Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Virtual War with World of Warcraft

My guess is that most of you are familiar with massive multi-player online games such as World or Warcraft and myriad others. For those of us (ahem) who lived in the early computer years, such gigantic creations are dreams come true (anyone remember Mega-Wars on CompuServe?). These online roleplaying games, or virtual worlds, are becoming worlds in themselves - the stuff of science fiction of two decades ago. Not only do they provide worlds, maps, entertainment, but they also create micro-economies. And when in doubt, if it has a viable "economy," it is as real as any other economy.

I know many people who enjoy these games, some who spend only a few hours a month playing them, and others who have given up their physical lives for virtual ones. But, this weekend, while I was attending CodCon XIII, I happened to overhear two young men (college students) discussing the woes of World of Warcraft (WoW). The basic and heated discussion was an old one. It seems both young lads had roommate/girlfriends who felt that the lads spend too much time playing WoW. From the sound of it, they dedicated a mere few hours a day to the game. Compared to television viewing, this might not seem like much time.

But the locus of their discussion was how unfair their roommates were treating them - accusing the fellows of not spending enough time away from the computer. Of course, both of these young men also attended bi-weekly pen-and-paper roleplaying games. For those who have played these games, just like the electronic counterpart, they can take hours. Really, these games (at one time) were the stuff of college life.

Here is the rub. Both of the WoW players felt they were being treated unfair. They both said they went to movies and rented videos with their girlfriends, even though they didn't enjoy those activities. Nonetheless, they did them to prove their devotion to the relationship. As a result, they both felt that being allowed a few hours of alone time, in another room, away from their roommates, was fair and deserved.

After a few minutes of rumination on the topic, both gamers decided they were most certainly being victimized by "girls who over rationalize everything." (I don't think they were using "rationalize" properly here, but I understood their meaning). One of the two said, "You just have to put your foot down. You can't give up all of your fun for 'her.' Sure she'll complain, but she goes shopping and to the gym. Is that fair to you?"

This statement garnered a positive response. The second fellow asked, "Is that what you did? Does (name deleted) understand why you play WoW?" The reply was: "We don't live together anymore. She said she was paying for half of everything and that she didn't want to pay for WoW."

So it seems, one of the relationships dissolved over the dispute of time sharing and a virtual world and "real" economics." Undaunted, the second fellow decided to give his roommate an ultimatum. He was determined to play WoW. In fact, he said if he couldn't, then he would do "much worse things." I took this to mean that his fidelity might be in question if not allowed to play WoW.

And that led to the next topic. It seems the two girlfriends felt the gamers were finding virtual girlfriends while online. This also fueled the fire on both sides.

In the end, both students decided to take a stand for their basic human rights, and were determined to find females who understood and accepted them, and didn't "over rationalize everything."

Now I'll add into the mix that Congress recently held hearings about virtual worlds. This is truly an historic moment. It seems there are national security concerns about terrorists using Second Life (another VR system) to plot, communicate, and plan future attacks. Not to be outdone, several members of Congress made WoW jokes about experience points and levels during the session.

I suppose what I find interesting is how "real" the "unreal" is becoming. With economic engagement and emotional engagement and national interests at stake, these VR worlds are becoming just as much of a problem as the former analog world (that's the one we live in presently, although many argue it is just as fabricated, except with human brain/computers - we see what we want, in other words).

Honestly, all of the above is something I would have expected to read in SF books (particularly cyberpunk novels) back in the 1980s. Today, they are very serious problems. Life decisions are being made around entertainment systems. And if what some people claim is true, even the security of human lives are at risk due to digital creations.

Perhaps all of this is called escapism, and no different from reading a favorite genre novel or watching a film. But when it overlaps with the real world, or influences the "real" world, maybe it becomes just as "real" as the "real" world. There are so many possibilities, I wonder where all of this will lead?


Charles Gramlich said...

It sounds like the matrix within a matrix. Definitely a bit crazy. I'll admit, however, that online role playing did affect my former marriage. It can be a heady world when first experienced. To let the imagination go, and to find folks who appreciate it. But in the end, I've found that real life is better.

Jeff Edwards said...

I work at a college, and apparently, a recent event hosted by my college on Second Life was disrupted by protesters. The avatars were marching and holding up signs during the college-hosted event. When I discussed this with a college administrator, she noted that people are behaving the same way (good and bad) in the VR world as they do in the "real" world.


Stewart Sternberg said...

