By James Harkin (THE GUARDIAN, 18/03/06):
In a scarcely reported move a few weeks ago, the makers of the online medieval role-playing game World of Warcraft reluctantly allowed teams of openly gay players, introducing the battle for sexual equality into the virtual world. Apparently players had begun to organise gay pride marches within the game, which must have raised eyebrows among the more conservative wizards and elves.Computer and video games are now big business. Their growing importance was recognised last week when the British Academy of Film and Television Arts announced that they are henceforth to be regarded as an art form alongside film and TV. The real action, however, lies in vast online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, The Sims Online and Everquest, which are spreading like wildfire; World of Warcraft alone boasts 5.5 million players around the globe. The fantasy worlds they conjure up are breathtakingly elaborate, vast enough to include entire economies and class systems and intelligent enough – riddled with their own rituals, symbols and language – to capture the attention of young adults as well as teenagers. They are also enormously addictive. In Beijing last November, one girl died of exhaustion after spending several days playing it continuously. A week after her death, her fellow gamers presided over a huge online funeral.
Edward Castronova, gamester turned academic, dislikes the tired metaphor of virtuality and prefers to call these alternative universes synthetic worlds. In his book of the same title, he argues that, as many of us begin to spend as much time in these make-believe worlds as the real one, the relationship between real and synthetic worlds is increasingly blurring and leading to clashes between the two. Not only does the outside world influence synthetic worlds – as in the campaign for gay teams in Warcraft – but, conversely, events inside these games are increasingly rippling into the world outside. Court cases have been fought over the theft of virtual property accumulated in the course of a game. The online auction site eBay, Castronova points out, hosts $30m annually in trade for goods that exist only in synthetic worlds – magic wands, play currency, spaceships, armour – making it the biggest foreign exchange market for synthetic world money.
Playing around in these alternative universes, Castronova notes, is less passive an experience than sitting on the couch watching television. If there are any political movements that want to appeal to gamers, he suggests, they would do well to make use of synthetic worlds to get their message across, in the same way that armies and some extreme right groups in the US have built computer games with which to push their world-view.
But synthetic worlds, he admits, have grown so powerful and their architecture so intricate that they are now in direct competition with our daily lives, and the growing exodus or migration of young adults into these mythical worlds must reflect the tiresome, monotone worlds that the players inhabit in the real world. Their online existence, he says, «is better than the alternative, that is, a daily life on Earth, which seems to show no progress towards anything.»
Next time someone offers to cross your palm with a magic potion in return for some gold coins, take pity – it may not be a drug dealer but an online gamer in search of a life.