“Hey buddy, want to buy a sword?”
It was early evening, one of those nights you know are going to be really dark. Not even the stars are going to be shining. I was about to enter what passed for the inn in this small village in the middle of nothing and was stopped by an insistent voice. It repeated itself.
“A sword, do you want to buy a sword?”
Now as I figured he couldn’t see the one strapped to my waist, because of the aforementioned dark, he wasn’t so imbecilic to not deserve a reply.
“Yeah I know you’ve already got one, but this one’s special. As soon as you pull it out of the scabbard you can see clearly, no matter what the environment, your hit points increase by a magnitude of ten, and it comes with curse protection from wizards who are level ten or under.”
I was stunned. Those types of weapons didn’t just fall off trees. But I was also suspicious, they didn’t usually end up for sale in back alleys either. Normally you had to kill someone to get one of those babies. I figured I’d play along with the guy; see what he wanted for it and who he was. Who knows, maybe he was just some hero down on his luck. It can happen to the best of us.
I turned to face him, and took a couple of steps in his direction. That was when I noticed he was wearing some sort of weird outfit. It was like a cloak with sleeves and made out of some white coloured material. In one hand he was clutching the magnificent sword in question, and the other was wrapped around a small black box.
There was a strange device emblazoned over where his heart should be. (You never want to assume a vital organ’s location; a sure way of guaranteeing a quick death) A big red S followed by a smaller O and E. The words spelt out underneath meant nothing to me, but that’s no surprise. Wizard’s cults are springing up like anthills near spilled honey these days. Sony Online Entertainment just must be one I hadn’t come across yet.
Role Playing Games (R. P. G.s) have sure come a long way since the days when I played Dungeons and Dragons. (In fact, they now go by the moniker of multiplayer on-line role-playing games or MMORPGs, pronounced as more pigs) What used to be a group of guys (I never remember any women being remotely interested in these games) getting together in someone’s basement to create fantasy worlds of violence and greed, has turned into individuals hunched over computer terminals for up to forty hours a week.
Games such as EverQuest ll and Project Entropia are as far removed from those pen and paper afternoon Dungeon and Dragons days as today’s computers are from an abacus. Virtual worlds that once only lived in our heads are now available for gamers to walk through for the price of software and a subscription fee.
Once online they go through the same process of creating characters and developing them just like any of the old RPGs. Then they’re ready for their adventures to begin. The more treasure and experience they gain, the more their character develops; power, wealth, and prestige. Just like the old games, the early stages are the ones with the highest fatality rate.
Characters are most susceptible to damage when first created. Their creation having been decided by random chance, they are just as liable to be pathetic as heroic. Survival is a matter of luck as much as anything else in the early going.
Just as in the real world though, it seems that in the virtual world money is beginning to matter. A booming side business to the games has sprung up which sees the selling of anything from weaponry, fully developed characters to the most recent acquisition of a piece of virtual real estate for $26,000. David Souter who paid that purchase price for an island in the game Project Entropia talks like a mix of real estate developer and small time despot when his purchase is described in the Globe and Mail.
“The island has two forms of income: One is estate sales, which is where the big money is in terms of one-off income,” he told The Guardian newspaper. “When you look at the price for each estate ($450 to $550) and multiply it by 60, you can see that it easily meets the initial price of the island. Even if they don’t all sell at such a price, taxation will make up the difference, and is also the source of ongoing income beyond the estates.”
Of course, this has raised the ire of gamers who can’t afford to make these sort of massive purchases. Claiming purity as their motivation, they say it defeats the purpose of the whole gaming experience when you can just buy your way to the top. Well I hate to tell them, but they must have really been living in a fantasy world if they couldn’t see this coming.
What did they think was going to stop their virtual world from becoming like the real world? People have been buying their way to the top since the days when the nobility used to buy ranks in the armed forces as a sign of prestige. At least in the gaming world they’re not endangering real lives with their lack of skill.
As the gaming market has boomed, so have the external sales in items and characters. With MMORPG’s being impossible to pirate, because servers won’t recognise anything but the legitimate software, they are one of the few products that can be sold safely in the east. The Globe and Mail article linked to above says that World of Warcraft signed up 1.5 million players in China on release, and currently has 3.5 million subscribers worldwide.
Companies such as New York based Internet Gaming Enterprises employ up to 200 people acting as on line brokers. Factories in countries like Romania and Mexico where people are desperate for employment have workers playing games all day long to develop marketable characters and equipment. This is than sold on line to the highest bidder.
Up until now, the gaming companies have been mysteriously quiet about this technically illegal practice. Since games come with an end user agreement stating that all technology and its resulting creations are the property of the developer, there is a definite case to be made for copy write infringement. But unlike the record companies they seem to be taking an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude to the proceedings.
Sony Online Entertainment has officially entered into the market place with the opening of a new site called Station Exchange. They don’t actually sell the characters and such, but act as the intermediary and take a cut. This way they are creating a safe market place for their consumers and getting their share of the revenue.
For the past couple of months I’ve been working my way through Tad Williams’Otherland series of books. He has postulated, like so many others have before, that in the not so distant future we will be able to transmit ourselves onto to the net. According to our means, we will be able to create simulated bodies with which we will be able to travel to virtual stores and other experiences on line. The more expensive the equipment the more sensory perception that’s included, thus the more complete the experience.
Instead of creating the hoped for ideal world where technology plays the great equalizer, virtual reality has become an imitation of the real world. Money and power cross all boundaries virtual or otherwise. Why people are so shocked that this has occurred in similar situations that we have created is beyond me.
What is shocking to me is the fact that no one questions the fact that people will spend up to forty hours a week immersing themselves in off line realities. It’s one thing to play a game occasionally on a weekend with buddies, it’s another thing entirely to live a whole separate life in an unreal environment.
What does that say about our society that millions of people feel the need to withdraw from the world in order to have a life? What kinds of social skills are they learning while on line? How to chop someone’s head off if you disagree with them?
Tim Leary, before he died, was talking about the Internet in the same tone he used to talk about L. S. D. Turn on, tune in, and drop out. Instead of conscience expansion people are focusing on how to make themselves more effective killing machines in the struggle to get to the top of the heap.
Personally, I can see no benefit to society from any addictive behaviour. An addictive behaviour that encourages the depersonalization of violence on this level is even worse. Now participants are being actively encouraged to purchase bigger and better selves to use on the net. How long do you think it will be before we start reading about people knocking over liquor stores so they can get that upgrade they so desperately need?