Fellowship of the online gamers
The Plane of Fear is a dark and ancient land. Stonelike Golems lurk in the shadows and pounce on unwitting passersby, and Kelldal Daggerblade is having trouble warding them off.Skip to next paragraph
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Never mind that Daggerblade is really the online alter ego of Darrel Austin, a high school junior in Southwick, Mass., and that a brilliant summer day lies just beyond his basement door. Darrel hunkers down, pet iguana Donatello at his side, immersed in the world of EverQuest, the most popular online video game.
"Southwick is a small town," he says matter-of-factly. "There's nothing to do here."
In such fantasy worlds, players who've never met in person form tight allegiances - and the ties are based on tests of individual character, not gender, class, or race. While critics decry the violence in many of these games, or worry about the social maladjustment of adolescents who spend hour upon hour playing them, the popularity seems rooted in the fellowship of the players, not in the virtual mayhem and carnage. In fact, even as video games become less violent and more interactive, more and more players are logging on.
This contradicts the widely held belief that violent onscreen images are what draw kids to video games.
It is a contradiction that stems from the culture gap between gamers and education experts, says Nicholas Yee, an independent researcher who conducts online surveys of people who play MMORPGs - "massively multiplayer online role-playing games" - the hottest on the market. "You need to know the language and understand the culture before you can understand the [attraction]," he says.
In MMORPGs, real people play together in real time; they make lasting friendships and crushing animosities; they're tested in the heat of battle and the calm of peacetime. The goal is to strategize, not just to kill and subsist.
Darrel isn't the only teen seeking adventure at the keyboard. Thousands of gamers across the globe are spending good chunks of their summers battling formidable foes in distant lands.
"All of us would like to put our friends into simulated crises to see whether they would stand by us in a time of need," Mr. Yee points out in "Befriending Ogres and Wood-Elves: Understanding Relationship Formation in MMORPGs," a survey on the social interaction of gamers. "Instead of making friends and then slowly finding out whether they can really be trusted, MMORPG players are making friends with people who have demonstrated that they can be trusted because of their actions."
In EverQuest, 90,000 gamers are logged on at any given moment. The volume is similar among the other top games, such as Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online, where players interact with one another in any number of zones. (MMORPGs cost anywhere between $15 and $50, depending on the software, and thousands of game stores across the country fill their shelves with them.)
The setup is fairly straightforward. In EverQuest, for example, players begin by creating a character (choosing gender, race, and class) and they then assign specific attributes (strength, intelligence, stamina, wisdom, etc.). Before embarking on a quest, they inspect maps of cities and zones and seek out a protective guild.
The violent moments, it turns out, are the least engaging. When players are attacked, there is only one way to fight back: Hit the "attack" key. They then sit back and hope they've amassed enough strength and experience to survive.
"You just click the target and hit the button," Darrel says. "There's no blood, nothing graphic or anything like that. When things die they just fall over."
He didn't create Kelldal Daggerblade, however, with violence in mind. "With my character, not that much time is spent attacking," Darrel says. "He's a healer. And mostly, in these raids with the guild, everyone works together. If you just abandon, it doesn't help the guild at all."
As early as 1997, long before multiplayer online games generated a massive following, one gaming firm executive predicted to the Monitor that MMORPGs would become more of an excuse to hang out online: "In the end it's about the social interaction," he said. "That's what's going to sell massively multiplayer games."
In recent years, dozens of studies have kicked up a flurry of media coverage about the effects video games might have on those who play them.
As early as 1994, Patricia Greenfield, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at UCLA, found players of less complex games that were available then had above-average "perceptual abilities." In 2000, psychology professor and media researcher Craig Anderson at Iowa State University in Ames found that violent video games increase aggressive behavior in both children and adults. Both studies are still commonly cited.