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Stranger in a Virtual Land: The World of MMORPGs
December 22, 2004 | Alan Hogue

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Knight or Elf? Maybe Barbarian. Are spells a good idea? Would I have the patience for spells? What kind of spells? Do I really want to fight anything anyway? What's the point, running around killing ravenous squirrels? Where's the fun in that? Whether by scroll of flaming hyperbole or a big stick, what did it really matter? Here I am, about to make the most important decision of my online gaming life, a decision that will affect the course of my entire game, open some doors and close others, and since I've never played before I have no idea how to make any of these momentous decisions. Should I be dextrous or intelligent? Would it be easier to play a female elf in a battle bikini, or would that be cheating? What climate will I be playing in, for that matter? I hadn't started my first game, and already I was confused.

After much pointless speculation, I opt for the burning scroll and a full set of clothing (which in practice, in the fantasy role playing world, generally means a male character), and so Barry, a level 1 human wizard, was born. And out I went to learn something about the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game world.

Some years ago the computer gaming world added yet another unpronounceable acronym to the English language: MMORPG. So unwieldy that you know it must have been coined for something important. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, in which thousands of people from all over the world log into a fantasy game, take on the persona of some fantasy creature or adventurer, and then proceed to spend every waking moment nurturing their online avatar to electronic greatness, represented the next (perhaps the first) great step forward in immersive gaming.

I was aware, years ago, of their appearance, but was not interested in trying them. Having played a few traditional computer role playing games, I knew that the human activity that most resembled playing one of these games was knitting, in which one spends untold hours doing something utterly boring in order to produce some sort of reward at the end. Not being much of a knitter, and never understanding what -- apart from the desire for a nice scarf -- made some people enjoy knitting, I let the MMORPG world get along without me and gave it not a second thought.

This, of course, was before Everquest developed a real functioning economy, complete with black markets, inflationary crises, and a platinum piece which economists have pegged above the Japanese yen. Then there were the tales of the homeless woman who had accumulated a horde of treasure and her own castle within the game. A whole functioning society had spontaneously developed within the virtual world, and people were living this online life as if it were their real lives. People had second careers as bakers and blacksmiths online. Recently the people who run Everquest even discovered that counterfeiters were adversely affecting Everquest's currency markets.

This was tempting stuff. For the first time in human history, a truly virtual world had taken root. I thought I'd show up in Everquest, walk up to the first person I met, and ask them if they knew the homeless woman and whether they could take me to her for an interview. An interview conducted between online avatars within an online world. An interview with someone's role playing character rather than with their real self. Now that sounded interesting. There was something intriguingly "meta" about the whole idea. What better way to contribute to online culture than to pioneer MMORPG journalism? If there were people who played merchants and blacksmiths, then why not a dwarven journalist, second class? Maybe I could start a guild.

I soon realized that it wouldn't work this way. The Everquest servers for the Mac, first of all, were virtually deserted, since Sony decided to segregate their Mac and PC servers. Consequently, all those people I read about, and that thriving online economy with its inflationary crises and black markets, were not to be found on the sparsely populated Mac servers.

And it wasn't long before I realized that my grand ideas about virtual journalism were not going to work out. As I played Everquest, I realized that in order to create a world with currency worth more than the Yen, the things one might buy in the game needed to have real value to the players. For there to be value there had to be scarcity, yes, but it also meant that to get something players had to work hard for it. It shouldn't have surprised me, then, that Everquest is all about work -- long, tedious, tendonitis-inducing work -- and that, like the real world, this economy could not produce items of much worth unless everyone was basically forced to spend most of their time working. In other words, the big secret to Everquest and its thriving (PC) economy is that, just as in real life, your average player does not get a lot of free time, spending most of his or her life grinding away, hoping perhaps to acquire a nicer refrigerator or battle hammer, as the case may be. Everquest simulates an economy, at least in part, because it so successfully simulates the familiar daily grind.


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