Life online (2009)


Live out your fantasies in a persistent online world! The future’s here, right, um no, not really, says Guy Haley. Or rather, so said Guy Haley, in 2009, not long before Death Ray died its death. There’s a lot of Virtual Reality in my books Reality 36 and Omega Point. The games of the future look great in my head, dangerously so. Here’s why I don’t like today’s version of VR: The MMORG (or whatever unwieldy acronym the damn things are going under these days). From Death Ray 19.

There are 11 million people registered to play World of Warcraft right now. Actually, seeing as you are reading this some time after I wrote it, it’s probably more. And World of Warcraft is just one of several games of the fantasy RPG type, and that is just one type of several persistent world games. 11 million people, folks, that’s a lot of dudes spending their free time pretending to be Elves.

I find the idea of massively multi-player online roleplaying games intriguing. Stepping into an artificial world is, after all, a staple of post-microchip SF, whether it’s the cyberspaces frequented by hackers in 80s cyberpunk or the full-scale replacement reality of The Matrix. I’ve tried a great many of these games: Age of Conan, Tabula Rasa, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, City of Heroes, Eve: Online, a couple of obscure Japanese titles that I can’t even remember the names of and, of course, the obligatory stint on World of Warcraft. I have always, always come away slightly dazed and very disappointed.

My WoW experience with a gnome named Gukguk was the longest, at three solid months of 2005. I put in two hours or more of mouse clicking nearly every day. I played and I played, my will fixed on securing Gukguk one of the riding beasts that only become available to characters at level 50 and above. The day finally came – hours of play to reach the required level, hours more to scrape together the gold I needed to buy it – when I virtually ran into the virtual blacksmiths and handed over my  virtual cash, pressing the icon to summon my coveted ‘Mechanostrider’ (a mechanical ostrich, would you credit) and, and… discovered it allowed my gnome to move just ever so slightly faster than before. It was, in all truth, a bit shit. So shit, in fact, it was almost as disappointing as my first intimate dalliance with a lady.

I gave sex another go, but not WoW. There were many other things that made me quit, but that was the point of no return. I stopped paying my £8 monthly subscription shortly after. Gukguk went into the cryogenic suspension that is the fate of all abandoned characters. 18 months later he would have been humanely destroyed, like an unwanted dog, only nothing real actually had to die.

I love games. I love playing with other people. But MMORGs, to use their horrible acronym, aren’t really games, they’re a weird synthesis of game and theme park. Like a fairground ride, there is a sense of danger but no real peril, but kind of even less gripping – the adventure is at one further remove still : it’s not you who is not in any real danger, but your non-existent character who is not in any real danger.

In an MMORG, nothing ever changes. No one is beaten or loses. None of your actions have any effect on the world around you. Your character cannot die. His heroic efforts in the Blackspire Dungeons or Tortage have no real effect, for the game is reset for the next band of heroes, who wait patiently in line behind you. The guy whose boxes you helped shift for some minor quest reward will be there for all time, waiting to dole out the quest to someone else. Pity him, for his task will remain forever unaccomplished no matter how many Dutch teenagers stop to help, like some cartoonish Sisyphus he is digitally damned.

And everyone in an MMORG is a hero. There are no peasants, no people delivering shoes, just thousands of improbably named avatars running from one quest giver to another. Nowhere does this appear more ridiculous than in City of Heroes, an online metropolis full of spandex clad vigilantes and victims and nought else. As every hero has to be heroic, MMORGs  are a place where everyone must have prizes, and everyone does.

Those that cite the socialising element of MMORGs are overplaying it – It’s harder than you think to find groups to tackle big adventures. To pwn or be pwned, that is the question with these games. They are full of annoying jargon, LEET speak, patronising wankers, and emotionally incontinent yoof who are desperate to prove themselves better than you because they have a slightly superior pair of pantaloons. So much so, a lot of players play alone. MMORGs were despairingly referred to as “Massively Single Player Online Roleplaying Games” by the designers of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, who put a lot of time and effort to come up with ways to make people play together. But even the nice guys online (of which there are a great, great many) are totally focussed on gaining yet more non-existent items. It’s materialism gone mad – Immaterialism, if you like, the final great folly of consumerist culture (um, the despoilation of Planet Earth aside).

There are games that are more ‘realistic’, but conversely greater realism doesn’t work either. Eve: online has a genuinely persistent world, where the economy is player generated, everything is made by another gamer. But that means for every starship captain and corporate mogul, there are 10,000 schmucks mining asteroids in real time. Eve is the wrong side of real. When I quit the game, I was asked to fill in a form to say why: “If I want a dull job, I can get one in real life,” was my perhaps unhelpful comment. Seriously, I used to sit there and read a book while my spaceship did its ore-sucking thing.

They do, however, have real effects. Second Life (now there’s a pointless game! Go into an unreal city and open a shoe shop, woohoo!) suffered a banking collapse that spookily presaged the recent financial crisis in the real world, and people lost real money. There have been murders over online incidents (Perhaps that is to say that there is real peril, but no-one wants to get murdered over a game, so don’t be facetious). Relationships can crack under the strain of a serious online habit.  People have died after playing for 24 hours straight. Gamers can become addicted. Schoolwork can suffer.

I can almost see the appeal. World of Warcraft provided a release for me from some fairly stressful times at work. It is always there, always on. You can be sure of finding someone to talk to, however facile your conversation may be. The clicking of buttons and the resultant slaying of monsters is hypnotically restful. Some of the spectacular landscapes and monsters can be breathtaking. If you are really lucky, you might make a good friend. The allure of them is such that I will keep trying them, but I’ll also probably keep on abandoning them after a few weeks, because not one has proven a substitute for engaging in real activity: seeing a friend, kissing a pretty girl, playing some sport… Until the day you can step into an online world so realistic you can feel the wind on your face, then I will probably remain disappointed. And if such a game were to be invented, it would probably be so addictive it would have to be banned. You heard it here first.

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