funds into virtual advantages, equipment, property and so on. Enjoying the game, I spent liberally. My crew became a gang. My gang became a horde. My horde became an army.

Soon, my imaginary cohorts – all of them played by real-life people throughout the country and the world – were running the territory we had adopted as our own. We assassinated the in-game security forces (and posed over their bodies for screen-captures). They put up “wanted” posters of us; we took out virtual bounties on them. We were thrown out of multiple simulations for a combination of bullying and bloodthirsty ruthlessness. And then, one day, when I was feeling particularly proud of a brutal virtual gunfight we had just won, my most fearsome lieutenant and warrior opened his real-life microphone and said, in a prepubescent voice, “OK, I gotta go to school now.”

I was not a general. I was a third-world warlord commanding an army of children. The hundreds of man-hours my online “friends” and I had devoted to our imaginary environment suddenly seemed very foolish indeed. And just like that, my desire to escape into this world of fantasy was shattered forever. It was time to go back to the real world and time to stop spending both time and money on things that do not really exist.

This is the lesson that all players of MMORPGs must learn. This is the pitfall looming before their vast populations. The casual player bears few risks. The dedicated gamer may well become obsessed. It is fine to spend a few hours immersed in fantasy – but when the virtual world consumes the majority of both your time and money, it is not a “game” at all.

It isn’t even any fun.

Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].


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