Published January 20, 2001
You can write a book in six months and it may take someone a week to read it. You can make a movie in a year and it takes someone two hours to see it. On the other hand, when you create an on-line computer game, thousands of people spend mega-hours, seven days a week, and may continue playing it for two years. One of the oldest games, Everquest, is still around and continues to be played by thousands of people. Is this an addiction or a modern window of opportunity? Many people are asking. But do on-line games further the alienation of already isolated people or educate curious people in a safe venue with an unprecedented forum of creative communication.
I’m not sure I have all the language to describe the interactive entertainment that comes under the name of “On-line Games” but I’m learning and you will be too. On-line computer games aren’t new. They’ve been around since it’s been possible to go on-line. What’s new is how many people are playing them and how many are playing at the same time. Community. That’s the catchword. Players want to be a part of a community. Makers want to create community. Community is the opportunity to make yourself up, change yourself at will and interact with others who are doing the same in the same world of reality you’ve chosen. The makers of the games will tell you that individual choices are limited but when you’re playing the game, you don’t know that and you don’t feel that. As a matter of fact, if players figure out how to affect the structure of a game, they wreck it for themselves and for others. They’re called hackers. But here comes community again. The makers look at the hackers as players and plunge right in to figure out how to make a game that includes them.
For instance, one game attracted killer players. They were more interested in how to “kill” other players than they were at playing the game. Big problem. Any new player who logged on got annihilated before they ever got started. Bad feelings. Bad for business. Another game attracted hackers who learned how to go behind the scenes, rack up the maximum scores and lord it over their friends. Everyone wanted to learn how to beat the game rather than play it. Bad feelings. Bad for business. The creators of each game took different tracks. The first group took a social approach and created a reality within the game where “killer players” could play their killing game and another where it was impossible to kill anyone. They also took a social approach in one reality structure where players could sanction killer players or gang up against them and give them handicaps. The second group took a different approach and broke their game into several different structures so that playing the game or hacking it became a choice. But you get the gist of it. The makers have to be interactive with the players to survive – and thrive.
And then there are the creative players who create realities for other players who aren’t into the “kill and be killed mentality”. They create a space (website) for players to come in, choose an avatar personality and interact with other players who are also appearing as a selected avatar. Wondering what an avatar is? An avatar is an artificial likeness of a character that usually has some archetypal quality – a hero, an animal or historical figure. The player fills out their identity and comes into the game as this avatar. This can be on a low level of chat in which you come in as a cat and have conversation with dogs and monkeys. Or it could be a high level of gamesmanship in which a central avatar creates an opportunity for any and all participating avatars to engage in a particular reality – grief group meeting around the loss of a loved one, a romantic tryst a la courtly love, a circus adventure auditioning as a trapeze artist, etceteras. A player logs on, takes on an avatar persona, begins to make up an identity, joins the story at hand and finds out where it takes him or her. Identity morphs according to one’s choices. The story has a broad structure but one’s choices determine the direction and the depth of the pursuit. And you can quit at any time. It seems that most people don’t. They become part of the community and stick around for hours and hours, days and days, months and months – as well as years and years.
One begins to wonder. Does this alienate or facilitate relationships in real life? Of course, one also wonders, where does on-live and on-line begin and end? And, of course, there’s no answer. For one person, an exploration of self as an avatar may offer just the freeing up experience that furthers a relationship that has been problematic. For another, it may be an alternative that is more captivating. It is definitely time consuming. To make or create alternative realities for other people takes a major amount of time. To log on and engage as one or many avatars sucks up time like soda through a straw. But there hasn’t been much research done on what people are getting out of their experience. Some people would just watch a soap opera or randomly search the web if they weren’t playing; others take the game they’re playing and make more of the game they’re playing in real life. The latter group turns a birthday party into a survival game, writes up dialog for a cartoon series as a homework assignment and starts thinking about what games would be good for hospitalized invalids or corporate executives on a training weekend. And therein lies the dilemma. We’re back to basics. How do we raise children and educate grown-ups to view the Internet as just another tool, not a life in itself?