I played WOW. As a gamer I roared through hour after hour. But as the scenarios started repeating and the game started fading, I became aware of something---an underlying social world which..well...sort of freaked me out.

At one point, I remember going through a cyber town and seeing a group of avatars (computer images representing players) dancing naked in the town square. Let me repeat that --- dancing naked in the town square. How bored do you have to be?

I ignored this, when one sees a group of dwarves running around naked, it seems the best course of action, but then I noticed the side scroll (dialogue between players occurs in a side scroll like a chat room). Apparently the players in the nude were being chastised by their guild for this lewd behavior.

Gaming is something precious to me. So is chocolate. It's all about balance, isn't it?

I am not sure though that this is about technology. Before WOW, people would have found something else to obssess over to avoid dealing with their issues.

John Goodrich said...

College isn't about balance, it's about excess. And from that excess, you learn what you can deal with and what you can't, what you can do, and what you can't.

In the Stone Age, when I was in college, people were spending all their time on Multi-User Dungeons, which were basically WOW without the pretty pictures. They weren't as popular as WoW has become, but in 1994, I had already heard stories of people who get so sucked into their MUD or MUSH that they dropped out of college.

What is it that makes the grind of WoW so attractive? At one time, I would have said a sense of power, a sense of control over one's life, which is often lacking in modern life. It's not as complicated as real life, most problems can be solved with an magical attack and a few ax blows. And there's also the reset button; if you mess up in World of Warcraft, you can pretty much get resurrected and go on your merry way in half an hour. In the real world, the wrong word to your girlfriend can make the next week an exercise in agony, and if you really mess up at your job, well, you've changed your life forever, haven't you?

William Jones said...

Charles, Jeff, Stewart,John - All of you make interesting and valid points. It is true, there has always been something for people to obsess over (it's as though humans are *addiction machines*). As I mentioned in the post, "Mega-Wars" used to be very popular. It charged $22.00/hour during the day, and many people went into debt playing the game. Before that, there was something else, and not all were technological.

Perhaps ease of access is a factor here. Is it more difficult to become engaged in a virtual online world than other habit forming behavior? Is virtual online gaming even considered habit forming? From the responses, that seems to be a given. But, I'd think there were many people who didn't share this view before playing one of these games. I wonder if this means there will be warnings on such entertainment in the future.

The old pen & paper RPGs destroyed quite a few marriages and friendships and careers. Reading a 300 page manual and getting several people to drop by once a week is a bit more difficult to pull off - which is why online gaming is more popular than the "analog" version.

But what is interesting to me is that it has made its way into the political arena, and even into national security. Yes, Steve Jackson Games was raided by the FBI, but I don't think it had the same news coverage Second Life is getting.

Slowly, it seems, virtual worlds are approaching the ultimate form of escapism - replacing film and books as they go. Today this games come close to social interaction (but without the social interaction humans normally engage in). A provocative mind game would be to consider how a company controlling a virtual world could take advantage of its "players" (citizens?). Political rallies, debt, protests, the possibilities are virtually endless for a devious mind.

Jeff Edwards said...

William, on the subject of "devious" use of these virtual worlds: I read some related comments by Barry Sonnenfeld today. He was talking about the Internet but his fears are relevant (though perhaps far-fetched) to our own discussion here.

Sonnenfeld says, "The 'Net is so pervasive that kids are on it all day...[T]he Facebook generation is not concerned with what people know about them...[T]hey will have no problem with additional governmental supervision, spying and intervention. They will be thrilled that the Internet will be able to follow their every move...Totalitarianism is not far in our future, and the next generation will go down that road happily."



Charles P. Zaglanis said...

My name is Chuck, and I'm a WoW addict. As someone deeply in the thrall of the game, I can say that the designers have done their work masterfully. The game sets its claws into you on so many levels: the greedy and the collector, the sociable and the loner, there is content there for everyone.

If you are shrewed in the in-game auction house, you can amass huge fortunes; you can join guilds of like-minded individuals who will come to depend on you (and you, them); You can do quests that are upgraded daily, which offer gold and reputation with different groups, who, in turn, offer increasingly powerful gear or other perks; There are areas that allow you to face other players in combat if you tire of fighting computer generated foes, these areas reward you with better gear the more you play as well.

So, each day you don't play, is an oppurtunity missed: for money, reputation, interaction with friends you've made, player versus player beat downs, item drops, etc.

I suppose one could argue that, every hour spent in the game, I'm missing out on the above listed things happening in real life. But in the game I have a big ass sword, a glowing shield, and I slay giants. What can life offer to compare with that? : )