Get a First Life

The desire to escape the real world and 'live' in online games like Second Life is no longer limited to lonely geeks.

Robin Walsh

Topics Science & Tech

Last September, 22-year-old Brian Barrett was shot dead in his truck in New York State. That might not sound unusual, some would say, given America’s violent reputation. But this murder is a bit different. The killing allegedly involved a convoluted online love triangle.

Coming to trial now, the case seems almost a parody – with two of the participants, well into their forties, seemingly pretending to be 18-year olds over the internet. Niall Stanage wrote about the case on Comment Is Free this week; and while being rightly sceptical of a causative link between online games and Barrett’s murder, he suggested the killing might be an (admittedly extreme) symptom of the breakdown of the boundaries between virtual and ‘real’ reality represented by games like Second Life (1).

So is Second Life just the preserve of weirdos loonies who have lost track of reality? It seems not. For the past few months, the game has been something of a craze, with many media outlets investigating the game and its possibilities – from Newsnight, via The Economist, to Channel 4, which made a mini-series eulogising it (2). The game’s rather complex economy has excited interest from real-world businesses, with companies such as General Motors (GM) and IBM investing in it to better market their products (3,4).

So what precisely does Second Life involve? Well, you create a virtual representation of yourself called an avatar, and start to live, work and make friendships in an internet-based 3D world. And, er… that’s about it. Second Life is essentially a slightly more ‘respectable’ version of the fantasy style MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) that have been a staple of the geeky teenager’s gaming diet for more than a decade. World of Warcraft (otherwise known as WoW) is one such game, which has been making a bit of a splash in the real world as well.

WoW was recently satirised by the American TV series South Park, in the episode ‘Make Love, Not Warcraft’. Kyle, Stan and the other boys aim to defeat the most powerful player of the game, who is repeatedly killing them. To this end, they constantly train in the game, while deteriorating in real life. Cue numerous jokes: ‘How do you kill that which has no life?!’….’It will mean the end of the World!!….of Warcraft!’

However, WoW is more than a joke to some, with accusations that it is highly addictive, and, like Second Life, possibly responsible for some real deaths (5, 6).

What exactly is WoW? Much like Second Life, it’s an immersive online virtual universe, where hundreds of players can interact with each other as well as the game. They can fight the various monsters that inhabit the world, or each other, go on quests, and take part in Guilds – basically an online community or team of players who work together to play the game collectively. More than five million people play the game worldwide, paying £9 per month for the privilege.

I decided to give WoW a go, to see what the fuss is about. Logging on to a friend’s account, I become an Orc Warrior, adept at hand-to-hand combat. Starting in the Valley of Trials, a kind of training zone, I am given a starter quest – go and kill 10 boars.

The format of the game is more or less point and click, so there isn’t actually any skill (for example, hand-to-eye coordination) involved in playing it. Instead, your levels increase the more you play, leading to ‘grinding’, whereby players kill easy monsters over and over in order to move up. This time-consuming aspect of the game is what contributes to many players locking themselves away for long periods.

After killing boars and scorpions for an hour or so, I got bored and wandered out into the dangerous world beyond. Too early it seems, as I was killed pretty sharpish by some kind of large crocodile. Damn. I regenerated as a ghost, and returned to my body to be reincarnated. I traipse back to where I was slain, and am reborn…to be promptly butchered by what looked to me like a dinosaur. For pity’s sake.

I found the game frustrating, lacking the instant gratification of the shoot-em-ups that I normally play. That said, I can understand the attraction, with more payoff coming with more time spent in the game. However, I have better things to do with my life. (Have a look at this video to see the game’s graphics, and the eccentric nature of some of its players.)

Is WoW really addictive? Yes, according to clinical psychologist Dr Maressa Orzack, head of Computer Addiction Services, based in Massachusetts. She suggests that as many as 40 per cent of WoW players could be addicted (although precisely where this figure comes from is not made clear), and suggests labels for MMORGPs ‘similar to those on cigarettes’ (7).

From my personal experience, some WoW players can play excessively. However, it does appear that Orzack’s definition of ‘addiction’ is so broad that it can be blamed for practically anything. Some people do have problems as a result of the game (take a look at WoW Detox for instance), but it seems to me that their excessive computer use is itself a consequence of other problems. The imaginary college freshman on Orzack’s website who spends ‘every evening on the internet communicating with all his family and former high school classmates’, ignoring his studies and ‘social activities on campus’, would be traditionally seen as lonely or shy, needing to get out more, rather than as pathological and needing a dose of cognitive behaviour therapy (8, 9).

And more broadly, while the individual computer game ‘addict’ may still be seen as a nerdy outcast, society at large promotes a set of values that encourage this retreat into a fantasy land; witness the many middle-aged, middle-class professionals who play Second Life. The overriding theme is of evasion and escape.

Big businesses are also jumping on the bandwagon of Second Life, the latest stage, it seems, in their increasing divorce from the process of producing real things. Companies’ obsession with ephemeral factors such as design and brands has been noted before on spiked (10). Their tentative attempts to find ways to profit from what are essentially graphical representations of entries in a database seems to confirm the risk-averse and increasingly parasitic nature of our economy.

These games also demonstrate our schizophrenic attitude towards our interactions with other people. They contain the potential for great exhibitionism. The creation of an extrovert front towards the outside world (like the imaginary 18-year-olds of the Barrett case) contrasts with the reality of anonymity, and the often isolated and alienated individuals who are the players. And with all this focus on virtual communities and friendships, real friendships are often neglected by players.

The point is that making friends, getting fit or learning a new skill are difficult enterprises that require a lot of hard work and often some pain. Games like World of Warcraft avoid this hassle by allowing players to ‘level up’ merely by persistently clicking a mouse. But today’s risk-averse and cautious society is not one that can easily condemn people for hiding away from such hard work. In fact, labelling this as addiction, putting it on a par with smoking crack or injecting heroin, only enables gamers to evade responsibility even further; their actions (or lack thereof) are down to the computer game, rather than being their own responsibility.

The most attractive aspect of these virtual existences is that they offer a degree of control – over one’s ‘appearance’, at a time when body image is more important than ever, and over one’s interactions with others, when these are increasingly fraught. If we are to take real control of our ‘first lives’, we first must escape the limitations of an imaginary world that will disappear when a plug is pulled.

(1) From Second Life to second degree murder, Comment is Free, 16 January 2007. It should be noted that the journalist who wrote the original story says there was no suggestion of a link between Second Life and this killing.

(2) Second Lives, Channel 4

(3) Fans Show A Lust For ‘Life’ Second Life, Brandweek, 20 November 2006

(5) Child Dies as Parents Play WoW, Eurogamer, 20 June 2005

(6) Parents Sue Online Game Seller For Addicted Sons Suicide, Xinhua Online, 11 May 2006

(7) Expert: 40 per cent of World of Warcraft Players Addicted, Tom’s Hardware Guide, 8 August 2006

(8) Computer Addiction Services

(9) Expert: 40 per cent of World of Warcraft Players Addicted, Tom’s Hardware Guide, 8 August 2006

(10) Cox Report: Creative Accounting, by James Heartfield

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Topics Science & Tech


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