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.

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.

Most recently, though, a team of researchers at the University of Rochester in New York caused a global stir after the journal Nature published an article on their findings: Playing action video games - even violent ones - might improve visual acuity. Since the study was released in late May, the two researchers, one an avid gamer himself, have been accused of qualifying the games as being good for children. The backlash came as no surprise.

"The media devote too much attention to kids isolated by gaming or adults trying to escape ruined lives," says James Paul Gee, author of "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy."

The professor of cognitive science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has played dozens of games with his kids and as research for his book. "Most kids and adults use games to add value to their already value-laden lives, just as they do books, movies, and sports," he says.

The video-game allure, suggests Adam Krause, a high school junior in Chicago who "constantly" plays Aliens vs. Predators II ("AVP2, as me and my friends refer to it," he e-mails mid-play from his room), has little to do with skills or violence, although he admits his hand-eye coordination proves useful on the Lacrosse field. "One of the things that drew me to this game is it gets you heavily immersed in the world, so much that when you hear a drip of water in the game you feel your heart jump inside of you because you don't know if there's something following you."

To Brandon Davis, a high school sophomore in upstate New York who plays EverQuest between 10 and 15 hours a week, the connections are important. "An advantage to EverQuest ... is the social development, an increase in intellect, exposure to new people and opinions," he says. "EverQuest, as any good MMORPG, never stops at a point. As you level [i.e. advance] you can quest, become a merchant selling goods [or] doing trade skills, etc."

Through guilds, players form social circles of similar interest and game style. They help one another complete quests that require extra tools or experience. A certain amount of trust and camaraderie is developed, and these bonds can feel closer than those in real life (see chart).

Because online relationships tend to form during times of heightened tension, they are often driven by necessity and trust. It's useful, Yee says, to think of these relationships as very real but in a form most people are simply unaccustomed to in real life. "Thus, in a strange way," he adds, "it is unfair to stigmatize or question the superficiality of online relationships because we seldom stop to wonder how superficial our real-life friends are."

Much of the draw of these multiplayer video games, he adds, is the ability to try on someone else's shoes for a while. Gamers encounter a wide range of characters - beasts and bards, ogres and elves.

When Darrel created his character, for instance, he chose to make him a shaman because learning the art of healing is more challenging than learning how to fight. "I've had Kelldal for about one and a half years," says Darrel, who earns mostly A's at his private Christian school in Connecticut. "I really like him because he's a pure caster, which means he's not meant for hand-to-hand combat but for spells."

Adam, on the other hand, confesses to enjoying the rare dose of extreme power. "When I was younger I played Doom for hours at a time because I liked feeling I was saving the world and fighting for a cause," he says.

In a way, role-playing may be a sort of rite of passage, a substitute for heroics in a culture that doesn't celebrate crossing the threshold to adulthood.

"Let's say I gave you the power to create a creature ... that reflected your values and beliefs, your likes and dislikes about the world as it is, and then you got to live the life of that creature for a while," Gee says. "Such games allow people to think about their real-world identities and the nature of social interaction in everyday life. Surely you would learn something about yourself."

The potential impact of MMORPG role-playing on learning, Gee says, is limitless. "Would that schools used such power to recruit scientists or social workers."

'Can you give me a res?'

Decoding the language of video gamers

Agro: Aggressive

Buff: To cast skill- or ability-enhancing spells

Clarity: A spell that increases mana (i.e. power) regeneration

Debuff: Decrease the "stats" of a player, such as quickness or resistance

DOT: Damage over time, cast as a spell over an opponent

HOT: Heal over time

IMHO: In my humble opinion

Land the root: Force an opponent to freeze

Land the slow: Force an opponent to slow down

Nerf: Reduce the abilities and strength of a character

Powerlevel: Heal a lower-level friend while he or she gets experience

Res: Resurrect a character back to life

Rest: Sit and meditate while revitalizing one's stats

Stats: Short for statistics; appears on a player's screen to track his or her character's skill and energy levels

Zoning: Moving through zones via teleport

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