They come from all walks of life—teachers, police officers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, waitresses, students, retail clerks…the list is endless. And they have one purpose: to assume an alternate identity in the cyber worlds of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) or in online communities. They know the difference between reality and fantasy, but sometimes the line between the two gets a bit blurred as these players storm medieval castles, discuss the latest fashion trends with alien life forms, locate untold treasures, and engage rival clans.
While the concept of MMORPGs and virtual communities is not new, their popularity continues to soar. In fact, there is a site for just about everyone, young and old alike. Last year my son informed me that he had to meet his friends online in Club Penguin, a social networking site for youngsters. They can accumulate “money” to purchase upgrades for their igloos, participate in contests, and, yes, socialize.
In the world of MMORPGs, players assume a certain look and role that reflects the particular theme of the game. For instance, in Star Wars Galaxies, a player can choose among various species from the Star Wars universe (Wookiee, Rodian, human) and professions (Jedi, bounty hunter, smuggler). During gameplay, the person joins other players to accomplish certain tasks and goals.
Then there are virtual communities, which are similar to MMORPGs in that players assume identities inside cyber worlds. However, they are not confined to a theme, unless, of course, they choose to put down roots within a “special interest” area. In summary, the main point of an MMORPG is gameplay; socializing is secondary. In an online virtual world, socialization is king.
In this issue, we offer a look at both types of cyber living. In “Dancing with the Ghosts in the Machine” (pg. 26), the writer discusses the growing phenomenon known as virtual worlds and the role that 3D computer graphics technologies play in those universes. In “Alter Ego” (pg. 32), indie filmmakers look at the addictive nature of MMORPGs and what happens when real life interferes with virtual life. In this project, avatars are introduced along with their human counterparts—a process that required two methods of capturing and integrating game footage into the live-action documentary.
The bottom line is that the cyber worlds of MMORPGs and online communities hold a big attraction for players. Many have an alternate life inside these games, complete with a dwelling, a job, a bank account of sorts, and a social network. They participate in activities. They accumulate wealth and goods. They make friends…and enemies. They develop skills. Perhaps one of the more inviting aspects is the ability to re-create oneself. For instance, a conservative-looking businessman may choose to be a punk rocker with neon pink hair and multiple piercings. Tired of being a brunette? No problem: go blonde. Tired of being a human? Be a dog instead.
Personally, I do not have the time to invest in a virtual me. It’s hard enough keeping up with the real me. However, devotees will find the time, just as other folks find the time for their favorite hobbies. Perhaps one day I will create a virtual me and show up in a cyber destination, perhaps somewhere warm and sunny.