Losing a grip on reality

Why do some people get so obsessed with video games?

Donald Winchester

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Topics Politics

‘Snowly’, an online gaming fanatic, died recently in China after a three-day virtually uninterrupted stretch playing World of Warcraft, the latest Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Game (MMORPG) craze. Strangely enough, it was not this that raised the tabloids’ heads, but the subsequent online virtual funeral that her fellow gamers staged. This was a funeral involving real people and real emotions, but on a virtual scene.

Snowly’s was an extreme and tragic case, yet it signifies a trend. It point towards the increasingly confused lines between reality and the virtual reality of the video game world, for both gamers and the rest of us. The concept of ‘real life’ is so confused now that MMORPG players refer to it in internet shorthand as ‘IRL’.

The MMORPG has been around for a while (in internet terms), but changes in technology and product have meant that it has rapidly become a mass-market product. It is a simulated life-game on the grandest of scales, albeit in a fantasy universe (usually medieval or futuristic).

World of Warcraft, probably the most popular of all MMORPGs, offers a Tolkien-esque world of druids, paladins, orcs, dwarves and humans. It is a world in as much a sense as virtual reality can be; it is an alternative life, with virtual personality, family, employment, class system, economy and home. It is an arena where anyone can fight their own personally customised battles.

The game attempts to create a virtual Tolkien epic. This world is a conceivably eternal one. The game creators do not know, nor anticipate, the game’s ending; there is no finishing goal. Thus, the game can go on and on. Even the death of a character is not final. Gamers are allowed more than one character, so if one character dies there is always another to concentrate on. Alternatively, if a deceased character was close to the gamer’s heart, then the gamer might visit the graveyard where, the instructions run, ‘you will have to run back to your corpse to revive yourself’. Even the gamer’s lifespan is no boundary, since characters are often sold between gamers and could therefore live forever.

The instructions, never mind the game, are time-consuming. One gamer notes that the ‘games are more involved than, say, watching movies or reading a book’. Many members spend 40 hours a week building and improving their character. ‘Snowly’ (her character name) spent three days without any significant breaks playing Warcraft, while a South Korean man died after playing for 50 hours in an internet café without breaks. The lack of breaks shows a desire to totally immerse oneself into this virtual world.

Real-life relationships sometimes take second stage. One estranged wife tells of her husband’s addiction to Everquest (another popular MMORPG); he spends nearly 50 hours a weekend on the game. Another notes that her boyfriend ‘played EQ before he met me, and whenever he talks about it I feel like he thinks it was the best days of his life’.

It makes one wonder what it is about reality that makes virtual reality so appealing. The games themselves are often blamed for addictions, but the problems really lie elsewhere, in real lives and relationships. As one gamer commented, ‘games are not real…games are games’. Another noted that MMORPGs give one ‘a sense of achievement…. The results of your playtime will still be visible in months/years time’. This sense of achievement is often not available elsewhere for these individuals. If one can talk of playing Everquest as the ‘best days of his life’, what does that say about the rest of his life?

There are a growing number of court cases involving alleged virtual theft of goods or gold coins. This is likely to come to a climax sooner or later, when conventional law stretches its influence into virtual reality. Already, ‘virtual vigilantes’ attempt to enforce their own law, Mafia-style, on the online version of The Sims.

To complicate matters, characters and their goods now have real-world value. eBay is flooded with MMORPG characters and weapons, sold often at hundreds of US dollars. A recent study estimates that $20million passes through the online games category in eBay every year. One character was recently for sale at $550, under this description: ‘its a female ne warrior. she uses spinal reaper…insane for pvp. the axe is nuts. i cant play this game its to addicting and i jsut need to get away from it.’ [sic]

There are a growing number of game experts (especially in East Asia, where MMORPGs are most popular) who make their living by advising and assisting less able players. Digital sweatshops exist where employees are asked to play – sometimes without breaks – to create virtual goods that can be sold for cash. Internet café owners sometimes allow customers to play for free as long as they give a percentage of what they earn in the game to the proprietor of the café, who then sells the items.

A study by Dmitri Williams of the University of Illinois found that the more people play online games, the more they think the real world is like their virtual world. One ex-gamer told the BBC that ‘RPGs are the worst – the real world fades and all your worries surround a new magic staff or mighty sword’. The medium is not the problem, however. The time will come when the non-gaming world will have to stop blaming the game and look at the paucity of alternatives.

Donald Winchester worked as an intern at spiked.

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